Review of Mother Country by Elana Bell
BOA Editions, Oct 6, 2020
Motherhood as Transformation: A Review of Mother Country by Elana Bell
After entering Mother Country by Elana Bell, her second full-length poetry collection, two things become clear—the terrain of motherhood is vast and sometimes treacherous and Bell, as a poet, has the strength and endurance to witness her own complicated passage. The book begins with the title poem “Mother Country” and ends with the long, narrative poem “After Birth,” both occupying their own sections of the book. The three sections in between describe a powerful journey of loss, forgiveness, desire, love, and brutal honesty that teaches the reader not just about mothering, but how to be devotedly human.
In the poem “Mother” Bell writes, “Mother I run in equal parts toward you and away” which is an apt summation of her relationship with her own mother who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and suffers from mental illness. In an earlier poem in this section “Dropping My Mother Off at the Electro-Convulsive Therapy Ward” she asks, “Who will I follow when she is gone?” Navigating her mother’s changing mind and body, Bell writes through her own grief with the tenacity of a memoirist. In “Elegy for Mother, Still Living,” a short poem that offers flashes of their relationship Bell admits, “I hold my mother/against the woman she is.”
Bell’s ability to be frank and whimsical in the same poem is a gift. She spares no details and speaks about, and from within, the body. What emerges is a messy, candid, and highly relatable picture of what motherhood actually is, including all the trying and hoping, the births and “broken eggs.” In “First Intrauterine Insemination” she writes:
I will go out into the morning
Before the plows,
Out into the thick quiet
And crouch, letting the dark
Fluid spill out of me
to mark the baby
that did not come.
I will bury it like an animal.
In “Prayer,” an invocation borne from deep within the post-partum mind, Bell speaks one truth after another. “When I stink of puke & milk & shit/When I begin to lose my grownup words.” In this poem, Bell is not searching for sympathy, but simply revealing the myriad emotions many experience, mothers and non-mothers alike, and hardly ever divulge.
Yearning and intricate tenderness span Bell’s poems and become heightened in the final sections of the book, especially in “Afterbirth,” the final poem mentioned above. Of her son Bell writes, “And the smell of him. I am drunk on it.” Later in the poem she declares, “Before I was a mother, I was a poet.” There is a thin line between losing yourself and becoming yourself and Bell walks this line sincerely throughout this important poem, bringing her captivated readers along by her side.
Mother Country serves as a guide as well as a profound investigation into what it means to live fully in the world—alive to beauty and transformative magic and unafraid to face the inevitable pain.
Jessica Gigot is a poet, farmer, teacher, and musician. She has a small farm in Bow, WA called Harmony Fields that makes artisan sheep cheese and grows organic herbs. Her first book of poems, Flood Patterns, was published by Antrim House Books in 2015 and her second book, Feeding Hour, is forthcoming from Trail to Table Press (Fall 2020). Her writing appears in several publications such as Orion, Taproot, Gastronomica, The Hopper, and Poetry Northwest.