Mum Poet Club Recommended Reading with Emily Patterson
This March, Mum Poet Club member Emily Patterson recommends Mary Oliver's Dream Work and tells us how Oliver's poems have influenced her own poetry and her first collection So Much Tending Remains.
There are poets who spark our love of poetry, and poets who can inspire us to write poetry ours.elves. Then there are the poets who invite us to do both: the ones who, when we really dwell in their work, their words, can become our mentors and teachers. The ones who show us how to see the world, then beckon us to spin that seeing into poems.
For me, and I suspect for others reading these words, Mary Oliver is one such poet. Her work, deeply rooted in the natural world, speaks clearly and wisely about what it means to be human—to be “alive / on this fresh morning / in this broken world.” Her poems are love poems to the world: to finches and foxes, to winter and wild geese. They teach us how to see it clearly in both its beauty and its brokenness—to “Pay attention. / Be astonished. / Tell about it.”
Several years ago, I was struggling to become pregnant. The grief of infertility felt like walking into an invisible wilderness, and I sought a way to express that particular pain. I found solace in poetry—revisiting Mary Oliver’s familiar words, discovering new voices, and writing my own poems. I remember the first piece I wrote at that time: Swaying in a hammock in our backyard like a child being rocked to sleep, I looked up into the lilac tree to see dozens of fat bumblebees floating from bloom to bloom. Here was a chance, I knew, to practice paying attention. The astonishment easily followed, as did the telling:
Bees kissing lilacs, see how they bend their bodies of fur and wing, behind soft purple petals.
They sip and hum, sip and hum, seeming impatient for spring to slip into summer.
But who could blame them, busily dreaming as bees are meant to dream?
Two years later, I became a mother through IVF with the birth of my daughter. Secretly, I thought I might never write again—that the space for poetry would close with the long-awaited dawning of motherhood. But as I navigated postpartum anxiety and depression, as well as the deepest joy I had ever known, I found a continued solace in poetry. I also felt a new urgency to write, to give in to the sudden bursts of creativity that early motherhood offered at any hour of the day—or night. That August, when my daughter was one month old, I discovered The Mum Poem Press on Instagram. I joined The Mum Poet Club immediately—and what I found was the warmest, most validating community of mum poets who were also turning their extraordinary everyday experiences into art. This community gave me the gift of feeling heard, encouraging me to keep writing, keep telling.
That first year, I wrote poem after poem—sometimes in snippets, jotting down a line or two, or cataloging ideas in my phone to return to later. They were often messy and incomplete, but the act of writing them felt deeply necessary. As summer turned to autumn, our family of three embarked on short hikes or long walks through neighborhood streets, and I found myself folding in imagery from the natural world as well. I had learned, from poets like Mary Oliver, that these images didn’t have to be extraordinary; there was poetry to be found in rivers and grasshoppers, in the light of each new morning. Noticing the changing of seasons alongside my daughter’s development seemed a natural connection, too—if I looked closely, I could see newness each and every day, both in her and the outside world. The cyclical nature of seasons gave me something to hold on to, yet I felt the urgency of capturing the present: there would be another autumn, yes, but never this one—her first October, these particular gold leaves littering our tiny front yard.
As my daughter’s first birthday approached, I began to sift through my poetry—discarding, revising, arranging (and rearranging) to reflect the arc of our first year. Like parenthood, I found the work both more difficult and more rewarding than I could have imagined. What resulted was my first chapbook: a collection of poems titled So Much Tending Remains.
So Much Tending Remains begins in the summer with my daughter’s birth (“Near the Fourth of July in a Pandemic”), then moves through autumn and winter to new growth in springtime (“When My Daughter Considers the Magnolia”), culminating with the title poem. It is steeped in familiar details from the immediacy of early motherhood (“Birth Plans,” “Sunflowers”), as well as the natural world around us. It reflects on parenthood in different settings and seasons, finding parallels in nature (“Tale of Two Squirrels,” “The Nights Were a Wilderness”).
I’m so honored to put this collection into the world. As I continue to explore the connections between parenthood and the natural world through my poetry, my hope is that other mothers recognize slivers of their own experiences here, too. I hope they find resonance in those ordinary moments of parenting that can become briefly transcendent—as well as those that root us to the present challenges with equal force. As Mary Oliver shows us in poem after poem, there is beauty to be found in all of it, when we look—when we are “willing / to be dazzled” by this world.
So Much Tending Remains will be published by the poetry press Kelsay Books this fall. It will be available directly from Kelsay Books and on Amazon. To connect and receive updates on the book, follow @emilypattersonpoet on Instagram.
Note: Included quotations by Mary Oliver are found in the following poems: “Invitation,” “Sometimes,” and “The Ponds.”