Initially, I resisted reading Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s book Mother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother. Honestly, I worried this poetry collection might wind up serving as verses 5-200 of the hymn O My Father. That is one of my favorite hymns. But who wants to sit through dozens of additional verses, all with the same sanitized devotional tone?
“The Mother prefers the backs
of cross-stitched canvas. She
bears testament to the beauties of
–from the poem What Whitney Taught Me
Recently, I was provided a complimentary copy of Mother’s Milk with an assignment to review it. When I arrived at the above passage, I read, paused, and then said to myself, “Now THAT’S poetry!”
The above excerpt made immediate sense to me, with ponderous implications. If you’ve seen the backside of a cross-stitched image, it is quite unappealing. In fact, it’s remarkable that the front of a cross-stitched image can be so beautiful when the back is so messy. Through poetry, Mother’s Milk provides many such moments of realization.
This collection comes in the form of bite-sized poetry. Many pieces read more like fragments than fully developed poems. Yet they add up to something profound and eternal in scope. One is titled Still Small Voice. It plays on Elijah’s experience in 1 Kings 19:11-12 of the Old Testament. The very next poem is titled She Can Be Loud When She Wants.
“She can be in the wind.
She can be in the quake.
She can be in the fire.
She can laugh at the still small voice.”
This is one of many examples of the poet excerpting scripture and artfully feminizing it. Elsewhere you will read how “the daughters of god / shouted for joy.” (compare Job 38:7). Things get primeval via the poem Ancient of Nights (as opposed to Ancient of Days). We’ve seen this sort of thing before–a writer plucking up choice pieces of scripture and deftly grafting them into a new narrative. Ever read The Second Book of Nephi?
“I searched for my Mother, the way a baby roots
for her mother’s breast, head nuzzling from side to side,
mouth open, ready to suckle. But I was still thirsty.
Then my belly grew, and my breasts grew, and
a ravenous little thing came out. I offer her my milk
without money and without price.”
–from the poem Motherless Milk
Steenblik is at her best composing from personal experience as a mom. In these poems Heavenly Mother becomes literal, and mortality becomes metaphor. As a male reader, I felt myself receiving vivid lessons. Motherhood is an assignment I will never literally fulfill; call it a divine experience I can only hope to understand by receiving testimony from special witnesses.
Arguably the most powerful poem in this book is titled simply Veil. It is not set in a temple, neither does it depict the boundary between temporal and spiritual realms. Veil portrays a domestic moment between an earthly mother and her child, who waits just out of reach. The imagery is clear, its metaphor unmistakable. I’d quote it for you, but it feels too sacred.
Though the prevailing mood is one of reverent poignancy, Mother’s Milk proves a dynamic read. One poem, titled The Eighth Day, had me laughing out loud while simultaneously feeling rebuked. Far from being sanctimonious or indulgently sentimental, the book expresses a range of matriarchal themes and ideas. At times, the poet seems on a literal quest to track down Heavenly Mother’s exact whereabouts. Later in the book, Mormonism’s goddess transcends Her native theology, becoming a universal god of Nature.
Further enhancing the book, artist Ashley Mae Hoiland has provided wonderful illustrations. Like Steenblik’s efficient verse they say more with less, inviting readers to imbue the imagery with their own perspective.
Whether mythical or actual, Heavenly Mother remains there for us to ponder, to draw meaning from. Doing so requires a willingness to step beyond whatever forces, however well-intentioned, have previously kept her hidden or on the periphery of discussion. As Mother’s Milk suggests, the search for Her may be its own blessing.