Opening most books, we can flip from the title page to the first poem. Opening this book, though, and we need to pay attention to what lies between the two:
- The dedication, “For my mothers and foremothers,” anchors the collection in the female world.
- The contents take us from “The Mormons are Coming” (first poem) through “Still Mormon” (last poem), clarifying the poet’s struggle to leave Mormonism and the impact of religion and the cultural elements of that religion on her life and her decision.
- The epigraph, “I had no saints, so I turned / to my ancestors—Susan Elizabeth Howe, Salt,” elevates ancestors to the role of substitute saints.
- The Bailey Family Tree, which includes the poet, eliminates any distinction between the “I” of the poems and the poet herself. The family tree reveals that the poet has a brother, Charles, and that they have a “Father” and a “Mom”—an interesting combination of the formal and the familiar. The men, however, are not the focus here.
- The first photograph, a banner of faces, takes the reader to the Notes to learn that all the photographs are from Charles Ramsden Bailey: His Life and Families, by Jay L. and Betsy W. Long, and are used “with permission.” These family photos don’t belong to the poet.
The first poem, “The Mormons are Coming,” offers a litany of disparate and seemingly contradictory elements, rooted in detail. Domestic images and symbols are interspersed with history. Added to a handmade wreath or a casserole are a package of diapers, a onesie, and a musical mobile. The women will
kid while you go to the hospital to have another kid.
The poet introduces and weaves important issues and details throughout her book. She refers to a multitude of children; she touches on the contradiction between drinking energy drinks, but not coffee, tea, or alcohol. Such details illustrate lines like these:
They hold the weight of family trees
and martyrdom and pioneer blood in their cupped palms.
The Mormons “bring” more and more as the poet raises polygamy, women’s choice of dresses or skirts while “a few rebels / wear slacks.” She raises questions.
My daughters ask Why do only boys pass the sacrament?
My daughters ask Why are all the statues of men?
She makes statements:
They have practice going door to door.
They say Gay is okay, just stay celibate.
Near the end of the poem, she confesses:
I agonize for half a decade’s doubt before deciding to leave.
And she gives us the Mormon response: they visit as missionaries. When the poet asks them to stop visiting, they send cards “with no return address.” She ends the litany:
The cards say It’s spring now.
Readers are ready for what follows. An “Ode to Polygamy” embeds polygamy in a larger context: that the practice has a long history, that other species engage in the practice, especially mammals. She moves closer, describing her family and how each wife had a role. She ends at a family reunion and the specifics of eating a slice of peach pie, likening the peach tree to her family and, ultimately, herself:
by the tang of peaches from the orchard across the street,
and by the newsflash that my family tree twists, branches,
in ways I wouldn’t have guessed; that my genealogy’s
complex. Fact: I wouldn’t be me without it.
There are four poems addressed “Dear Ellen”, her great-great-great-great-grandmother, each one dated: 1852, 1855, 1863, and 2018. The poet writes:
my feet wouldn’t fit your winter
shoes, my waist would burst
your laces. Still,
I slip on your secondhand cotton,
shoehorn into your leather.
This refers back to a line in the opening litany, where
My husband says My ancestor was Brigham Young’s
shoemaker, and there were a lot of little feet to shod.
Later, we learn that the poet divorced (“After the Divorce”). These lines and many like it reflect back to lines in previous poems, and anticipate those of later poems.
The 1852 poem examines Ellen’s roots, her struggles, her possible desire for education or space or better marriage prospects. She connects Ellen to the Mormons “offering new doctrine / like a Golden West,” and asks, “what part of you could resist?”
The 1855 poem recounts Ellen’s journey to the new world and the loss of a child. Reality begins: “What are you up to, God / Almighty? I wonder if regret was a meal you ate.” The poem ends with “winter / lumbering round the corner,” completing the opening litany’s reference to spring, summer, and autumn.
The 1863 poem speculates about what Ellen thought of the son’s double wedding to two wives. While the 1852 and 1855 poems are delivered with sureness, the poet confesses here, “All I have to go on is his diary, his words,” referring to Ellen’s son, also named Charles. The poet’s information is once removed, as the primary document isn’t Ellen’s. She issues an invitation to Ellen: “I want to taste your song, to hear your salt.”
The 2018 poem compares Ellen to what the poet learns in Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. She “didn’t relish telling school buddies” about Ellen, but when she read Beowulf in grad school, she “saw the Old English raw on the page” where Heaney translates ellen as heroic. Now, she sees Ellen as
who forsook your foremother’s faith for a new truth,
one that sang to you out of the dark.
I know it’s the hardest
trek I’ve taken. Ellen,
despite shards in the pane, we climb through.
Becoming one with Ellen, seeing both journeys as parallel—Ellen to Mormonism, the poet’s struggle and choice to leave it—the poet is directly connected to Ellen and all her foremothers, to whom she dedicates her work.
The penultimate poem is the title poem, If Mother Braids a Waterfall. The entire poem is a succession of clauses beginning with “if”:
In a country where no one speaks
Her language if She’s a shrine
few bow to, few supplicate if She’s a book
no one reads
The poem continues: if She “untangles rivers,” “a queen / bee with no drones,” “conducts / a chorus of larks.” But “we” come into the poem, too. If we “look up at last,” “relearn Mother / Tongue through hard listening.” The poem is another litany, this one detailed through metaphor, but more abstract in thought. The poem moves into the natural world of forest and river and bird and, in the end, beyond the world to “starscape, all dark and blaze and hungry for our eyes.” But the “if” is never completed. What does that tell us? That this is all only speculation and not true? That all is possible and true? That truth lies between?
We turn the page to the final poem, “Still Mormon.” We are brought to earth again, to the reality of who the poet thinks she is. “I’m Mormon,” she writes, “the way a cathedral is still a cathedral,” “the way a Greek Orthodox is primarily Greek / and less orthodox.”
From this, she moves out, as she did in the previous poem, into the natural world. “I’m Mormon...the way the deeply drowned tree / ghosting beneath the boat is still a tree” and “the way a sugar maple tapped of its sweetness / stretches its leaves to hold the sun.”
She refers to the opening litany again: “I’m Mormon...the way ham hock soup is still pork knuckle.” She refers to the title poem by reaching into space: “I’m still Mormon...the way an astronaut / watches from the cupola’s seven windows.”
She ends by focusing on what she is above all—a poet, a writer:
Still Mormon the way paper gives itself over to
blade and page and pen,
but remembers what it was like to have roots, thick
woody skin, lenticels, xylem,
loved by sunlight in a copse of its kin
The poet comes to terms with herself, in all her contradictions and connections. She accepts that she can leave Mormonism, but that Mormonism will never leave her, even as she chooses a path of her own writing.
Aline Soules’ writing has appeared in such publications as The Kenyon Review, Houston Literary Review, Poetry Midwest, and The Galway Review. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in Danville, California. Learn more about Aline at http://alinesoules.com