Book Review: Mother’s Milk, by Rachel Hunt Steenblik

Book Review: Mother’s Milk
by Rachel Hunt Steenblik
Illustrations by Ashley Mae Hoiland
By Common Consent Press, 2017

No matter how hard I try, I can’t dig up early memories of my mother. After three babies in three years, my mom succumbed to overwhelming depression and left my dad to raise us on his own. When I search through memory, the earliest mental picture I have of my mom was when I was around four or five. I sat in a car with my older sister and younger brother. Someone was driving us from Logan to Salt Lake for a visit. I remember the adult drove us through a neighborhood of blocky red apartment buildings before slowing and pulling up to the curb. Our chaperone-chauffeur pointed to a woman jogging on the sidewalk. She had platinum blonde hair pulled into a ponytail and was wearing grey sweatpants. She turned, saw us, and smiled.

And I didn’t know who she was.

Not until the driver said, That’s your mom.

Then it was as if something soft clicked into place, and I knew. That was my mom. She was right there. And oh, how I’d been missing her, even though I didn’t remember she existed till that moment.

The driver stopped the car and we kids raced to hug her.

Regular visits with my mom didn’t become a thing until she moved back to Logan when I was 10 or 11. We’d go stay with her on alternate weekends, and it never seemed like enough. From a young age, I’ve felt a deep biological mother hunger that went unsatisfied through much of my life.

Fast forward 10 years and I was hitting the streets for the first time as an LDS missionary in Quebec. It was January 1st, penetratingly cold, and I remember stepping out of the car into a freezing but sunny street in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, a small city northeast of Montreal. I was immediately surprised to see a statue of Mary in someone’s backyard, lightly dusted with snow. The commonplaceness of the statue was remarkable to me, not having grown up in a town with many catholics. She was beautiful, stone grey, and the snow covered her like a bridal veil. I might have stood there all day if my companion hadn’t hurried me along to the first door. The backyard Mary would be my first, but certainly not my last, encounter with Marian worship in Quebec, and it stirred something in me, a spiritual Mother hunger that was both familiar and foreign.

About six months ago, I had the pleasure of reading Rachel Hunt Steenblik’s Mother’s Milk for the first time, a book of tiny poems exploring the LDS (Mormon) concept of Heavenly Mother. As far as I know, it is the first individual collection of poems expressly devoted to the theme of Heavenly Mother. The poems are complemented by a series of original drawings by Ashley Mae Hoiland, mostly of women, mothers, sisters, and daughters. The facelessness of Hoiland’s designs are a kind of Everywoman template, and readers are invited to use their own creative resources to mentally fill in the blanks. Steenblik’s collection is divided into four sections: The Hunger, The Reaching, The Learning, and The Nourishing. The poems are followed by what might be described as Steenblik’s librarian impulse to document everything, a Notes section that gives helpful and precise context to the tiny poems themselves.

Just as something clicked into place in my earliest memory of my biological mother, I felt a similar sense of relief and completion when I read Steenblik’s poems. I hadn’t fully realized how much I’d missed my biological mother until I saw her, and I didn’t comprehend how I’d hungered for more of the divine feminine until I read Steenblik’s work. Raised LDS, I’m used to largely patriarchal structures of authority and worship. God’s pronoun was masculine. The pronoun revisions Steenblik makes to such authoritative LDS texts as “The First Article of Faith” feel like a seabreeze, a necessary wind blowing smoke from the bowl of a burnt valley:

I believe in God the Eternal
Father and Mother,
and in their Son, Jesus Christ,
and in the Holy Ghost. (p. 130)

This rewrite is revolutionary, or perhaps I should say revelationary, since it is still in keeping with the doctrinal tenets of Mormonism that affirm the existence of God the Mother. It leads me to ask, Why not adopt this poetic rendition officially? There’s no reason for the Mother to be left out, and it would be so healing for many of the women and girls in the church who’ve felt marginalized because of gender. I imagine many readers felt as I did when they read Steenblik’s work, that something inexplicably missing had finally been restored, at least semantically.

Although Steenblik’s poems are mostly bitesize, some of them barely a handful of words, this sparseness shouldn’t be mistaken for lack of depth. Steenblik’s poems are elegantly spare, but not shallow. They have the meditative quality of deeply-earned wisdom, lemon hard candy you can savor a long time. They are straightforward and accessible enough to be understood on some level by young children—and how I would love to see some of them adopted in Sunday School classes for kids and teens—but there is also plenty of nourishment for the adult mind. One of my personal favorites from the collection is “What Rosemary Taught Me”:

It counts how we
He, Him, His.
She, Her, Hers.
They, Them, Theirs.

It counts how we
Almighty father.
Nursing mother.
Partnered parents. (p. 19)

As readers can glean from the Notes section, the “Rosemary” in the title refers to Rosemary Radford Reuther, a feminist theologian and author of Sexism and God-talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Steenblik has condensed the argument of the book down to a nugget, a morsel, and if readers want more, because of those helpful endnotes, they know where to find it. The Notes section is really wonderful for providing additional pathways for exploration.

Steenblik draws source material from philosophers like Kierkegaard and feminist theologists like Margaret Barker, children’s literature (Peter Pan and The Little Prince), pop culture (Disney’s Moana), and a range of scriptural references. Her tiny poems allude to the influence of other poets, such as Amiri Baraka, Li-Young Lee, and Mary Oliver. Steenblik also does the work of locating her own contribution within the conversation of other Mormon feminists and writers who’ve creatively explored the theme of Heavenly Mother, including Linda Wilcox, Margaret Toscano, Janice Allred, Maxine Hanks, Carol Lynn Pearson, Linda Sillitoe, Lisa Bolin Hawkins, Margaret Rampton Munk, Joanna Brooks, Nola Wallace, and Melody Newey Johnson.

Overall, Steenblik’s poems give this reader the impression of someone who’s read and thought deeply about the role of the feminine divine, how Heavenly Mother can be sought and invited more fully into Mormon discourse in general and into the spirituality of individuals in particular. Steenblik has made herself uniquely vulnerable by seeking to share her own spiritual journey as a mother searching for the Mother, and what she and Hoiland have produced is a nothing short of a gift.

DAYNA PATTERSON is a consulting editor for Bellingham Review, poetry editor for Exponent II Magazine, and founding editor-in-chief of Psaltery & Lyre. She is a co-editor (with Tyler Chadwick and Martin Pulido) of Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry (Peculiar Pages Press 2018). Her poetry has recently appeared in Hotel Amerika, Sugar House Review, Zone 3, and others.