Erik J. “Odin" Cathcart
Review of MOTHER IS A BODY, by Brandi Katherine Herrera
(Fonograf Editions, 2021)

On ne naît pas femme: on le devient”
“One is not born but becomes a woman”
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

MOTHER IS A BODY begins with a cross-media presentation link to a Soundcloud® reading of she said /she said. This disruption at the start of the book, forces the reader to become a listener. The writer risks distraction by pulling the reader away from the printed page, confident that hearing the first poem read, the listener will return to the book as an even more engaged reader. she said /she said is spoken with overdubs in a roundelay fashion evocative of Philip Glass or Laurie Anderson. It’s a replication of what must have been several exchanges overheard between people and mothers about their children. It reminds me of things I have overheard at baby showers or backyard barbecues. The echo chamber of the Crowley Theater combined with the overdubs gives Herrera’s voice a haunting quality which sets the tone for the remainder of the book. That tone is echoed on the back cover of the book with the word shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

The book goes on to use each poem as a vignette for what I imagine the author went through in her attempt to conceive but also the societal scaffolding of procreation. There is a long-running joke that if men were able to conceive the human race would end rather abruptly. The joke being men couldn’t handle the physical and emotional aspects of child bearing. It recognizes the rarely acknowledged resiliency and strength that women contain. It is well established that XX chromosome carriers have a higher threshold for pain, and greater capacity for forgetting that pain after it occurs. It is within this matriarchal framework which Herrerra writes, simultaneously addressing her own emotional connection to conception; and the expectations and judgments of the world around her. One line in particular stood out in describing this dichotomy:

a virtual dimension
stripped of its organs
two pair of
Minnie Mouse ears

That male frame of desexualizing a pregnant woman, and reducing her to a mere vessel carrying a child, adds insult to injury in an already painful process.

Herrera continues the book with the imagined names of children she ultimately never conceived in Les Enfant Terribles and their representative personalities. Acknowledging again the dream expectation of children and the potential realities of their actual living personalities. In #MOMLIFE she mimics the now ubiquitous need for us to overshare every aspect of our private lives, even having children. The acid wit of this poem cuts hard with the visual reference of empty boxes mimicking Instagram images. I read it as an imagined postpartum space in which a mother desperately seeks to reclaim attention and a sense of self outside of the child just born. It operates as a reference to the banality of social media, and the desires of a woman after pregnancy.

A BODY IS A TERRIBLE MOTHER is a poem in the form of a rant. It’s Francis Bacon’s Head VI, or Carolee Schneeman’s Meat Joy, expressions of what Jacques Lacan called juissance. The all-caps words push the reader into a virtual corner until the confrontation returns a single word—HERSELF. It’s hard to read but perhaps even harder to acknowledge from a male perspective. One of the mysteries of homo sapiens is our long gestation period and even longer helplessness period once born. Given the emotional and physical toll of the experience it’s a wonder how we have been so successful at replication. I felt the screams from A BODY IS A TERRIBLE MOTHER to be the existential scream of that experience.

MOTHER IS A BODY ends with two increasingly darker poems. If you felt affronted by the screaming of all-caps, then buckle up for Baby, I mean and By the mystery of those that swim. The reductionism both implied and literal in the latter poem reveals a loss of self inherent in the simple fact of being a woman. Each month from puberty to menopause a woman, not pregnant ejects the means to become pregnant in a bloody effulgence that most men would rather pretend is a secret ritual than an act of nature. It’s a petite mort repeated month after month. It remains a persistent reminder that women are the acknowledged reason humanity persists. Herrera calls out the paradox of that insistent role by asking what remains of a woman if procreation isn’t in the cards for her; “A single potential body flows in and out without a baby. What is left without a body with or without a self. And by self, I mean baby.” It’s a painful question presented to a society where women wish to be so much more than simple repositories of eggs which will produce more humans once impregnated. It is a profound question and one which I am completely ill-equipped to wrestle with but one I know affects all of my female friends who are childless. The master herself, Joan Didion struggled with the very same idea when she said prior to adopting her own child;

“Whenever I hear about the woman’s trip, which is often, I think a lot about nothin’-says-loving’-like-something-from-the-oven and the Feminine Mystique and how it is possible for people to be the unconscious instruments of values they would strenuously reject on a conscious level…”

The final piece By the mystery of those that swim, plunges deeply into what Herrera hints at earlier in the book with a quote from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose philosophy in A Thousand Plateaus suggested women must undergo a “becoming-woman”. Herrera uses the 1935 film In the Beginning, a rather soulless public information movie that coldly reduces mammalian reproduction to a dialogue about the “egg”. The film serves as a metaphor in Herrera’s poetics that enunciate the still all-to-present frame which male-dominated society views women as baby-makers. It’s a recognition of the male ego, the need for replication, but it’s I believe also a recognition of the complexities of being human in the postmodern reality in which we live. In the end Herrera states; “A copy of us lies deep within most swans, which is comforting at night.” The swan acts as the perfect metaphor, and animal associated with love and yet in reality is a mean creature. This is often the lens through which society judges women and the liminal space they are left to contend with.

'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice

And when justice is gone, there's always force

And when force is gone, there's always Mom. Hi Mom!

Ah, ah

Ah ah ah ah

—Laurie Anderson, from “O Superman”