by JP Howard
The Operating System, 2015
Review by Laura Villareal
JP Howard’s debut collection SAY/MIRROR is part memoir, part emotional archive of Howard’s relationship with her mother Ruth King, an African American runway model. SAY/MIRROR is enriched with gorgeous black and white photographs of Howard and her mother. What makes this collection remarkable is the openness with which Howard acknowledges the imperfections of her mother and their relationship. Memory often idealizes a person without illuminating the ways people struggle to survive this world, but Howard invites us to witness every gritty piece of recollection. Howard fearlessly airs what some might call “dirty laundry” by candidly depicting her mother’s struggle with depression, as well as describing the glamorous and joyful memories attached to her mother. This is a bold move that pays homage to the multidimensionality of a woman who worked as a model— a job that erases the interiority of a person to transform the body into object or artwork. While Howard transforms her mother’s life into art, she creates a larger landscape for the whole person of her mother to reside. Each detail gives us more insight into Ruth King’s sadness and her joy. Howard remembers when she had to be her mother’s caretaker at a young age and the joyful moments when her mother took care of her. Each memory is filled with tenderness and understanding that King was doing the best that she could. These poems expand our understanding of what it means to be a mother and a person.
In a letter to her mother at the beginning of the collection, Howard lovingly writes, “Mama, this book is Diva love. is complicated like you were. is love and joy and tears and pain. Mama thank you for loving me, even through your sadness and then again, through your joy.” SAY/MIRROR is like a series of blue tinged love poems to the complicated nature of personhood, motherhood, and a guide to recognizing that we aren’t our parents.
Some of Howard’s most haunting lines come when she melds maternal tropes with graphic moments of suicidal tendencies or ideations. For example, in her poem “By the Bay” she employs the lyrics and melody of “Hush Little Baby” to create an upsetting image of her mother driving a car into the bottom of a lake. In the poem she writes:
Hush little babies
Don’t you cry
Mama gonna sing you a lullaby
mama gonna push the pedal real hard, car gonna go real fast
water gonna swallow up; all be gone in the blink of an eye
where does baby go when mama’s mind breaks
The poem utilizes this metaphorical scenario to question what happens when a single mother delves into a depressive episode. By invoking a lullaby we are reminded that motherhood and maternal warmth is still ever present even during bouts of depression. Howard challenges us to consider the complications of being a mother with a mental illness and being the child of said mother. She reminds us that a mother isn’t just someone who nurtures, but is also someone who needs nurturing like all of us. That motherhood doesn’t consume a person entirely and that it’s important to recognize the humanity in our family members. These poems help us consider the unreasonable expectations for perfection placed on mothers. They illuminate the understanding that perfection isn’t necessary or even an attainable standard for being a good mother.
SAY/MIRROR is infused with warmth and love for personhood, which is most clear and deeply felt in her praise poems. The tension between perceived “goodness” and “badness” both self-imposed and imposed by societal gender expectations plays out throughout the book creating a tension that’s released in Howard’ praise poems. This is particularly true in her poem “Praise for the Journey,” a litany that acknowledges and honors the “good” and “bad” of herself, her mother, and the journey to overcome fear of becoming a mother herself. Some of the items she lists are:
Praise the therapist who told me twenty years ago:
You are not your mother, you do not have to be your mother.
Praise my child-self who took care of mama every time she passed out.
Praise my adult-self who feared the burden of “caretaker” yet again.
Praise my mama who did the best with the skills she had.
Praise the Divas who are sometimes forced to be mamas
and the mamas who give birth to Divas.
Praise them all. Shower them with love and affection.
The litany gives us access to an array of Howard’s internal conflict surrounding the topic of motherhood, but also allows us to see her honor her own emotional journey. Howard embraces the uneven landscape of being a person within her praise poems. These poems are a guide to compassionate love and self-love.