For women writers, motherhood is a tricky subject—well worn yet inexhaustible. For every book that celebrates children as miracles, there is another that describes the guilt of screwing up or getting Botox while pregnant. The subject is a cash crop: universally of interest, unlikely to go out of fashion, potentially controversial, and probably heartwarming. For a poet, the rules are different. The topics—labor, making cookies, postpartum depression—may be the same, but poetry is not naturally instructive. Rebecca Wolff’s poems about motherhood in The King, for instance, are ironic and dark, slippery and exploratory, loving but not blindly so. They are rife with apt and honest contradictions: what to expect when your expectations are thwarted.
The King is not Wolff’s first book on being a mother. She coedited the 2007 poetry anthology Not for Mothers Only, and her last collection, Figment (2004), touched on it. But in The King, Wolff makes motherhood her focus. A son is “the only subject upon which I have any authority” Wolff writes only half-sarcastically in “The Letdown.” Subject? More like obsession.
Lest the book become overly cohesive, the poems are stylistic and tonal shape-changers. Hip, contemplative, and dark and resistant to the hunky-dory, the New Agey, and the prescriptive, they’re unnerving, funny, and occasionally subversive. Straightforward lines are a shock to those lost in the muck of overthinking. Wolff is wryly simplistic in “Laconic Parkway”: “I had a baby / it was inevitable— / I was pregnant.” Other poems take a more nuanced approach. In the foreboding “Raised by Wolves,” a mother worries about her son’s playing in the street: “Our house lies somewhere at the end of a road. / At one end, a graveyard; at the other, a recreational playing / field. At another end, / another graveyard.” Protectiveness becomes anxiety plus decisiveness: “Today I dragged him screaming down the road, by the wrist.”
The specific task of disciplining is matched by the more amorphous drama of pregnancy and birth. Wolff teases but avoids potentially gruesome (or gloriously gross) detail. “I gave birth on my hands and knees / that is what I wanted to tell you,” or, on breast milk, “there is nothing / to say—it wraps you in layers / You wrap it in layers.” Her withholding may lessen the thrill, but the poem’s speaker—a new mother uncertain of her actions, suspicious of her affections, censorious of her own experience—is vivid. Depressed, she is a “ruined nest, dropped and blackened / past distinction by fire.” She begins to think of religion and observes that giving birth “strains atheism” but does not break it.
The mother is both content and content maker. She wants to guide and teach her son, and these poems (“A really decisive move: He found / my poems in a box / before I was dead”) serve as a beginning. And that’s the real difference between this collection and those glutinous mommy books: The King is not for nervous mothers. In this case, it’s for Asher, Wolff’s son, to whom she dedicates the pages.
Jenna Krajeski is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.