Motherland by Sally Thomas
Able Muse Press, 2020; 126 pp., $19.95
Review by Meredith McCann
Sally Thomas is one of my absolute favorites among all the poets we’ve published in Dappled Things. There’s something Philip Larkin-ish about the elegant yet easy flow of her verse, with its unsparing meditations on aging and its remembered English landscapes. Larkin, of course, was a grumpy agnostic librarian who famously regarded marriage and children as a death sentence, so perhaps that’s where the similarities end. Thomas’s new book is called Motherland, and maternal energy is its “ground of being.” The book’s foreword enumerates the possible meanings of the title: “Thomas’s own motherhood,” “Mother Nature,” “the maternal birthing of poems,” “English as Thomas’s mother tongue,” “Mother Church,” and “Mary as the Mother of God.”
It has been widely recognized that the past fifty years have seen an explosion of “the poetry of motherhood.” The Poetry Foundation’s website introduces a page of mother-themed poems with the rueful judgment: “Before the 1970s, very few realistic poems about motherhood were published.” After Sylvia Plath, poets rapidly began to make up for lost time, and in the words of Stephen Burt in his essay “The Poetics of Motherhood,” “It is no wonder, then, that if we look back on American poems since the 1970s, giving birth and caring for young children are salient topics, perhaps the topics (if we want to segregate poems by topic) that have prompted the most widespread stylistic invention, the greatest number of poems by the most poets that sound the least like the poems of the past.”
Sally Thomas takes her place effortlessly in this new tradition, although her poems are not deep in the thick of milk and sleep deprivation. Her voice has a cool, leisurely authority to it: she is the mother in middle age, past the intense confusion of babies and screaming toddlers. When she does look back on those days, every reader with children will feel the stab of recognition:
You too had a pram, and children. You walked
You pushed your little loneliness up the road.
Time and mortality loom large in Thomas’s work. Here is one of my favorite poems from the book, quoted in whole:
While you’re still wondering what happened to the spring,
In cool moonlight and the crickets’ whispering,
The season turns. No more bridal lace.
Purplish heat flushes the shifting face
Roadside dogwoods wear, this hurried day.
Back home, you’re chopping apples to put away
In the deep-freeze for the winter: soft, bruised
Deer apples, people say—the fruit stand sells
Six dollars for a twenty-odd-pound box,
To bait hunters’ stands. Worm-bitten Gala, Cox,
Granny Smith, some little ones whose name
You don’t know, all together breathe the same
Ripe smell, almost fermented. Now you cut
The grainy flesh right down to the chambered heart,
Rigid as cartilage, where the black seeds nest.
You fill ten Ziploc bags, but mound the best,
Least-bitten apples in a bowl. It used to be
That passing children ate them up immediately.
Who’ll eat them now, before they liquefy
Inside their loosening skins? A waste, you’d cry,
Except that in this moment they’re a feast
To look at, heaped together in the last
Off-kilter light—curvaceous, red, or gold
As pollen, wax-cheeked, radiantly cold.
This is the best sort of contemporary formal poetry: not just metrically correct, but lithe and conversational. The music of the poem builds and builds until the gong-like shimmer of the final two words. How is it that our lives begin speeding up, quietly at first, while we still believe we’ll be “twenty-something” forever, and then “the season turns”? What happened to the spring and the “bridal lace” of summer (which is both a wildflower and the memory of being a young newlywed)? How do children grow up so quickly? All this relentless change, even the apples with their “almost fermented” smell, threatening to liquefy. And yet, the defiant beauty of this still life of apples “red, or gold as pollen” will persist—that has always been an important function of poetry since ancient times. (Remember Horace and his boast of creating a “monument more enduring than bronze.”)
Crowning the book is a sequence of poems called Richeldis of Walsingham, which first appeared in this journal. Like Seamus Heaney’s Station Island, it is a series of poems linked to an ancient Catholic pilgrimage site. Hopkins name-dropped the shrine in one of his poems when he said “a starlight-wender of ours would say / The marvelous Milk was Walsingham Way”—that is, the medieval pilgrims used the Milky Way as a signpost to their destination. According to legend, the Virgin appeared to Richeldis in the year 1061 and told her to build a replica of her house at Nazareth. She tried and failed three times, only to awake one day and find that angels had built the house while she slept. The house and its holy well became known as “England’s Nazareth,” the most popular destination for pilgrims after Canterbury. Eventually the shrine was destroyed under Henry VIII.
Gary Waller, a literature professor who made a little secular pilgrimage to Walsingham in 2006, wrote about his experience and mentioned the literary impact of Walsingham’s destruction, which “uncannily haunted the Elizabethan age in poems and folk songs.” Rather like Philip Larkin in “Churchgoing,” Waller visited the holy site with mixed feelings of mockery and nostalgia, only to be unexpectedly moved. “As I stood up and left the Holy House, pausing to regret the dryness of the well—no ritual of sprinkling for me that day—I asked myself what so many pilgrims ask: Have we listened? Perhaps the Guardians of the shrine would have had me listening to a more orthodox lesson, but what I was hearing was: Have we nurtured in all of us, men and women, what Shakespeare’s Cymbeline terms the “woman’s part”? Not, I think, enough. Walsingham gently suggests, to this pilgrim at least, that doing so is where our salvation may most profoundly lie.” His trip strongly impressed on him (despite his unbelief) that Walsingham “is a place of devotion to the female religious experience—that is experience not just by, but of, the female.”
For Thomas, this female presence radiates through the shrine’s history. She creates a polyphony out of many different women’s voices: Richeldis looks back on her life; a nurse returns home from the First World War; a medieval innkeeper complains that she is run off her feet serving crowds of pilgrims. I’ve mentioned before that Thomas’s poetry is often haunted by an anxiety about time—flowing relentlessly towards death, or looking back as our memories recede further and further into the past. And time is constantly confronting us in the Richeldis poems as we zigzag between the present day and the past, visiting 1080, 1918, 1854, 1659, 1216, and returning to 1080 again. Modern vignettes are braided together with the historical poems:
Through green May softness every year, the people
Barefoot into town, calling each other Pilgrim
In the self-conscious way that people do
When their world’s ceased to believe.
The medieval-sounding opening is a wry misdirection: the pilgrims are modern; the scene moves to a hostel where “an American couple / Watch with mounting dismay as their two-year-old / Smears herself with red jelly and cream beneath the mild / Horrified gaze of more cardigan-armored ladies.” This gently mocking tone does not, however, cut the modern readers off from the past, as if we can no longer relate to it. In a poem dated 1401, an innkeeper shouts irritably to a pilgrim that she has run out of room:
God found Our Lord a bed. Ale, ale.
Let Him—God save us—find you,
By Our Lady, a clean straw bed without fleas.
Everyone is demanding something of her at once—someone wants beer, another lodging—and her exasperation links her sympathetically with the modern American couple and their wild, jelly-smeared toddler. Richeldis herself speaks in Thomas’s usual poetic voice, except in the last poem where her words are charged with Anglo-Saxon and the pre-Norman world of Beowulf and Caedmon:
High heaven harrowed a dew-fallow field,
Planted what pleased it. The first building blundered:
Square, Saxon-style. Wrong.
Bad in its bones, the treasure-ship sank.
Each day the doing mocked and unmade me.
Like those deer apples, her very English is doomed to ferment and become something unrecognizable to her. And yet her words aren’t completely forgotten, as Thomas has named each poem in the sequence with an Old English title: “wif,” “sceadu,” “halig dag,” “brimfugol.”
Perhaps I can end this review with the observation that Sally Thomas is a pro when it comes to endings. That “click” of a good final line closing like the door of an expensive car is half the pleasure of poetry for me, and I will leave you with an assortment:
The polished slab that keeps his bones in place.
My unmaking made this.
I’d dress up now and marry you again.
A recurrent longing for something else.
And always to the sea are hastening down.
Meredith McCann is a poet and reviewer as well as the poetry editor of Dappled Things magazine. Her work has appeared in Presence and Able Muse, among others.