In her second book of poetry, Kingston, Ontario, writer Sadiqa de Meijer crafts pieces that examine maternity. The Outer Wards disputes conventional notions of maternal instinct, instead conceiving of motherhood as a self one consciously adopts – an identity that has ousted another version and that can itself be ousted at any point.
“I’m foreign, and she is home,” writes de Meijer in the long poem “It’s the Inner Harbour neighbourhood, but everyone calls it Skeleton Park.” In reimagining the familiar as other, de Meijer links mother and daughter in the poem. “Mama, let’s pretend that I’m a stranger to this land, / and I don’t even know what the sky is,” says the daughter as she runs through the neighbourhood, asking questions about the concrete, the ragweed, the rabbits. Exhausted, the mother details the surroundings but is disrupted by her daughter’s observation of them as otherworldly. The poem’s journey through unfamiliarity culminates in a sense of unity: “Our mittens hold hands while she stomps the milk-white / ice of the puddles to shards. / Deep within every landscape, / something is in bloom.”
After reconceiving urbanity as an unusual space, de Meijer shifts to the natural world of the forest. Through changes in perspective, including a bear giving birth to a cub, the poem “Fallen” invites us to view the world from a different angle. In this verse, the transition between modes of seeing is presented as literal rather than metaphorical; of flying, the speaker says, “I don’t mean / that I imagined or dreamed it.” The last lines – “somehow I landed / at last in this bed, earthbound and alone, / wishing I could still speak the bear’s language” – allude to a brush with a different kind of reality that has been cut short but remains crisp in memory.
Sometimes, like with the bear-mother, de Meijer forcibly takes her figures out of themselves, while other times, they are unwillingly trapped in the selves they inhabit. The prose-like “Rehearsal,” for example, is heartbreaking. Motherhood here is juxtaposed with sickness: “I can’t attend your birthday … this was good practice for the real face, / which had a cold, and was in class, / whistle-breathing, labouring over a backwards three.”
De Meijer weaves her theme of overlapping selves throughout The Outer Wards. In “The Mother Shirt,” she writes, “My selves hang like shirts / that were skins – / now I am raw and peaceful. / Life washes over me elementally.” The book’s closing poem, “The Mother Shirt,” nicely sums up the contrast between maternal affection and motherhood’s difficulties.
Kyeren Regehr also ruminates on the self in her poetry. In her debut collection, Cult Life, Regehr upturns the search for oneself by way of a journey to an ashram. “I’m not really leaving, / I promise, indulge me another pilgrimage. / Like my half-baked trip to India, and the crystal healing,” she writes in “Questing.” The flippant, fast-paced poems capture the adrenaline rush of finding yourself in a foreign space.
In “The Master Offers Initiation,” Regehr walks us through the steps required to reach the elusive destination of self-discovery: “You will become perfect, a new mind. Your ecstasy / is the climax of acceleration.” The build-up of fantastical promises of renewal render themselves hollow with every level, each more exaggerated than the last. Regehr speaks the language of promises but weaves in hints of disappointing reality: “You’re protecting yourself / from your own illumination – fall apart!” Her close attention to punctuation changes the tone from dreamlike to forceful and blameworthy, as the desire for the spiritual is shown to be at odds with the reality of actually obtaining it.
Alongside the world of the ashram, Regehr pulls back to meditate on being. In “Scopaesthesia,” she writes, “spectres breaching the water’s skin, / wildly shapeshifting – / mother-child-sister-self – / swooping after her.” The poem’s self-guided journey – which takes the form of a walk in the dead of winter – affords the speaker more mental clarity than does the guidance of the master at the ashram.
While motherhood does not take a central role in Cult Life in the way it does in The Outer Wards, Regehr’s protagonist nonetheless grapples with the subject. “Grandmother Dream” includes the lines: “She waits for me to remember / why she’s not gone, waits for me to wake / and wash my face.” The poem resonates with de Meijer’s “It’s the Inner Harbour neighbourhood, but everyone calls it Skeleton Park”: Regehr similarly articulates the busyness of the world as it appears for someone left with no time to just sit and think.
The Outer Wards and Cult Life take up the turbulent negotiations of motherhood and selfhood, subjects that are pondered while the world continues moving along around the various speakers in the poems.