Elizabeth Switaj, PQ Social Media Editor
Minor Arcana Press, 2014
70 pages, E-book
Milk as metonymy for motherhood is nothing new in poetry, but in her collection, MILK, Natasha Marin makes it new. Milk does not just stand for nurturing but also becomes the medium for the experience of black motherhood in the Americas—from the memories of ancestors and elders to that of the present day, where strangers intrude and connect on social media, and the news reminds mothers-to-be of the racism that will endanger their children. Motherhood in all these time frames includes care, care denied, mundane frustrations, and powerful risks. It is a state both sacred and daily, a nurturance that turns the profane into the holy.
The poems begin with the present; a unified voice speaks of her experience as a black mother. The author’s note at the start of the collection makes it tempting to equate this speaker with Marin, but the publisher’s notice that MILK is a work of fiction reminds the reader that any such conflation is dangerous.
In any case, the voice speaks of injustices in the broader world from the perspective of a mother. “Confinement,” an archaic term for childbirth, becomes a three-poem lyrical indictment of the prison system; childbirth is not a metaphor for imprisonment exactly. Rather, it creates a sympathy between the speaker and the women giving birth as prisoners that allows one experience to be written about in terms of the other. “Pace the chipped edges of yourself, /find muscle behind the bone of it.” Live inside yourself, whether you cannot go out because the bars prevent you or because your body will not cooperate; your self has edges and, thanks to the line break, is an edge and a limit. It can be a world to itself if it needs to be.
At the end of the (Fore)milk poems—the pregnancy pieces—the speaker expresses her fears for her child:
But I know you will be black, little boy.
And the world hasn’t pinched enough salt to make tears for you.
You are barely safe here inside me—
How can I protect you without a halo and wings? (“33 Weeks 5 Days”)
Marin leaves it to the reader to produce the litany of the names of black men and boys killed by the police or by self-appointed neighborhood watch captains. Though intoning these names can be a sacred act, the speaker focuses on her child and how she can best nurture him in a world that has little sympathy for him.
As these events take place in the world at large, the speaker also copes with more mundane challenges. At “32 Weeks,” in a prose poem to match the prosaic scene, a nurse with “gray, shoulder-length hair” apologizes for an over-long wait. “[F]ifty-seven minutes with a Vanity Fair magazine” is a common inconvenience when one visits the doctor’s office, but the piece ends on a hint of something more. “Her Sympathy should be capitalized like the German word for a special kind of silver. I doubt she has any children of her own.” Even a capital sympathy cannot match empathy. Later, in “#postpartum,” lines that read like daily status updates on Facebook or Twitter show how demonstrations of questionable sympathy can intrude. The speaker attempts to write every day about her embodied experience, but on Day 10, “the liberal breast leaks sympathy” and on the following day we get “Qtd: I understand as much as a childless white woman can understand.” The white woman’s demand to be viewed as sympathetic invades the black woman’s experience; the latter’s reflections on her own body are submerged.
The troubling nature of this erasure is amplified by the poems that refer to the many instances in which black women have not been able to breastfeed their own children because they were caring for white women’s children. “Hindmilk” tell of the speaker’s mother “was only able to breastfeed my sister / for seven days before returning to work.” In “Summon your newfound holiness,”
the White Proprietor needs something else—
he asks you twice if you understand
and you begin to understand:
Something sidereal is being siphoned away.
The enslaved mother’s literal milk is drawn away from her and away from her child to nourish the slave owner’s. But the literal milk is not starry: it is the connection between mother and child that burns with sun-like intensity—so powerful it requires its own stanza, even as it is being stolen. In recounting this historical loss, the speaker addresses the mother, her spiritual if not literal ancestor, rather than the audience because it is this woman for whom she has sympathy—a genuine kind born of love that contrasts with the other sympathies.
Such real sympathy allows for the profane and the holy to overlap. An untitled poem begins with the mother asking her husband why men have nipples and ends with them “. . . interchangeable—mother, father— / their sympathy as sacred as a flowering ocean in China.” But that final image of holiness comes out of reminiscence about an episode of Family Guy—a profane television show by any standard. It is the speaker’s willingness to love and sympathize even with cartoon characters that turns a joke about a baby trying to nurse from his father into a sense of sacred similarity.
This blending shows that everyone can nurture. Another untitled piece has the speaker’s sister pretending to feed her via Skype, which brings up a real memory of her sister feeding her. “I ate six hotdogs that day because she fed me.” Nurturance feeds a hunger for more than just food and, as a note at the bottom of the page explains, “By definition, all female mammals can produce milk.” The next poem, “Foremilk” reminds us that even women viewed as dangerous can do this: a wolf saves Romulus and Remus by suckling them.
Nurturance can save, but not if it is a partial milk born of false sympathies. It is not always gentle or easy (as various mentions of blocked ducts show). Milk is the real sympathy, one that comes out of a sense of the sacred that does not throw away the mundane or try to pretend that it somehow erases issues of social injustice. It is hard to define such nurturance, but you know when you have received it because you are no longer hungry, even if you still want better for the world and yourself. And that is where Marin’s poems leave the reader: sustained and open to more.