Book Notes: Nobody’s Mother

Northampton poet laureate Lesléa Newman is the author of more than 50 books of poetry and prose for children and adults, including the poetry collections Still Life with Buddy and Signs of Love. She was one of the first authors to write children’s books for gay and lesbian families, the best known of which is Heather Has Two Mommies.

Her latest poetry collection for adults, Nobody’s Mother (Port Orchard, Wash.: Orchard House Press, 2009), is an autobiography in verse, narrated in a likeable voice that will resonate with a wide audience. Its themes include feminism, aging, the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, and nostalgia for Jewish culture along with a critique of its patriarchal and warlike aspects. Along the way, Newman offers such delights as an ode to Manhattan’s now-shuttered Second Avenue Deli, and a playfully erotic exploration of middle-aged love.

Newman is closely attuned to the duality of our core experiences–our love-hate relationships with God, tradition, family, and our own bodies, to name a few. In the first section, “Nobody’s Mother”, she portrays her own mother’s emotional unavailability and resentment of her children, with a sharp eye and a wounded heart. At the same time, the author demonstrates compassion for her mother, seeing her from a feminist perspective as one of many women forced to choose between parenthood and personhood.

Other poems in this section reveal that Newman made the opposite choice. Her pride in her independence mingles with tender sadness for the daughter she will never have. “The Bad Mother” could be about either the narrator or her mother, depending on how it’s read:

…The bad mother never
thought she had
what it takes
to be
a good mother

The bad mother never
let her daughter
out of her womb
to prove
that she was wrong

The book’s second section, “A Real Princess”, sketches the characters of her Jewish family: the beloved dog, the aunts playing mah-jongg (“Company”), the distant father whose one effort at family closeness (“How to Make Matzoh Brei”) is treasured more than the mother’s daily unsung labors. However, amid these cozy scenes, the girl-child is also learning to associate her body with shame and danger. While the aunts gossip and laugh downstairs, the narrator is listening with dread for the sound of her older brother’s knock on her bedroom door:

…”Want company?” he asked
and though I never answered
he came in anyway
and did what older brothers often do

to younger sisters too ugly to date
while their father sleeps
and their mother laughs
and the telephone doesn’t ring

In the third section, “Classy Dame”, Newman engages in feminist midrash, fighting to inscribe her experience in the Jewish texts and traditions that are an inescapable part of her identity. The poem “Minyan” conveys how her grief at her grandmother’s death was compounded by the rule that women do not count towards the quorum of ten mourners required for the Kaddish.

…Dear God,

if a woman sobs
at her grandmother’s grave

and there’s no one there
to hear

has a sound
really been made?

In “What the Angel Really Said”, Newman turns the binding of Isaac into a classic Jewish comedy routine with an edge, using humor to puncture the patriarchal arrogance that sacrifices human beings to abstractions:

…Abraham, I’m warning you
unless you loosen the ties that bind
right this very minute
I’m going to have to declare you
an unfit parent. I’m going to have to
call the authorities who are going to have
to call the Department of Social Services
who are going to have to place the boy
in foster care and then may God
have mercy on his soul.
Already he’s going to spend
the next two hundred years
in therapy kvetching about his father
the meshugeneh who tried to kill him
because he loved some God
he had never seen
more than he loved his own flesh and blood.

Newman here creates an alternate mythology of original sin, suggesting that the root of our present evils is not disobedience to an arbitrary command but rather the opposite, the failure to recognize that human love is the truest expression of what God wants. Though her lesbianism plays a surprisingly small role in this book, this way of reading the Bible seems informed by our contemporary struggles over sex and gender in our religious institutions.

The last section, “Age Before Beauty”, includes often-whimsical homages to role models who have helped Newman love herself as a middle-aged woman. These range from literary icons Grace Paley and Virginia Woolf to a majestic, weathered old tortoise that she once saw crossing the road. It’s a hopeful ending to a collection that bravely explored some dark places.

Below, reprinted with permission, is “The Woodgatherer Speaks”, one of the book’s strongest poems about the intersection of faith and power. I love how it connects scapegoating to the reminder that there’s always so much we don’t know about a person, or a text, or (especially) God. Mob violence is the opposite of the humility that allows a multiplicity of voices.

The Woodgatherer Speaks

Once when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the
sabbath day. Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron
and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should
be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community
shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp
and stoned him to death—as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-15:36)

It was a sunny day
It was a cloudy day

It was early morning
It was late afternoon

I was gathering wood to build a fire
to warm myself

I was gathering wood to build a fire
to cook myself a meal

I was gathering wood to build a fire
that was never lit
yet burns for all time

I still tasted the bitterness of slavery
and did not care about keeping the Sabbath

I cared about keeping the Sabbath so much
I sacrificed my life so others would remember

I was selfish
I was self-less

Some say my name is Tzelofechad
and my five brave daughters
Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah and Tirtzah
are my legacy

Others insist I am a nameless man
known only for the worst thing I did
on the worst day of my life

Here is the truth:

I was gathering wood on the Sabbath Day
I was warned three times to stop

I was gathering wood on the Sabbath Day
no one said a word

I was brought before Moses and Aaron
They put me in custody
Then Moses spoke with God

God said to Moses, Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy
God said to Moses Thou shalt not kill
God said to Moses Take this man outside the camp
Have the whole community stone him to death

Moses said to God
Pardon the iniquity of this man
according to Your great kindness
as You have forgiven the people Israel
ever since Egypt

Moses said: nothing

When I heard my fate
I stood still as a stone

I was struck first
by a rock
the size of the apple
Eve shared with Adam

I was struck first
by a small pebble
that was later placed
on my grave

The first stone
was thrown
by the hand of a stranger

The first stone
was thrown
by the hand of a friend

The first stone
was thrown
by the hand of my daughter

The first stone
was thrown
b’ yad Moshe

The stones came hard and fast as rain
The stones came slowly, a lifetime apart

I stood upright
I fell to the ground

I cursed God
whom I did not believe in
I prayed to God
whom I loved with all my heart

As I lie on the earth
bruised and broken
a grasshopper leapt near my face
looked into my eyes
and sang a song so sweet
it broke my heart
and healed it

The grasshopper died beside me
The grasshopper hopped away

My life ended thousands of years ago
I am alive today

I gather wood on the scrolls of your Torah
I dance on the fringes of your tzitzit
I wander through the corners of your mind
as you sit in shul on Shabbat
and contemplate
the meaning of your life
the meaning of mine