Book Review

poetry by Anna Laura Reeve
Belle Point Press, 2023


Anna Laura Reeve’s stunning debut book of poetry, Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility (Belle Point Press), takes the reader exactly where the title implies. It imagines a single maternal body as landscape in inventive ways that move far past early male interpretations of the female body (the Blazon, for instance, where a woman is made into an object piece by piece). It becomes something else, a fierce act of claiming the female domestic “I” within the history of men writing about the pastoral or the body. From the very beginning, the reader is placed into this body as landscape, the landscape (in this case Southern Appalachia) becomes the body. Reeve’s dual landscapes are mined and harvested, split in two, used for resources, left to rebuild, and, ultimately, capable of growth. 

From the beginning, the central subject of this book is early motherhood. This is most evident in the second poem, Reeve’s award winning “The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale,” which is built on the questions every mother (myself included) is asked in order to identify postpartum depression. This poem, as it answers questions with landscape, with the world of being a new mother, sets the tone for the entire collection in both subject and form. Reeve expertly plays with texts and structures in traditional and non-traditional ways. Images of the postpartum period in this book are raw and visceral, on par with the honest portrayal in books like Nancy Reddy’s Pocket Universe, and Julia Fine’s novel about postpartum psychosis, The Upstairs House. This is an unflinching look at motherhood, one that we are often encouraged to forget; as mothers, one that is easy to forget in the haze of that period. Reeve resurrects these feelings in gorgeous images. In “Driving the Baby” she describes “scarlet and salmon fabric roses tufting / the snow-covered graves / as we glide by in our elevator / of glass.” The reader’s eye is continually turned inward and outward to experience the “Exile” where “Even watching the birds is denied me, / even walking by the river.” 

Reeve expands on other books about the postpartum period by blending in the landscape of fertility, which is linked closely with Appalachia. Images of hackberry, a farm whose “seedlings keel over,” branches, buds, and birdsong, Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in Appalachia are juxtaposed with the personal. Reeve expertly tilts her camera to both fecundity and barrenness, the act of sowing seeds in the land and in the body. We are funneled through the seasons in these poems. Things should grow and do, eventually, but no growth comes easily or lasts. The section ends with the sonnet crown “For Southern Appalachia.” The choice of that form is fitting. Its repetition and connections feel revelatory of the thematic connection between the female pregnant body and Appalachia, both victims of what Reeve calls “this shameless nectar-robbing.” Things like climate change and regrowth after mining are all equated with the pregnant body, making the reader consider these connections for both their illuminations and limitations. 

The pandemic, combined with the often-isolating nature of pregnancy and rural life, makes a body slow down, observe the smaller elements of nature, and fight for survival of the self. In these poems, there’s a quietness and observation of smaller creatures, the desire to grow and save something in a world which feels chaotic internally and externally.

This is also a book about the pandemic, a thread that situates the reader in time, but also, like everything in this book, feels metaphoric and closely tied to the renewal of the earth through another kind of destruction, which is also true of pregnancy and its effects on the body. The pandemic, combined with the often-isolating nature of pregnancy and rural life, makes a body slow down, observe the smaller elements of nature, and fight for survival of the self. In these poems, there’s a quietness and observation of smaller creatures, the desire to grow and save something in a world which feels chaotic internally and externally. Even though, as in “First Sugar Moon of the Pandemic,” Reeve says, “This is not a poem about survival,” in many ways, the book is hinged on surviving all of it.  

Throughout, there are many birds populating the landscape. Birds can feel cliché in poems, but not here. Reeve’s birds show the real dangers of the natural world. Each piece of nature used is a reflection on the pregnant or attempting to conceive body, which is also multifaceted and sensual, like spring itself. 

The five numbered sections are all expertly wrought according to subject, one building into the next. The third section, perhaps the shortest of the five, pivots (especially in the poem “Pivoting in Appalachia”) outside the speaker to children she teaches, and those without the privileges of kids in a Montessori preschool. There are dangers on the outside, but they won’t touch these. Reeve shapes the world for the children, trying to understand what to reveal and what to hide. As she writes in “Look at Everything,” It is the work of the teacher / to say Look at everything, then look again at me.” Though a slight diversion in tone, this feels very close to what the book is asking of the reader: the acknowledgement that the world is the self, and the self is the world. 

The collection ends strongly, turning us back to motherhood with poems about the drudgery of the domestic, a subject that even from Anne Sexton has been seen as “women’s work” and thereby lesser. In these poems, Reeve is not the 1950s housewife. She is the “Mad Mother” who tells you “the water is fucked” instead of fine. It’s not one way or the other. “A third way is defiance” of messages about what a mother can or should be, messages that, in these poems, we see Reeve’s speaker wrestling with since childhood. This, too, is the weight put on a female body. It exists in the toys we play with, in the stories we are told about wolves and witches. We carry it, the land carries it. The work after having the child is, as the “Mad Mother” says, “returning self to self.” It is important for mothers and non-mothers to read this and see, as the first poem of the final section says, “A mother has a soul,” “Solitude is necessary,” and that it’s ok to be happy, to claim your body and your life, to take back the land, to say “I” as a woman and have it mean something. 

For this and many other reasons, I’ll be giving this book to every new parent I know. As an artist-mother, I felt reflected back to myself and, ultimately, empowered. Motherhood is fracturing work. There are no absolutes. There is no shore where, suddenly, everything makes sense. But, Reeve has given us all a way to begin to approach that. If we fill our houses with flowers, connect ourselves with the natural world, as Reeve suggests in the very last poem, perhaps we won’t feel so cut off and domestic, we won’t sacrifice ourselves, as the rest of the world insists. We can be a body on a landscape, which is also a body, is also a mother. Ultimately, this book urges us to see and care for both bodies the best we can. 

Sara Moore Wagner is the author of three prize winning full length books of poetry, Lady Wing Shot, winner of the 2023 Blue Lynx Prize (forthcoming in 2024), Swan Wife (Cider Press Review Editors Prize, 2022), and Hillbilly Madonna (Driftwood Press Manuscript Prize, 2022), and the author of two chapbooks, Tumbling After (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2022) and Hooked Through (2017). She is also a 2022 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award recipient, a 2021 National Poetry Series Finalist, and the recipient of a 2019 Sustainable Arts Foundation award. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals and anthologies including Gulf Coast, Smartish Pace, Waxwing, Beloit Poetry Journal, and The Cincinnati Review, among others.

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