• Amber Shockley

Other People's Poetry: "Goodnight Mother, Goodnight Moon" by Nancy Reddy

It’s well past time for another OPP. I am, indeed, still down with other people’s poetry.


gif

To crack my knuckles after a long hiatus, I’m dipping into “Goodnight Mother, Goodnight Moon” by Nancy Reddy, published at Poetry Is Currency. This poem is among the more lengthy I’ve read, with multiple sections, each separated by a small dot.


A diversion right off the bat, by way of a pondering on aesthetic:


As a poet and a perfectionist (aren’t they the same?), I am aware of just how stickling poets can be about the way their work presents on the page. We toil so tirelessly to produce alchemy from space and words - ingredients sometimes as difficult to harvest as “eye of newt and toe of frog.” When editors presume a detail doesn’t matter, it really does put us out. As an editor, I’m aware of just how difficult certain details can be to reproduce. I’m wondering whether the details here - small dots - were the choice of the poet, the editor, the content management system, or a combination of all. Did the poet separate her sections with a squiggle in her original manuscript? with a dash? Was she told, or convinced, those wouldn't work? This may seem a paltry matter, but all it takes is a brief gander at the history of fonts to realize that the shape of the most minute swoop or dangle on an individual letter can make a difference in our perception, and reception, of a text. So too then, the dot, dash or squiggle.

gif

Okay, back to the text at large. I will be taking a bit of a bit of it, from the second section:


When the baby finally sleeps the house seals itself like an envelope.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

the baby is a solid mass of muslin, spittle, milk. Where does the baby go

in sleep?


I want, of course, to jump directly into the deep pool of music. Before we do, however, it would behoove us to take in the title of the poem.


gif

Goodnight Mother, Goodnight Moon.


Obviously, Reddy’s choice is reminiscent of the famed children’s book, Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. If it were possible to induce warm and fuzzy feelings any further, that would surely be accomplished by adding Goodnight Mother.


I am enthralled with this poem, in part because comfort begins and ends with the title. The rest of the poem provides a twisting tension against more genteel ideals of motherhood. The poem reads as if the writer is wringing her hands, and by the last line we look down to see rope burns on our own palms. The reader sinks back into their chair with exhaustion and a new sense of the raw edges of a mother’s experience.


Now, music. In the lines I’ve selected, s sounds dominate throughout:


When the baby finally sleeps the house seals itself like an envelope.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

the baby is a solid mass of muslin, spittle, milk. Where does the baby go

in sleep?


Please note that these s sounds are all sinister slither and hiss - there’s no calm of the repeated voiceless palato-alveolar fricative you might hear as a mother rocks her child to sleep.


Wait, what? What’s a voiceless palato-alveolar fricative, you say?


gif

I found that mouthful like a pot of gold at the end of a Google rainbow. I’m sure the context clues gave it away, but for those who haven’t figured it out yet…


gif

Actually, there’s one exception with “sugar,” but as it’s surrounded by so many other, discomfiting sounds in the same stanza, that hardly matters.


The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

The stanza begins and ends with thick-tongue bookends of the th sound.

The th sound. That’s uncomfortable to say, isn’t it? Like your tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth. Of course, the tongue must hit the roof of the mouth to make the th sound (did it again) and, when repeated, as it is here, the effect can be downright aggressive.

Other sounds cash the check the th sounds have written.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

These sprinkled in c-k-ck-g sounds all involve certain contractions just at or near the back of the throat. Like choking. None are particularly pleasant to make, or to hear. They are not the sounds you’d want to cozy up close to a lover’s ear and recite. Notice how these harsh sounds, these word choices, magnify the tone of the poem. The poet isn’t cutely describing a mother’s late night snack. The poet is dragging us into a damned hell - scour, cracking, crusted, against her teeth.

A muffin turned into a treat from Satan? Again, that’s tension.


gif

Next, more mouth gymnastics.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

In the same stanza, the lines end with ee - in the second line, the ee is repeated. This forces us to draw our lips back, exposing our teeth like scared dogs. It is a grimace, not a smile, I assure you.


gif

I wouldn't be thorough if I didn’t mention the f sounds present in the text, and their effect.

The mother scours the kitchen for something sweet,

cracking a sugar-crusted muffin against her teeth. Asleep

The f sound makes us bite our lip. Not in lust. Here, it’s f as in wanna fight? or fuck off.


Finally, notice that there is no mention of the baby in this musically metal rock stanza. Following the alluding adverb asleep, the baby is dropped down to the next stanza.

the baby is a solid mass of muslin, spittle, milk. Where does the baby go

in sleep?


Here, we find dull, perhaps lulling b, d and m sounds. Sounds with soft, rounded edges. Sounds of a baby babbling. Indeed, baby appears twice. Yet again, we have tension, because the baby is defined as “a solid mass,” which is hardly complimentary. You wouldn't expect “solid mass” to appear on a birth announcement. Maybe you’d find the phrase in a medical record as a euphemism for a tumor. What is the mass made of? Not sugar and spice and everything nice. Muslin, okay. Milk, okay. Spittle? Yuck. It reminds me of Edward Gorey's Beastly Baby.



The stanza asks a disconcerting question: Where does the baby go in sleep?

Not What does the baby dream? The poet asks, Where does the baby go? How does a helpless baby go at all? Is this a magical wizard baby? Or, does go assume in dream rather than in reality? Or, in what sense go? Perhaps I am taking the wrong perspective. Maybe this is not speaking to the baby’s sleep journey, but to the mother’s. Where does the baby go, what happens to the baby, when the mother is asleep, not conscious of the world around her?


The uncertainty of meaning at this point in the stanza adds to the ever-building tension otherwise created by language and tone typically disparate to motherhood, including, perhaps, the indication that the mother abandons her baby when she sleeps - for all intents and purposes, the baby disappears to her, so much so that the poet, perhaps taking the mother’s perspective, questions the baby’s whereabouts.


Clearly, at this point, I’m not sure how to interpret this question, and I’m okay with that. I told you, reader, to keep it loosey goosey when reading poetry. I never promised that loosey goosey would get you answers. Sometimes, the journey is the reward.


Of course, I’m only giving you a bit of a bit here, remember. If you keep reading, you very well may find answers…


gif

But before you go, I want to take a look at the first stanza in this selection now.


Yes. I know this is ass backwards. But just quickly.


gif

When the baby finally sleeps the house seals itself like an envelope.


Right away, the section opens with exhaustion and exacerbation. The baby finally sleeps. We feel the colic, the weary hours of walking and rocking.


Next, a simile provides tension of uncertainty that precedes the whole baby go question.


...the house seals itself like an envelope.


A house seals itself? An envelope seals itself? How do these things happen?


Unless, the “house” here is not a house, not a house-house, but a metaphor…


gif

Like I said, if you head over to Poetry is Currency and read the poem in its entirety, you might get answers.


Or you might not. But the journey through this poem is worth it either way, if only for the display of how poetry can make us understand, relate and feel for others. I am not a mother, but through Reddy’s poem, I was able to experience some modicum of the many, varied, frightening aches of being a mother. From this poem at Poetry is Currency, we see that poetry is empathy.


Bonus: The Weird Story of How ‘Goodnight Moon’ Was Suppressed By a Snobby Librarian