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Cradle Songs:
An Anthology of Poems on Motherhood
Edited by Sharmagne Leland-St. John and Rachelle Yousuf
219 poems/ 258 pages/ $18.99
ISBN: 0-9764244-5-2 978-0-9764244-5-1
Quill and Parchment Press

Reviewed by Ed Bennett

Reviewing an anthology about motherhood is like taking a Rorsarch test. The topic is amazingly diverse and the emotional geography covers everything from love to grief, and sometimes pain. Hilary Rosen aside, the tasks of motherhood are complex and sometimes thankless – any man who has had to fill in for an ailing wife knows exactly what I mean. We make assumptions about how a house should be run and how children should be raised, but when confronted with the challenge, find it daunting. No, it is not as strenuous as factory work but the consequences of errors in judgment or acts of Fate make it more comparable to walking a high wire without a net. There are no manuals, no user instructions or FAQs beyond the lore received from the previous generation of mothers and grandmothers who have served their tour of child rearing.

Sharmagne Leland-St. John and Rachelle Yousuf have edited a fine anthology in, “Cradle Songs: An Anthology of Poems on Motherhood.” They cover this broad topic by dividing it into four aspects: “Motherhood,” “Daughters,” “Sons,” and “Grief and Loss.” By defining each subtopic as broadly as possible, they have fashioned an all embracing study of mothers and how they affect each of us as well as the emotional gamut we throw down for them. The result is a collection of poetry that amuses as well as startles.

“Motherhood” deals with both being a mother and being “mothered.” Mary Laufer’s “When My Children are Grown” is an amusing lament of leisure time lost to homework, bedtime stories and other duties that conflict with throwing one’s head back and watching a movie. Donna Hilbert’s “Gravity” is a more serious take on the universality of this special role as a mother that passes through each generation. She tells us

“What binds me to this earth
are the hands of my children,
as I hold my mother
back to the mother
who begat us all.”

The almost biblical enumeration of the generations of mothers is an evocative image worthy of its own chapter in Genesis.

The section on “Daughters” has the widest range of topics. Exclusively written by women, it reflects the passing of the mantle of motherhood from one generation to the next. It is also the most creative section of the anthology. Elizabeth Archer’s “Finally A Poem” is about a mother bringing her daughter to a detox center. Despite the seriousness of the occasion, her love for her daughter is apparent as she ends the poem with

“She is folding into herself
eyes closed, fending off
distractions and smoke;
haloing her bright stripes
across the room.”

The pain of memory is shown in two facets by two poems taken from two rather varied viewpoints. Suzanne Carey’s “In My Mother’s Kitchen” deals with her mother’s failing memory due to Alzheimer’s. In “For My Granddaughter,” Catherine Chandler deals with how a child will forget those wonderful days spent together. There is a strong and poignant image of a 78-year-old mother in “God Bless America” by Jodi Hottell. Her mother cries every time she hears God Bless America on TV. We assume it is her love for her country and are somewhat taken by this image. The truth becomes clear when the narrator informs us that her mother was an inmate in a Nisei camp in Wyoming during the war. Barbara Crooker’s “Me ‘n Bruce Springsteen Take My Baby Off To College” is an upbeat discourse of a mother bringing her daughter off to college with Springsteen playing on the CD player for company. This was no paean to aging or empty nest syndrome. Like every good Boomer parent, the radio is cranked up for the trip back and the miles go by . Sharmagne Leland-St. John has included her haunting “Things I Would Have Given My Mother Had She But Asked.” For those of us who have lost a mother, there are always things we wish we had said while they were with us. Ms . Leland- S t . John enumerates them with a voice that is both understated yet mournful.

While the section on “Daughters” captivated me with its varied topics, “Sons” gave me a deeper insight to the bond between mothers and sons. Patrice Bunge’s “Facts of Life” deals with an 11 year old who is convinced, mistakenly, that he has discovered where babies come from. Like a typical 11 year old, he imparts this new found knowledge on his mother. She has an epiphany moment ending with

“Wait here, I whisper, don’t go.
Not just yet.”

Bruce Dethlefsen’s “Hot Dog Man” conjures the memory of a mother telling her children to behave or she will send them off with the Hot Dog Man. This memory morphs into other memories of her depression and its burden on the two boys. It ends with the narrator coming back to the present, his mother gone and the Hot Dog Man still around to jog this memory. “Little Boys and War” by Lenora Good and “The Salute” by Mary Laufer cover the same ground. The mothers in both of these works are confronted by their son’s interest in war and the military. In both poems, the mothers react to this seeming aberration in their children. Ms. Good’s mother expresses dismay while Ms. Laufer takes action by turning her vacuum cleaner into a weapon and sucking up her son’s toy soldiers. The difference between “Daughters” and “Sons” was in the tone of each of the poems in these sections. Mothers and daughters share some deeper bond, a gnostic lore of bringing life into the world. There is an easier banter between the characters, even when the poems are dealing with serious issues. With "Sons," there is no less love but there is a difference; a respect for her abilities and even her shortcomings. But there is always the gender divide, always the inability to understand what goes on in her soul.

The most poignant sections, as expected, is “Grief and Loss.” As with the other sections, the poems cover many aspects of losing either a mother or child. The one characteristic that each of the poems share is a quiet, reserved voice. No over the top mourning or angry words have come to this section. Jane Blanchard’s “Naked Truth” addresses loss during a prenatal ultrasound where the narrator learns that her child within her is dead. This is a major trauma for any woman but this speaker keeps her emotions together, almost in response to the objectivity of the medical personnel. It speaks to grief and loss, but it also says something about the strength of the almost-mother to be. “Memorial” by Suzanne Carey is told by a daughter who has retrieved her mother’s ashes from the mortuary. She is a daughter who was never “thin or blonde or pretty enough” for her mother, no doubt a difficult thing to bear. She ends the poem toasting her mother, along with her brother, and the realization that

“All possibility of pleasing
Her, at last, gone.”

Those last two lines of the poem with their unique enjambment give the poem a startling finality of an ending cut short, possibly from grief, possibly from the pain of memory. CB Follett deals with the dispersal of a mother’s ashes in the hypnotically beautiful “Hold and Release.” With the allusion to a hunter or fisherman who is caring enough to release their prey, the narrator casts the ashes into the water with gray hands made grayer by the ash. As the ashes are taken by the current, the narrator intones

“…I return her
to those early happy days
when a war was over
and our hearts were ever lifted by summer.”

“Cradle Songs” is a collection of almost 220 poems, each with a distinctive tone and viewpoint of a grand topic. There are strong emotions here and laughter that holds a reader as they turn each page. This is a topic that is familiar to us, yet the different facets of motherhood create a unique picture for us. The editors have done an excellent job of putting together not only the four sections, but they have taken pains in the juxtaposition of each of the poems. This is an exceptional anthology. It would make a fine gift for Mother’s Day as well as a keepsake to wander through memories that you might have whether you are a mother or not.


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