Karen Craigo’s haunting new collection, No More Milk, explores both the abundance and the scarcity that come with motherhood, as well as the ways those two things often intersect. The speaker in these poems is a mother who loves fiercely and without reserve, and even when she has “no more milk,” she still has an unfathomably deep reserve of love, affection, and compassion.
This speaker is at once endearing and self-effacing, often admitting and exploring her inability and lack of desire to be a traditional mother, whatever that might be. In the collection’s first poem, “Down Will Come,” for instance, she says:
I rockabye the baby just
the way you’d rock
a truck from a snowdrift.
There’s a big love at work here in the fraught yet careful rocking, and the connection drawn between two seemingly dissimilar entities—a truck and a baby—is remarkably apt. The poem goes on:
I’ll admit I get by
on the general notion
that any mom singing
Indeed, holiness is threaded throughout this collection. Motherhood is difficult and messy, and it necessarily involves the speaker working with the tools—like her “rumbling” singing voice—that she has most readily available. And yet, in her hands, these imperfect tools become sacred.
If there’s an arc to No More Milk, it moves toward an understanding of the abundance that underlies the process and experience of mothering, even when it seems like everything is disappearing or drying up. The poems transition from guilt to an acceptance of parenting’s complexities. For instance, in “Milk,” the second poem of the collection, the speaker, traveling far from home, hears a baby crying outside her window, even as she feels the last of her milk coming in: “I knew / I should be holding it,” she says of the baby. She connects this baby’s crying to her own milk drying up, to the fact that she and her baby are “near the end.” “Each day / I have less to give,” she says, mourning the loss, bodily and emotionally, of the mother/infant connection. After all, it’s not just the speaker’s milk, but the child-as-infant, and the nature of her relationship with him, that are disappearing as the baby grows.
Near the end of the poem, the mother expresses a glass of breast milk, and instead of dumping it, she drinks it. She says she does this for her baby, for the baby she hears crying in the courtyard, for all babies. One gets the sense, however, that she also drinks it for herself. She is, in essence, nursing herself through this difficult moment, with a compassion that transcends a particular mother and child relationship. The mother taps into a deep sense of care, one that is spiritual in nature and encompasses all beings—including herself.
A poem later in the collection, “Special Money,” captures a similar quandary. The mother, needing money to buy groceries, takes quarters from a folio of state quarters given to the speaker’s son by his grandmother. As the speaker tells us, “Nothing is so special it can’t / be made bread.” It’s a heartbreaking poem because, on the one hand, it involves a kind of theft, and yet, on the other, it’s all about providing nourishment. Like many of the poems in this collection, it straddles that divide between lack and fullness, between taking and giving. In doing so, it blurs the lines between these extremes, demonstrating how motherhood necessitates the most difficult compromises.
The last poem in the collection, “Fruits,” opens with an image of wild strawberries “all along the path,” new and plentiful. But because the speaker’s baby is crying, she pushes on. Back home, she reflects on the abundance of berries she had to leave behind. In the poem’s complicated logic, however, there’s a hint of gain in the remembrance of the berries, in the recounting of them. She imagines that the baby tells her to “go ahead and write” about the berries, about everything that has been lost, that “it’s entirely possible / those berries are already gone.” In other words, only in creating and re-creating can the wealth of motherhood be captured at all.
Craigo is an insightful, lyrical, and compassionate writer who exists and creates on the knife-edge of existence and love. The poems in No More Milk are at once intimate and expansive, and they draw readers into the speaker’s world even as they leave space for us to bring our own worlds with us. Ultimately, this collection goes beyond a meditation on motherhood to become a meditation on human existence, and on relationships more broadly. The poems all have a deeply spiritual component, with the sense that surrounding this one mother and her experiences, there’s a far-reaching, mysterious, grand love. The poems are grounded in this love, whether one calls it God, or a life force, or the universe itself. The earth is a place of abundance and scarcity, giving and taking, presence and absence. Craigo’s poems show us that only in exercising our sacred, creative power to make and remake ourselves, our relationships, and our world is there the possibility of responding with empathy and grace.