Nestuary — Image via dornsife.usc.edu/goldlinepress

Nestuary

Molly Sutton Kiefer

Molly Sutton Kiefer’s lyric essay Nestuary (2014) is piece about many things. The more immediate topics of pregnancy and maternal joy are shadowed by a lingering narrative of bodily dysfunction. In Nestuary we witness the failure of the body to ovulate, to conceive quickly, to be pregnant happily, and to give birth naturally. The essay, while closely examining these failures, does not ultimately celebrate them as much as it becomes tolerant, even comfortable, with them. Most of life’s important moments contain a multitude of failures, after all, but it doesn’t follow that failure is the ultimate story. In fact, in Nestuary, it most decidedly is not. As Sutton Kiefer tells us early on, “this story has a happy ending” (9). But this happy ending does not preclude a litany of missteps, ambivalences, and plain old heartache along the way.

One aspect of Sutton Kiefer’s work that has impressed me in the past, and that is alive and well in Nestuary, is the poet’s ability to connect that which is intensely personal (the act of bearing and raising children) to myriad other images and ideas that don’t rely as heavily on personal experience. Indeed, Nestuary is made both haunting and urgent by the seamless connections that exist between the singular mother, the mythological mother, the literary mother, the saintly mother, the folkloric mother, and the mother pulled from tragic journalistic headlines. Motherhood is polyvalent and multifaceted in Nestuary; it spans the heights of the epic, flirts with the universal, but also includes the simple act of a single bird building her nest. What’s more, Sutton Kiefer manages to connect herself to the many mothers she writes about in a move that makes her the hero of her own maternal bildungsroman while remaining cognizant of the many other narratives of motherhood that accompany the story she is telling.

“I armor,” she writes, “pull pinfeathers and boughs of pine and they become nest … I yank at my hair and let those strands to the wind too: the birdwoman will braid them now, the tree’s crook goldening” (6). Here, a bird builds her nest from parts of a particular mother’s body, but the image is farther-reaching than this, seeing that all mothers’ bodies serve as homes. One of Nestuary’s greatest strengths is its unflinching depictions of the body-as-home, body-as-container, body-as-food. Aspects of this embodiment cause the writer joyous transcendence and deep contentment, but other aspects cultivate shame, frustration, and the constant looming threat of self-effacement, as we see in the section that details mothers-to-be on life support, their bodies reduced to little more than food and shelter for their soon-to-be-born children.

Maternal ambivalence and the potential loss of self that motherhood often entails are not new topics in writings about motherhood, but it is rare to find this tension depicted as thoughtfully and expansively as Sutton Kiefer manages. Nestuary constantly questions in which contexts the giving of one’s body is a source of pleasure, perhaps comparable to the transubstantiation of Catholic belief (although mothers feed their children with their bodies without any miracles needing to occur), and at what point such giving, while still pleasurable for the poet, threatens to dismember her, as in the description of her son breastfeeding a little too enthusiastically. Although the images of the broken, battered, or beheaded mothers are not figures Sutton Kiefer fully equates to herself, the threat of being irrevocably altered, bodily and otherwise, doesn’t completely evaporate despite the fact that a vast majority of the poet’s interactions with her children are joyous.

What is less joyous in Nestuary is the writer’s trouble conceiving and her misery while pregnant, both of which allow for a thorough contemplation of the non-compliant maternal body. This non-compliance often takes the form of absence or inactivity: “Your body carved of stone, your convex mirror. Inside of you is a cave, lonely. Sometimes, when we come to a close, there is an echo, as if nothing happened at all” (26). It often takes the form of sickness or pain, and it sometimes takes the form of outright failure: “On the form I needed to sign, the one pardoning all for the trauma before and any to come, this was written as the reason for the C-section: failure to progress. My body had begun to swell shut” (56).

The sections of Nestuary that deal with the poet’s first C-section are particularly painful, both for her and the reader, in that Sutton Kiefer’s inability to give birth “naturally” forces her to question her capability to be the type of mother she would like to be. “This wasn’t supposed to be our story, was it?” (61), she asks her newly born daughter. There also exists the lingering fear that the writer’s imperfect body will affect her child, who has, after all, sprung from the very entity that consistently betrays. “My child,” Sutton-Kiefer writes, “I held her there, inside of me, of my body, which was a failure, in so many layered and evidenced ways” (63). Although clearly dismayed by her body’s supposed shortcomings, Sutton Kiefer effectively dismantles any notion that the maternal body must be a paragon of health and obedience in order to do its work. Indeed, as we see later in Nestuary when Sutton Kiefer describes her breast milk as “polluted” (76), new life can and does spring from that which is imperfect and is often no worse off for it.

While untangling the ramifications of her C-section, the poet also questions the semantics of what it means to give birth in this way: “Did I give birth? Isn’t giving active? My body was numbed like a winter-frozen carrot. I did no pushing, so then did the doctor birth?” (60). The poet’s anguish can be felt keenly here, as can the conviction that words matter, meticulously so, when trying to reach understanding of a difficult and unanticipated situation.

Just as failure is by no means the only tale Nestuary seeks to tell, neither is the story of the disobedient maternal body the entire story. And this isn’t because the body begins behaving itself over the course of the narrative. Rather, just as the framework for understanding motherhood has been expanded hugely by Sutton Kiefer’s examination that spans eras, species, belief systems, and the boundaries of different realities, so too are the ways of understanding the sick body re-imagined. Sutton Kiefer’s ailing body manages to produce “magnificent” (70) babies, after all, so it must follow that there are ways she can perceive her body that differ from the tales she is told by the barrage of doctors and other experts she encounters.

We see this desire to understand the body beyond medicalized descriptions that focus mainly on lack and malfunction when Sutton Kiefer defines such words as “follicle” and “cyst” in playful and off-kilter ways that illustrate her body’s capability to do more than ultrasounds and probing examinations allow. This act of defining is mirrored later when “nest,” “estuary,” “hearth,” and “sanctuary” are defined, all things that the writer has managed to create despite less-than-perfect test results, a lifetime of wavering health, and sketchy probabilities. How we think about what a mother is, how she gives birth, and what her body looks like are in need of as many modes of understanding as there are mothers, Sutton Kiefer posits.

While certainly very much about motherhood, Nestuary is also about how we redefine words, concepts, and events so that they can be understood in ways that forge acceptance rather than shame. It is this acceptance that allows the poet to love that which is corruptible, her own body included. “I am rooted into my body,” Sutton Kiefer writes. “I have oak leaves growing in my hair. I am every piece of me” (44). Further illustrating the acceptance that slowly evolves throughout Nestuary, we see much less distress when Sutton Kiefer writes these simple words about her second C-Section: “they wheel me into the operating room at eight o’clock. At eight-fourteen, my son is born” (85). Whereas she is clear about having preferred a vaginal birth to a second C-section, there is not the same amount of turmoil about whether or not she has held up her end of the birthing bargain as there was the first time around.

“It isn’t the birth that is the hero of this story,” Sutton Kiefer declares confidently as her acceptance grows stronger. “The cause of physical triumph is instead the nesting-in, hiding-beneath-a-blanket-of-snow. I held her within long enough, and then I held her again without … We nestled in, we shipped, we rode that blue sea. We rafted on pillows, and I wrote about it. We were mapping the body and its new workings” (66). Not surprisingly, a significant part of recasting failure as an opportunity to develop alternative ways of understanding the body’s relation to its new child occurs through poetic articulation, the act of writing, which mirrors the act of birth in so many ways. Multiple forms of creation merge here, and each is needed to give meaning to the others.

While some of the inevitable failures, effacements, and dismemberings that come with pregnancy and motherhood are easier to bear than others, by essay’s end, the poet has become “no longer the tinder but the fire itself” (97). Rather than being that which is consumed, burnt, or cast away, like the many mothers’ bodies mentioned earlier in Nestuary, we understand that the poet has reached an emotional and physical place from which she can successfully provide warmth, light, and love in a way that benefits herself as well and her spouse and children. She is not merely fuel, but rather that which burns brightly from fierce love given and received. Her journey to this place has often been painful, dehumanizing, and fraught with self-doubt, but the happy ending she promised early on has arrived at last. Just as Sutton Kiefer thought that each malady her pregnant body underwent would strengthen the tiny beings growing inside her, one can’t help but think that her own difficult journey has fortified the love she now feels and writes about with dizzying courage and bold beauty.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.