The first poems I read after my son was born were by Heid E. Erdrich (sister to the novelist Louise.) My friend Tisha Turk (author of Getting Out Alive) sent me a copy of Erdrich's The Mother's Tongue with a note advising me that if my poetry-reading time were limited, I should start with the third section of the book, a series of poems about motherhood under the section heading "Milk sour."
My memories of those early weeks of motherhood are pretty blurry now, thanks in no small part to sleep deprivation (sleeping in 40-minute increments does really weird things to the body, as do postpartum hormones) but I remember reading Erdrich's poems. I read them one and two at a time, with the baby rocked to a precarious state of sleep on my chest or my shoulder, and I boggled to think that this overwhelming and exhausting experience was obviously intimately familiar to someone else.
During the pregnancy, I remember making a list of poets who were also mothers. Alicia Ostriker (Mother/Child Coda.) Sylvia Plath (Metaphors -- "I'm a riddle in nine syllables...") Naomi Shihab Nye (Eye Test.) I'm not sure I realized it at that moment, but it seems to me now that I wanted proof that it was possible to be a good poet and a good mother at the same time. I didn't know Erdrich's work then. I'm glad I do now.
A couple of weeks after Drew was born, I started writing my own poems about motherhood. I aimed to write one poem each week -- a substantial decrease in productivity from my pre-parenthood life, but it seemed like a manageable goal, and I've more-or-less managed it. If you had told me a year ago that not only would motherhood not dry up my poetic impulses, but would give me all kinds of new material -- well, I would have been relieved, but I'm not sure I could have imagined it, exactly.
Anyway: here's one of my favorite poems from Erdrich's book. (In hindsight, it's clear to me that this poem inspired one of mine, written some six months after I blearily devoured Erdrich's work...)
Offering: The Breasts
How does one learn The Womanly Art?
Shouldn't it be obvious how to use
our two most pointedly female parts?
Or at least natural as sexual arousal,
as inevitable and ballistic as orgasm.
Shouldn't milk just come?
Rather, there's a manual, not to mention bras
and accoutrements that look obscene
but turn out utilitarian as churns for cream.
And so we will see, or not, if the books write
rightly, "Offer the breast," for all infant ailments.
Offer milk for cradle-cap, gas and tear ducts
sealed shut from cries that might last all night
unless you offer the breast, offer them work,
saying, "My Darlings, here's your use at last."
-- Heid E. Erdrich, from The Mother's Tongue