The Greenhouse

Image of Greenhouse, The (Frost Place Chapbook Competition Winner)
Release Date: 
September 16, 2014
Bull City Press
Reviewed by: 

“Now that the silence has been broken, let’s hope others will continue the conversation, embracing every aspect of what it means to be human in our lives and our art.”

Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet’s chapbook, The Greenhouse, grows out of a paradox. There are probably more women than men writing poetry, but for all that, we seldom see in print poems about the particularly female experiences of bearing and rearing an infant.

Women who write seem to steer clear of these subjects, perhaps because they so often have to steal time from their domestic duties to get the poems written, and, understandably, would rather escape that world for a time in their work.

Or perhaps it is because this kind of experience has been so thoroughly marginalized in our society. As Ms. Stonestreet tells us, when women do relate such stories of their lives, it is “almost guaranteed you will find it boring/(domestic) (female) (too much) (too little, too small)” (“More, Again (Poppies”).

It is not only men who will think this. Even women who have themselves spent a portion of their lives raising children have been trained to regard women’s role as thinking beings acting in the world as antithetical to their biological role as mothers.

To focus on, even to enjoy this role, might be construed as a sort of betrayal of our feminist foremothers, who fought to give us the right to define ourselves by other measures than the biological, to find a place for ourselves in a world that had long been regarded as exclusively male.

Yet in these poems, Stonestreet nonetheless concentrates the full force of her intelligence on the peculiar mental states associated with bearing and nursing an infant and the sometimes paradoxical status of the mothering self.

Printed in a minuscule font, the poems appear to float on the uncharacteristically wide sea of the book’s pages. This and Ms. Stonestreet’s predilection for parentheses seem to present in graphic form the small voice of motherhood in our culture.

Staying at home all day with a newborn, sleeping when he sleeps, waking when he does, Ms. Stonestreet becomes “a bubble, a greenhouse, a lens” (“After Dropping My Son Off at Preschool”), an accessory or tool necessary for the protection and raising of that child, rather than an independant individual.

In truth, to give one’s body over to this task is to jettison the sort of volition we imagine we exercise over the world. Much of the time, we preserve the illusion that we are of yet apart from the natural world.

But there is nothing like having a baby to dispel this idea. Thus, Ms. Stonestreet views the child as “an anchor to the earth” (“Anchor”).

We should note that the line above occurs in one of two poems in the book entitled “Anchor,” as though the poems too have begun doubling, emulating the activity they describe.

Though the poet occasionally chafes at her all-encompassing role, in this collection she more often luxuriates in it, finding the biological a portal to the spiritual.

For to transcend the biological is, eventually, to escape the self, and the barrier between the mother and child, even long after birth, is revealed to be porous.

In her poem “Chimera,” Ms. Stonestreet offers as epigraph the definition of a medical condition called “microchimerism,” taken from a 2012 article in Scientific American  entitled “Scientists Discover children’s Cells Living in Mothers’ Brains.”

The passage defines the condition as “the persistent presence of a few genetically distinct cells in an organism . . . in the blood of women after pregnancy.”

This state, for the experiencing self, embodies “one idea of heaven” (“Flowers, Doggies, The Moon”), yet at the same time also describes a loss of the familiar self, the seemingly firm borders of time and place.

Once, the poet tells us, before the child, “when my life was one quietly perfectible room” (“Flowers, Doggies, The Moon”), she tried in vain to escape the self, aspiring to the role of mystic.

Yet as a new mother, she desires “to be myself, my self/again” yet cannot, for “[the crucible//does not ask/for want. Is.Tied in,/shot through. Fired”(“Chimera”).

The mind of the mother, that “crucible,” merges with that of the child, at once the maker of that child and remade by him, so that she sometimes gains access to the mind before language, where “the thought flows back into the sea, a place/sans both 10 o’clock and tomorrow. Present, present, present” (“Flowers, Doggies, The Moon”).

The lines here nearly escape their borders as the moment negates time, grammar, the physics of the ordinary world. Without time and language, there can be no memory, and even words, the stuff of the poet’s art and world, begin to disappear, temporarily at least, as in the poem “Dysnomia.”

Of course, ultimately, these poems’ existence belies that disappearance.

Rescued from memories of “that milk/dream/of a year” when the child was new (Flowers, Doggies, The Moon”), these are important poems, evidence of an experience common to so many yet long considered to be unworthy of art, and thus silenced.

Now that the silence has been broken, let’s hope others will continue the conversation, embracing every aspect of what it means to be human in our lives and our art.