While reading this wonderfully expansive anthology, I was reminded of what prolific feminist writer bell hooks said in Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work: “No woman¹ has ever written enough.” This truth demands that we make space for the essential writing of mothers, too. Motherhood is an experience central to all our lives, and The Long Devotion: Poets Writing Motherhood is accordingly inclusive, featuring work from queer mothers, single mothers, adoptive and foster mothers, women whose experiences with motherhood include infertility and loss and childlessness and abortion, and more. It is also inclusive in the poetry it features, from traditional to more experimental forms such as a computer coding-inspired poem from Vanessa Angélica Villarreal and a poetry comic from Lauren Haldeman. The Long Devotion is not just for mothers or mother-writers, but for anyone who has been marked and shaped by the act of mothering.
Editors Emily Pérez and Nancy Reddy note that this book got its start at a 2018 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference panel. In the years since, the need for this collection has only grown: the dangerously tenuous place that motherhood occupies in American society has become undeniable during the COVID-19 pandemic. When schools and childcare centers suddenly shut down in 2020, millions of women left the workforce—a trend that was already occurring before the pandemic exacerbated it—and many have yet to return. Mothers are now left with the same questions they were already facing, but at a fever pitch: how can I nurture and value myself in a culture that refuses to do so? How can I advocate to better my children’s lives when there’s barely enough time or money to caretake? How can I be myself while I mother? These are the questions the poets in The Long Devotion write from and into with determination, desperation, solidarity, patience, and fierce joy.
The anthology is organized into four sections: “Difficulty, Ambivalence, and Joy,” “The Body and the Brain,” “In the World,” and “Transitions.” Each section begins with a selection of poems on the theme, continues with a handful of short essays by some of the featured poets, then ends with several poetry prompts.
Reading through the poems Pérez and Reddy have gathered into this anthology feels like standing in a room buzzing with excitement and wisdom. As in the daily experience of parenting, what is quotidian and what is profoundly life-altering merge in these poems. In “Homeland Security,” Nicole Cooley instructs herself, “Write toward the girl, asleep beside me, her body / made of mine.” What is more everyday than sleeping next to one’s child? And yet what is more profound than a “body/ made of mine”? In her villanelle “Confession,” Kiki Petrosino writes from the liminal space a woman who does not want to be pregnant occupies while waiting for her period’s arrival. “Every month I decide not to try / is a lungful of gold I can keep for myself,” she begins. Waiting for one’s period is an everyday experience for many who contemplate, avoid, or otherwise engage in motherhood.
In one of my favorite poems of the anthology, “A Series of Short Stories or Propositions,” 신 선 영 Sun Yung Shin’s short paragraphs function like micro flash fiction:
At a run-down sperm bank, a centrifuge stopped working properly but they continued to use it anyway. The children that resulted from those sperm felt themselves drawn to the outer edges of things all their lives and never understood why. They could never get far enough from the center. They sought out round rooms and spaces but there were never enough, not even in Greece, where they all ended up, where they all eventually died. They died and the centrifuge was still being used by the indifferent workers at the bank. A cold country, the workers wore mittens inside.
Another paragraph reads, “One year all the mothers named their newborn babies ‘Adult.’” This uncanny prose does what mothers do: create and sustain new worlds with nothing but the most everyday materials and the most profound abilities—hope, audacity, care.
By including poetry prompts at the end of each section, Pérez and Reddy aim not just to share the existing work of mother-writers, but to sustain this practice through the reader-writer. This book is thus a remarkable continuation of caretaking through gentle yet probing prompts such as:
The form of Khadijah Queen’s “Terrell Owens Private Messaged Me” is a single, breathless sentence structured almost like a joke working toward a punchline. Using this poem as a model, relate an anecdote about parenting that ends with a surprise. You may want to try using the prose poem form and to write it as a single sentence using only “&” to connect each moment.
As Khadijah Queen writes in her essay included here, “Being a mother often makes the act of writing even more urgent, more sanity-saving, more necessary.” Pérez and Reddy cultivate space for this necessary work in The Long Devotion.
As I prepare to enter the world of motherhood myself for the first time this summer, I feel immensely grateful to be mothered by this collection, these voices, this “fantastic coven of fellow travelers that offer solace and wisdom in their writerly-motherly subjectivities,” as Carmen Giménez Smith says in the afterword. The Long Devotion gives me hope, instruction, and a thriving community to write alongside as a poet and mother. It is a necessary text for every mother laboring to make space for her writing in this world.
- Throughout this review, my intention in using the words “motherhood,” “mother/s,” and “woman/women” is to mirror that of the book: to be inclusive of all femme, nonbinary, cisgender and transgender identities and experiences for whom these terms convey import.
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.