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Book Review: I Gave Her a Name

Heather Harris Bergevin hates long walks on the beach, and the saccharine sweet fake taste of pina coladas (virgin). She does like mythology, writing poetry with obscure esoteric fairytale references, and lime slushes. Her recent accomplishments include her book, “Lawless Women,” her ridiculous and delightful children, and her joyously completed divorce. She thinks she’s funny. Sometimes other people agree.

Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s second book of poetry, I Gave Her a Name, is a lovely work. Steenblik, a scholar-turned-poet, began her research work on Heavenly Mother in 2008 after concluding her bachelor’s at BYU. Immediately after she graduated, Steenblik  researched Heavenly Mother for David Paulsen at BYU the summer before she started her masters. The research she did for Paulsen those 4 months was for what became the BYU Studies 2011 Article, “A Mother There”, written by Martin Pulido and David Paulsen. That article heavily influenced (and fed into) the Gospel Topics essay Mother in Heaven. Readers can read “A Mother There” published in BYU Studies. 50.1  for free from BYU Studies’ site.

Steenblik is one of nine contributors named at the end of Paulsen’s and Pulido’s 2011 article, which went on to serve as a significant source text for the 2016 “Mother in Heaven,” one of the 13 Gospel Topics Essay (to date). It is distilled to jsut six paragraphs, and readers can find it on the official church webpage. The essay is also appears with references in the section on manuals “Mother in Heaven.”

While in the process of researching these things in our own LDS doctrine, Steenblik was on her own journey of becoming a mother and then raising small children. As she continued to contemplate, snippets of poetry came to her mind in a dream. She woke, wrote them down, and these became the first micro-poems in her 2017 book, Mother’s Milk, which has been heralded by scholars and layfolk alike. I Gave Her a Name is her 2019 follow-up book, published By Common Consent Press.

I admit that when I first read Rachel’s first book, I did not immediately see the full vision of it. I could see the individual delight in the small poems, but it was not until I heard Rachel read them in a series, as intended, that I realized that each poemlet is a stanza in the whole, comprising the book. This second book, I Gave Her a Name, is similarly designed, that each poem builds upon the prior, with the whole becoming one long piece about both the divinity and duality of mothers and our Mother. Ashmae Hoiland’s delicate and expressive line drawings enhance the individual pieces, while not detracting from the intentional simplicity. Together, they are a gentle companionship- emotive, kind, thinking, feeling.

These pieces, in contrast, are longer than Steenblik’s prior works, and encapsulate enclosed individual thoughts on motherhood, humanity, and the nature of Divine Motherhood. You’ll find poems on specific characters, Biblical women, other women and friends in our communities in Mormonism, including one for Segullah. I enjoyed seeing the fingerlings of influence from different thinkers within the short pieces, realizing that the Ruth mentioned is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or that the speaker in The Queen of Heaven is the White Queen from Alice in Wonderland. I love little puzzles like that, intending us to see that the trails of influence we have in our lives shape the image and thinking we have of ourselves.

Perhaps by discussing Mother, and motherhood, in such terms, Steenblik is commenting upon the many and varied influences and teachers we have which shape us as women, and which shape our world view. It has often been said that humanity has the tendency to create God in their own image, rather than the other way around, which thing can be both beautiful or fraught with pain, depending upon what you view as a Father or Mother, and the associations you bring to your own conceptualization of Divinity. This ongoing discussion in short poem format, of the nature and comprehension of the Divine Feminine, give us that chance to contemplate which qualities we intend to internalize. In her titular piece, Steenblik explains:

I gave Her a name
and then another, letting
old names fall to the
floor, when they were
past fitting.

She gave me names,
words, floors, myself,
balloons, beauty, scraps,
everything.

These pieces are gentle things, kind things, soft prayers to offer up into the world. Steenblik’s piece about Proxy Mothers, in two parts, closes the book, and is perhaps my favorite of all of her poems. I’m not going to quote it, though, because you need to go read the whole for yourself. I will quote this piece, which is perhaps the essence of the whole:

Living With Her

She opens Her eyes
and I see
Cora,
Søren.

She opens her ears
and I hear
laughing, crying,
singing.

She opens Her mouth,
and I speak.

May we each do the same. With love, HB

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