In the days leading up to Mother’s Day I treated myself to extra reading time, time I spent with two books that helped me think more deeply about the female experience: My Body by Emily Ratajkowski and The Poetics of Wrongness by Rachel Zucker. While I picked them up in an effort to shorten my (usually less beloved) non-fiction to-read pile, reading these two books in sequence enriched my experience of both and my experience of Mother’s Day, my manuscript, and the ways I want to move in the world going forward.
My Body by Emily Ratajkowski
Before I get into this excellent book, I want to share with you why the title makes me giggle happily. When my son was in preschool, he came home with the words “my body” to express his personhood. If he didn’t want to be touched or touched in a certain way, “my body” implied his ownership of himself. If he wanted to show off, he could say “my body” and smile and I’d smile right back at this most beautiful creature. My husband and I have carried the phrase forward as a loving goof about that second use case but it also serves as a reminder to us that he does own that little body. And we own ours, even if we never had the same language to express it. We’re in awe of that kid and in awe of this age of talking more clearly about our bodies in the world.
Ratajkowski thoughtfully expresses the same duality of self containment and observed self in the essays in My Body. A model and actor who spent significant parts of her early career as an Instagram influencer, Ratajkowski is very aware of beauty—what it means to be beautiful as well as what it means to use that beauty as currency. The essays explore everything from parental expectations to sexual assault to living an Instagrammable life on someone else’s dime.
What I liked most about this book, though, is how layered and nuanced Ratajkowski’s writing is. She’s beautiful and aware of (and honest about) the best and worst of that. She’s empowered in her body and also (unfortunately) experiences the limits of that power in a patriarchal society. She’s doing her best to be strong in the world and also one (at times very young) girl with no one looking out for her.
I’m trying to pick a favorite essay, but I can’t. I just know that I’ll be returning to this book again and again as I write about girls who are trying to find their ways in the world even when society feels like it’s working against them.
The Poetics of Wrongness by Rachel Zucker
The Poetics of Wrongness by Rachel Zucker was referenced over and over at AWP this year, so I ordered it and added to the to-read pile in the middle of my office floor. But something called to me about this book so I lifted it from that messy stack of somedays just after finishing My Body. The title essay is incredibly good—another instance of layered, nuanced thought that is worth reading and reading and reading. But what I loved most about this book was reading”Why She Could Not Write a Lecture on the Poetics of Motherhood,” especially since I read it in the wee hours of Mother’s Day as I was hoping my son would not wake up quite yet.
“It was thirteen days before she was supposed to deliver a lecture called ‘The Poetics of Motherhood’ at the Portland Literary Arts Center, and she had not written it. She had written parts of it in her head and she had written notes on small pieces of paper that she had misplaced somewhere in the apartment. She was even teaching a class in which she had delivered four mini-lectures in the first four weeks of the semester in preparation to write this lecture, but she had not written the lecture.” – The Poetics of Wrongness by Rachel Zucker
The essay goes on to detail the millions of things Zucker is doing instead of writing the intended lecture, all while trying to write the lecture. She invites a former student over to help her write the lecture and instead they write a list of all the things she needs to do before writing the lecture. She realizes she needs to triage but her son needs her because he’s trying to do too much so she takes the time to teach him about triage and helps him get through part of his list. She consults writers she would like to lecture about and she tries to get away to think but a myriad of life experiences keep intervening. What never manages to prioritize in the triage is writing the lecture. Which is to say that reading this essay is like being a mother. Progress is being made all the time, but not always toward what you wanted to finish. Needs arise all the time, and you have to figure out how to keep everyone alive. Help is available but the pile is still too big. And everything is interruptible. ALL THE TIME.
This interrupted, all-over-the-place essay is of course very artfully structured to achieve this feeling, and there are nuggets of information in it about specific poets and their experiences as mothers. But most of all this piece is incredibly effective. At the end I felt seen and also wondered how mothers (or involved parents of any gender) manage to create anything at all for about two decades in the middle of their “most productive” years. I read whole sections of it to my husband that morning because he’s also an artist serving as a caregiver (and felt myself growing increasingly manic as the work piled up). The essay made me think about the choices we’re making and the choices that are being made for us. It made me remember that part of the reason I felt like I could write at all during my cherished Saturday morning writing time this weekend was because I had spent many hours during the week reading and lying in the grass staring up at the sycamore leaves expanding over my head.
I don’t have a point except that I want to thrust this essay into the hands of all the creative caregivers I know and say “you’re doing great. If you had time to write it all down you might realize just how much you really are accomplishing. Even if none of it is what you set out to do.”