by Rachel Zucker
164 pages—Counterpath, 2013
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
Rachel Zucker’s experimental prose memoir, MOTHERs (Counterpath, December 2013), is a nonlinear, often collage-like, account of the author’s fractured relationship with her mother, the storyteller Diane Wolkstein. It is an ambitious, intentionally unruly quest to break free of a stifling maternal and professional legacy through language—a medium shared (though often not willingly) by both mother and daughter. MOTHERs is a story that never wanted to be a story, told—through layers of telling and un-telling, webs of digressions, myths, references, and quotations—by a poet who never wanted to be a storyteller. In Zucker’s account we are brought into headlong confrontation with endless cycles of familial obligation, with the double-edged blades of inheritance: how the gifts parents bestow upon their children so often end up feeling like curses to their recipients. How the curses children heap upon their parents are sometimes gifts in disguise, crucial rebellions that have the potential to set everyone free.
While MOTHERs is a deeply necessary book—cathartic and strange—it is not an immediately likeable one. Zucker opens with a cold, snowy New York evening and a small space of time carved out for writing, away from her children. Her tone is flat in the opening sections. She writes of the anthology, Women Poets on Mentorship, which she coedited with Arielle Greenberg, remembers and misremembers a Sylvia Plath tribute, relays her impressions of Jorie Graham, with whom she studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She layers personal observations between quotations from Alice Notley, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, and her mother; inserts excerpts from interviews and emails. Over and over, she seems to set herself at a distance behind a professional wall, a shield of names. The writing is crisp and precise, but something makes it hard to sympathize with Zucker. Her expressions of vulnerability tend toward self-pitying. Her problems seem a little too privileged, as when she is told she has been accepted to the Iowa Writers Workshop and can’t seem to comprehend the information she has been given. There is a painfully self-conscious aspect to all of the literary references and quotations, a fact Zucker realizes and acknowledges: “There’s something uncomfortable about naming so many names.” And yet she persists. Is she simply name-dropping, using others to prove her own legitimacy? Is she hiding behind names and quotations, assembling them as an army to protect herself from public judgment? Is she mirroring her mother’s narcissistic behavior, creating an audience? Or searching for replacement mothers the only way she knows how: “I learned to cook from a book. Why not find a mother this way?”
Initially, I wanted to find fault with MOTHERs for its insularity, its inaccessibility, and even hypocrisy—for decrying a mother’s narcissism and yet acting it out at the same time. But such criticisms are oversimplifications. This is a book about ego. Insularity is integral to this project. The qualities that make it harder for me to like the book as a person are at the same time qualities that I respect in it as a critic and author, because they are organic devices, literary manifestations of the book’s subject. “Which would she rather be—famous or loved?” Zucker asks about her mother. And often she seems to be asking a similar question of herself and her endeavor: “What does it mean that I am typing up my childhood stories and dreams while my children roam about the apartment in various stages of distress?” How much selfishness should she allow herself in order to complete her goal? And would she rather MOTHERs be an honest and organic work or a likeable one? “Make it happen in the language,” Jorie Graham says to her, as she returns edits on an early poem. “I wanted my poems to enact experience rather than recall it,” writes Zucker. And so her memoir’s weaknesses become inseparable from its strengths—its structure of endless references and self-references and private breakdowns an enactment of its underlying conflicts.
For Zucker, as a poet who is the mother of three sons and the daughter of a renowned storyteller, motherhood and writing are always intertwined subjects, inseparable yet perpetually competing. “Of course writing and motherhood are in conflict. Always,” she writes, and we see her as a child, allowed to sit in the corner of her mother’s study only if she remained perfectly quiet. We see the still-entrenched belief that one cannot both be the loving, effortlessly giving mother (that mother one ought to be) and the solipsistic storyteller. That the qualities required to be a good mother run contrary to the narcissistic, creative force of the writer (as modeled by her own mother): “That she was unpredictable. That she was competitive. That she was selfish, narcissistic, frightening.” We see Zucker’s inability to let go of the myths of good mother and bad mother (or real mother and step-mother, as the stories so often name them). “I always from a very young age wanted to be a mother,” writes Zucker. But when she becomes one, she finds herself unable to reconcile her conception of what it should feel like with the reality of her experience: “The deepest shame, the thought–feeling I could not forgive in myself because I could not forgive it in my real mother, was how often my mind said, ‘I don’t want to be here.’”
Again and again we see Zucker decrying her mother’s legacy as mother and writer. Again and again we see her trying to find a way around it. “I thought, ‘a poet is not a writer.’ I would not be a writer. I would be a poet, which was entirely different.” But always she seems to be pulled toward it as if by an invisible thread. “I did not want to be a writer like my mother. I did not want to be ‘like my mother’ at all. There were many reasons for this. I do not want to write about them.” And yet she does write about them, though she utilizes a disjointed, anti-story approach, a poetics of avoidance:
By making sentences I become her. Do you understand? The beginning, middle, and end of it. And I was always once or am her, in her, of her, after. Yes, shadow. But who is? I used the fragment to avoid. Undermine. Co-opt? Make it not make sense the way she/we expect it. But the audience always mattered/s to me. Eye contact.
Indeed, Zucker’s deviations from traditional narrative are an act of studied rebellion, an attempt to tell her version of the story she shares with her mother in her way. To avoid becoming either story or storyteller, either the mother who creates or the child who is created. The search for alternative forms mirroring the search for other mothers. Zucker writes of searching for another mother in her doula trainer, Ilana. In Peggy, the director of her sons’ day care center. In the work of Jorie Graham and Alice Notley. Always searching for other female mentors, for how to have a mother without having her mother. How to tell the story of her mother without telling a story. And yet, always, her mother surfaces back into her work in accidental, inescapable circles:
I’d written a book based on a book based on a book written by my mother.
Have not gone anywhere.
Away from where the body of my mother is everywhere.
Are stories a gift or a trap? Are they the inheritance of the solipsist? The realm of the narcissist? “I have hundreds of stories inside me,” writes Zucker. “My mother put them there.” People need stories as infants need milk. We hunger for them. They provide a crucial sense of origin, of identity. They heal us when we are broken. They find us when we are lost. But stories also fix us permanently into spaces that don’t quite fit—they generalize or gloss us over or prevent us from breaking free, from changing. They are not so much an accurate representation of what actually happened as what we tell ourselves, what we need others to tell us—a type of mother but never the real mother. “The storifying helps put the self back together but does not accurately describe the experience,” writes Zucker. “ But the story is also all we really have. I can’t tell my story from my self.” In the epilogue she recounts showing MOTHERs to her mother, how her mother urged her not to publish it. How she published it anyway. How Zucker lost her mother, but first made her into a story—held her there, in all her fragments and contradictions, where she could not escape. And how in doing so, she became the storyteller she had never wanted to be.
Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Cutthroat, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, Still: The Journal, Sugar House Review, Weave Magazine, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Coeditor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.