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Pulling Apart the Myth of Motherhood
Rebekah Denison Hewitt

Katie Manning’s first full-length collection, Tasty Other (Winner of the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award), explores motherhood from a variety of angles and offers a perspective that is often surreal and strange. Manning uses fairy tales, biblical stories and characters, pregnancy-related texts, and dreams as vehicles to explore the mental and emotional landscape of becoming a mother. The poems are braided together in a way that reflects the paradigm shift of becoming a parent. The dream poems (indicated by titles that begin with the word “The”), in particular, note the strange movements of the mind as the body prepares to have a baby. In this book, Manning presents an unsentimental look at the physical and emotional processes of becoming a mother.

bookManning begins the collection with a poem entitled “Week by Week,” which catalogs the baby growing larger, being compared to coins and sports equipment and “increasing in value.” The final line reads, “This week/baby is the sky now a hemisphere. Now a blurry word.” This is an apt opener for the collection because the reader experiences literal comparisons turning into a metaphorical description of what this baby is to the mother. In the abecedarian “What to Expect,” Manning again plays with literal descriptions of pregnancy and childbirth by exploring the index of the popular pregnancy tome, What to Expect When You’re Expecting. As the poem unravels, it becomes a frenetic and sometimes humorous list of juxtapositions: “Expect nicotine patches, noise, and NutraSweet. Expect on-line drug shopping. Expect optimism. Expect organ donation and organic produce.” The poem carries itself with its unique rhythm and succeeds in enacting the anxiety and information overload that often bombards new mothers.

The collection hangs together with a poem that has been broken into parts. Manning takes the phrase, “Once upon a time, there was a mother,” and examines each word with a footnote. She literally and figuratively pulls apart the myth of motherhood, trying to get underneath it, to unearth and understand it. The phrase appears throughout the book, and each time the next word in the sentence is explored and defined. This structure serves the book well and shows Manning’s discomfort with many of the fables concerning motherhood.

To continue the theme of fairy tales and fables, Manning works with several ancient stories to explore themes of motherhood. In one of the more gruesome poems, “Baba Yaga’s Answer,” Manning imagines Baba Yaga, a figure from Slavic folklore, conceiving a child and miscarrying. Her desire to have children turns into her desire to eat children, and at the end of the poem she writes, “I consumed them both, raw, in one sitting,/felt their beating hearts slide down to my belly. I placed my hand/upon my stomach and smiled.” In “Sleeping Beauty’s Mother,” Manning gives readers a humorous and sympathetic twist on the familiar story. Here we have the perspective of a mother who is worn out, with “swollen breasts,” and whose husband is “too friendly with fairies.” She envies her daughter’s good fortune, to be promised a century of sleep and a young prince.

Manning also engages biblical stories and popular Christian tropes. “What Wisdom” is her response to 1 Kings 3, the story of King Solomon and the mothers fighting over a baby. Manning’s version demonstrates empathy for the possessiveness and strange thoughts that can accompany new motherhood. Her poem questions Solomon’s wisdom, and the view of a mother’s pure, right love. She ends the poem by stating, “If another mother says,/‘Neither  of us/shall have him. Cut him in two!’/she sounds like a new mother/no less.” And in the book’s final poem, “God in the Shower,” Manning deals with an image sometimes used by preachers on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday: that of a train conductor sacrificing his child on the tracks so that he can lower the bridge to save a train full of people from what otherwise would be certain death. I have also been troubled by this metaphor and sympathize with Manning as she ponders it and leans “against the shower wall, sick now.” Manning confronts her own feelings as a mother, whether or not they are Christian, whether or not they are correct. In her story of mother-as-train-engineer, the train and all the people on it crash into the water. She envisions a different outcome: “My son, safe in my arms every time.”

Many of the poems in Tasty Other emerged from the vivid dreams Manning had while pregnant. These dream sequences are often humorous, such as the poem “The Dream Job,” in which the speaker has a job as an “egg warmer at the local police station.” Others are terrifying, such as the poem “The Fall,” in which the speaker dreams of dropping and killing her baby. Still others, like “The Flight Delay,” reflect the panic a new mother feels when she cannot get to her nursing baby. In “The Interview,” Manning writes about a dream in which she is interviewing for a job. For the interview, the speaker has to ride a horse through the mud, but the baby calls on the phone, “I want to look professional./My left hand holds/the reins. My right/picks up the phone. You are crying.” The poem illustrates the frequent tension between career and motherhood. The dream sequences in Tasty Other clearly evoke the anxiety new mothers face, while exploring the phenomenon of vivid dreams during pregnancy. (As someone who had dreams of giving birth to worms with teeth and jumping on a trampoline while pregnant, I could relate to the strangeness of these dream poems as well as many of the fears that the dream poems explore.)

The dream poems work particularly well because they are interspersed with other poems that are grounded in the realities of pregnancy and birth. “Surprise Ultrasound” takes the reader to a doctor’s visit where, at first, the doctor cannot find the baby’s heartbeat. “What I Remember” is a memory of the poet’s aunt having a baby and a recollection of her understanding of childbirth as a young girl. In one of my favorite poems in the book, “Parturition” the poet describes giving birth with a voice that interrupts itself and shifts from scene to scene to reveal not the narrative of birth, but the nature of birth, the jerky, out-of-body experience. Manning writes, “The baby is weighed, measured, inked,/placed in a glass bowl,” and in these lines, the reader feels the mother’s detachment as she watches medical staff take care of the necessary procedures. Manning expresses the relief the mother feels at the end of labor, but also the initial detachment in the moments after the birth. For now, the baby is behind glass, but the mother has become “something new” and not yet understood. This is one of the most honest and grounded poems in the book. The speaker does not shy away from her experience, does not transpose the sentimental gooeyness of new motherhood onto the birth of her child. Instead she reports it, almost seemingly in real time, to give the readers a glimpse of her reality.

Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born, “I was effectively alienated from my real body and my real spirit by the institution—not the fact—of motherhood.” In Tasty Other, Manning seeks to find her real body and her real spirit amidst the challenges and fears of motherhood. She works to find the “facts” of motherhood and divorce them from the fables, cultural expectations, and institutions of motherhood. Hers is a brave and important work for mothers and those who love them.

 

Rebekah Denison Hewitt is a librarian, wife, mother, and MFA candidate at the University of Wisconson-Madison. Her poems and reviews can be found in Columbia Poetry Review, The Laurel Review, Front Porch, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal.

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