Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Great Book for Mother's Day--or Any Day!

I am late to make this Mother's Day gift suggestion, but I suspect many people out there will wake up today and say, "I completely forgot that Mother's Day is on Sunday. What should I get?"

Why not get your mother a book of poems for Mother's Day? Rachel Barenblat's latest collection, Waiting to Unfold, was written during her first year of motherhood, and the book is wonderful. You can go here to order it in several ways; I recommend ordering directly from the publisher, Phoenicia Publishing, so that more of the proceeds stays with the small publisher and author. While you're at it, order a copy for yourself.

You may be saying, "But it won't get here in time for Mother's Day." That's OK. Revert back to your childhood and make a certificate; that way she'll know that her present is on its way. My mom is the kind of person who loves stretching out holidays; she'll often save a Christmas present to open Christmas night. She'd love having a gift certificate that lets her know that a book is coming and then she'd love the anticipation and then she'd love the eventual book.

I'm not a mother, but I know a lot of mothers, and I imagine that this book reminds them of both the joys and the terrors of that first year of motherhood. But even if we haven't experienced those emotions first hand, the book can speak to us too.

I enjoyed it immensely, probably because it was honest in its exploration of that first year. Too many chronicles of the first year seem determined to refuse to admit that it's anything but glorious. Barenblat's poems are rooted in the every day, which includes the not-so-glorious, like a child who doesn't want to sleep, a child who explores the world in a terrifying, head-on, exhilarating way.

It's Barenblat's care given to the depiction of the every day that keeps the poems working so well: the walk with the stroller that ends in Whole Foods ("Mother Psalm 8"), the box of castaway clothes that are too big and will soon be too small ("Hand-Me-Downs") and the first Thanksgiving, with its memories of other Thanksgivings ("Thanksgiving").

I'm also impressed with Barenblat's abilities as a poet. She offers poems written in form, like "Newborn Sestina." Most poems are written in stanzas of the same number of lines, but there is a prose poem here and there. A series of "Mother Psalms" winds its way throughout the book.

Rachel Barenblat is a Jewish rabbi, so her poems are rooted in her religious practice and religious texts. But don't let that worry you. There are plenty of poems that will appeal, even if the reader can't stand any whiff of spirituality.

I found the spiritual undergirding to be one of the best parts of the book, but I am wired that way. I loved the references to the Biblical Psalms, like this one: "Your tired tears may endure for the night / But breakfast comes in the morning" ("Mother Psalm 7") which references Psalm 30 ("weeping may stay the night, but joy comes in the morning"). I loved the references to Jewish practices, and even though they're unfamiliar to me, I didn't find the reference to them to be a stumbling block.

Some books about motherhood make me wince and say, "Well, I'm glad I decided not to follow that path." Some make me second guess my choices. Barenblat's book gives me a window into that first year in a way that doesn't feel manipulative at all. But I don't read it dispassionately.

Barenblat's Velveteen Rabbi blog is one of my favorites, so I don't come to Waiting to Unfold as a person completely unfamiliar with the poet or her baby. But even if I was completely unfamiliar with Barenblat, I'd still feel like I was reading the poems of a real person, with all the joys and sorrows contained. I like this book because it doesn't idealize motherhood, the way our culture is inclined to do. However, it's also not too mired in the messiness of it all. It's a nice balance of poems.

It's a collection that makes me return to my own life with a sense of wonder. After all, we've all been children, and most of us have been around children. I love poems like "Taste," poems that remind us of all the delights in store as we move from thin gruel to other, richer treats. The book is full of reminders of how much each day has to offer, if we can just slow down to savor them.

So order this book--order several copies. You probably know multiple people who would enjoy a book like this one. After all, a poem could be a daily treat--and these poems, which remind us of all the other delights of dailiness, have much to offer.

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