"What If Your Mother"

Published by: Chicory Blue Press
ISBN: 1-887344-11-x

Reviewed by: Judith Arcana

Genre: Poetry


The Poetry of One Jane

What If Your Mother is a necessary book. I knew when I first heard author Judith Arcana announce a collection of poetry about being a Jane, a woman in Chicago who was an abortionist prior to Roe v. Wade.I knew that I wanted to read the book. I knew that it would be an important contribution to feminist history. I knew it was a necessary book with necessary history. I didn't know that it would transcend necessity. I didn't know it would be artfully crafted with precise language to illuminate its important stories. I didn't know it was a stunning book until I read it.

The explanation of the title comes in a poem by the same title early in the collection. Arcana addresses the interpropositional relation that is used as a trope in disagreements about abortion. In the poem, Arcana answers the question that is always meant to stump: "What If Your Mother had an abortion?" Her mother did. This poem is one of many in the first section of the book that takes up the political narrative of abortion debates and transforms them into poetry through the infusion of personal and individual stories in poetic form and language.

The second section of the book features dramatic monologues from women who have had abortions, offered by Arcana under the title "Information rarely offered." This section gathers its power from both the individual stories that Arcana captures but also from the sheer power of the gathering of these nine poems together. I believe that Arcana probably has ninety more poems like this. Perhaps one day they, too, will be published.

"Don't tell me you didn't know this" contains additional dramatic monologues but also serves to expand Arcana's review of the human issues involved in abortion decisions. She continues the stories of women who chose to give a baby up for adoption. She speaks as a woman who has all adopted children. She considers new reproductive technology. Each poem shares more stories that illuminate the complexity of abortion beyond pro or anti.

What If Your Mother is a collection of poetry that grapples honestly and intensely with complexity in our reproductive lives. It is broad and generous in its scope moving from the 1950s through the 1990s. It is filled with the voices of many women, demonstrating Arcana's power and wisdom as a poet. There are not easy answers in the book; there is not a simple moral ground. There is a collection of narratives that are woven together in an artful way. There is power in her language.

Finally, I must confess that I cried the two times that I read the final poems of this book. The tears were partly a result of reading the full book from start to finish in two separate sittings; the tears came from the experience of reading the poems layered upon one another, from the impact of absorbing them all together. I consider the tears not a weakness of mine but a praise to the poet. The tears also came from the sheer power of the final two poems. In the second to last poem in the collection, "Yes and No," Arcana begins with

yes; it's true, we killed babies, none of them born yet
none of them born yet to mothers born a tiny while ago themselves
mothers who were their babies' sisters, sharing the very same daddy
mothers with plenty of babies already

Arcana concludes the poem "Yes and No" with these lines:

their mama didn't live with new daddies to make the rent
they never sucked soda pop from rubber nipples on the bus
and they never had to cry in a locked apartment while their mama
said I can help whoever's next when it was never them; no

There is a lot of space between yes and no in Arcana's world, as there is a lot of space between what is legal and what is lawful, between what is needed and what is necessary. The poems in this book expand the space between yes and no and the space in our intellectual and emotional lives.

In the final poem of the book, "She Said" with the epigraph "-before 1973," Arcana captures the voices of multiple women talking to her and I presume many others as "Jane." Their words are words we need to hear. They are filled with grief and pain and hope and confusion and uncertainty. The final words of "She Said" and Arcana's book are from a woman speaking to Jane:

"I could never thank you enough, I'm sure. I know some people say it's wrong, abortion, and that you shouldn't take a life. And maybe we did take a life. But it's all give and take, isn't it? My mother always said that everything comes down to give and take. So I think the baby, today, that was the taking-and me, me in my own life, I think that was the giving."

For me, give and take is indeed what the questions of reproductive freedom are about and also what poetry is about.

Buy What If Your Mother. Read it. Share it with your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your friends. We all deserve to hear it.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and activist living in Maryland. For more information about her work, go to www.JulieREnszer.com.