Melanie Dennis Unrau, Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems (Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford, 2013). Paperback, 93 pages, $15.95.
“The materiality of the writer’s life cannot be exaggerated. If you like metaphysics, throw pots.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
As a social and cultural historian, I spend a great deal of time sifting through the archives, or the collected “stuff” of people’s lives. Why? Because occasionally, and much to the excitement of the researcher, these archives provide new windows into important historical events and help us to understand in nuanced ways the inner workings of global flows, time and space, politics and nature, as well as human action, resistance, and meaning-making. More often than not, however, these material remnants (letters, diaries, songs, children’s drawings, photographs, death certificates, notes, sewing patterns, newspaper clippings, weather reports, and poetry) offer humbling reminders that it is the dwelled-in “everyday,” the parochial and the domestic—not the political, social, or cultural “out there, somewhere”—which has provided individuals with the most meaningful, affective, and fecund ground for cultivating the mysteries and negotiations of their humanity throughout history.
With an attentive eye to the everyday, Melanie Dennis Unrau’s debut collection of poetry, Happiness Threads: The Unborn Poems, an exploration of one woman’s efforts to locate truth in the idea of a delicate balance between motherhood and artistry, offers this very same humble reminder.
This rich, five-part compilation is grounded in the beautiful, frustrating, humorous, ugly, joyful, harrowing, and ironic complexities of an urban mother and writer. And it is precisely this rootedness in the domestic that allows Dennis Unrau to engage the reader in clever, self-reflective explorations of identity built on the limits and lauds of contemporary feminism and motherhood, religion and family history, conception, birth, stillbirth, loss, love, the Internet, and partnership.
Lines from the book’s untitled opening poem, perhaps the best in the collection, strikingly summarize its juxtaposition of materiality and metaphysics:
my children are not my poetry
they make their own
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
it’s always work to be awake push
back against routine stoop to play
a child’s game while the laundry dishes I
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
a mother’s job is to know
what matters and keep it alive
a poet’s job is to feel
for a pulse
so long as i’m living
Part one, “little bird,” continues to attend with honesty to daily life, with its focus on the lived bleakness of miscarriage and stillbirth. Here, the poem “miscarriage” and the sequence “unborn poems” stand out with their stark comparisons of the corporeal reality of the death of an unborn child, and the ethereal, haunting curiosity about what, if anything, can be made sense of spiritually in such a parting. These poems offer unadorned yet powerful images, like that of a robin’s nest grounded by young boys’ hockey sticks, and the bird then cupped in a little girl’s hands, alongside the mysticism of imagining a miscarried infant absorbing back into its mother’s body, its only chance at an act of love.
Parts two, “little pumpkin,” and three, “little guy” jointly muse on the strange, intimate wonders of conception and pregnancy, birth, mothering, and childhood. The most elegant poem in part two, “favour,” offers an intergenerational reflection of being mothered alongside a candid supplication for blessing amidst the chaos and judgment in mothering. The strongest of part three, the long poem “another birth story,” redirects the readers’ attention to the writer’s own experience of “birth”: an emergent womanhood, by way of the writing life, motherhood, sexual experience, and watching children grow.
The fourth part, the title section, or “happiness threads,” is a bold, crafty series of poems written in the truncated style of an online, natural-mothering forum. This is the longest section of the collection. Though the abbreviations the author uses here are tiring despite the provided glossary, and though the section itself seems, with its sarcasm, to depart from the sentimental depth of the other parts, any feminist eye will pick up on and find meaning in the beauty of the ironic tone. Here, Dennis Unrau responds to and in the style of Internet conversation threads, which opens up space for the reader to consider the incongruous nature of official discourses about extended online community, happiness and contentment in motherhood, and the individual principles surrounding partnership, the body, and family.
The fifth and final part entangles the affective sundries that run throughout the collection, under the rather apt heading, “love poems.” This section wonderfully highlights the cultivation of self that comes from acts of love and loving: “alone I can feel myself all the way to the edges / one human distinct and fully grown / it’s love to veer back toward home,” writes Dennis Unrau, in the third section of “stride.”
This collection will appeal to women and men of all ages, parents or otherwise. It will conjure sights and sounds for those who are familiar with Winnipeg’s central Wolseley neighbourhood. While one of the collection’s underlying themes, motherhood, might dissuade those readers who cannot relate, upon closer inspection all will find significance in its questions of identity, love, and art in a contemporary world where public discourses of self-mastery and life-balance dictate.
Most importantly, readers will appreciate the collection’s groundedness in relationships, vocation, and the everyday, or its unification of the materiality and metaphysics within an equally austere and beautiful world. This everyday is a catalyst of love and becoming. Dennis Unrau’s collection emboldens us to remember.
Susie Fisher Stoesz is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Manitoba, an avid gardener, and sometimes poet. Her academic and creative work is centred on emotion among Mennonite migrants and their descendants.