Brace Yourself

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Jennifer Richter’s poems invite us to understand that each of us is a threshold—something pain passes through.

In February of this year, I took a trip with some friends to Colorado. There, I had the good fortune to meet a woman named Holly who snowboards, deals wine, and makes a pungent but delectable fish soup. One evening, Holly prepared dinner the seven of us, and I hung around asking heady questions while everyone else tried to relax. We talked about hot sauce, healthcare, spirituality—and then Holly told me about a meditation group she’d joined. “You know,” she said, turning to me while stirring fish sauce into the curry, “everyone around you was your mother in another lifetime.”

While I like ideas, I also like it when one plus one equals two. I like organized bookshelfs. I count calories. I don’t eat things with four legs. The idea of ubiquitous mothers does not fit well into my rule-based system. Plus, I’ve lived most of my life with an absent mother. So in response to Holly’s statement, I shut my mouth and chopped vegetables, making sure all the chives were the same length.

But like most unsettling things, Holly’s idea took an empty parking spot in my brain, until earlier this year when I picked up Jennifer Richter’s debut poetry collection, Threshold. In poems about birth, death, illness, recovery, and loss, Richter explores themes of a life I have never lived. I have never had children. I’ve never breast-fed a child or nursed a child through an illness. I have never suffered a major illness myself. And yet despite this experience gap, I connected with Richter’s poems more strongly than I’ve connected with any poems I’ve read in the last two years.

From the title poem, “Threshold:”

“You brace yourself. He draws you like this, arms straight out, too stick-thin but the hands are perfect, splayed like suns, long fingers, the hands he draws for you are huge.”

Richter invites us, through the language of the speaker’s world, to understand that each and every one of us is a threshold—something pain passes through. We are resiliant from the moment we are born, mothering ourselves and others always by the very act of allowing life to pass through us. As I read the opening poems of the book, I began to understand, perhaps, what my friend Holly had meant.

Threshold: a point through which things pass.

Perhaps this is also the definition of a poem: something through which time passes. Something which holds a moment, a truth, a reality that time denies as it speeds past, as pages burn and ink smears, as books are digitized and shipped around the world. Perhaps the poem transcends the page, the way Holly’s words transcended my efforts to excise them from my brain. The poem is within us—the poem is us, is what we pass through and is what passes through us. For rather than simply documenting moments in a narrative, Richter captures patterns of grief and their familiar journeys through the body, through society, through time.

From “Recover 5: Now What Do You Do?”:

“The pain is like a child. You marked it first in days, then months. Now years. Your son is five. Today he drops your hand a block before his school. He sprints up the stairs and disappears. Certain doors, you crave to be behind again.”

Richter draws a remarkable connection between pain and children, illness and pregnancy. As the speaker draws lines connecting the grief of loss—loss of a child, loss of the ability to hide, loss of identity—the reader discovers that the only way to operate amid such pain is to view the self as the embodiment of something larger, something out of our petty control, something which flows through us.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, pinpoints this very idea in a speech about “creative genius.” What is left for the artist, after the birth, growth, and release of one’s masterpiece? To view the self as a vessel, the genius as a visitor, masterpiece as a gift.

Threshold: a point through which things pass.

What does it mean to “go through” something? To endure? To birth, endure, abandon? Are we all mothers to our pain, our thoughts, our ideas, our children, our belongings? The common denominator Richter pinpoints in Threshold is our inability to control those things which we first capture, but then grow to need. All things contain their own perceptions, their own patterns, their own lives; our grief is in the fact that we live, that we, too, are worlds through which things pass. Things—people, children, mothers—have choices, sometimes grow indifferent, sometimes no longer need us. Acknowledging ourselves as thresholds, we mother. At the first loss, we mother.

As Richter puts it: “Thresh, hold: separate the seeds, gather them back.”

How do we endure illness, pain, emotion, one another? Though Richter explores concentrated themes, her poems speak widely. We can all find ourselves—as mother and child, illness and host, clock and time—in this extroardinary collection of poems and moments, this orchestra of throughness, of threshhold. This mother.

Megan Casella Roth is an Alabama poet, a Michener Fellow at the University of Miami, author of The Green Guide to Daily Living, and always laughing at More from this author →