Cognitive linguistics argues that the ability to think and to feel are inseparable, and both these processes are intimately connected to the body’s interaction with a surrounding environment. We interpret and emote jointly with our minds and bodies. Moving from science into the personal, the theory makes sense: we have the ability to perceive when someone is staring at us and the facility to tell the difference between a curious look and a violating gaze. We have the capacity to vibe out a group’s emotions upon walking in a room, and, at times, to recognize emotion in a room even after people have left.
Ginger Ko’s Motherlover expresses in unrestrained verse what cognitive linguistics explains in scientific jargon. Ko’s first book investigates emotional worlds affected by words and body alike, particularly how verbal and bodily violations can traumatize an individual, how this trauma tends to repeat itself, and how words have the power to confront trauma left behind by these violations.
Significantly though, Motherlover draws attention to the fact that without confronting trauma and injury, one can allow a problem to repeat itself. The text emphasizes repetition and interchangeability in situation and figure. The speaker, who is multi-voiced yet tonally consistent, presents a daughter, a wife, and, at times, the vestige of a mother; she talks of and to a mother, a father, and a partner. Motherlover stresses its transpositions early in the text. In “EASTEREGG,” we realize that the subject and speaker alike shift forms from utterance to utterance:
dddddddI don’t want to go back to old lives: always give me new.
ddddddddddAm I your sister or your lover: or your mother.
I will always be your stranger: love me alone or leave me alone.
This underlying question operates on a practical and psychological level: who am I to you? What role do I fulfill? The simple mention of “lover” signifies that this is or was a partner. In posing the query, the speaker implies that the subject brings his own familial trauma to the relationship and projects his own fraught past onto her. On an even deeper level, the speaker shows us the circular nature of these problems: from sister to mother to lover, the subject – and speaker as well – reproduce their past, creating “old lives” when the speaker desires “new.” In this early poem, the speaker articulates her desire to be left alone rather than confronting this inimical cycle, and in response, Motherlover’s poems continue to underline the recurring nature of her trauma.
Pages later in “STAY AWAY FROM MY WINDOWS NO ONE IS WELCOME,” the speaker shows her own patterned similarity to the unnamed you in “EASTEREGG”; distress from her childhood, particularly regarding arbitrary expectations, seems to have found its way into her adulthood. But what is different here is rather than deflecting her wounds by projecting them upon her partner, the speaker finds that her partner repeats the injuries produced by an apparent father figure:
For many years I met expectations:
Packed a tiny mound of rice and lay myself down on it
Stretched out to wait for someone’s
That type of someone always reminded me
That my boobs can be cupcakes
No one ever listens when they ask
Except later when they crash into my words
And think they’re listening to themselves
I’m a daughter and used to remaining unmentioned
The opening portrays an adolescent atmosphere: one line takes “many years” much like the dawdling pace of adolescence, and the speaker shows a child-like compliance as she “Pack[s] a tiny mound of rice” and reclines on it. This image quickly becomes confused by telescoping into a future relationship sexual in its nature: “That type of someone always reminded me / that my boobs can be cupcakes.” The “always” shows that the subject, which shifts from the first line in the poem to the last, is uncomfortably similar in spirit here; moreover, it has been endemic in her life and from family to lover she has been left as an unmentioned afterthought and a bodily object.
What’s critical in Motherlover is the speaker’s progressive attempts to break her pained succession. As the text moves forward, the speaker abandons reserve and confronts the book’s ambiguous and changing subject – its constant “you.” In “TREESPEAK,” the speaker claims, “I told you I brewed up a fire, I set the sidewalk boiling, and soon all the cement panels were askew.” What the fire is made of is intentionally unclear, much like the subject. Similar to “STAY AWAY FROM MY WINDOWS[…]” the “out of what” feels like her words, which contain the power to boil landscape, to scrap cement, to displace earth. This fire does not purge her reoccurring relational agony, but it shows us the strength of words, their ability to affect one’s body, the power of confrontation, the pain of such encounters, and the tortured yet significant healing that these struggles can create.
The theme of healing – or at least pursuing it – begins to parallel confrontation as Motherlover goes on. “ITERATIONS” explicitly draws attention to the speaker’s desire for restoration and her awareness of the struggle to break the cycle of trauma:
A new boy, different dog, our small apartment.
I’m not sick, I swear.
I just keep believing:
I deserve this,
I should keep trying,
This is what I want,
I deserve this,
I should have it,
I’m not sick, I swear.
Without her her sidewalk fire, her incendiary words, Ko’s speaker might not achieve a changed future; the markedly different tone of this poem reveals some progress. There is no mysterious “you” receiving torrid verse, castigated in a motion for reparations and catharsis. The poem is direct in its simple sentence structure and its repeated “I,” and it is honest in its awareness of an apparent madness in seeking a new and healthy connection.
By the final section of Motherlover, we witness incremental progress contained within the speaker’s pursuit of “ITERATIONS’” new connection. The closing section’s title seems to grow out of the opening’s: the “Gaslight,” the small flickering streetlight that can reveal but a small part of blanketed darkness where Motherlover started, is now a “Prairie Lighthouse,” a towering flare giving glimpses onto a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree world, which much like a prairie fades out at the distant horizon. As Ko’s speaker concludes, “From the top of the fortress two leaps of light take turns.” Two beams alternate, attempting to light up the darkness. This is not just a work of agony – it’s a work seeking restoration out of a damaging pattern and into an illuminated horizon.