Review by Marjorie Tesser
Little Astronaut, J. Hope Stein’s book of poetry, channels experiences, emotions, and perspectives of early motherhood. The slim, elegant hardcover features a pleasing illustration of mother and baby sketched in white on an inky background. The book’s five sections contain poems that range from the speaker’s pregnancy to the era of her child’s toddlerhood, a span of three or so years.
The poems are mostly free verse and prose poems. The variety of line length and poem shape makes the book visually appealing. The tone is often conversational, and the frankness and freshness of the poet’s voice and observations make the poems enjoyable, engaging and often surprising.
Science metaphors are frequently employed in exploration of the space of motherhood, the relationship of mother and child to each other and to the world around them. The newborn in the title poem, “Little Astronaut,” “rests her head on the earth of the mother…” Another poem, “A toast to the third arm,” is an exasperated but good-humored look at the strangers who feel free to offer unsolicited advice to new mothers. It harks again back to science to explain the relationship of mother and child:
To the two strangers who scold me—
where’s the baby’s sunhat!
—as I walk down my own street—
I am Johannes Kepler
tracking the angle of sun
using the planet of my body
to shade her.
The experience of motherhood is relentlessly, gloriously physical, and again and again the bodies of the speaker and her baby are viewed in tandem, in ever-shifting relationship and connection with each other. “A Toast to the Car Seat on My Bathroom Floor” recounts the lack of autonomy and continuous vigilance required in the role of mother.
“Lullaby,” a poem of praise for the sweet nursing infant is on a page facing “A Toast to the Crooked Nipple,” which harks back to the body of the mother. In the end, the two are unified:
To the oversized towel
I wrap us in so we look like one person—
and to the mirror
in which we look like one person.
“An orbit doesn’t have a bed” finds the speaker drawn into two distinct orbits. “I wander back and forth from the bed of a baby to the bed of a husband.” Other poems acknowledge the pull of both husband and child on the body of the speaker.
Poems in later sections of the book celebrate the increasing independence of the child. In “My daughter brings me a rock and says: this is your power” the mother experiences the world through her toddler’s eyes, and glories in her child’s accomplishments. But the journey also impacts the mother physically. Nursing an infant segues to nursing a teething toddler, and finally, to weaning. The poems show us the evolution in speaker’s breasts: crooked, inflamed nipples, tiny bite marks, engorged and leaking breasts at the cessation of breast feeding.
This book would make the perfect gift for a new or expectant mother. But its audience should not be limited to those. While I’m well past this stage of motherhood myself, these poems brought me immediately and viscerally back to those early days: physical, sleepless, conflicted, wry, and wonder-filled.
J.Hope Stein is the author of little astronaut (Andrews McMeel, 2022) and Occasionally, I remove your brain through your nose (Poet Republik, 2017). She collaborated on The New One (Grand Central, 2020), a book of prose and poetry, with Mike Birbiglia. (Poets.org).
Little Astronaut by J. Hope Stein
Andrews McMeel Publishing (September 20, 2022)
Hardcover: 96 pages
Marjorie Tesser is a writer and editor in chief of MER.