The Outer Wards by Sadiqa de Meijer
(Montreal, QC: Signal Editions, 2020, $17.95, 88 pages)
Review by Bill Neumire
A hospital room, a distance from a city center, a defended outer enclosure—a ward is a removal. But then, of course, a ward is also a person in your care and charge. The Outer Wards, Sadiqa de Meijer’s second poetry collection, centers on the motherhood of the speaker as she moves through the delicate daily process of realizing her precarious connectedness to and separateness from her young daughter, a fraught connection when the speaker is considering her own mortality during an unnamed illness in a hospital room. de Meijer, whose first collection, Leaving Howe Island, was a nominee for the 2014 Governor General’s Award for English-language poetry and for the 2014 Pat Lowther Award, asks herself difficult questions in order to at- tempt to answer them, but also to articulate their unaswerableness. The opening epigraphs, especially in the context of a speaker discussing her motherhood, are foreboding: a “Letter in November” excerpt from Sylvia Plath—whose own experience of motherhood and hospital stays is by now infamous—and Elizabeth Bishop’s line, “‘time to plant tears, says the almanac.’”
Much of this book of poems is directly addressed to the “you” of the daughter, even before her birth. The poet’s expression and articulation of womanhood and motherhood is reverent and original, as in this description of her menstruation in “Mother of Vinegar”:
like a clot
of that blood
I said it doesn’t hurt to lose.
The curse. The rag. The earth’s maw
collecting windfall thuds.
Cramps are its motion, inward, folding
the latest parachute.
I’m telling you of a miracle.
The moon brews it and we sluice it out.
Leaves you clean as gin.
The greatest thing I ever did, this was my material.
The change registered as the speaker becomes a parent is clear as she epiphanically realizes in “Incantation,” “Love, I recalibrated all catas- trophes / when you were born.” The daughter fills her with purpose and satisfaction: “I’ve never / elated anyone // as much as her inside our headlong now.” But this is also a troubled speaker who has “rigged so many games so [she] couldn’t lose, / and found [her]self ugly and lonely,” a speaker who confesses in poems like “O, Death” and “The Cure for Everything,” “it’s so warm, so warm. And I almost forget to remember what’s wrong,” a speaker who admits, casually, “Yeah, I feel as spectral as I look.”
de Mejier varies her poems with aplomb, offering long free verse contemplations offset by short confessional poem entries like this one, quoted in its entirety:
Some days, all I have for her
is the ladle of my body
The daughter is a magical language of “gorgeous distortions.” Not surprisingly, then, it’s this incantatory progeny that keeps the speaker animated, structured, as she says in “It’s the Inner Harbor neighborhood but everyone calls it Skeleton Park,” “When I feel spectral, / the unmodulated volume of her greeting / gives me form.” The daughter forces a new vision, instructing in the same 8-page poem, “Mama, let’s pretend that I’m a stranger to this land, / and I don’t even know what the sky is,” and inquiring, later in the same poem, “Mama, what made myself?” Acquisitive, inquisitive, new to this earth, children make unique angels of poetry, even and especially in their foreignness, as the daughter is also a reminder to the speaker of her own mother, as in the institutional hospital setting of “The Imaging Department” when she reflects, “Dear mother, / I wished you were my country again.” Indeed, the dedication is “for my mother” (but in Dutch “voor mijn moeder”) and the book includes several references to de Meijer’s native Netherlands, such as Der mouw (a Dutch poet and philosopher), Rembrandtplein (a square in Amsterdam), Rijn (Rhine), and Rijksmuseum (The Museum of the Netherlands). It’s a speaker whose feeling of foreignness is only mitigated and centered by her daughter, stating most bluntly, “I’m foreign, and she is home.”
In the latter part of the book, when the mother’s claim on her daughter is most tenuous, the darkest moments emerge as the speaker realizes the shifting in how much the daughter needs her versus how much she needs the daughter, reflecting on a newly-hatched dragonfly, “There was a mother, / earlier, but none of this required her.” The outer wards ripple away, away from her control and possession, away from her body and health. The last poem is titled “The Mother Shirt” and here the shirt acts like the old metaphor of wearing many hats: “My selves hang like shirts / that were skins— // now I am raw and peaceful.” It continues, “the mother shirt is magnificent, // stained with blackberries and tempera paint.” This last note of the book is elegiac, nostalgic for the growing/ leaving daughter/moment: “like the signal after the slow, shuttered train has gone.” Death and illness compete for space in a book of birth and motherhood, just as the daughter weds the spectral to the earthly:
Mother, I was alone,
she says, in all our old haunts,
at a loss for what I had done
or not done to make you disappear.
The mother in her outer wards has visions of dying, and of paradise. She even, at one moment, wants to scream to grocery shoppers, “people, you’re going to be dead!” Ghostliness haunts the spectral speaker of these poems whose mind and memory hover between homes; but her real home, though it’s one she recognizes she has no control over, is her daughter, a figure representative of awe and magic, of the power of not yet knowing and thus always seeing, intuiting, feeling. Though she recog- nizes the grief of her growing distance from the “dearest unpossesable,” she’s convinced, even after death, her atoms and the grass would love her child, knowing that she has to “ache and let her life unfold // which is the greatest form of love.”
Bill Neumire’s first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 42 Miles Press Award and his second manuscript was recently a finalist for the Barrow Street Prize. It will be published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. He serves as poetry editor for Verdad.
Sadiqa de Meijer is the author of the poetry collections Leaving Howe Island (2013) and The Outer Wards (2020), as well as a book of essays on her first language, alfabet / alphabet (2020). She resides in Kingston, Ontario.