Jordemoder: Poems of a Midwife
by Ingrid Andersson
51 poems, 84 pages
Publisher: Holy Cow! Press, 2022
Price: $16.95
ISBN: 978 -1737405115
To Order: Amazon

Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater

Health care activist and founder of related nonprofits, poet Ingrid Andersson has practiced as a home-birth nurse midwife for over 20 years. She studied poetry and literature in Swedish, German, French and English, as well as anthropology, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and has been published widely. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin. ‘Jordemoder: Poems of a Midwife’ is her debut collection.

It’s been a long time since I last read Dannie Abse’s fine poem ‘The Smile Was’ but it made a big impact on me and I returned to it the other day before writing this review. It’s one of those unforgettable poems about childbirth and it is the perfect fit for Andersson’s collection although I should point out that her book focuses on a variety of subjects and is not by any means solely concerned with the topic of childbirth.

The first thing to note about this volume is the fact that it oscillates between two countries. We can see this in the title. Jordemoder is a Swedish word comprised of jord (earth, dust, land, world) and moder (mother) denoting ‘midwife’. Andersson tells us that the book was conceived (a good choice of word for a midwife) in Gotland and published in America. The cover photograph of the basement hatch by Aki-Samuli comes from Visby in Gotland and the poems themselves move seamlessly between Sweden and America.

At the heart of this book is our quest for identity – who we are, where we come from and the measures whereby we think we recognise and understand ourselves as defined by our cultural background and the demands of the world around us. There are poems here about birth, family, children, graduation, all the things that define us as individuals, and there are also poems about Swedish culture, American culture, and all the things that define us as a nation.

In the first section, DAUGHTER, the opening poem, ‘Maw’, has a generational sequence to it. Observing her mother listening to “the soaring / trills of Verdi’s dying Violetta”, Andersson soon discovers that “life / turns on passion, as much as breath.” With a nod to Edward Albee, she writes:

In the middle of the afternoon, I learned
not to be afraid of Virginia Woolf,
Hedda Gabler, Sylvia Plath. And now
when my child goes looking for his mother,
I can explain: it’s in the genes,
or a law of nature, or some
all-consuming love – disappearing
into the maw of entropy and art.

In this poem we have crossed not two but three countries, England, Norway and America, as well as three generations: grandmother, mother and son and already, some kind of connection, however tenuous, has been made. In another poem, this time a prose poem, from the first section, ‘Something Like Salvation’, Andersson recalls an image of her mother “half-naked before a basin of water, wash rag in hand” performing her daily ablution. She speaks of her mother’s thrift in recycling the water by re-using it to slake the thirst of her flowers and how this notion of being mindful of the true worth of everything becomes ingrained in her own habits too. “As I scoop plump berries from Tupperware as old as I am (derived, she’ll tell you, from slag of fossil fuel), I feel the beat of her drum slow my hand, my tongue, sweeten each jubilant sphere.”

In the second section, MIDWIFE, spring is in the air. It is ravishing and unstoppable and it is a metaphor for birth. Like Mary Oliver, Andersson says that her job is to love the world. Not just as a midwife, but also as a poet “with poems, poems that plumb / the sweet-salt-metal mess / to climax, over and over, howling love.” Sadly, there is grief here, too. A bird hitting the windowpane where the “plain complicities of April” kill her. She runs out of the house to bear the bird to its place of burial:

On my knees in the muddy ground,
I swear I hear the high red buds
in their round oblivion, pull

like a million sapling mouths:
grief is always so much more
than one thing.

The third section, MOTHER, contains poems about motherhood. These are sometimes written in terms of descriptions of the natural world but at other times written in more direct terms: a first day in High School and her son’s graduation. ‘Neighbourhood Violence That Nobody Talks About [as I drive my son to school one rainy morning]’ covers a lot of ground in eleven lines:

Streets as wide as airport strips.
Sidewalks never laid.
Cars at stop signs over-running zebra stripes.
Pedestrians scattering like prey.
My son’s locked school.
No Guns Allowed (a sign on his way into 5th grade).
Continuing on, by weedless playgrounds, weedless lawns,
a golf course beside an unswimmable city lake.
The ghost-white bicycle where a child was killed.
A Starbuck’s barista: Have a nice day!
Another flooding rain.

The juxtaposition of movement and stasis, drivers and pedestrians, positives and negatives, the shock of America’s gun culture positioned right in the centre of the poem and placed disturbingly beside the school and the throwaway phrase ‘Have a nice day!’ immediately followed by a heavy cloudburst are just some of the notable features that have been factored into this poem with skill and precision.

In the fourth section, INVANDRARE (a Swedish word for immigrant that literally means ‘in-wanderer’), Andersson writes about Sweden, its traditions and its culture. There are poems here about Swedish pancakes, a sabbatical spent in a rented 17th century house in a Swedish Hanseatic city, a display of public art in the capitol, Stockholm, and an Ingmar Bergman safari tour where the quest for identity comes once more to the fore. In the middle of this poem, observing the behaviour of the tourists on the bus, Andersson concludes: “Maybe it’s true. All the world’s a stage, and all of us are players, sitting in different life ages, playing our inexorable parts.”

The final section, HOME, takes us back to where we really belong. On a global level there are poems here that touch upon climate change and the environment while on a personal level Andersson writes about Sundays spent with her father and the time when she heard, in heavy snowfall, the call of a great horned owl, a haunting hunter that “turns [her] head and sounds [her] animal heart”.

These poems are a celebration of life, love and hope. In an unsentimental way, they offer up a fresh perspective on what it is like to be alive to the possibilities of everything that our world has to offer.


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