reviewed on December 1, 2022
Among the more forceful aspects of Nancy Reddy’s Pocket Universe is its deconstruction of those cultural rhetorics with which contemporary notions of motherhood have been articulated. Against idealized representations of—and expectations for—the American mother, Reddy poses the ambivalences, ambiguities, and uncertainties which in fact confront this figure, refusing as she does to sanitize her own experience of motherhood.
“I’m speaking also of my swollen / lumpen tits,” Reddy writes in “My Sentimental Baby,” “the spit and lanolin, the leaking / milk that’s dried around the aureola […].”
Far from the épater le bourgeois feminism of the MFA program, Reddy lays bare in passages like this the unacknowledged realities that confront mothers both during and after childbirth; in doing so, she refuses not only the deceptive sentimentality of contemporary parenting and medical industries—one hardly finds “his rattlesnake jaw, the latch/ that hooks my whole nipple” in What to Expect When You’re Expecting—but also, of course, western culture’s deeply rooted romanticization of motherhood, a rhetoric reaching back among its other sources to Gaia, Romulus and Remus, and the Virgin Birth.
Mindful of the ways in which, in such tropes, mothers have been allegorized and abstracted, their bodies appropriated, Reddy reclaims the language of motherhood with striking immediacy. “I built / this baby in my body from nearly nothing,” she writes, “and nursed him with the milk my body made. / I’ll use the words and tools I have at hand.”
Even as she returns insistently to the mothering body, however, Reddy situates that body within a broader cultural and rhetorical field, juxtaposing historical notions of motherhood, for instance, with contemporary celebrity culture and its appallingly idealized, even dangerous, portrayal of post-partum experience. “Two months after giving birth, / Heidi Klum walked a catwalk in angel wings,” Reddy writes in “Your Best Post-Baby Body.” “Tori Spelling joined Jenny Craig and lost the weight. J. Lo did her first triathlon / 7 months after giving birth to twins.”
These mothers are one mother, Reddy suggests, an avatar produced and disseminated by powerful culture industries which have found in motherhood, as in the “wellness” movement, one more exploitative and anti-democratic economy. Reddy laments such a state of affairs, as she does the internalization in American culture of post-partum weight loss, embodied in Pocket Universe in “[a]ll the / Instamommies who are photogenic / even in calamity.”
Reddy is at her best in this mode—fierce, unflinching, yoking an explicit feminism to an understated critique of American capital.
Yet Pocket Universe is hardly without joy, its exploration of motherhood exultant and excoriating at once, celebratory as well as censorious. Across the collection, Reddy reveals—and revels in—the mysterious plasticity of love, heralding in related ways the wonder of existence at both the cosmic and domestic level. “That we’re here at all,” she writes in “Goldilocks Zone,” “the right distance from a right-sized star […] is an accident/ of the most fantastic luck.” Later, astronomical contingency anticipates the vagaries of human connection: “I stood on the stone patio between classes and bummed cigarettes / from a handsome serious man just so, as he passed the pack of Marlboros, / I could touch his hand. Now you are one half // of the best of each of us.”
Vertiginous in its movement, intimate in its disclosures, Pocket Universe offers a welcome corrective to idealized and ultimately injurious notions of motherhood. The collection is remarkable poetry, but it may also be one of the most important parenting books on the market.