The Outer Wards by Sadiqa de Meijer

Mar 17, 2021

M(other): “I’m foreign, and she is home”

In de Meijer’s sophomore collection, motherhood is defined as a “submerged world” into which former modes of being are subsumed or filtered through (24). These lyrical poems have a quiet, expansive grace, allowing for judicious ambiguity where certainty would oversimplify. The speaker navigates her new parental role and its concomitant duties in the aftermath of a debilitating injury. Her agency is eroded by illness, leaving her “trapped in bed,” “burning like coals with all [she] can’t do” (38, 34). The speaker must contend, too, with her “upstream alphabet,” or the “muted half” of her linguistic being (47). While some mothers “wave and relate,” the mothers of these poems are observers on the periphery, sometimes insoluble in their difference. At other points, in poems like “Solidarities of Sick Mothers,” the speaker relishes in the warmth of her community, and charts the bittersweet possibilities of language. “Words,” for de Meijer, are “generative, obliterating entities” (63).

De Meijer’s luminous observations about parenthood, as well as her wry, knowing tone, place her in the poetic lineage of Sylvia Plath. Both poets capture the primordial joys of early parenthood, even as illness intrudes into their physiology. In “Provisions,” de Meijer writes: “her laugh is the birth of all roses,” illustrating the speaker’s unparalleled sense of wonder which becomes interrupted by physical and emotional dissonance (21). In Nick and the Candlestick,” Plath addresses her son, writing: “The pain / you wake to is not yours.”  Likewise, de Meijer presents a mother who is “a broken mechanism,” similarly torn from her most cherished responsibilities by illness (38).

In “Bind,” de Meijer employs the language of marine life to further illustrate the crucially interdependent, relational bond between mother and child. The speaker’s infant child is an “adorable remora” (alternately called a suckerfish, thus named for its suction properties which permit it to attach to and live off of larger fish.) Her daughter is also described as a “phlebologist in a white onesie” who drains the mother’s “corpuscles drowsily, remorseless” (14). These instances of clinical diction aptly paint the fond but demanding physiological exchange between mother and child.

In “Women Do This Every Day,” the speaker meets an acquaintance at the park who is “thousands of kilometers from home,” working in child care. De Meijer writes: “I never think to ask if she has / children, / because I still underestimate the violence” (19). Later, in the sprawling, peripatetic poem entitled “It’s the Inner Harbour neighbourhood, but everyone calls it Skeleton Park,” the speaker collages together disparate observations, exploring moments of wonder and alienation alongside her daughter. The speaker continues to grapple with the violence of white hegemony and settler colonialism, both of which promote revisionist or idealized histories. For example, at the park they visit, “only the Irish and Scottish have plaques,” and elsewhere, a resident actively “[rails] against Pakistanis” (27, 24). The speaker illustrates how her own sense of exclusion is assuaged by her daughter’s presence, when she writes: “I’m foreign, and she is home” (25). Here as in other places, de Meijer renders vast concepts into poignant immediacy.

De Meijer mediates on how cultural values such as comfort, faith, generosity, and industry are transformed, in the context of parenthood, by illness. In literary and religious contexts, historical representations of mothers have often been idealized or archetypal, saddling the role with baggage that is still being dismantled. De Meijer’s take on motherhood in this collection is richly illuminating, particularly with its humanizing insight into how illness complicates the myriad roles one holds in life. As a whole, The Outer Wards charts a speaker’s fraught journey as not only a parent, but as a person puzzling out the riddle-like questions of identity, language, and belonging.

The Outer Wards
by Sadiqa de Meijer
Signal Editions, Véhicule Press. 2020, 88 pp, $17.95 CAD
ISBN13: 9781550655452

Melanie Power is a Montreal-based writer from Newfoundland. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in various Canadian literary magazines.

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