Kate Hanson Foster’s “Crow Funeral” enters the world of motherhood, the intimacy of the relationship between mother and dependent young children and how woman can lose their own identity in becoming mothers and struggles, particularly with mental health, to overcome.
In the title poem, “No one notices the dead crow/ alongside the road, soft underbelly exposed,/ neck broken from the fall.”
“And how the earth goes on breathing, stubborn
in its own perpetuity.……… We let our voices explode
between us. The TV glows and hums, an ongoing
procession of make meaning, make me
understand.……….. Why can’t we put our finger on this
and drag it back, like an oil slick across a computer screen?”
“we have to stop counting.……….. There will be something
new to cry out for. Something else to gather
and dress us all in black.”
We don’t think about death or avoid thinking about death until it happens. It creeps up, unnoticeable until there’s a body with no breath. The world around us has the audacity to keep on going when we need a breather for grief. But death doesn’t take a break either. Not tallying up the dead keeps us seeing each death as individual, not part of a greater pattern. Not seeing the greater pattern leaves us vulnerable to either making the same mistakes over and over or falling into despair and not acting. The crow could be literal or a metaphor for the death of a part of someone where the loss is grieved, but not acted on so it tips the individual into depression.
Mothering a newborn starts with tenderness, in “Swaddle”, a baby boy swaddled in a blanket becomes,
“a little bud before the push,
a bird egg back inside
the nest, head peeping
out. Eyes that say this is all
just the beginning.
It is crucial that we get it right.”
Swaddling wraps the baby back into a womb-like state, signalling it is safe, he is cradled, a precious bundle. However, the poem suggests there’s no room for trial and error, the relationship has to be perfect from the beginning. But where does the pressure come from? The baby is unlikely to remember whether he was correctly swaddled. But still the speaker feels is “crucial” to get right. Is this pressure the mother puts on herself or pressure from experts who breezily tell mothers there’s one right way of doing things with dire consequences if done wrong or society that expects mother to submit to the needs of a demanding newborn, ignoring her own?
Magpies are part of the corvid family and some poems follow the magpie nursery rhyme, “One for sorrow, two for joy,” etc. In “Three for a Girl”,
“I make your name a sound to save you
from the anomalies on your sonogram.
Three cysts in your brain.
The doctor points to the darkness in the photo,
fluid looming like thunderheads between cells.
There is nothing we can do
but wait, he says. Wait—a tongue
and mouth slap word.
Pregnancy is wait. Test results
are wait. I wait through trimesters
like an anvil cloud eating the updraft.”
Myths around pregnancy create the spell that’s it’s a happy time of glowing and waiting for a bundle of joy. Even though it’s a time of change and anxiety, extra strain on a mother’s body and pains such as rib flares and nausea. It’s also a long time to wait if something wrong shows on a sonogram. Wait and see might be the right advice but it’s also one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow. Certainly not a piece of advice to reassure an anxious mother-to-be. Here, there was a happy ending.
Another magpie rhyme poem, “Seven for a Secret”, quoted complete,
“I check all the right boxes
on the questionnaire—
I do not want to hurt
myself or others. I am not
scared. I do not cry
all the time—panic for no good
reason. I am sleeping.
I look forward to the enjoyment
of things. I hand the clipboard
through the glass window
and smile, and a reflection
slides back, faintly female,
rat hair rising with the upwind.
I would never blame myself.”
The stigma attached to post natal depression and associated mental illnesses discourage the speaker from ticking boxes that might trigger a diagnosis. Even if a mother needs help, the stigma of not being good enough or worse, the risk of separation from baby while treatment is underway, doesn’t encourage mothers to be entirely honest. The questionnaire is tick box medical supervision that relys on a mother self-declaring her struggles instead of hiding them and pretending everything’s fine. It’s not fine, but it’s better than admitting and attracting the wrong kind of attention.
Later “Cockcrow” contains the assertion “I was a mother” and ends “I was I was I was.” It’s not clear why the speaker uses past tense. The tattoo of “I was I was I was” echoes Plath’s “old brag of the heart, I am I am I am” as if the speaker is not convinced but trying to convince herself.
“Depression Cento” uses source lines from A R Ammons, Carolyn Forche, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, Robert Hass, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ann Lauterbach, H Leivick, Mina Loy, Muriel Rukeyser (not necessarily in the quoted extract),
“There is no other way to say this:
I am in the thrall of bony whiteness—
how several madnesses are born—
a season dry in the fireplace—this strange
church I am building, excited
by wind, the sudden feel of life—to be
redeemed from fire by fire.”
Motherhood is not a bed of roses or at least it’s a bed that’s heavy with thorns among the rare blooms. It’s one that demands a mother gives up and later refinds herself as the baby becomes more independent. For mothers who already have careers and roles other than mother, redefining themselves is never easy. Not helped when others refer to you as “mum” and refuse to use a mother’s actual name, triggering a battle to regain self-hood and find the roles that the mother used to have or re-invent the mother’s self to fit a new life.
“Tapering off of Clonazepam” (clonzepam is used to treat panic disorders as well as seizures and involuntary muscle spasms) ends,
“I want to shelter my family
from the storm, I can no longer be the storm.”
A mother’s recognition that post-natal depression has coloured her view and sense of priorities. It’s not her fault though. She always wanted to shelter her family, but had to find her way through her loss first.
“Crow Funeral” looks at the darker underbelly to maternity and motherhood. The pressures on mothers to be perfect, to be self-less and centre the lives of their children even when they lack support and dare not seek help due to stigma and fear. The use of nursery rhyme is appropriate and interwoven within other poems, a reminder that fairy tales and rhymes for children also have a darker side: behavioural advice for a dangerous world. Kate Hanson Foster writes without judgment or sentimentality. These are loved and desired children of a mother doing her best not to lose herself but to find a way of combining being a self-less mother while also retaining individual personhood.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.
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