“I was afraid to write about my female poetry mentors and was deeply afraid to write about my mother,” Rachel Zucker admits in the Acknowledgements of MOTHERs, “So I began.” Taking her own dares is common practice for Zucker, the author of seven books, most recently, The Pedestrians and Home/Birth: a poemic, co-written with Arielle Greenberg. She’s known for her uncompromising depiction of motherhood, marriage, and the competing responsibilities of a life made up of many kinds of work. “My poems have trash in them,” she says, in a conversation published in The Believer. “Also: soccer balls, puke, toddlers, the New York City subway, dirty dishes, sex, my husband, toilet training, other poets, and groceries.” MOTHERs—a long essay in nine parts—is grounded in the domestic, and it’s deeply satisfying to read about the life of the body coexisting with the life of the mind. Another pleasure is what Zucker has to say about other poets—those she knows personally and those she knows only through their writing. MOTHERs includes encounters and conversations, as well as lines and passages from work that’s informed and sustained her, offering a fascinating look at her formation as a poet. Zucker is concerned with capturing actual experience rather than making metaphors of it. The power of her writing lies in her refusal to separate one sphere from another, looking instead at the whole of a life as it’s expressed in a particular moment.
MOTHERs begins with stories that are meaningful to Zucker, whether or not they’re entirely true. (She knows memory is slippery, and she points often to the research that proves it.) Zucker describes hearing Jorie Graham talk about her fear, when pregnant, that she would not write again. Unlike Graham’s generation, Zucker realized, she had many living examples around her of women who had a child and kept writing, including Graham (her thesis advisor at Iowa), Alice Notley, and Sharon Olds. This led her to co-edit an anthology with Arielle Greenberg, Women Poets on Mentorship, but the essay Zucker intended to write about her literary mentors eluded her. When she lost two close friends—Peggy Sradnick, who ran the daycare her sons attended, and Ilana Stein, who was her doula instructor, the depth of her grief prompted her to examine what all these women meant to her—as models, mentors, and mother figures.
Zucker calls MOTHERs an essay but also thinks of it as a “‘rumination,’ or perhaps, a ‘public notebook. Part memoir, part lyric.” She writes in a disjunctive form, reminiscent of her poems, that moves at the speed of life, capturing thoughts, quotes, notes, stories and reflections, conversations, letters, and even iChats put down seemingly verbatim. Time is Zucker’s constant preoccupation because, for a busy mother, poet, teacher, labor doula, and homebirth advocate, there is never enough of it. Art and mothering are always in conflict. Time is finite, and both children and the imagination require constant tending. Zucker’s mother, storyteller Diane Wolkstein, often chose art, turning away from her daughter toward the stories she collected and published and performed, stories she described as “more beautiful than anything that was in my life.” Even as Zucker faces the same conflict, she can’t relinquish her sense of abandonment or condone her mother’s choice. “The thought-feeling I could not forgive in myself because I could not forgive it in my real mother,” she writes, “was how often my mind said ‘I don’t want to be here.’”
In three short sections at the middle of the book, Zucker describes how heartbroken she is when her last child, Judah, stops nursing. She’s been reading the news from Haiti, where storms and flooding have created a desperate situation on the ground. Judah’s transition is marked by tantrums, and “his anger is like a storm going through him that he cannot stop. I am mixing the two,” Zucker writes, “because, in me, they are mixed.” This is the key to Zucker’s seemingly formless form, allowing what is mixed to stay mixed, rejecting the pressure to divide literary from domestic, art from parenting. The daily accretes alongside the examination of the past, and a fragile web of white space holds it all in one mind, one life. Norman Maclean once defined memoir as “an attempt to put the pieces of myself together.” Zucker takes that one step further: “The storifying helps put the self back together but does not accurately describe the experience.” Toward the end of MOTHERs, Zucker concludes: “I am the mother who does not leave,” but the experience of that remains her subject—the push and pull of every day, and the decision, to quote Zucker quoting Alice Notley: “Of two poems one sentimental and one not / I choose both.”
Zucker’s experience and her struggle to make meaning of it unfold in tandem, keeping intact all the questions and tricks of memory that color her relationships and the effect they’ve had on her. It seems fitting that this story-in-many-stories should have not one, but two endings. Zucker’s mother objected to how she was characterized and asked her not to publish MOTHERs. Instead, Zucker includes a final letter from her, allowing her mother to speak eloquently for herself and also paying tribute to her after her sudden, unexpected death, detailed in the epilogue. There is nothing reductive here, no final absolution or forgiveness—that’s not Zucker’s way. Her aim, as she says, is “to really see things as they are, and to see myself in relationship to those things as they are without transforming them into something else.” Fragment by fragment, she writes a whole life.