Our Mother of Sorrows
“Nina Clements has created a family epic with characters who will haunt you for a lifetime. . . . Our Mother of Sorrows is a miracle.”
It’s not often one hears the phrase, “I couldn’t put it down,” when referring to a collection of poetry. Reserved for fiction, memoir, biography, and the thriller that keeps us up until 3:00 a.m., a book of poems is more often savored, each poem picked and chosen, often randomly, the book put down near our bed to be read later when it’s quiet.
Not the case with Nina Clements’ masterful and compelling debut poetry collection, Our Mother of Sorrows, in which the savoring comes fast and often, hits hard, and as quickly as one poem is devoured the next one begins. From the first mesmerizing poem to the final gut-wrenching blow, each intricately chiseled, razor-sharp poem is an arrow shooting a straight bull’s-eye to your heart. This collection is simply unputdownable. Nina Clements has created a family epic with characters who will haunt you for a lifetime.
Each of these beautifully constructed, short, title-less poems is a surprise rolled into heartache. Clements’ first full-length collection is a family saga, a tragic depiction of mother, father, daughters, and son who “died to make room for the unruly,” and the speaker and her sisters “were only girls who did not deserve a brother.”
We meet the family, one by one. First, mother:
It was her knees I loved,
cheek against the rough ridge.
I rubbed my face into them.
A few pages later:
She didn’t beat us
with hangers. Her hands
were good enough,
but only when we
deserved it. And children
Next the father who’s lost his job:
All he wanted
was to sit at the dining room table
with his pork chop, thinking
of what to do. He wanted the quiet.
She could only provide the chaos.
It’s the poet’s insight, compassion, and her fresh use of language flowing throughout that carries us, despite the sadness of the content, keeps us reading, searching for the same answers and solace the speaker herself is seeking. Her voice is confident, the danger thrilling, and we become immersed in the details of her life, upsetting as they may be, by the power of her voice, the pulsing electricity, excitement, and irresistible energy that pollinates poem after poem. The accident by the side of the road from which we cannot look away.
At the grocery store, I felt the meat through
plastic. My favorite was the ground beef.
Mommy was so embarrassed—little handprints,
the handled meat, finger holes in the plastic wrap.
How is it possible to write about the horrors of childhood, of a mother’s love that can “dry up like a river,” in a way that enchants the reader into feeling hopeful? “Oh, Mommy is a snake, but I want her.” And we almost want her, too.
You must have them both: the father
who hates the mother, and the mother
who hates you.
Tight, simple, clear imagery that burns before it dissolves, these are poems that simultaneously horrify and comfort, rough you up, knock you off your feet while whispering for you to get up.
You break the chair
over my back each time
we speak. I hear you pause,
smoking, even though you quit.
I hear the words whistle
when you pick up the chair
before the snap, the crack
of your tongue as you destroy me.
I grew up thinking Italians
all broke chairs,
but it was always only you.
The language and rhythm casts a spell over us and we can’t stop until the end:
When you make a mess,
sometimes the only thing
is to wipe the table clean.
Lean into it as you push
the plates to the floor,
the butter dish. Let
the dishes break. Let
the dog come for the scraps
before you take the broom
and push everything out the door.
Our Mother of Sorrows is a miracle.