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October 27, 2013

Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems by Melanie Dennis Unrau

happiness-threadsMotherhood gets written about so often, I think, because we’re all trying to articulate the inexplicable. Edging closer and closer to the point, but never quite getting there, putting the most abstract, complex emotions and feelings into words. But poetry gets close to capturing the subtleties, in its smallness and delicateness, hovering just inches about how it is. I am thinking of Susan Holbrook’s poem “Nursery” from Joy Is So Exhausting, the workings of a mind through nursing marathons, as the baby moves from left to right and back again: “Left: Now that you’ve started solids, applesauce in your eyebrows, I’ve become a course. Right: Spider on the plastic space mobile, walking the perimeter of the yellow crescent moon. Left: Dollop. Right: Now it’s on Saturn’s rights; if it fell off, it would drop right into my mouth.” I am thinking about Sweet Devilry by Yi-Mei Tsiang.

And now The Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems by Melanie Dennis Unrau, which is a collection of poems about making art and making babies, about birth and loss, and about the very strange community that is the online forum. The collection begins with a poem called “my children are not my poetry”: “a mother’s job is to know/ what matters and keep it alive/ a poet’s job is to feel/for a pulse…”

The first section is a series of poems about a miscarriage,a frank and raw exploration of the physical and emotional experiences of it. Of how death amd birth go hand in hand. The second section is about pregnancy, though it seems to be that it’s here that saying these poems are “about” anything becomes a little too simplistic. These poems are curious, puzzling, their imagery not literal and challenging our expectations, surprising us. These poems are pregnancy and motherhood are written with the first section of the book in mind, with an awareness that motherhood has its own dark side of the moon, that it’s love with an outline of pain. This poet knows what the stakes are by now. “the womb is… a nightmare nine months/ of falling no idea what it is/ to land.”

The third section is about birth and babies, though the poem “reclining buddha” contrasts the story of my life (“when you come to my bed with your/ whimpers and needs/ bird mouth searching for my breast/ i know i will hold you the rest of the night/ cup your bald head/ in my hands soft…”) with the story of a Cambodian mother whose grown soldier son returns home to spend a night in bed with her as he had as a child. “another birth story” sets the experience of a woman finding and losing herself through the birth of her child against the language of feminism, women’s studies and academia.

And then “happiness threads”, poems inspired by communication on an internet baby-wearing forum, with all the inane abbreviations that occur in such places. These poems include a glossary, which is telling, I think, how motherhood necessitates a whole new language near unintelligible to the rest of the world. Here, Dennis Unrau captures the shattered nature of a new mother’s existence, these conversational threads written in the dead of night, presumably as baby nurses. And the reader charts the evolution of this mothers experience, as she finds her feet, finds new challenges, redefines herself as a mother over and over again and the world never really does become steady. I love the idea of threads, especially in light of Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and thinking about these women on the internet in the middle of the night and all their literary antecedents thread-wise.

And then section five is “love poems”, whatever is left for the margins, conversation once the dishes are cleared and the kids are in bed. “don’t touch me i growl/ end of a day of cluster feeding/ your need does not move me.” Poems about the people we’ve come from. And then “Holiday”, which is so lovely, celebrating one’s partner in the chaos of it all:

your lullabies and page-turns are white


    i sink

into a book notice later the music

stopped    you asleep together

map in one hand

a flashlight beam on a slack

cheek a moving eyelid


Read an interview with Melanie Dennis Unrau at the Jane Day Reader. 

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