Discussion: Waiting to Unfold by Rachel Barenblat

Welcome to the Summer Readalong 2013! Our May book is Waiting to Unfold by Rachel Barenblat. Rachel is a rabbi and a blogger at Velveteen Rabbi. She is an infertility survivor and a mother.

I haven't been in a discussion about poetry since 10th grade, so forgive me if I'm missing some key poetry discussion features!

Waiting to Unfold consists of two cycles. One cycle is poems written during her pregnancy, and the second is poems written during her son's first year.

I chose this book because I loved how intimate and raw her poems are. I feel like Rachel is able to capture the very specific and make it universal. She's a poet, and I'm not, but this stanza from the poem "Introduction (Three)" in the first cycle was so deep and true for me:

Asked to introduce myself
in seven words
I come up with
"growing a new poem
line by line."

The idea of the dailyness, the building, the creating something beautiful of being pregnant made me remember being pregnant with a fondness I know I didn't allow myself to feel while I was in it.

She makes the intimate epic, and the epic intimate. I started crying again reading these lines from "Night Feeding" in the second cycle:

as a hind longs for water
my soul longs for sleep

but I pace the round carpet
until I can crawl into bed

praying that I get a whole hour
before you summon me with your cries

which call in equal measure
my milk and my tears

Her use of the scriptural language connects us as mothers with the Divine, with nature, with all animals, and with all other mothers at the same time. It makes us both little and big, everything and nothing as we do what we have to do to nourish our young even when we think it's breaking us. How many of us have cried through feedings? I wonder if anyone hasn't.

The second cycle brings us through Rachel's fight with post-partum depression and her recovery, along with weaning and her coming to terms with infertility and how dislocating pregnancy was for her after that infertility.

I feel like this is the book I would give to someone who said to me, "No, TRY to tell me what motherhood is like," because even though Rachel has had some experiences not all of us have had, the way she captures the emotion of those experiences is the translation of what it's like in that first year of being someone new that you didn't know you would be.

Questions for discussion:

 1. Did the poems in Waiting to Unfold make you think differently about your own experiences, or did they feel like a window into someone else's world?

2.Were there any of the poems in the second cycle that seemed to be the direct inspiration for the title Waiting to Unfold?

3. Were you at all struck by the poem "Grandparents' House"? What emotions did it make you feel, if any?

Anything else you'd like to say about the book as a whole or individual poems?


Next book: Tulips, Water, Ash by Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet. Discussion post goes up June 26.

14 thoughts on “Discussion: Waiting to Unfold by Rachel Barenblat”

  1. what I noticed about these poems was how they were gentle and intense at the same time. reminded me of how gentle but fierce and deep the first few months with an infant are. everything is big, even the small things.i’m glad rachel got help for her ppd.

  2. My word, what’s with the spam attacks? Who has time for this?I have to say, we used the Velveteen Rabbi haggadah (sp?) at the Seder I attended this year and I loved it. I am sorry I forgot to order in time to make a decent comment on here. I love her stuff and am making up for lost time and ordering the others now!

  3. Yeesh, spam overload. What a pain.But to more important things: *Waiting to Unfold*.
    Disclaimer: I shoud say that my thoughts and feelings are shaped by the fact that I’m also a writer, and am currently working on a book that has a lot of poems about (set in? touching on? obsessed with?) becoming a mother and the first few intensive years of parenting. So it’s impossible for me to not read this book as part of a conversation I’m joining or wrestling with, writing into or against or whatever. But it’s also a quite different book from mine, and so I tried to approach it as a reader who also makes poetry, to see what sparks for me.
    I read it in two sittings, wich is saying a lot – the book is both accessible and layered, and it seems to be holding up to repeated readings as I dip in again. The poems that I am drawn to in general, and in this book in particular, are the ones that offer some surprise – some turn unexpected by the reader (and probably, if they are to be authentic, by the writer when she first began the poem). I’m not talking about epiphany necessarily, but some “seeing things slant” or some collision/layering of unexpected images, ideas, language.
    There was more of this surprise, for me, in the second half of the book (some of the first half, while well crafted, didn’t make that leap for me). Like in “El Shaddai,” the extra layer of the image of God as nursing mother: “Nothing could have prepared Her / for the shift from singularity to multiplicity.” That followed by the image of the “blank-faced angels” who exist on another plane from this ordinary human joy – so much for my eye and brain and heart to turn over. What is it like to *be God*? There’s that frisson of joy and discomfort that echoes our ultimate power, and weakness, as new parents. You get all the sense of how being a Jew and a mother weave together for the speaker – it’s very powerful.
    Or in the Mother Psalms, the extra layer of poem-as-prayer, as invocation. And the mystery of “The Permeable World,” one of my favorites, which ends “and at night we’re surrounded by angels / twinkling on all sides, escorting us through ” – how the poem just breaks off, permeable and impermeable, form embodying content. I love that stuff.
    OK, I’m going on a bit long now. But: Moxie, thank you for suggesting this book. And everyone else: Tell us what bits did it for you…

  4. Oh – and on the title: It’s taken from the last line of “Belief,” the poem that deals most directly with PPD. I like how the last lines are phrased so “waiting to unfold’ can describe the child, the mother, and the hope itself, which is curled inside her…

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  6. Hello? Anyone out there? Don’t be afraid to talk about poems, even if you fear you have nothing to say. We can unfold as we go…

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