Poetry Sunday: “Theodicy,” by Meryl Natchez

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem, chosen for Mother’s Day, is written in free verse lines, unmetered and unrhymed, collected into 12 couplets for a total of 24 lines. The point of view here is second-person singular, but “you” is used by the speaker to refer to herself in a device called the “first-person you.” The device is effective, both because it feels even more intimate and close than first person (we often refer to ourselves as “you” when talking to ourselves or in conversations with family and friends) and at the same time draws in and implicates the reader in what feels on some level like a personal address.

We are drawn in immediately by the title, “Theodicy,” a word that means “explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil.” Literally, the term means “justifying God,” and theodicy makes a defense or response to what is known in theology and philosophy as the problem of evil.” [Source here.] I love that the word also sounds as if it includes the word “idiocy,” how I feel anytime I attempt to parse the problem of evil and also apt for those who believe having children in this day and age  to be an act of insanity. Or, really, any age—King Lear, for one, had a lot to say on the subject of ungrateful children, notably this quotation from Act 1, Scene 4: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”

The poem opens in medias res, in the thick of things, with the speaker recalling in vivid terms what it was like to be the new mother of an infant, “sleep deprived” and breast-sore, the surprising word “ruthless” used to describe the baby’s gums. That’s an example of a brilliant use of diction (word choice) in a poem, both because the word is so precisely accurate of the unrelenting intensity of a newborn’s needs, and also because it is so unexpected. Line 4 in the next stanza reminds readers of another aspect of parenting newborns: the way it narrows the caretaker’s world, literally to just a few interior rooms, at least while the baby is small.

Stanza 3 changes focus, talking about the positives of having children, especially the incredible beauty and fragility of newborns, and does it by invoking other senses—notably touch—besides the visual. Reading it, I remembered exactly that combination of terror and wonder when I tried to trim those tiny, soft nails—my mother taught me to do it by biting off my baby’s fingernails rather than risking clippers—and the incredible awe-full/awful feeling of being charged with a task that felt vital and sacred, and also more than a little too big to bear.

The next lines, through stanza 7, continue to develop the positive images and memories of parenting babies and toddlers, using visceral, luscious descriptions like “chubby arms” and “nuzzle” and “limpid as soap bubbles,” and by comparing the joys of having small children favorably (“there has never been anything more delightful”) to other activities we more conventionally associate with pleasure: sex, eating great food, and driving fast in cars. It’s no accident, readers, that those three activities are typically the first to go when small children enter the picture.

That sets the stage for a turn in stanza 8, to a frank listing of some of the sacrifices made by most new parents: “nightlife, adult conversation, hour-and-a-half / massages, spicy food, [and] uninterrupted thought.” I love the wry humor here, and that line break after “hour-and-a-half,” recalling well the new-mother feeling that an hour to myself was an unimaginable luxury and that my life would be henceforth forever be chopped up into 15-minute intervals—about the length of time I could count on doing anything before a child needed something. Stanza 9 uses narrative compression to take readers quickly through the speaker’s children’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, with shorthand references to “orthodontist[s],” to having “endured the teenage years” and to paying college expenses until the offspring are finally “launched.” That compression serves the poem with its brevity and also by reminding us of how those years, in real lived experience, pass in a literal blur.

The last two stanzas envision the children as adults with “their own ways of salting meat, / their own ways of slicing it.” In that phrase I detect again the dry humor ever-present in the poem, along with the tiniest hint of annoyance. Perhaps I’m projecting here, but it can’t be just me who has felt somehow betrayed (and most definitely annoyed) by my kids wanting to do something differently from how I taught them, and of these conflicts often revolving around food. Important in most families, meals in my own home remain a ritual, the one time we can rely on coming together without screens between us. My kids all went through several stages of being vegetarian, vegan, paleo, or some other diet; sometimes it complicated family dinners and made more work, and other times I ended up learning a few things and changing my own ways. Anyway, I resonated with that meat-salting image, followed by other differences, the ones parents always do expect, when their children eventually choose “their own partners and opinions.”

I love all these succinct, pungent descriptions and the wit that contrasts the joys of parenting with the agonies every parent knows. The poem’s most sparkling moment, though, is its ending, which makes a return to the title by subtly restating the concept of theodicy in the analogy of parents and children: “here they are, flawed human beings with adult problems / for which it turns out you are the cause.” That’s another brilliant line break, readers, one that enables the poem to make its final, very effective turn. Parents, like a benevolently viewed God, want only what’s best for their kids, but notwithstanding valiant efforts and sacrifices, often end up just, well, making a hash of things. That’s the great irony—that whatever parents do, they are absolutely going to end up thwarting our goal of happiness for our kids. Or at least the kids often see it that way, just as we, with our limited and flawed human perspective, sometimes rail against God for all the evil in the world.

“Theodicy” is a great poem for Mother’s Day and offers comfort on at least two levels. How great to be reminded that other mothers  experience these frustrations—not just the culturally sanctioned and oft-joked-about trials and tribulations of new parents, but also the less-discussed feelings of isolation, suffocation, and terrible frustration of watching your own kids struggle and then getting blamed by them for it! The poem also offers balm on a deeper, more spiritual level. Perhaps God is not indifferent or cruel but, like us, is doing His or Her level best and still seeing things not quite working out as planned. Or perhaps things are just as they should be, and we (like our own kids) are simply too narcissistic and hampered by the limitations of our own experience to appreciate the sacrifices that went into “making” us. Lucky parents see their children grow up to be parents, and even luckier ones find themselves forgiven by those children from a new vantage of empathy. The corollary to that—the idea that we as human beings may one day mature into a deeper understanding about how the beauty in the world can coexist with its unspeakable horrors—is a one I find comforting. Readers, if you happen to be a mother making dinner today, you just go ahead and slice and salt that meat or tofu exactly as you see fit. And, Happy Mother’s Day!

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