Mothers Over Nangarhar, by Pamela Hart
Sarabande, 2019. 87 pp.
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
In Mothers Over Nangarhar, Pamela Hart’s debut, the speaker wrestles with the role, reach, and responsibility of being the mother of a soldier. Her child may take the lives of other children; he himself may be broken. The inescapable maze of contour map lines on the book cover and the reference to Nangarhar—an Afghan province and focal point in the longest running war in US history—suggest psychological and physical distance. Being “over Nangarhar” is a false closeness; rather than a flesh-and-blood influence, “mother” here is more of a hovering spirit whose grasp is futile.
In “War Partita,” the opening poem, the speaker imports the soldier’s duties into the domestic sphere, imagining that she can move in sync with her absent son. “I check the world clock / Looking for the force of cluster / I recon the conflict / Secure the day’s perimeter.” The speaker demonstrates an absurd sense of control in these lines, suggesting that the cluster bomb’s blast in Afghanistan would register on her world clock, that her “recon” of “the conflict” will somehow affect the goings-on half a world away. The poem closes with the imperative: “Oh you of frenzied armor / Carve this song / Into your bullet” giving commands as if she is in charge, as if her words will affect the bullet’s trajectory.
After a section break, “Cities & Signs & War,” one of many prose poems in the collection, begins with less certainty. Like the other prose poems, this one comprises short sentences and questions that end in periods. The effect is a series of telegram-like missives, as if these sentiments and observations are meant to be quickly communicated and digested. But the simplicity is misleading, thwarted by syntax and formulation. This piece begins with an impossible knot of if/then: “If all cities are Venice and all Venice is a memory then where will you be deployed. Will you see Venice in Kabul.” By the poem’s end, the mother is resigned to the role she will occupy in much of the collection: “Your face burns as it hunts. The signs are signs of other things. What do I as your mother know of this. Nothing.” She can formulate and speculate, but all for naught.
Even the poems about visiting museums and farmer’s markets are shot through with war. In “The Cut,” the speaker describes the family filling in the void when the mother “sliced off my fingertip,” while gardening. The husband and children band together to make dinner and dessert.
I watched them slip into my form, take on an aspect of me and how that happens when some part goes missing. This was like happiness. How they hurried to fill the cut. How they stitched together the slight emptiness.
This particular “cut” is “stitched together,” but the family working in concert stands in contrast to the families marked by absence later in the collection. This poem poses an unspoken question: how will anyone stitch the gaps left by the deployed loved ones?
Hart’s collection follows not only the central mother-speaker, but others whose sons and daughters, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters are at war. In “The Women,” Joanie, Stella, Mary, Jane and Shelly are women marked by absence, making plans that hinge on a man’s return: when to buy the wedding dress, what food to cook for the reunion. Their plans shift to harder truths:
It’s like being married to a stranger
I don’t want to fight anymore
We count the days
check the inbox
We unspool our biggest
dread and make
it into a beautiful spider
The women are already stuck in the web of their dread. The spider looms. They have created something lovely and menacing through their shared loss and longing.
Hart does not shy from self-indictment, investigating the mother’s role in her son’s choice to be a soldier. If his “first gun was a dinosaur,” does that mean that no matter what toy she gave him, he would create a gun? In “War Stories” she asks directly:
Can he kill is a story. Will the mother blame herself could be another. And how does the mother feel….The story is a story on the idea of war and the son who might kill or be killed. She could or could not change this.
Could the mother change this? Anyone whose loved one has made a morally questionable choice can identify with the sense of self-blame looming beneath these poems.
War poetry often speaks from the deployed soldier’s point of view. Hart’s collection presents an essential counterpoint, giving voice to the networks of civilians whose lives are forever altered by the experiences of their loved ones. She reveals the paradox of helplessness and complicity. These are voices on a precipice, voices not-yet in mourning, but already aware of the need to be “like an ocean” ready to “carry [the soldiers’] broken parts.”
Emily Pérez is the author of House of Sugar, House of Stone, and the chapbook Backyard Migration Route. She earned her MFA at the University of Houston, where she was poetry editor for Gulf Coast and taught with Writers in the Schools. Her poems have appeared in journals including Poetry, Diode, Bennington Review, Borderlands, and DIAGRAM. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver, where she lives with her husband and sons.