by Paige Riehl
100 pages—Terrapin Books, 2018
Review by Jeri Theriault
Like most of us, the narrator of the poems in Paige Riehl’s Suspension plays multiple roles: she is daughter, granddaughter, friend, wife. However, with eight of the forty-five poems in Suspension directly addressing the adoption of her Korean-born daughter, the role of mother takes a central position in Riehl’s collection.
The title poem, well-placed at the collection’s epicenter, offers a meditation on waiting for the adopted daughter. Here the word “suspension” connotes the enforced waiting period of international adoption, and the poem, spread as it is over three-and-a-half pages, suggests the length and uncertainty of this time. The speaker of “Suspension” refers to the vastness of the map and the exactness of distance: “Here is what lies between us: / 6,221 miles.” She also tries to shrink that distance through an imagery that converts the immense, amorphous expanse of geographical and cultural barriers to a tangible language of moveable objects: “across the earth / across the states like jellied candies / on a map.” The narrator-mother also pays close attention to Korean news (“the television is / my portal to your city”) and relates worldly unrest (“the young dictator to your north / moving missiles, liking the sound / of his own voice”) to her very real concern for the daughter she has never met. Riehl emphasizes the cut-off feeling imposed by distance and uncertainty; the daughter is “marooned in an apartment near Seoul” and the speaker is “marooned in a house in Minnesota.” Both mother and daughter are waiting to be rescued.
The collection’s opening poem, “International Adoption Story: It Didn’t Begin,” seems to explain the narrator’s sense of being marooned. Rather than a rational justification for adopting internationally, she offers her own emotional history: she has lost a child (“our baby’s / unborn heart just stopped”), and she herself is an adoptee.
through the brambles of family,
my own blood tree
and the sewn-on branch, the non-blood
(me), adopted (too)
Her language (“brambles,” “blood tree”) deftly suggests the underlying pain of her history, and the parenthetical “(me)” and “(too)” work as visual representations of the “sewn-on branch” of the family tree.
Riehl uses additional “brambles of family” to extend the over-arching motif of waiting. In “Edie Watches the Tsunami from Her Bed at Life Care Rehabilitation Center in Las Vegas, March 2011” the speaker’s 94-year-old grandmother wonders if it is “her time” as she watches the televised story of a tsunami in Japan. She too waits, wanting to return to her trailer and her life, but worried that she is about to die. Indeed, in a sister poem, “Ninety-Fifth Birthday,” the grandmother “longs for the past” even as the future-looking narrator muses about “when we will gather again,” after the grandmother’s death. Another poem, “Muscle-Memory,” describes the speaker’s mother whose feet have become grotesquely distorted. The poet uses imagery, both earthy and global, to describe the mother’s feet: “the roots of trees hugging the earth, all knots / and twisting.” The mother loses her center of gravity and the earth’s “rotation rings in the distance.” Wheelchair bound after surgery, the speaker’s mother waits to accompany her own mother’s body for burial.
Indeed, the idea of waiting, of being held in a liminal or in-between space, is one that pushes beyond the physical borders of geography. Suspension is a poetry collection with a global range, and many of the poems reach to other parts of the world: to France (“In Avignon”), Spain, (“In the Teatre-Museu Dali”) or Australia (“Meeting an Old Lover”). In “Restraint” the speaker is suspended over “parrot fish, blue tang and stingray” as she snorkels a coral reef in Thailand and floats carefully “in this liminal space.” Once again, Riehl reiterates a sense of anticipation: “the moment right before / what could, what might be”.
A touching aspect of this long waiting game, is the narrator’s connection to her daughter’s birth and foster mothers. In “Adoption: Becoming the Verbs,” the narrator acknowledges that adults in two countries “handed you / like a delicate sculpture from one pair of hands . . . into mine.” In “Adoption Webinar,” another poem that traverses the globe, she relates to the birth mother who must sign one more form to relinquish parental rights. “She has not seen her daughter / since birth” and neither of us “has kissed the baby’s face.” The adoptive mother even ascribes her own longing to the woman she will never meet: “This mother / and I are empty flowerpots waiting.” “Post-Adoption, The Naming” offers an end to the waiting and a coda to the adoption process. As she did in earlier poems, the narrator embraces both birth and foster mothers:
We wish so hard—
we as (birth) Mother, (foster) Mother,
This repeated inclusion of the child’s other mothers—of the tenuous webs that bind them—is one of the strongest threads of the collection. Here, again, Riehl uses parentheticals to visually separate “(birth),” “(foster),” and “(adoptive)” from the repeated “Mother” —an echo to the “(me)” and “(too)” in “International Adoption Story: It Didn’t Begin,” suggesting these three women share the same “sewn-on branch” of the family tree. In this final adoption poem, the narrator emphasizes that “we” with italics as she restates the idea of separation and global reach once again:
by black oceans and wrinkled calendars.
by our labels, such heavy coats.
In a way Suspension is a meditation on the patience and borderlessness of motherhood. Both birth and adoptive mothers know the hardships of waiting for a child. They agonize over decisions about children, while they also watch their own mothers grow old. Riehl’s sensitive inclusion of the birth mother and the foster mother, as well as references to her own mother and grandmother, enrich this notion of waiting, making it both more personal and more universal. “Mother” is an action verb, but embedded in its activity is the patient, long-term waiting that begins with anticipating a child’s arrival. Suspension is a touching, thoughtful collection, and one that will stay with me—its carefully wrought lines extending their reach to embrace and expand the many definitions of motherhood.
Jeri Theriault’s latest chapbook, In the Museum of Surrender won the 2013 Encircle Chapbook Contest. Her full length collection Radost, my red was released in 2016 by Moon Pie Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous publications including Beloit Poetry Journal, The Atlanta Review, Rhino, The Paterson Literary Review, The Café Review and The American Journal of Poetry. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Fulbright recipient, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her teaching career included six years as the English department chair at the International School of Prague. She lives in South Portland, Maine.