‘MOTHERs’ by Rachel Zucker
Photo Courtesy of Author
Memoirs generally fall into one of two categories: meditation on experience or apologia for behavior. Rachel Zucker’s MOTHERs is a both/and sort of memoir—both poetry and prose; story and association; circular and linear; apologia and mediation. The book begins as a meditation on motherhood and mothering, and as the mother of three, a doula, and a home birth activist, Zucker’s knowledge of mothering is significant. The irony is that Zucker sees her own mother as having failed her—and continuing to have failed her (as when she leaves the Zucker’s boys alone in the apartment while babysitting). Zucker’s standards for mothers are almost impossibly high, which creates a dilemma: while she cannot reach the bar that she herself has set, she remains unable to forgive her own mother (celebrity storyteller Diane Wolkstein) for not even making it over the lowest of mothering’s hurdles. As the book moves forward, meditation decreases and narrative increases, as Zucker explains the roots and evolution of the conflict with Wolkstein. The conflict ultimately becomes the relationship, and the book ends with Wolkstein begging Zucker not to publish the book, just before Wolkstein dies suddenly in China.
In a story, there are no unnecessary details, and Zucker here rebels against storytelling (in a way that she rarely does in her poetry), the very structure of the book constituting a rebellion against Wolkstein. The prose block form Zucker employs is a hybrid of paragraph and stanza familiar to her readers from Home/Birth, an essay/poem (lyric essay?) she co-authored with Arielle Greenberg. But whereas the block form indicated both a sinuous collaboration and collaged storytelling technique in the previous volume, it feels like the disjunction of trauma in this book. The “story” of the conflict with her mother unravels the way it might on a therapist’s couch, with the pieces coming together and falling apart. The book opens onto Zucker’s education as a poet—or her transformation into a poet—and only once she’s traced that journey, with jagged pieces of her mother poking in, does she unveil the sources and aftermaths of the anger.
Zucker builds up the conflict, preparing the reader for, what at least in the eyes of her mother, are unbearable cruelties and betrayals. The bad parenting stories show Wolkstein as dangerously distractable and careless, but never malicious. But despite Wolkstein’s fears that she is portrayed as a monster, I ended the book with an impression of her as a tragic figure caught in a ruinous love triangle beyond her control—a sort of Greenwich Village Iseult or Guinevere. The central scene of trauma is that Wolkstein falls in love with a colleague when Zucker is nine. The colleague gives Wolkstein an ultimatum, which Zucker overhears and relates to her father, who confronts Wolkstein. She tries to choose her husband, but Wolkstein ends up with no one.
Much of the book relates Zucker’s search for surrogate mothers among poets. Looking to be nurtured by poems is a tried and true strategy; however, looking for a maternal figure among poets themselves is a losing battle. If you’re looking for Jorie Graham to be your mother, good luck. If you’re looking for Sharon Olds to be your mother, get in line. Brenda Hillman does a good job, although her concern for her students as people outweighing her concern for them as poets seems to distress Zucker. The guiding sage of the work is Alice Notley precisely because she’s not bodily present in Zucker’s life. Notley’s writing is less nurturing than exemplary—her refusal to surrender any option (or at least her written insistence on doing so) compels Zucker, and makes her life possible, as a mother and writer. In the family romance of poetry, Zucker finds formidable ancestors, dedicated sisters, and nurturing uncles, but no mothers.
At times, I wished that Zucker would look for answers outside of the world of poetry. Poetry is good at examining what it feels like to be in a structure that hurts, but it tends to be terrible at examining those structures. I loved the moments when Zucker quoted Adrienne Rich’s insights into the ways that patriarchy conceals and degrades the bonds between mothers and daughters. I wondered what would happen if Zucker had considered Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect, or even Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. But ultimately, the memoir is designed to resist sorting itself out. I trusted the writing because it did not resolve—the book ends with the relationship a jagged edge. The epilogue is deeply disorienting, and her mother’s death disorients Zucker in a way that reveals the stabilizing power she had possessed.
When I finished MOTHERs, I found myself mesmerized by the way that the conflict between Zucker and Wolkstein had, in essence, become their relationship. The fight became the glue that held them together. Ultimately, Wolkstein carves out a place in Zucker’s book precisely because they are fighting. In Jill Lepore’s painfully moving tribute to her mother by way of Jane Franklin, Lepore’s mother never speaks for herself—in fact, we tend to associate the good mother with silence and the home. The good mother sets the stage for her child, but she stays off of it. Zucker is openly embarrassed by her mother’s public persona while remaining respectful of it (simultaneous shame and pride may be the defining features of child/parent relationships). I have never seen an addendum like Wolkstein’s passage. It flew in from another genre, with sentimental metaphors like “The cards are on the table and we can look at this deck that has lots of spades with hearts hidden.” But it also provides a mirror to Zucker. For both mother and daughter, the impulse to protect oneself stands in opposition to the impulse to protect the beloved—or rather comfort and accusation are directed both inward and outward. The two are locked in a combat that can’t end, that can do no more than define its terms, even in death.