Book Review: Mothershell by Andrea Potos

Mothershell by Andrea Potos
Kelsay Books, Aldrich Press, 2020

Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk

Maybe I should have reviewed this book when I first read it, but, no, I always need to re-read books before I write about them. So now I have re-read Mothershell, by Andrea Potos, in May, a perfect time, but this latest reading is filtered through the current circumstances. Sadly, I call this COVID-19 reading, and it has been happening with novels, too. I re-read Little Women for comfort during this time, and of course encountered fever there, in the character of Beth. How wonderful to encounter Little Women and Louisa May Alcott in Mothershell, though it is in the poem “I Saw a Light Mist Rise,” about Alcott and her mother seeing “a pale mist” rising from the body of sister/daughter Lizzie when she died.

My COVID-19 reading makes certain things stand out or resonate differently. For instance, the opening poem, “Breakfast Eternal,” is still joyous on this re-reading, though it is a grief poem, about a mother and daughter having breakfast in a favorite diner…forever, even though the mother is gone:

          I love it here! she tells me again, isn’t Life
          as certain as it ever was, she and I
          face to face, drinking our coffee
          black and filled to the top.

But even though I know the poem is about seeing the mother, though gone, as clearly as ever, in my re-reading during the pandemic, life doesn’t feel “as certain as it ever was,” and I miss my mom, though here, as I can’t see her much at present. And this café cannot (or should not) be open.

Likewise, when I read “Relief,” I’m struck by the “mask” and breathing difficulty in these lines taking place in a hospital:

          My mother is no longer strapped
          under the noisy mask of the machine
          that steered her last breathing….

I’m terribly aware that hospital deathbed scenes with family close at hand aren’t happening now. So I have layers of response to Potos’s poems, sensing fully her intentions while also receiving ironies and griefs related to the current moment.

I thought I might escape into the poems that travel elsewhere—ah, but it’s sometimes to Italy, where COVID-19 has done so much harm. In “A Rome Morning,” there’s a convent and “young nuns gliding past,” and I think of the elderly nuns dying of the virus in their retirement home here in the United States. Still, there is cappuccino! There are lilies, sunflowers, yellow roses. There is “silver light” in these poems. There is art—Caillebotte, Cassat, Renoir. There is so much beauty in this book. The Keats epigraph from Endymion sets us up for it, and for beauty’s connection to the eternal:

          A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
          Its loveliness increases; it will never
          Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
          A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
          Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

But see how “health” suddenly stands out now, and “quiet breathing”?

And the beauty of the mother, to whom this book is dedicated, is everywhere, with “her darkpink smile,” her wonderful outfits—“pink blouse and blue jeans,” “coral blouse / scattered with tiny / daylit stars”! The beautiful scents in “Just Before Napping”—vanilla, Greek oregano, cinnamon, “the citrus / dishwashing soap that soothed her hands”—bring back the mother, in one reading, and remind me that I am alive and virus-free if I can still smell them in my COVID-19 reading. Even the soap… And there’s a poignant grocery store poem, “For My Sister Who Saw a Vision of Our Mother at the Check-out Line at Sendiks Market,” that reminds me how this event, though visionary, could only take place during “senior hours” at the grocery store right now.

Many people have been turning to poems for comfort and uplift since this began. In April, National Poetry Month, people began to Shelter in Poems online! But here I am, sheltering in the poems of Andrea Potos, feeling her reverence and grief, and still all too aware of other poignancies as well. I am grateful and amazed at the poet’s transporting language and that her mother “has passed through the needle of wonder, gone into the gold that suits her so well.” These poems are a sustained elegy for the mother, also honoring the grandmother, and sisters and aunts who bond in their routines of living, dying, loving. Let me leave you with a beautiful poem from Mothershell that shows you how they do it and what a perfect day it is, indeed.

The Kind of May Day it Is

If days were colors
I would name this one pink,
a pale pink like the rose quartz
pendant I wear, like the insides
of seashells or the colors of the blouses
my mother seemed to collect, box after box
of blouses we filled the day we finally
arrived to empty her apartment—my sister,
my niece, my aunt and I, all of us somehow
working steadily as one that summer day,
holding each other up through sheer purpose
and necessity of our task. Some of her blouses
I took home with me: the one patterned with white
blossoms and doves, the striped flannel,
the plain Oxford she wore in my favorite photo.
I keep them in my closet beside my long skirts
and jumpers, many of them pink now, my chosen
color, to remind myself always of her
beauty and gentleness like this May
day arriving with and without her.

Andrea Potos at EIL

Andrea Potos in Poetry is All Around Us at EIL

Andrea Potos in Mother’s Day 2020 at EIL

Shelter in Poems

Photo credit: Ave Rio

Kathleen Kirk is the poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She is the author of eight poetry chapbooks, most recently Spiritual Midwifery (Red Bird, 2019), and the winner of the 2019 Patricia Dobler Award with “Fox Collar,” a poem about her mother. Her COVID-19 reading applies even to the 2020 Mother’s Day feature at Escape Into Life, prepared months ago, before the current wearing of masks…and yet the art shows a mother wearing a mask. It’s scary to be accidentally prescient.


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