Jun 15, 2022

“Motherload” by Kate Baer

Joan Biddle

A professor once told me never to send “mommy poems” to the journal for which he read.  Unfortunately, this stuck with me for a long time, the idea that poems about being a mother, a woman, were not worthy. Not something he wanted to read.

Kate Baer’s book What Kind of Woman is full of glorious mommy poems, woman poems, mother poems, and marriage poems. She doesn’t hold back in writing what is real to her, what is beautiful and hard and true. 

One poem in the collection, “Transfiguration,” talks about having to dream oneself back into a woman after becoming a mother. It’s a process, it's complicated, it's heavy. It's a motherload.

How much do we hold onto in our bodies, how many unmarked, unreleased stresses? How many transgressions, frustrations, traumas, and small slights do we hold?

In her poem “Motherload,” Baer writes of the weight a mother holds in her body, listing the body parts that hold the different aches of motherhood. The list marks all the heaviness, all the daily ups and downs as well as the deep struggles of having children.

Her sternum holds onto the paperwork, “lists of minor things” suitable for the “flat bone in the center of her chest.” Motherhood is truly a series of lists of minor things that add up to big, time-sensitive tasks. Things that, if not taken care of, if forgotten or left off, can truly wreak havoc on schedules, sleep, school, and health.

I like poems that teach me a new word or two, and this one teaches me hallux (big toe), which, appropriately, holds the things that hurt, such as “senseless chatter” and “the spikes of a dinosaur’s tail.”

And then we reach the belly, which holds more: “fires and tidal waves.” There’s lust, heartbreak, and love. Being a mother doesn’t take away one’s lust in spite of and because of it all. In fact, it grows. Sometimes I want it to go away and also urgently do not want it to go away–the bell of lust that keeps ringing, softer and louder. In “Ode to My Desire” Baer writes, “Four children / have passed through my body and still here / I am, asking for your hands on my hips.”

Later in the poem, there are the hands, which carry the “small and flimsy” egos of her children. How we hold onto them like paper that could fly away in the wind, that could disappear at any time. Their egos may be small and flimsy but their bodies are the opposite, heavy and dense, big and warm. 

Her mouth is the last, which holds “their laughter, gentle currents, a cosmos of everything.” In contrast to the tidal wave in her belly of large, carnal emotion, the mouth holds gentle currents, daily things like laughter that bubbles and suddenly fills a room.  The mother is one and the same as her children, feeling their currents in her. Mother and child become one thing, blending into the natural world.  

“Motherload” is a neatly arranged poem, a list poem that’s more than a list, that tells a story of a life, feelings in the body that don’t leave but grow stronger and weaker in a rhythm. Pleasure and joy are mixed with pain, the whole cosmos in these little people who enter our lives, whom we dream into being--and about whose effect on our lives we should write.

The poem “Motherload” appears in Kate Baer’s What Kind of Woman, published by Harper Perennial in 2020. 

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