A Space of Sanctuary: Mother Country by Elana Bell

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I started reading Elana Bell’s Mother Country outside of a care facility where my partner’s father (who had become a father to me, too) was on hospice. Given the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was not permitted inside, but I was allowed to stand outside his window. So, I stood, reading Bell’s poems, which offered good company with their careful meditations on life, loss, transformations, and family.

Mother Country, published by BOA Editions last October, provides a tender look into a speaker’s experience navigating her mother’s declining health, losing a pregnancy, sharing her body, and contemplating transformations of all kinds. The book compellingly, and with rawness, explores concepts of womanhood, motherhood, and the pressures or expectations therein—shame, empowerment, and in between. Bell writes in “The Good Years”:

curled my body into hers and rocked to stop the shaking. You’re taking
a mental health day, she said. Like that I was saved. I did not have to
gloss, did not have to curl and spray and hide.

Even if just for the day, the mother offers her daughter refuge from having to perform society’s script for a young woman. The mother figure as a space of sanctuary is a theme throughout the collection.

Bell’s craft-work is both sharp and subtle. There is strong image-making, careful line work, pleasant sound construction, and expert use of space and stanza. You can tell that there is a skilled poet at work without feeling in the poem that there is a poet at work. This quiet control is key in allowing the reader the chance to feel the emotional depths of these poems. One such example is in “Miscarriage” where the plainspoken voice carries the real weight of the experience, as the first stanza considers language, especially around loss:

As if to say a mistake
with the way you carried it,
like a carton of eggs
shoved at the wrong angle
into the grocery bag
or crushed by something heavy.

The layers of disappointments overlapping throughout the collection are conveyed through various poetic forms. A series of prose poems in the collection dive into the multifaceted nature of life, womanhood, motherhood, and death’s various shapes. Considering pregnancy loss, in “Dead Baby” Bell writes, “Listen: the lump of cells gathered in you will never form a tooth, its heart will never beat, its eye will not view this moon or any moon.” And that pain overlaps with the speaker’s mother’s declining health. Naturally, existentially, questions collect across the pages. Like in “Dropping My Mother Off at the Electro-Convulsive Therapy Ward” where the speaker asks: “Who will I follow when she is gone?” It is fitting that in the midst of staggering grief the speaker offers up more questions than answers. It is through the flexibility in space granted by varied forms and through the mode of questioning that the speaker grapples, humanly and with relatability, with this/her existence.

Vulnerability guides the collection. One such example is in the poem “Mother,” where we see a grown daughter caring for (or “mothering”) her mother with bathing, dressing, and perfuming. There is something quite touching in witnessing the child tending to the parent’s most basic needs—like looking through the window to see my own partner feeding her father a bite of cake, a piece of cookie, a chocolate ganache square, or any other sweet. Or, watching her brush back his wisps of white hair and kissing his forehead. Bell writes in “Mother”: “I test the water. Hold her hand as she steps over the rim and close the glass door.” This poem expands to include the way our parents, the way we, change over time or the way life changes us, and how startling or sobering that can be for loved ones. And, consequently, poignantly, the speaker considers this fact of fading at the same time she is growing a new life inside herself. In that same poem, Bell writes of the tulips in Central Park, “…they show no sign they will ever fade. Who could imagine it? They look so hungry—their faces open, their bodies pitched to the light.” Imagery of the natural world provides a most fitting metaphor to describe this confluence of life cycles, as the natural world reflects human nature. We see this in a number of poems in the book, like in “Miracle,” explored below, which also moves within the book’s engagement with the spiritual or mystical.

A thread of invocations, curses, and prayers weave throughout the collection. Because after all, there is great mystery, magic, and the supernatural at play within this life, within transformation, and certainly within the process of growing a human inside a body. My favorite poem in the book, “Miracle,” illustrates this magic of blooming and, powerfully, the miracle spark that keeps us going when we feel we cannot possibly continue— “But something in me, some tiny bulb / still alive under all that rotted wood.” Earlier in the poem Bell writes:

And now I recall being in the grip
of a darkness I did not have a name for
and didn’t think I’d survive. I could try
to describe it for you now: the nights
I woke with my pulse pounding through,
the heaviness of each breath,
how the effort of being inside my body
felt like burning—

The next stanza in the poem tells the reader, “how, in the parch of that long drought, / the people I loved kept bringing me water.” Water, a motif in the book and a basic human need. In some poems we have a speaker nursing and needing to drink more water. Yet, water, with its power to sustain, also, of course, simultaneously carries the power to destroy. I think back to the stunning solo line in “Letter to My Son, in Utero”: “Something had lived in me its whole small life and was gone.”

Elana Bell is a poet of action. She was a finalist for the Split This Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, her debut collection Eyes, Stones gives space to exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She takes up questions of biblical home, Zionist dreams, modern state, and occupied territory. The complexities related to concepts of home and heritage exist, too, and differently, within this most recent collection. Another theme in Mother Country is that of lineage and the way a parent can be the source of much cultural inheritance and the complications within that fact, heightened by the process of losing a parent or when intentionally resisting familial traits or notions. Though the speaker says of the mother in one poem “I feel myself filling her shadow,” in another we get these lines: “Mother, I’ve done what you would never do. / Walked you to the edge, then turned away.” In considering the book’s title, how remarkable that for a time, the mother is the country in which the child resides. Picturing Russian nesting dolls, the poet writes “In the Dollhouse” observing: “(Once, I lived inside the slow curve of her body, ate when she ate, slept when she slept).”

Ultimately, this book communicates various intimacies. Mother Country is in large part about the body. The body, like a country, holds so much, and all at once. So much doubt, joy, pleasure, power, uncertainty, pain, family, beloveds, the individual, the collective. There is life; there is loss; there is miracle. The collective has power to sustain the individual. The individual also harness their own power. Reading this book during a pandemic and in a time of great social transformation, I thought of how Mother Country’s ideas speak universally of the space we hold for collective losses, resistance, and resilience.

Holly Mason received her MFA in Poetry from George Mason University. Her poetry, interviews, and reviews have been published in The Adroit Journal, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, The Northern Virginia Review, Foothill Poetry Journal, University of Arizona Poetry Center Blog, Entropy, CALYX, and elsewhere. She received a Bethesda Urban Partnership Poetry prize, selected by E. Ethelbert Miller. She has been a panelist for OutWrite in DC (a Celebration of Queer Literature) and participated in DC's Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here events as a Kurdish-American poet. Holly is currently on the staff of Poetry Daily and lives in Northern Virginia. More from this author →