The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

50/50 by Julianne Palumbo

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Reviewed by Sarah W. Bartlett

Founder of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine about motherhood, Julianne Palumbo is no stranger to its emotional territory. A prolific poet, essayist, writing coach and mother, she clearly hits her stride when writing about her children.

“50/50” is a seamless stroll spanning early motherhood to empty-nesting, woven on the warp and weft of turning 50. The parallel unknowns of parenting and aging are implicit in the construction of the collection. While every poem felt familiar to me as a(n aging) mother of three, some held such emotional resonance I found myself holding my breath.

Palumbo’s writing is rich in imagery, as well in the fine details of lived life. Creating a frame for the collection, she opens with ‘On Turning Fifty’:

leaves me
looking backward to measure
my worth

…and looking forward
but too nearsighted to see
my next step… (4)

Then, throughout the next 30 pages, she indeed lets us look back with her at the many ways she might measure her worth: in love, compassion, wisdom, humor, and acceptance. Along the way, she leads us through her own process of rationalization, denial, and ultimate acceptance of the shift involved in letting our children go into the world (“Sunset,” “The Scale,” “Fifty Something,” “Knowing Prayer,” and “Grown Children”) – all part and parcel of her own aging experience.

Three poems are especially noteworthy for their beautiful imagery. In ‘Something Borrowed,’ she writes of her daughter’s clothes-borrowing with the analogy:

…Years ago she borrowed my body,
my blood, my nourishment,
even my air…
…I poured thick into her
my time, my attention, my teaching.
Love. (6)

And in ‘Making Alfredo,’ she feeds child, memory and prayer all in one dish:

When I can no longer bear the thought
of sending you
heart open and spaghetti thin
into a broken world,
I make Alfredo…

…As I drain salted water
through the colander,
I pray your troubles filter too,
life’s small joys
resting al dente at the bottom. (21)

The image-rich poem resonated so deeply it could have been written out of my own deeply felt experience. Again, she weaves the nurture into one seamless extended metaphor: In ‘On The Morning of your Wedding:’

I look at you, my son,
standing solid as a tree
and I become the farmer,
remember the hoeing, the planting,
the praying for rain.
Remember the weeding, the raking,
the staking, the feeding.

…and your eyes find mine,
making sure I too am ready
for the harvest. (18-19)

Nor can I fail to mention the haunting lines that, likewise, could have been written of my teen daughter ‘On Some June Nights’:

we find ourselves
rocker waiting…

And then,
when the glow of your headlights
signals another slim escape
from the hungry jaws of
tragedy,

I stare upward
in grateful prayer
for these
trials meant, perhaps, to refine
us both. (23)

I love the suspense and the conclusion; and in particular, that familiar sense of mother and daughter sharing a (different) moment of learning through the same experience.

And yet, I feel my favorites are those yearning, tender nostalgic lines she writes so well in ‘Faded Memories’

Some days
I stand knee deep in crystal water,
the sun shimmering a faux jewel
beneath my feet.

I reach in
to grab for it,
wanting it all back,
but my hand simply ends up wet. (12)

and in ‘If We Could Just Dance’ – breath-takingly tender intimacy evoking growth from infancy to young adult through dance:

if I could just swing you to
my hip …

just balance
your earnest feet atop mine …

if we could just dance
cheek to cheek …

I’d let you lead this time…
before you leave to waltz the world. (31)

This is the final poem of the collection. While it ends on a wistful note, it is neither maudlin nor self-pitying. Rather, this simple reflection layers fond memory upon present acceptance to create just the right balance. The same balance created by the inclusion and progression of poems Palumbo selected for this collection. It would be difficult to read this collection as a mother and not find deep resonance and connection. For this, I thank the poet. She has succeeded in crafting sentiments so challenging to capture, let alone express, in simple heartfelt lines.

 

50/50 by Julianne Palumbo
Poetry chapbook, 31 pages
Unsolicited Press, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-947021-50-1


Sarah Bartlett’s work appears in Adanna, the Aurorean, Minerva Rising, PoemMemoirStory, Mom Egg Review, Ars Medica; anthologies including the award-winning Women on Poetry (McFarland & Co. Inc., 2012); and two poetry chapbooks (Finishing Line Press). Her work celebrates the human spirit across moods and landscapes. She writes with Vermont’s incarcerated women to encourage personal and social change within a supportive community she founded in January 2010 (www.writinginsideVT.com); and co-edited Hear Me, See Me: Incarcerated Women Write (Orbis Books, 2013).

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