Judith H. Montgomery, Litany for Wound and Bloom (Uttered Chaos)
With her 2018 collection, Litany for Wound and Bloom (Uttered Chaos,) Judith Montgomery claims her place in the lineage of poets whose work takes motherhood as both subject and perspective. These poems arise from an acute and intimate awareness of the body. We are first and last sensual beings and the experiences of conception, pregnancy, childbirth and mothering amplify this truth. The book opens with a reminder to the reader, a summons into body awareness: “Once / elected, there’s no turning back from // the body’s habit, which is to say habitation….” (“What You Were, Before,” p. 1) What is the body’s habit? To be delighted by the sensual world: “crush // of marzipan upon the tongue, / ooze of cool mud between toes // in August’s sweat-dogged days, / even blood’s salt sting licked from // the paper cut—all addictive.” Montgomery’s ear for music, mind for irony, and empathic heart make for a heady, satisfying reading experience.
Motherhood is nearly synonymous with loss. In the first section, “Womb,” the poems take a microscopic look at loss, cataloging barriers to conception: “The nest / blebs, falters, looses its hold. Leaf-fall begins. Wind / sweeps the garden bare. There is no baby in this poem.” (“Apoptosis,” p. 2) These poems heighten our awareness of the arbitrariness behind our existence. In “D & C,” a woman undergoes that procedure following a failed pregnancy: “Duck and cover, she thinks when the doctor / speaks—and flickers to first-grade…diving / under shelter of the child-sized desks….” (p. 5) Humor gives way to pathos: what kind of world would the longed-for child have inherited? The remembered threat of nuclear war intensifies a sense of contingency, the thin threads upon which our lives hang.
Montgomery examines cultural norms and expectations regarding motherhood. In “Expectant I” the speaker declares, “High-degree’d at last, I // am delivered of a paper- / white palimpsest of words.” (p. 3) How lovely and sly, employing the word “deliver” in this poem of self-doubt—there’s no baby here either, but rather a record of achievement which isn’t somehow enough. Graduation is shadowed by “the bone / desert of my pelvis, its // alkaline flats, its cradle / of refusal—” Unless and until she bears a child, this speaker’s accomplishments feel barren, culture and biology insisting on motherhood as the mark of true achievement. The same speaker returns in “Expectant II”: “Quickening at last…” and so “laying the heavy hood away.” (p.13) She enters “hallow, from hollow, / not scholar, but mother—” Achieving the culturally sanctioned position of mother, she puts away scholar-hood, motherhood ever about tradeoffs, expectations presented less as choices than demands.
Of course, women don’t bear children only because culture demands it. For many women, though not all, the imperative is both biological and emotional. Motherhood is challenging, satisfying and exhilarating. It is also terrifying, the child so like us yet terrifyingly him or herself. The poem “Night Terrors” begins
He is standing, screaming. Shaking
the rail of the blue-shadowed crib
again. Eyes glazed. Opaque.
Open, but not to you or the lop-
eared rabbit or the paper-folded bird
gliding white above the nursery lamp. (p. 15)
The child, so close, yet is unreachable. Especially stunning is the juxtaposition of imagined child, figured by rabbit and bird, with the actual child whom the speaker-mother cannot “fetch home.” Deft line breaks increase the tension.
Late in the collection, a speaker-mother appears with her son before a judge charged with assigning “custody, the legal keeping / of this child, over to the State: // the only path left to treatment, / to a house of healing for his anarchy.” (“A Blessing,” p. 57) This heartbreak isn’t what any mother expects when she’s expecting. But this poet refuses to look away from difficulty—rather, she locates poetry in the heart of it. Lastly, the poem “But You My Son” finds a speaker-mother fully imagining the scene in which a nurse acts quickly, decisively to save her son, “starting not to survive, vitals / slumping on a distant/monitor, life // swifting away….” The nurse, arriving in time, “fingers the anti- / septic spot, and thrusts / the sharp straight // into that failed muscle, speeding vivid / liquid home….” (p. 69) The poem allows the speaker-mother to inhabit the scene of her worst fear, achieving release, if not peace.
The heartbreaking “Tomoko Uemura And Her Mother In The Bath” takes up and complicates the theme of loss. After a photograph by W. Eugene Smith, the poem describes the girl and her mother floating in a traditional Japanese soaking tub: “the two / bodies crossed in eloquent / echo. Look and look / away from this Pietà— / from contorted form— / the naked and damaged daughter—at 15, ever breastless. / Whose ribs plainly strain / beneath her taut / skin.” (p. 40) Built of stanzas with staggered lines, the poem seems itself to float. Crisp images and section-breaks anchor it on the page and in the body of the girl damaged by prenatal exposure to heavy metals “discharged directly in Minamata River.” The girl’s mother, Ryoko, is both participant in and witness to this injustice: “…who chose place and pose, a deliberate/testament to doubled suffering.” She is the Madonna re-imagined for our times, our world—suffering, yes, but also exposing the wrongs and claiming moral authority over Chisso Company, corporate perpetrator of this crime.
In section two, “Word,” Montgomery investigates received images of women, religious, mythic and cultural. “Having Vanished” undercuts conventional interpretations of the Annunciation, instead emphasizing Mary’s loss of self-determination, her entrapment in a role—bearing a child whose death she must witness. The poem’s painterly language recalls the many artistic depictions of the scene:
as though she’d been branded.
Claimed. Nothing lies empty
here: not the numinous chamber,
not the rebudburst of her womb,
nor the seared box of her heart,
which flutters its singed petals
like sparrow wings—frantic,
netted. Only the angel escapes. (p. 23)
Mary, unnamed here, becomes Every Mother, caught in motherhood’s ambiguities, where expectation meets reality. The poem challenges this relic of patriarchy, its silencing and constriction. “Her Silence Is” names some of the many ways women’s bodies have been quite literally molded by culture, from bound feet to hair coverings, hobble-skirts to chadors: “Both bandage and wound. Glitter / and mesh that nets her tongue. // Is calling. Witness. Refusal. // Is shame. Cinch: apron string, crib.” (p. 27) So have women been “put in their place,” as objects of desire, doting mothers, housewives, forces that must be controlled, kept under wraps.
Poems in the book’s final section, “Witness,” continue pressing outward, grappling with the loss of young lives to violence, terrorism, war, accident. The close examination of motherhood allows the poet to embrace radical empathy Every soldier, terrorist, torturer is first some mother’s child. Mothers and children alike are marked by loss: “Paradise, exile marked / by cord or cuttery, first of many leave-takings…the child setting off to school or work or war, knapsack // stuffed with books and cautions….” (“Bearing/Bearing Down, p. 52) Women release their children to the world not knowing who or what they will become, what challenges await, where their deaths will meet them. “Gassed” looks closely at John Sargent’s painting of the same name depicting soldiers returning from the trenches in WWI and discovers a startling truth: “As far as some / eyes can see—the artist’s / yours: these are boys….” (p. 60) The poem decries and mourns wasted young lives even as its poetic energy summons those same lives. Witness and humanitarian, this poet meets the world’s troubles head-on, daring us to look unflinchingly with her.
Sara Burant has had book reviews published in Omniverse Journal, Heavy Feather Review, and Texas Borderlands Poetry Review.