Not everyone will read the physical copy of Little Astronaut by J. Hope Stein, but in doing so, somehow the poems contained within this volume become even more alive. From the first transparent pages of this book, the overlapping layers of motherhood are physically revealed. There is a line drawing of a baby astronaut connected to her mother within an opaque circle. This silhouetted image, reminiscent of a womb, shows through the page of the poem, “Maternity Pants.” In fact, all of the pages are transparent, which allows each poem to lay like gauze over the next one. This structural design, whether intentional or not, emphasizes the interconnectedness of the mother and child which superimposes itself onto their relationship and each poem in this work.
All of the poems’ themes likewise thread them together. In “A toast to the third arm” the speaker addresses the variety of strangers who offer unsolicited advice and criticisms to this mother. These strangers also feel emboldened to invade this mother and child’s personal space. Why is it socially acceptable to treat pregnant women and mothers as public figures, as willing objects of verbal scrutiny? J. Hope Stein expertly constructs scenes that expand and contract, that place the reader inside the moment and context of the speaker. The mounting anxiety and worry are palpable as the speaker encounters a man who “heckles me / as I decline his help— / You women want to do everything yourself! — / He comes closer—I decline his help again. / He comes closer. I decline—” This all too familiar scene captures a mother’s instinctual need to secure safety for her child, as well as the nuances and misconceptions surrounding the role of motherhood itself. Be strong, but also moderate. Be independent, yet approachable. It is within these confines that the speaker is simultaneously redefining her own identity and sense of self now that she is a mom.
Another hallmark of J. Hope Stein’s poems is her utilization of the page, punctuation, and structure to capture the new language of this mother, father, and child, in conversation with each other and in reaction to their shared or solitary experiences.
To 4 a.m., her first ocean—
Everyone is sleeping
except Oona and the ocean,
Oona and the ocean.
I try to explain in whale song I try to explain in
cloud and water droplet.
In addition, the extended metaphors and images of the mother as earth, planet, and world, and the baby as sun, act as a narrative tool for the speaker to reinforce the universal emotional encounters. J. Hope Stein uses hyphenated noun phrases to create an onomatopoetic effect that captures the lullaby reverie of a sleepy mom nursing her baby. But then a quick turn and a humorous interjection aptly captures the weird and wonderful aspects of this newly tumultuous life. “Even this linguini / of drool / that noodles...” Other poems are written in the form of letters to her daughter, “Dear Oona...” acting as advice or reflections on marriage, partnerships, and even music— “it is a songful, songful planet.” There are also poems as toasts, offered in tribute to unlikely subjects like a “car seat on the bathroom floor” or “the small gash.” These pieces show the multitudes of juxtapositions that occur within parenthood. How in one instant a parent can move from celebration to terror to tenderness. And somehow these lines serve as a reassurance to the speaker that these troubles and trials will surely pass and she will learn to fully embrace her motherhood.
When a baby arrives, they are a stranger in the house, but even the spouses-turned-parents are unfamiliar now. There are often not enough words and phrases to express the myriad of complications and conundrums that come up as someone experiences parenthood the first time around. These poems mimic the changing tides of parenthood – smooth, rough, crashing – joyful, exhausting, worrisome, panic-inducing – and then back to calm once more. Lucky for the reader, J. Hope Stein creates a lens and language to visualize and express how this experience heightens the senses and observations of the mother, and transforms every single iota of life, as the parent and child continuously become “untogether and together-still.”
Shannon Vare Christine is a poet, teacher, and critic living in Bucks County, PA. Her poems have been featured in various anthologies and publications. Additionally, her poetry reviews and literary criticism have been published or are forthcoming in The Lit Pub, Cider Press Review, Sage Cigarettes, and The Laurel Review. Archived writing and more can be found at www.shannonvarechristine.com and on Instagram @smvarewrites.