Life is an Incurable Virus: Motherhood in the Age of Collected and Collective Fear

What a time to read Megan Merchant’s new poetry collection, Before the Fevered Snow. I’ve been hunkered down in my house for five weeks now, waiting for the vicious COVID-19 pandemic to pass. Sacrificing for others. Doing my part in the face of fear, pain, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Merchant’s book addresses all these feelings through the lens of motherhood. To be a mother is to harbor collective and collected fear.

To be a person in today’s climate requires the same. Life is an incurable virus, or rather its only cure is death. As humans in today’s world, and those of us who are mothers always, we fight against this cure for as long as possible, to say nothing of all other predators aside from the virus. School shootings. Illness. Injury. Merchant’s work assures us these worries never abate, and that they never should. That vigilance and concern keep us rooted in love. That motherhood requires it of us.

Generations of mothers are considered in this book, such as Merchant’s own mother, suffering from dementia, “her brain stuttering memories,” and of Merchant “unable to find /my mother in dreams.” It’s a forethought of profound loss during a profound loss of connection during her mother’s life. What never leaves, even through the fog of mental decay, is the connection of mother to child: “My mother said the falling leaves were a crone tucking her children /safe before the snow sheets and turns them blue.” The mother tucks in her child in some distant world while the child tucks the mother in in this world. As Merchant’s mother calls out for her own mother in fevered dreams: “...she screamed help mother help, my grandmother //years dead.” This need is undying, even as she climbs ever closer toward her own passing.

Motherhood is about potential, the human manifestation of nesting dolls, of each next generation nestled inside the mother from the generation prior. “I read that I was an egg in her body, /when she was tucked and growing //in her mother,” Merchant writes. “That to find my true /age, I’m to subtract 20 weeks /from the moment of her birth.” This knowledge helps the author through miscarriage so many years later, the knowledge that “this means that she knew the specs /of daughters I carried short, /and I was never alone in their loss.”

Merchant’s poems mirror the endless rotation of seasons, of Mother Earth being whittled away under harsh conditions, and a world working to nurse its children back to health. All is fleeting; this book works to stem the tide. In “Opening My Third Eye to the World,” the author’s son ventures outside and finds his “stuffed owl...ravaged by our dogs.” It’s a heartbreak of proportions both small and great, a harbinger of losses to come, of the cruel and comforting cycle of pain and renewal. “What do I let him hold that cannot /be taken?” Merchant wonders. Of course, she knows the answer to this question is nothing.

“Bleuet” finds the speaker considering a new shade of blue crayon added to boxes of the waxy and vibrant drawing tools we offer to children and wondering if “there is a lapse in the tints of sad available /so that our children might draw the world.” In the shadow of this minor development, Merchant considers her grandfather’s life in Paris after WWII, “that there was enough of him left /to feel the rain and realize the lapse since he’d last // laughed.” Loss is inevitable, and in the maelstrom of this human experience, we take small measures to offer expression of the human condition, “a way to //fluent tragedy.”  Something simultaneously breaks and heals with a permanent fissure when we mothers fully embrace the notion that our influence on our children and our world remains forever inadequate. Blue is the color of grief, and now, during the pandemic, the color of everything.  We can only choose how, not if, to mourn. “Why not name the color /thoughts & prayers” Merchant wonders. In an age of national paralysis, that may be all that’s left, to name what we cannot control.

The toll this grief takes is largely immeasurable, except in the small but tangible withdrawals Merchant’s mother makes from this world, highlighted in the poem “Forget-Me-Nots”:

Today, my mother forgot the word for bathroom
while she was in one. She said, Dry room, no—wet room, no

tell me, then what are the others called? I’d like to walk them.

At one point, someone taught me a word I’ve forgotten.
A room I was already inside. A marriage. A country. A war...

I will hear the horses, in mourning, nip

at the electric fence, and I will not have the word for shock.

As Merchant’s mother’s death draws closer, the speaker decides to “practice motherlessness.Which cannot be perfected /because of memory—mine. //I will practice making my children shatterproof. /I have been given no other choice.” This is the song of despair, of knowing this is impossible and must be attempted anyway, just as the speaker’s mother attempts the same for her daughter: “She apologizes for being a mother-burden, for the water being too hot /when I unwind the rivers from her hands to prove there is still /some part that floats.” As hard as this is to hold, there is some blessing in it too—some of us have no mothers to care for, mothers who have chosen an early exit from what’s intended to be a lifelong responsibility. There is a grace in having people to care for, in having people to lose, in having people to mourn. There is a kind of luck in loss.

Following her mother’s death, Merchant suffers awake through the “blue //hour of sleep.” She addresses her mother who’s no longer there, yet lingers in memory and heartbreak forever: Merchant “park[s] the car where you /are kept and wait for black smoke to rise. A candle-wish.” Grief the color of black. Black the color of everything.



Amy Strauss Friedman is the author of the poetry collection The Eggshell Skull Rule (Kelsay Books, 2018) and the chapbook Gathered Bones are Known to Wander (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). Amy’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and her work has appeared in PleiadesRust + MothThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her work can be found at