Still Life Studies: A Review of Chelsea Rathburn’s Still Life with Mother and Knife

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Still Life with Mother and Knife
by Chelsea Rathburn
(LSU Press, 2019, 84 pp. $18.95)

I pre-ordered Chelsea Rathburn’s Still Life with Mother and Knife after reading two of the poems that would be in it and falling in love with the way Rathburn uses words. She lays them naked in front of us like an artist’s model, and we sketch or sculpt to catch them in our minds the best we can. When we see them again, they’ve moved ever so slightly, or we have, and we find some new angle to explore and try to understand.

The first poem I read was “In the Shower, My Daughter Studies My Naked Form,” as originally published in Birmingham Poetry Review. I was struck by its honesty about parenthood. I don’t mean about children being difficult or lovely or anything poets may often write about, but about a small and honest moment known only by those who have children:

My daughter looks more closely than a painter.
She rubs my ruined belly, pokes my hips.
Soaping my knees with her small hands, she studies me
the way I’ve stood before a work of art. . .

Coming at the end of Still Life with Mother and Knife, “In the Shower, My Daughter Studies My Naked Form” best holds the book’s twin motifs of motherhood and artistry. However, the poem is far more than that. Rathburn turns the poem inward and on its head the final stanza, especially in the final line:

examining those diaphanous bathers
or some Dutch still life, lemons and fish
on a platter, the ordinary gleaming,
or the way I stand and watch her as she sleeps.

Her body is no longer the object of examination and study; now it is her daughter who, though not a work of art, is studied like one. When I first read the poem, by the BPR booth at AWP, the closing brought to mind the lines from Plath’s “Morning Song” in which Plath’s infant is a “new statue” surrounded by the onlooking crowd. However, unlike Plath’s newborn who, in that poem at that point, is an object to be wondered at, Rathburn’s daughter looks at her mother in the same way her mother has looked at art; which is the same way Rathburn looks at her daughter. It’s the recursion of parenthood: remembering your own past and seeing it, and sometimes more of it that you wish to see, reflected in your children.

This is of course all very lovely and powerful, but that image of a parent and a child in the shower is honest about parenting in a way I don’t normally see in writing. “In the Shower, My Daughter Studies My Naked Form” was the first work of Rathburn’s I’d read, and immediately I knew I had to read more of her work. The genius of Still Life With Mother and Knife is that, encountering this poem in context, in its penultimate place within the book, the reader has learned about Rathburn’s relationship with both art and motherhood in a way that gives this poem even more power than it holds independently.

Still Life With Mother and Knife is divided into four, roughly chronological sections, along with a proem, giving us an autobiography of the poet in 36 poems. We first read “Postpartum: a Fairy Tale,” where we learn “our mothers” who “loved / and loathed us” are “the witches and giants / in the brutal fairy tales,” while we children are “the monstrous creatures, changelings left / by trolls” who must “learn to walk the woods alone.” This is not a book about how hard it is to be a child or a mother or an artist, but simply a book about how it is to be.

Although the sections are untitled, Section I could be called “Introductions,” as all the poems’ titles begin with the word, “Introduction”: Introduction to Captivity, Statistics, Home Economics, Vigilance, Gerontology, Thanatology, Patriarchy, Sex Education, Desire, Mycology, Art History. The poems in this section cover Rathburn’s persona from childhood through college. We see a young girl learn what it means to be a woman in the world but also learn what it means to be herself, in her body, “where to put [her] restless hands.”

The second poem of Rathburn’s that I read is in this section: “Introduction to Mycology.” It was first published by the Academy of American Poets in its Poem-A-Day series. Unusual within the context of the whole collection, this poem, while obviously about sex, is also straightforward in its use of poetic metaphor. Most of the poems in Still Life With Mother and Knife eschew conceit and have much more in common with the spare style of Dolly Parton or Philip Larkin than with the layered metaphors of Tori Amos or John Donne.

While Rathburn is unafraid to speak directly about the body or about sex, as she does in several other poems within this collection, this poem is poetically shy for a particular reason. The poem’s dedication is to its subject, E.B., who was “killed in a workplace massacre” (an incident also noted in Section IV’s “The Face in the Chalice”). “Introduction to Mycology,” however, relies upon the phallic associations of the mushroom while simultaneously using the mushroom as a figure for those early explorations and experiences that grow within us, untended. This poem speaks to those memories which pop up unexpectedly, just as one might wake up to find new mushrooms have sprouted where before there was only grass. Indeed, the mushroom here serves a function akin to that served by Proust’s madeleine.

Section II is the shortest of the book, five poems in six pages, each about pregnancy and birth. In the third poem, “Metamorphoses”, Still Life With Mother and Knife begins to grow into its power as a book, as a collection of poems that build upon each other. Both the “cause of and end of suffering,” Rathburn herself has now become “a monster-mother,” the phrase alluding to a character from the book’s first poem, “Postpartum: a Fairy Tale.”

The next poem is aptly titled “Postpartum: Lullaby.” In this poem, the subtle artistry of Rathburn’s writing burns while the title takes us back to the beginning of the collection. It’s a poem about those long hours in the dark during which the baby that excites a parent becomes the baby that exhausts a parent. While this subject is not especially new for a poem, or news to a parent, Rathburn here intriguingly breaks from her otherwise unobtrusive use of poetic forms: this poem’s couplets rhyme blatantly, making little songs out of ordinary sorrows. More than that, however, this is the only poem in the collection without punctuation, ending with the couplet

And still they rock and rock and rock
beside a cold indifferent clock

concluding a poem about the endlessness of those hours, and of the monstrous thoughts that may creep into the mind of a parent wishing for sleep, with a kind of emptiness, or endlessness, due to the lack of a full-stop at poem’s end.

Section III is a collection of ekphrastic poems from Rathburn’s study of Delacroix, especially his Medea. The entire section interacts with “Introduction to Art History,” a three-part poem from Section I in which Rathburn tells us:

I was suspicious of the French Romantics’
tumult and restraint, the exaggerated tension
in those bodies splayed across battlegrounds

and rafts, and all the women bare-chested
for no apparent reason.

But by Section III, Rathburn has learned “the truth is there is no single truth,” and that a writer is always caught by the desire to “feel as much as possible,” fixed in a mask and speaking only “in a single voice.” The poems in this section grow from both the paintings and sketches that inspire them and the poems that have come before them in the book, as the mushrooms grow in “Introduction to Mycology.”

While one might profitably spend hours on each of the poems in Section III, I’d like to focus on the two middle poems of the section: “Médée Furieuse, 1838” and “The Swimmer”, as this pair functions as a microcosm of the entire book.

Médée Furiuse, 1838” is a strong ekphrastic poem independently. It’s usually the first poem I send people when I recommend this book to them. Nonetheless, in the context of Still Life with Mother and Knife, it is even more powerful. Rathburn sees in Medea’s children that “flash of fear” which her own daughter has shown when she “raged / at her or some small thing”. This revelation, already powerful and shocking in a poem about Medea, is far more meaningful in the context of Rathburn’s honesty about parenting, an honesty that drives much of the book.  Moreover, in that same portion of “Médée Furiuse, 1838,” Rathburn refers to herself as “a stranger”, as she had previously done in the poem, “Metamorphoses,” from Section II. Additionally, this poem’s conclusion, “The children have no choice / but to love the hand that holds the knife,” recalls both “Postpartum: a Fairy Tale” and “Introduction to Home Economics,” in which Rathburn (accidentally) stabs her own mother. In short, the order of the poems in Rathburn’s book deepens the individual poems, as images and layers of meaning accrue, becoming embedded in the reader’s memory far deeper than any individual poem might plant them.

In the following poem, “The Swimmer,” Rathurn again shows her mastery of ordering.  “The Swimmer” begins by discussing Delacroix, but the poem is mainly about the special terror of a child who cannot swim and must cling to a parent in a pool. The theme of this poem might be summarized by a sentence from the preceding poem: “Maybe all mothers murder their children’s / innocence.” (This powerful sentence is a consummate example of enjambment’s power. While I have not spent much time in this review analyzing Rathburn’s technique, this line, from “Médée Furiuse, 1838,” cannot go unremarked. And, while I’m on the subject of technique, in “The Swimmer,” Rathburn refers to having “once cast her / [daughter] from my body,” using “cast” not only to refer to birth and to swimming lessons but also to suggest the verb meaning “to discard” and the verb meaning “to form.” One could, in fact, write about such instances of Rathburn’s subtlety in regard to almost every poem in the book.)

Section IV is less thematically organized than the first three sections. There’s no clear timeline or motif. This is not a deficiency. Instead, Section IV builds structure and coherence from the first three sections. We see in “Still Life with Long-Range View” and “The Undertow” those Proustian triggers of memory that make poems out of the strangest phenomena. “The Face in the Chalice,” in this concluding section, is made more meaningful by our knowledge of E.B.’s death from “Introduction to Mycology.” Rathburn’s poems about learning as a child how women are viewed by society in Section I inform both that “The Face in the Chalice” and “Praise Song”. “Shocks and Changes,” even more than Section III’s deep ekphrastic study and “Introduction to Gerontology[’s]” several nods to Eliot, shows us how deeply trained and studied Rathburn is, as she carries forward into the 21st century Shakespeare’s Sonnets 15-18.
In “On Domesticity” and “On Reading Maurice Sendak Instead of Anaïs Nin,” these crashing forces of the life of the artist and the life of the parent come into fullest coherence. “On Domesticity” is a poem about how life and children interrupt nearly everything about the “sex of the long-married,” even as they shamelessly remind us of it, or at least its absence, and “On Reading Maurice Sendak Instead of Anaïs Nin” is the story of how “On Domesticity” was written, how a poem that was supposed to be about the carnal joy of bodies became a poem about an entirely different kind of bodily joy. These poems work, as the whole book works, because Rathburn understands that the artist and the parent aren’t two different people. They’re both figuratively aligned and, in this case, literally the same person: full of laughter and desire, sorrow and inspiration, just like the poems in Still Life with Mother and Knife.