“Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility” by Anna Laura Reeve

Intimate, brave, frank, piercing, and wholly dazzling. Just a few initial words to describe Anna Laura Reeve’s debut collection of poems, Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility (Belle Point Press 2023).

Reeve writes with an unflinching honesty that all but hurts, and her words cut with a sharp and precise knife. Yet her phrasing is also delicate, with flourishes of tenderness as when she describes her newborn daughter with “her cheeks softer / than any known substance, gold lashes fluttering / open and closed” in the introductory poem “The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale.”

This tenderness is overshadowed in the extended “Edinburgh Postnatal” poem by the angst of dealing with a difficult birth, a demanding newborn, and a husband with serious health issues of his own. The poet and her husband “string / our nerves around the perimeter / of the bedroom to cast a soft glow.”

In Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility, Reeve’s resurgent theme of balancing the conflicts of motherhood with the creative forces of an artist commands well-due attention. In “The Mad Mother Envies a Window,” Reeve captures this conflict succinctly: “The artist who is a mother splits herself in two.” Yet, thankfully, she has more than just that line to say on the subject, including four poems with titles including “the mad mother” phrase.

The collection of mostly free verse is divided into five parts with the centerpiece poem, “The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale,” claiming its preeminent spot in Part I. In that poem, which is divided into nine segments, the poet details the raw experiences of a young mother in the aftermath of birth, followed by weeks of sleeplessness, fatigue, doubt, and anxiety. Reeve, speaking in an interview published at the Lipscomb University website said, “As I workshopped this poem with my friends, I found that a lot of my young mom friends read it and were moved to tears. They said, ‘This was my experience, too.’” Later, when that poem won the 2022 Adrienne Rich Award, a prestigious award from Beloit Poetry Journal, Reeves again heard how the poem spoke to the mothers on the staff and reflected their experiences also.

The poem utilizes the standard questions posed to mothers to determine if they suffer from postpartum depression—that is the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale—as captions to each of the nine parts of the poem. After each caption, the poet responds in the oft fraught voice of someone who is not only over her head but nearly drowning. “Quite often / my canoe slides down a river / of threat, a low sky / boxing us in.”

These nine segments express anxiety with brilliant directness and easily relatable terms. In the fourth numbered segment of “The Edinburgh” poem, captioned “I have been anxious or worried  / for no good reason,” Reeve writes of feeling “shredded and unstable.” In segment five, captioned “I have felt scared or panicky for no / good reason,” she describes an imaginary gunman and the sense that “In my body, a rubber band / stretched to a paler shade of chalky white.” And in number nine of the long poem, she writes, “In the night, her cry boxes our ears / like the gunshot / we heard last night from / the next street over.”

Part two of the collection continues to weave motherhood and fertility into poems that focus also on nature, farming, and the range of mountains near where Reeve calls home. In “Trying,” she asks the eternal question of “What do people want, when they want / children?” The poem connects the poet’s “pelvic cavity” where the “wheel of seeder spins” and her basil seedlings which “keel over / one after the other, damping off.” After drawing that parallel, she rephrases the first question to ask this: “Tiny seed leaves, opening yourselves, undaunted, / … / what do you want to be?”

In “First Sugar Moon of the Pandemic,” Reeve expresses both the beauty and pathos of nature—or the nature in which humans have tread. Displaying her talent full scale, Reeve combines technical sounding language with lyrical to produce a fine, gut-punch of a poem in which “Honeysuckle bushes / will crack their green fireworks.” But as the narrator of this poem watches a robin trying to “break a beakful of shredded polypropylene twine / from its tangle / on a tomato cage,” she explains how this same twine will entangle both the mother bird and the “hatchlings / it orphans. Even chicks / get tangled, limbs becoming deformed.” In the end, when the robin flies away, the poet cuts the threads from the tomato cage wire “crushing them / in my hand.”

Detouring from free verse, Reeve deftly tackles writing in a form known as a crown of sonnets in “For Southern Appalachia.” A crown of sonnets consists of seven interlocked sonnets where the last line of one stanza becomes the first line of the next fourteen-lined stanza. The lines in Reeve’s interlocking stanzas ring with the beauty of the flora and fauna of that region with phrases like “mourning doves and brown thrashers build nests / in riverbank grape and honeysuckle thickets.” Yet, this is not a pastoral poem in a traditional sense. Like so many of Reeve’s verses, it contains a hook among the honeysuckle, where the poem references a miscarriage (“The body culls the malformed part”) and the brewing environmental disaster:

The work of millennia tilts—

we stagger, shift our weight—and the extinction event

of our century crowns at Gaea’s lips, a new Titan,

as I watch towhees in the cedars, eyes black as flint.

With part III of the collection, a few poems touch on the topical and the political. For example, in “The Children of Asylum Seekers,” readers see “Simple removal of child from parents fleeing fire. / Simple wrapping of woman, mother, / man, father, in wire.”

“Look at Everything,” with its timely references to the war in Ukraine, addresses a teacher in the embattled capital who is teaching children in a Kyiv subway during the destruction. In this sublime poem, the narrator wonders “How does a mother, / father, teacher, or anyone who loves a child, / puncture the seal, allowing safety and death / to taste each other’s breath.”

In keeping with the theme of the demands of motherhood clashing with artistic endeavors, Part IV re-introduces sleep deprivation and the strains of mothering a young daughter. As before, there is tenderness and love in these poems as well as anxiety and conflict. In “Cooking While Daughter Demands Bananas,” turmoil ends with a blessing of calm and the poet concludes: “Even my daughter’s copper hair / is still and gold / and not, as usual, / a cap of flame.”

Reeve also introduces in Part IV the first three of her “Mad Mother” poems, including “The Mad Mother Responds to Your Text,” “The Mad Mother Discovers a Third Way,” and “The Mad Mother Joins the Resistance.”  Throughout the “Mad Mother” and similarly themed poems, Reeve addresses the needs of a mother to defy the demands of the cultural norms (“Good mothers take care of everyone / else.”) in order to claim her own voice and art (“Your work is the real work.”). In addressing this conflict, Reeve writes in the poem “Humorously, on Eavan Boland’s Children” that she is “going to begin a zenlike  / practice of writing while my kid / sings and drops things and / tells me to come look at this.”

While as hinted at in “Eavan Boland’s Children,” finding a balance might well be the ultimate goal, the poems speak more clearly of defiance and resistance. In fact, defy, defiant, or some version of the word, appears at least ten times throughout these verses. Yet, the poems recognize that defiance of these cultural expectations “In a mother, … screams like a tornado siren.”

The last of the “Mad Mother” poems is tucked among the poems in Part V, poems which often continue focusing on the frequently opposing challenges of motherhood and artistic pursuits. In “The Mad Mother Envies a Window,” the poem recognizes that “Solitude is necessary for the artist. For the child, / it is necessary to return to the womb.”

 All in all, these are magnificent poems.  Motherhood and nature, of course, are the topics of many another poet’s verses, but none quite like these—so blunt, so precise, so unflinching, so haunting, with the juxtaposition of tender and stressful. The nature poems might be rich with beauty, but there’s the thorn—the birds tangled in twine and the coming mass extinction. That tangle of beauty and pain is adeptly woven in these poems in ways both intimately personal and yet universally reachable. Anna Laurie Reeve makes us want to look at those mountain ranges and see the familiar beauty but at the same time to see beyond that to the fledgling birds trapped in twine, to “Look at everything.”

Anna Laura Reeve

Reeve, who majored in English at Lipscomb and earned an MA in literature and creative writing from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, won the Beloit Poetry Journal’s 2022 Adrienne Rich Award and was a finalist for the 2022 Ron Rash Award and the 2022 Heartwood Poetry Prize. She is also a two-time Pushcart nominee. Born and raised in East Tennessee, Reeve’s work has been published in such prestigious journals as the Beloit Poetry Journal, Terrain.org, Room, Still, and others. Visit her at https://www.annalaurareeve.com/

Her publisher Belle Point states that its mission is “to celebrate the literary culture and community of the American Mid-South: all its paradoxes and contradictions, all the ways it gets us home. Visit us at https://bellepointpress.com/.”



(The whole poem from Reaching the Shore of the Sea of Fertility, used with permission)

Springscent lifts on the last day of February.
The complex formations of Lent bunch
to the west, Putin’s war to the east. Grape hyacinth
and purple deadnettle open miniscule lips
with a puh and each efflux is so sweet
bees will find it. On my run this morning,
the rain-swollen stream that hadn’t frozen
overnight released vapor overhead
like a little blindness. Obscurity. Fragrance.
I thought, as I ran, of the Ukrainian teacher
photographed as she taught students sheltering
in a Kyiv subway. How much easier it is
to teach spelling rules or animal life cycles
than to explain murder to a child. Once, I tried
to tell my daughter of a famous assassination
but found myself plummeting, suddenly,
to the foot of the mountain. How does a mother,
father, teacher, or anyone who loves a child,
puncture the seal, allowing safety and death
to taste each others’ breath. It is the difficult work
of the child to observe. It is the work of the teacher
to say Look at everything, then look again at me.


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