Book Review

Nancy Reddy’s Pocket Universe is a tender and expansive poetry collection on new motherhood. Following Reddy’s National Poetry Series-winning Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), both collections delve into cultural depictions of womanhood and expectations of femininity, from the broadest tropes to the most intimate moments between two people. Take for instance the probing ending to Pocket Universe’s “After Cocktail Hour,” where several families have gathered for an outdoor soirée:

 Someone’s child is at the lawn’s edge, crying
and the blond-bobbed wife, the child’s mother,
sees her husband laughing nearby,
not looking. She steps into the high grass
to comfort the wailing child. Is every
marriage a little bit
a catalog of grievances?

From this small moment explodes a question on “every / marriage,” not unlike the explosion of cells at conception, or, as Reddy later writes, “the universe that burst / somehow from the head of a pin.” Just as birthing and caring for new life necessitate caring for the world outside ourselves, Pocket Universe looks up from the birth of one child to see this world anew, questioning the systems and expectations that uphold the cultural institution of motherhood.

The speaker throughout these poems is first pregnant with and gives birth to her first child, a son, and then bears a second son after the first has grown into a toddler. The poems are full of the imagery and pathos you would expect from this subject matter—ultrasounds, early fetal movements, labor, breastfeeding, sleeplessness, struggle with postpartum recovery, seeing her children grow into brothers. I admire how Reddy’s new book moves between the universal and the personal, like the way that the experience of new motherhood demands mothers shift between identities. For every new mother, there is forever a before and after. This experience is as unique to each mother as it is universal to the creation of new life. After all, every uneventful diaper change is nevertheless a new line in the litany of generations of caretaking. It is both entirely novel and inescapably ancestral.

As a result, Reddy not only explores “all this domestic bliss” of caring for new babies, she also reaches back to historical understandings of what happens to the body in pregnancy and labor. Pocket Universe opens with a poem that takes place in Paris’s oldest hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu, where for years doctors went from experimenting on corpses to delivering babies without washing their hands, and then “blamed the mothers for their fevers . . . / blamed the women’s shame.” This is the poem from which the entire collection is born, and ends fittingly with the speaker, too, emerging:

                                          The doctors wield forceps, from the Latin for
                  hot and seize, the paired spoons that scoop the baby from the birth canal.

Yanked from where I’d lodged inside my mother’s narrow hips,
            collarbone broken, but alive, redheaded, howling,
                  I was born like that.

In Pocket Universe, a miracle is not without its howling, new life not without its ancestry.

Many of these poems explore the speaker’s family’s Catholicism, including the trauma caused by the church’s long-held belief that babies who died before being baptized, such as the speaker’s namesake aunt, did not go to heaven. After centuries, this concept was officially overturned in 2007. These are not the only long-held beliefs overturned by the cataclysmic before/after of new motherhood in Reddy’s poems. In “Postpartum,” she writes, “The baby teaches me // I am not what I thought. Not patient, not loving, not / an endless fount of joy. I’m a spigot. . . . I’d thought that motherhood would be / a good machine, a wheel and pulley whooshing out the dark // and sinful parts of me . . . .” These poems brim with such vulnerable honesty. I was struck in particular by the speaker admitting to the ache she feels upon seeing another mother with her daughters, knowing she herself has ended her childbearing with two sons. Though she “feels again the lurch / when the sonogram again said son / and quickly cancelled out a girlhood,” she admonishes herself: “What wicked / luck. What foolishness and greed. Like begging someone’s god / to see you in this blessed and lucky life and strike you down.” Mothers in our culture are not supposed to desire children other than their own. This is as much an ethical judgment as it is a variation on the patriarchal theme that polices feminine desire.

Often the criteria for who qualifies as a good mother here are not only unhelpful, but dangerous. They invalidate the labor all mothers do to keep their children alive and well. “Know that breastmilk / is made of blood,” Reddy reminds us in “My Sentimental Baby.” She ends that poem with tender determination:

                                                                  If the words I use
to tell you how I love the silken loose-boned heft
of this baby sleeping on my chest
feel “processed” or “less than fresh,” I’ll tell you this: I built
this baby in my body from nearly nothing
and nursed him with the milk my body made.
I’ll use the words and tools I have at hand.

Miracles take ordinary and extraordinary work, Pocket Universe is here to show us, and our ancestries are evidence of all the howling it took to bring us to this page, this world.

About the Reviewer

Katherine Indermaur is the author of I|I (Seneca Review Books, November 2022), winner of the 2022 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, and two chapbooks. She serves as an editor for Sugar House Review and is the winner of the Black Warrior Review 2019 Poetry Contest and the 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Alpinist, Coast|noCoast, Ecotone, Frontier Poetry, the Journal, New Delta Review, Ninth Letter, the Normal School, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and lives within sight of the Rocky Mountains.