Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility by Anna Laura Reeve
As the gerund in its title suggests, Anna Laura Reeve’s debut poetry collection Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility (Belle Point Press, 2023) presents motherhood not as a discrete achievement, but as a continuous journey, a shore that seems to forever recede. Just as fulfilling as it is frustrating, motherhood provides Reeve’s fecund imagination with a metaphorically rich subject even as it disrupts her creative routine, making 6:15 AM her “only space to think.” In the opening poem “Ars Poetica,” she carves out writing time before she has to “wake [her] daughter, make the lunches” While the speaker of these poems is a new mother who often feels confined to the home, Reeve shows us the rovings of her mind as she meditates on the sprawl of her southern Appalachian surroundings and the swerves in her desires as she thinks back on how things have changed pre- and post-pregnancy, her prayers for a missed period turning into hopes for a night of unbroken sleep. Despite these leaps through time and space, Reeve maintains a formal integrity and crispness of image that is reminiscent of her best confessional predecessors. With a crown of sonnets, a postnatal survey, as well as poems with shifting stanza lengths and neat couplets, this collection is highly aware of its various forms and uses them to rewrite the myths of poetry and motherhood—the old, stale, clichés are cut away like a fairy tale heroine’s “tower-long braids,” leaving her “elastic and alive.”
One such myth that Reeve dispels is that of the mild-mannered mother who suffers quietly and gracefully in her well-ordered home. Dealing with rugs covered in hair and crumbs, “serving bedhead chic” when she leaves the house, and rage-pacing when she should be “humming lullabies” to her child, Reeve’s speaker paints motherhood as the Sisphyean and thankless task it often is. She is also not afraid to voice feelings of disconnect and uncertainty in terms of her relationship with her newborn. For instance, in “The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale,” a poem that formats itself based on a popular diagnostic survey, she wonders why her baby turns feverish lying atop her body “when she was robed in it” just a few weeks earlier. In “Exile,” she asks, “How do I find my way, / winter of seclusion, nosebleeds, / and this baby who / is always with me.” The distance here between mother and child is palpable in the demonstrative pronoun “this” and heightened in contrast to their constant physical proximity. Expressing dissatisfaction and acknowledging moments of alienation and fear of inadequacy, Reeve reminds us that mothers, too, need to follow self-protective impulses and defy the unrealistic standards that they are often held to. Taking up her pen, the poet-mother practices self-love on the page, releasing “the complaints of the husband and whining of the child…like balloons” as she works to find that special solitude that Woolf strove for in A Room of One’s Own.
Reflecting Reeve’s meditations on motherhood are images of the natural world and its cycles of growth and degradation. In her crown of sonnets “For Southern Appalachia,” interstitched stanzas depict an environment full of “budding, breeding things,” foliage like the “fleshy jaws” of bilabiate corollas and lavender’s “phalanx of stems,” which, in their lush complexity, tease the speaker who wants so badly to bring her own offspring into the world. In other poems, the speaker sees nature as a vehicle for change and reinvigoration, standing in contrast to the staleness of her domestic existence. In “Every Year, Another Invitation to Change Your Life,” this is shown through protean images of leaves that fall “like snowglobe storms” then go on “shimmying like flappers / or rocking like congregants catching the spirit, / hands high above their head.” Nature, in this way, comes to represent the ever-changing soul which, in the allegorical poem “The Work of Mothers,” passes from one train car to another, becoming beautiful then withering as it “practices death and rebirth.” We also, in many poems, see Reeve blur nature and the domestic in surprising and pithy ways, such as when she describes the “green troll hair / of onion grass which pocks [her] lawn” and “Breaks in winter clouds / like grease films in dishwater.” These images show us how household responsibilities stalk her in those brief respites where she tries to relax in her yard or drive to the park. This psychically hemmed-in feeling appears again at the end of “Entrapment,” in which Reeve describes her artistic duty as akin to “leaning at this wall of windows in my forehead // cutting the paint that seals them shut / with a razor.” Showing a desire to cleanse her perception, these lines depict Reeve slowly peeling away at psychic grime and spiritual rot to reconnect with the hardiness and vitality of her home region.
With a skillful balance of humor and melancholy, Reeve, a winner of Beloit Poetry Journal’s 2022 Adrienne Rich Award, distills the plight of the poet-mother as a conflict between the child’s desire to return to the womb and the artist’s desire for solitude and self-reflection. Throughout the collection, the reader finds themselves circling Reeve’s eloquent monostich in “The Mad Mother Envies a Window,” wherein she states, “The artist who is a mother splits herself in two.” She is not only charged with loving and protecting her child but also retaining a sense of selfhood by demarcating space within her day where she can be free from household chores and that child who “adheres to [her] like a burr.” To be the best poet and mother she can be, she needs rest, self-forgiveness, and to occasionally find that refuge that only a blank page has to offer, holding fast to the belief that “a task— / as momentous as comforting the child / …is taking the needles of your craft and stitching / yourself together.”
ANTHONY BORRUSO is pursuing his Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Florida State University where he is a Poetry Editor for Southeast Review. He has been a Pushcart Prize nominee and was selected as a finalist for Beloit Poetry Journal's Adrienne Rich Award by Natasha Trethewey. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Pleiades, Spillway, The Journal, THRUSH, Gulf Coast, CutBank, Frontier, and elsewhere.
ANNA LAURA REEVE is the author of Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility (Belle Point Press). Winner of the 2022 Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, The Journal, Salamander, and others. She was a finalist in the 2023 Greg Grummer Poetry Contest and the 2022 Ron Rash Award, and is getting into tarot part-time. She lives and gardens near the Tennessee Overhill region, traditional land of the Eastern Cherokee.