Review of Mother’s Milk

August 14, 2017

What do we really know about Heavenly Mother? What sources do we have for our belief in her, other than the logic of latter-day leaders and our own desires?

In the face of these problematic questions, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, in Mother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother, attempts to understand Her, to make Her real and knowable in a sincere and reverential way. Excerpts from two stunning poems best epitomize the central obstacles–Her absence, and the taboo surrounding any discussion of Her– in such a search:

From “Motherless Milk”:

“ . . . I wondered then
If Heavenly Mother walked into another room
So we would take the bottle.
I wondered then
If we are weaned.”

From “Saltwater”:

“The Mother’s tears
fill up the ocean —
all Her salty, sweet ones.
We can swim there,
but we cannot drink.

Throughout this collection, Steenblik explores the extended metaphor of a mother being separated from her child through birth, through weaning, through absence in order to help her navigate and discover Heavenly Mother, who said, “I’m sorry, / Mama’s milk is all gone,” and we “sobbed and sobbed” from our separation from her into this mortal existence. Her absence is keenly felt, despite our “Papa[‘s]” best efforts to “console” us. In this way, her discoveries about Heavenly Mother are natural and instinctive.

Yet she also takes on the role of the child, borrowing from children’s games–Marco Polo, Peek-a-boo–and books, channeling Judy Blume, Maurice Sendak, and P.D. Eastman: “Are you my mother?” She plays with the ways children conceive of absence and presence, emphasizing our own ignorance and desire.

Steenblik also lovingly illustrates the connections between childbirth and the atonement: ““Birth stories often / share the same / labor words, / I cannot do this anymore, before She does.” This suggests perhaps that what Christ suffered in order to save us was prefigured by our Heavenly Mother’s experience.

What is most notable about this collection is the way that Steenblik substitutes the Divine Masculine for the Divine Feminine into familiar scripture: that it is “Her work and glory” that must be accomplished; that we are looking for messengers from “her Mother”; that “The Mother was not in the wind, / nor in the earthquake [. . .] / but in a still small voice”; that “before She formed / me in the belly, / She knew me”; that “The Mother loved us / as much as the Father. / They sent Their Son.” Each poem as well is brief, like verses of scripture, so that the collection itself becomes a book of scripture in its own way.

While this seems like a simple manipulative device, it has the effect of reinserting Heavenly Mother into scripture, into our doctrine and discourse. It makes her present in the Godhead. Steenblik asks, “Is She the woman / in the wilderness / who was nourished there,” –like Hagar, is she banished from our doctrine–or is she “the God who prepared her place?” With this collection, she asserts the latter, and calls off Her banishment, welcoming Her back into our history.

Steenblik also shows a movement from the anxiety of absence in the beginning of the collection, with poems such as Separation Anxiety, First Grief, Frantic, Absent Mothers, Holes– to a peace and awareness that is comforting and hopeful. The dialogue between these sections is distinct. Compare:

Every Day
I woke up again
without my Mother

to

“When I awoke to Her absence
She soothed me.
You woke up and
your Mommy was gone,
That must have been
so scary.”

Despite the ways she plays with scripture and speculates on a topic that many Mormons feel is taboo, she attempts to place this contemplation within the tradition of the LDS faith by beginning and ending it with prayer. In Invocation, she asks:

Dear God,
May I know
the Mother as
She knows me,
may I love her as
She loves me.
In Jesus’  name,
amen.

Here, she both emphasizes the traditional forms of address and closure, but also the need for permission to begin such a journey. That her intentions are pure and holy, not an attempt to subvert faith or upend tradition. She emphasizes what we have read in the Book of Mormon, that “ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Nephi 32:9). Thus, she attempts to situate herself and her search within mainstream LDS discourse.

If there were anything in her collection I might take issue with, it would be the way she uses and reinforces the traditional association between Woman and the Moon: “My brother dreamt / he carved the moon / into the shape of a woman”; Her body is “warm as the moon”; In “Luna,” “She is the / gentlest light, / and kind, / offering brave / hope in / the darkness; She is the “Ancient of Nights.”

What I find problematic here is that it accepts the traditional dichotomy of yin and yang–woman associated with darkness and chaos and emotion, as opposed to logic and daylight, which has often been used as a tool to oppress and discount women: women are “emotional” and can’t be reasoned with; they’re “cyclical” and inconstant, and other rubbish. But specifically in an LDS framework, the moon represents a lower degree of glory than the Sun. But if Heavenly Mother is an equal part of the Godhead, united with the Father, as the rest of the collection attempts to achieve, shouldn’t the image associated with her also be the Sun, turning traditional imagery on its head?

Finally, a word about style. These short poems are simple and straightforward. There is little that is surprising or elaborate in the language. Yet this style is completely appropriate and deliberate rather than novice. It is the language of the myth: “Creation is . . . snow, birds, trees, moon, and song.” It is the language of every woman: “The Mother Delights in Plainness / She speaks to us in ways we / understand,” especially for Mormons who need the language of primary songs rather than the esoteric metonymy of Isaiah. But it also emphasizes the yearning we have for our Heavenly Mother; the brevity of these verses and the paucity of the language, leaves us slightly unsatisfied, mirroring our own desire for knowledge of Her.

The illustrations that accompany this collection, by Ashley Mae Hoiland, reinforce this yearning. The faces of the women and children are each blank, mirroring the lack of knowledge we have about Heavenly Mother’s identity, but also suggesting a crucial corollary: that regaining that knowledge would thereby reveal something about our own.

Ultimately, Steenblik’s collection is enlightening and thought provoking, comforting. It reminds us that our Heavenly Mother is there even if we can’t see Her. She illustrates this beautifully:

When my daughter cried
for me as I showered,
I gave her soft words.
I’m right here.
I’m just on the other side
of the curtain.
And suddenly,
I knew my Mother
was.

 

You can order Mother’s Milk through BCC Press.

RELATED POSTS