DM Me, Mother Darling by Alexa Doran (Bauhan Publishing 2021)
Reviewed by Audrey Gidman
“We’ve all turned the knob down on God.”
Erotic, synesthetic, nebulous, rebellious, sensual, haunting: these words continuously ran through my mind as I tried to integrate the radically clever and wild movement of Alexa Doran’s debut collection, DM Me, Mother Darling.
How do I say it other than this: the work is amalgamous and full of pain—effervescent, shifting shape, shedding over and over like a snake whose skin has never fit. Doran amorphously circles and strikes at the tensions of motherhood, sex, grief, drugs, God, judgement, resilience, sickness, instincts, and grit as she tries, repeatedly, to convince us “to believe [that] love is / obscene” (25).
The book finds anchor in Mother Darling, the fleeting matriarch of the Peter Pan world who takes on new life as a full-fledged, untethered, grief-struck and totally dysfunctional character. Her children have vanished and she blames herself—for somehow making them feel unprepared to stay. But Mother Darling’s personhood surprises and bewilders. She emerges, poem by poem, stark, abandoned and painfully human, her soul pacing fiercely inside her body as if threatening to leave. She returns, over and over, with an often dissociated longing, to memories of Wendy: remembering the ghostly imprint of her waist on a cushion, imagining her face in the shadow of a cobra, or her shoulder in Venice, or her young body “pressed against dawn’s face” (30), planting her slip in the garden. She is haunted. We are haunted.
But then these poems circle so much more than Mother Darling’s straddling narrative, diving between continents, states, timelines, pasts, names, mothers, fathers and children. We recall Wendy, John and Michael some moments, then meet Dante in others. We bounce between London, Boston, New York City, Las Vegas, and Tallahassee, with whispers of Mississippi and Tennessee, almost as if we are flying. Fathers are left behind: both Wendy’s and Dante’s. The I switches between Mother Darling and a different mother, a new mother—an exhausted, God-skeptical, tough-as-blood mother who takes one look at her life and says: “there is something to swallow in this” (88) and “I thought if coal could exist, so could I” (50). A mother full of edges, a mother running like hell from “Bible-bloat” (65), a mother on her knees in the dark, empty-handed, trying to figure out how to live without surrendering: “let God be / a lily pad instead” (64).
The mothers in these poems become orbiting caricatures of each other, like alternate dimensions, like a fogged up mirror. This duality is echoed not only in their struggles and their motherhoods but in the language itself. Doran utilizes consonance, assonance and slant rhyme consistently—compulsively, melodically, nearly pop song-esque—throughout the entire book. We often see such combinations as “decomposes” and “what God owes us” (81) embedded in the text, facilitating a sort of mad somatic spiral throughout the fragmenting narrative that splits apart, then builds and builds, inverting and subverting and crystalizing, then dissolving in on itself, unaware of boundaries—as though the narrative itself were drunk and dizzy with grief.
This book glitters. It’s dark and frayed. It’s hot pink and heartache. It’s bubblegum chromatics with a dusting of powder blue and rusted rims. It’s dotted with reminders—like lessons that aren’t attached to the body, lessons that don’t always make sense—that “music is / a kind of grass” (45) and “each stretch mark [is] a violet unscrewed” (88) and “not everything above can crush us” (74). Reminders given to little ones, to ghosts and to the self. Reminders to stay awake, to keep magic in your pocket, to lift every stone looking for joy because “if hurt has / a color it’s hologram, it’s the only way / we’ll grow” (33).
This book is frantic. It’s desperate. It’s upside down and on fire. It’s high and it’s in withdrawal. It’s a song for the babies: “I am making all these plans to keep you buoyant” (87). It’s an upended, bloodied inquiry: “perhaps I / gave up the right to ignore prayer” (83). It’s an exalted nod to the ache that never leaves: “…loss has a mouth / that ferns and ferns” (23). DM Me, Mother Darling is messy and chaotic and massively risky, choosing deliberately to abandon sense and side with the divine chance of language to carry the narrative when grief becomes too heavy and too wild to hold logic on its shoulders. Grief isn’t logical. Ache isn’t logical. Pain isn’t logical. This book attempts, by way of essentially becoming an onomatopoeia for the drunkenness of grief, to show how language—through affiliation, through sound, through metaphor—can tell the story at a slant. Because maybe slant is the only way in. Doran’s poems, all Britney Spears and make believe and bloodied knees, all hash and heartbreak and a perfect baby boy, are a slanted story. She says at one point, “I thought I could glam my way / out of grief” (40). But grief comes for all of us. And it never makes sense.