The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Say/Mirror by J. P. Howard

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say mirrorReview by Sarah W. Bartlett

– The author writes, ‘I’ve been writing different versions of this book my whole life.’ What woman doesn’t write and rewrite her mother-daughter story, if only in her head? What daughter doesn’t at some point long to know her mother? Or at least know enough about her to construct a context for what the daughter experiences in her own lived life? JP Howard is fortunate enough to have had considerable context. She knew, even participated in, her model-mother’s glamorous life. And she shares some marvelous vintage black-and-white photos from the 40’s and 50’s.

Don’t let the compact size of this collection fool you into thinking it’s impact is small. Within these pages lie the full range of child- to adulthood musings and coming-to-terms understanding, blended with compassion, curiosity, and challenge. The author offers a variety of styles, voices and moods such that, by the end, we feel we have been offered a glimpse through her lens, seen her mirror(ed), left with our own reflections of that most important and too-often fraught relationship of mother and daughter. Howard is not afraid to bring all of herself to the page, and we are the beneficiaries of her trust.

In this collection, several ‘Praise’ poems draw the reader into reverence and prayer. Others explore the use of specific forms, like ‘Ghazal: What Love Takes,’ a wonderful circle playing on the different ways to interpret ‘take’ in connection with love. So powerful. The heart-wrenching ‘Family Secret’ with its courage reaching out to readers to let them know they CAN tell their truths and remain whole – even be made whole by the telling. We journey with Howard from her first inkling of self as poet in ‘Little Girl Voice’, a moving expression of the classic loss-of-voice that girls experience around 9 or 10 years of age, according to Annie G. Rogers (“Voice, Play and a Practice of Ordinary Courage in Girls’ and Women’s Lives”).

this poem so quiet
she sound like my ten-year-old self

…. her words so soft they disappear
she swallow them whole…

She reveals secrets throughout the collection; plays with form; praises days, mamas, journeys; extends metaphors (I love what she does with ‘Blue’); and near the end of the collection, returns to the complexities of her mother in ‘Ninety’ with such compassion:

there are no roadmaps for aging Divas …
it is easier to live in the past
than in an aging body

The stand-out poem in this collection for me, as reader-mother-poet, is the penultimate poem, ‘On Becoming Whole (for a son) – after Audre Lorde.’ It is here we see Howard become mother, the voice starkly different from the preceding one in which her own birth was something of a secret, her mother’s off-hand response to the birth so NOT the mirror of Howard’s felt experience. Howard’s words capture with stunning simplicity the universal experience of the (almost unbearable) force of love that often accompanies the birth of a child:

How I felt your presence
each day I blossomed
my body perfect for the first time …

Then the waters burst.
I pushed my heart to the surface
on a rain-soaked July morning
and the world was yours.

…I cannot imagine
this space without you.
You, unfolding
into Yourself.

In Say/Mirror, Howard has offered us an opportunity to journey with her through highlights of her own unfolding into herself. She has done so with courage and with grace.

Say/Mirror: Poems and Histories
by JP Howard
The Operating System//Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-9860505-2-7
Paper, 58 pages
Available from the press:

An experienced writing coach, facilitator, change agent and mediator, Sarah W. Bartlett has, for two decades, midwifed the stories that evoke and celebrate voice among women. Whether battered women, cancer survivors, adolescent girls, or the incarcerated, each community practices the philosophy and intentionality of Women Writing VT. In January 2010, she co-founded writing inside VT, where truth-telling in a judgment–free setting encourages incarcerated women to reflect on and change life choices through writing.


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