Gender, addiction, and motherhood elicit spiritual visions of both pain and euphoria in Sara Moore Wagner’s poetry collection Hillbilly Madonna (Driftwood Press, November 2022).
Girlhood and Change
The collection begins with “Fit to be Tied,” where two girls sit outside on a summer night, dreaming of what lies ahead. They know change is coming, but aren’t quite sure what it will be:
“… No one told us
how to live as a girl would, to clean
the dirt from our toenails, shave
the holler from our limbs like scraping
the paint off an old truck.”
Light is a theme throughout this collection, where it may signify point of view and what is illuminated. Here, the girls wonder if they can see each other in the dark because of the moon, or the fireflies, or maybe the headlight of a truck? “Bees” (not beads) of sweat give the girls each a “halo,” a divine image worthy of Christianity’s holy mother Mary.
“One day we will be mothers,” an unnamed voice promises at the end of this poem, as the speaker “bumps” into the next stage of their lives. This could be a baby bump forming or a clumsy stumbling of an adolescent without adult guidance.
If instructions for the transition to womanhood come at all, their source is religious. “Purity Test,” describes a baptism or confirmation ceremony, where adults dictate instructions to young girls as a parable: the beehive inside them will now be harvested for wax and turned into a candle. That candle will burn, giving light to others, and eventually will burn down to nothing. This metaphor of bees and the energy of girlhood calls back to “Fit to be Tied,” a rich image with deep wells of meaning.
Madonna and Child
“Passing It On” begins, “I want to make a child from the one I have lost / to make the base of her mobile by some means.” That stunning opening introduces the story of at least one miscarriage, possibly more.
Wagner navigates this painful topic with powerful, even, mystical imagery:
“… the metal of the girl I let die leeches into the water/supply. We drink it and swell with the grief of being born.” Perhaps it is comforting that everyone in town shares the same grief inherent in being human, the same deposits in their water.
In “The First Time,” the speaker describes being shocked and medicated while miscarrying and receiving a diagnosis of endometriosis. She describes her body as a house with walls made of sugar (so easy to crumble) on an unlit street, leading us back to the broader theme of divine light and sinister darkness throughout the collection.
The Light and the Dark
“Pre-Heroin” tells the story of two sisters dressing up to go to a local carnival, where boys buy them candy and ride tickets. From the Ferris wheel the speaker recounts, “I’m sunburnt. It hurts to be touched, but I keep going, around and around until night comes and they turn on all those green lights. The rides look like their own city: incandescent. I could be under the sea or on the moon—full of sugar and sun—The breeze just feels so good.”
The sun burns, their hometown is incandescent, and the moon blazes overhead. This is the mania of youth, but it hints at a dangerous undercurrent in this interaction with boys.
The dark force Wagner describes can be grief, violence, trauma, sexism, and more, but its most tangible form is substance addiction. Opioid addiction is the evil snaking through this speaker’s hometown, family, and friends.
“Pending Changes” is a brutal tale of a woman, addicted to heroin, giving birth in a Burger King bathroom. “Deadbeat” recounts a father, in the throes of addiction, begging his adult daughter to let him stay. But he has trashed the home and life of another daughter, leading to the sisters setting these ground rules:
“Don’t feed him when he comes / shaky to your doorstep, pleads / to sleep in a corner. He wants / to destroy your house / as if it were a body, as if it were / my body.”
Boundaries Break Cycles
In the end, the towering and violent father from this speaker’s childhood grows ill, a reminder that he is fragile and mortal after all (“Blood from a turnip,” “Autoimmune Anemia: Transfusion”). The father can even be removed from the speaker’s life, by setting a boundary (“On Cutting Him Off”)! The speaker tries to have a baby again, tries again to be a mother. The damage to parents and children in this community is done, but perhaps something new can be constructed from the ash. A ruined church is described in all its decay, but also its possibility for reconstruction in “Like the World Could Bend and Fall with Us.” The cautiously optimistic poem remembers a congregation after a Pentecost service, “walking home like something might be different.”
Laura Eppinger (she/her) knows that the Jersey Devil is real. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as Best of the Net. Her flash fiction chapbook, LOVING MONSTERS, and her nonfiction chapbook, WHEN THE HERMIT APPEARS, are available for purchase at lauraeppinger.blog