Julie Brooks Barbour’s ‘Come to Me and Drink’

by JENNIFER WHITAKER

Come to Me and Drink
by Julie Brooks Barbour
Finishing Line Press, 21 pp., $12.00

If Julie Brooks Barbour’s Come to Me and Drink is a collection about a woman finding her way as a mother, then it is equally about the ways in which the self can get carried away in the transition from woman to mother, and about the coin-flip of exuberance and fear that comes with an old self being carried away. As early as the second poem, “Dust to Dust,” the speaker admits:

It’s a wonder we live. But if one of us were to give in, lay down for final rest on this soil, it would never take us in. It’s too worn to hold even itself. Like powder, it takes to the wind. (lines 13-18)

As we continue reading, we understand that it is often the self that is “too worn to hold even itself.” Throughout these poems, we find that the speaker’s old, pre-motherhood self is lost, transformed, and eventually offered up to be reclaimed. In the chapbook’s title poem, the supernatural transfigures the speaker into flower:

Now the gods put me on the vine. The buds of my nipples are pink and dripping. An infant plucks me dry. a sweet smell on her breath. […] The passing breeze my voice, whispering around her ear. My arms vines coaxing her to come to me and drink. (11-14; 19-21)

Though there is much beauty in the description of the flowering vine as metaphor for mother, the deleterious effects of childbirth and nursing on the speaker’s body cannot be denied. As we see in many of the poems, the speaker’s body underwent a kind of violence in childbirth and afterward, which leaves her body with “hips that hang too low, // breasts enlarged with milk, nipples red and sore” (“The First Step” 2-3), with “skin [that] still sears under healed stitches” (7). Not only has her body undergone a fundamental and noticeable change from childbirth, but her concept of who she is and what she looks like—together adding up to a concept of self—has changed as well. When returning to work, the speaker barely recognizes herself, seeing “My face reflected in the rearview mirror: / lipstick, hairstyle— / some other woman” (“Leaving” 15-17). Barbour’s speaker doesn’t necessarily mourn the loss of the old self, though, as shown here in “Starlings”:

The old desires rise up: dancing, laughter, familiar faces from my youth. I rock them to sleep with the baby, back and forth, ignoring the phone, the supper in the oven. Let it all burn. (7-12)

Here, the speaker sees her new role as mother not as a loss of the former self, but rather as something beautiful, as she “[puts herself] at ease / admiring the birds’ black feathers / as the sun shimmers them green” (16-18). That final image of the poem shows the self transformed and made more lovely in the process. In fact, toward the end of the chapbook, when the speaker finds an old self there to be reclaimed, she starts to see her “mother-self” in a new light. “The First Step“ closes with this assertion:

The pieces still fit together, and here’s the puzzle: whether to let them, whether to take that first step toward the person you have always been. (15-18)

Whether or not that speaker takes that “first step” or not remains unsaid, but we are sure that whatever the speaker chooses, it will be an avowal of her role as a mother. Ultimately, we understand (as the speaker does) that it is only through providing balance that she can find her place in her own life and in that of her daughter. In “Blood,” the speaker reasons that the poem’s title subject

makes its home at opposite poles: the beginning of violence and the beginning of hope, one man dead and the other saved. At either end, someone sends out prayers. (8-11)(15-18)

The polarity here points to a central tension in the book of wanting to give the child “everything / and nothing” (“Mother, Child” 11-12), of trying to strike some balance to the wildness of joy and the haunting unpredictability of life. In fact, the collection’s first image of the clean laundry’s sheets “whip[ping] themselves into one another / with the breeze, sometimes twisting // into a snarl” (“Laundry Day” 3-5) already shows the speaker’s effort at balancing the world, the soothing clean laundry seen alongside the disconcerting image of the snarl. Later in the poem, we learn that “Next door my neighbor’s white shirts / flap like sails, armpits stained yellow. / Across the street the widow hangs her briefs to dry” (11-13), offering both the freedom of the shirts “like sails” and the darker reality of a neighbor’s widowhood. The speaker doesn’t linger on the fact of the neighbor’s husband’s death, though; it is merely presented as evidence of life, affirmed and balanced by the assertion that “it is a bright, clear day among the houses” (14).

The speaker enacts this effort at balance in “Panic Wheel,” as she watches fearfully as her daughter and husband ride a Ferris wheel:

From the ground the wheel looks as if it might come unhinged like a metal toy and with its momentum spin over the mountains, the drop ringing thunderous from its weight, seats crashing into rock, metal bars strewn across trees, photos in the morning paper. (9-16)(15-18)

The speaker tries to be a counterbalance for the daughter who “[kicks] her legs to become a blur” (7) by “[rooting her own] feet to the soil” (8). Of course, we recognize (as the speaker does) that this is only a self-soothing trick, that it will do nothing to actually change what will happen. However, it’s through allowing herself to imagine the worst that could happen—the loss of the daughter—that she recognizes, in the next poem, her own limitations when it comes to protecting the daughter. “Watching” finds the speaker witnessing a hawk’s attack on a crow:

I craned my neck to see what was left: a skeleton, perfectly intact— a museum piece— reflecting the late-afternoon light. On the other side of the patio, my young daughter stood at the door, palms pressed against the glass. Neither she nor I stirred. (7-14)

Here, the speaker realizes that all she can do is react “with a mother’s attentive eye /that could only watch” (18-19). If she can’t provide an antidote to the difficulties of living, then she can at least try to offer the opposing forces to help herself and her child find balance, as they “slowly rise / to the challenge of every day” (“Cleaning” 21-22). By losing herself the speaker has gained herself, and time and again we see her doing what a mother must: although she cannot shield the child from the dark, she can offer up the light.

JENNIFER WHITAKER is a lecturer in English and assistant director of the University Writing Center at UNC Greensboro. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Drunken Boat, and Pebble Lake Review. She has won an Academy of American Poets prize and two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prizes.