The figure of the mother is being reignited and reimagined in Canadian letters: 2018 marks the publication of Sheila Heti’s long-awaited philosophical work of autofiction, Motherhood. While Heti debates whether to have or not to have children, Shannon Bramer and Carolyne Van Der Meer write from the other side of this decision, grappling with the multiplicity of roles motherhood necessitates, especially when these mothers are writers. In her review in The New Yorker of Heti’s latest work, Alexandra Schwartz writes, “[p]lenty of writers are mothers, of course. But writing depends on hoarding time, on putting up a boundary . . . between oneself and the immediate world in order to visit a separate one in the mind.” Bramer’s Precious Energy and Van Der Meer’s Journeywoman are collections of poetry which take up the particular challenges posed by motherhood for the writer. How to focus and allocate one’s time in spite of the kaleidoscope of tasks requiring attention? How to be present enough to witness the moments of your life but also find time to hoard in order to process these moments and create language out of them? And how does one cope when illness—in both of these texts, cancer—begins to compromise one’s time and roles? Bramer and Van Der Meer tackle these questions bravely and honestly.
In Van Der Meer’s “I Will Long for This,” the speaker elucidates a singular moment between mother and son with the foreknowledge that it will become an emotional talisman: “the moulding of your scrawny body into mine” presents the tactile and static aspect of the memory, while the child’s escape—“you squirm / then scurry to watch cartoons”—becomes indicative of the temporal tensions of parenting, and of life. Van Der Meer performs extensive etymology on the titular word “journey,” deconstructing the term’s accrued meanings, which hover between forms of labour, travel, and the gleaning of experience, often as they pertain to the period of an earthly day. Her poems excavate the chronological pressure which imposes itself upon the everyday—the attempt to commit oneself fully to a moment, all the while knowing it is liable to squirm away into an unknown future.
Known for her humorous and wry lyricism, Bramer succeeds in her exacting separation of sentiment from emotion. In “A Woman’s Open Mouth,” the speaker educates her daughter on female decorum, widening the spectres of truth and love. “It’s okay to hate me . . . you can love me and you can hate me again,” the speaker states plainly. It is also okay, according to Bramer’s speaker, if love and hate are non-binary and unformulated: “You can have a thought that is a lie / It feels true in your throat.” Bramer’s direct delivery demonstrates her speaker’s capacity for multiple ways of being, behaving, and processing in spite of the seemingly singular roles one is superficially burdened with.