When struggling through a severe bout of health anxiety, my therapist suggested I imagine my worries as colored shapes and project them outside of myself. The idea was that, once outside of the body, the anxieties would feel less threatening and the emotional distance from them would allow for more clarity. Soon my room would be filled with floating orange squares, the glow of green circles each time I had a nervous thought about my teeth or toes or bones. This practice stuck. Now almost anything can be seen through the lens of shape and shade, even—or especially—the books I read. The Falls (New American Press, 2020) by Emily Mohn-Slate, a collection which explores motherhood, individuality, and the limits of empathy, a collection framed by the influence of early twentieth-century English poet Charlotte Mew, is no exception. The Falls is an inverted red triangle. Allow me to explain.
Red images throughout The Falls both anchor the reader into the realm of the domestic and serve to complicate that space. Red is a beloved wool cap from childhood; red is the vinyl stroller harness a baby licks. Red is the cowboy hat in which the speaker’s son dances, happy and provided for while a documentary about an impoverished Russian girl named Yula plays in the background. “[Why],” the speaker asks, “does joy always slide / into darkness?”
Red is at its most effective, however, when the speaker treats it as its own abstract entity as opposed to a descriptor. In the poem “& THEN SHE WAILED & SCREAMED & COUGHED ON HER OWN DROOL,” lines 1-8, the speaker describes a moment in which her infant daughter is almost inconsolable.
her face blotching red
so I tried the elephant the giraffe
the caterpillar her finger my finger
I opened the car window
& gripped her sweaty hand
& after the seventh song I tried
Now I know my ABCS Next time won’t you sing with me?
Here red is the rush of blood to a crying child’s cheeks, but it is also the weight and worry a mother must bear. A crimson call to action, a scarlet reminder of how your needs are secondary now. The speaker continues in lines 14-20:
I sang & sang & sang until
her eyes shut her hand loosened
as if she was falling
into the arms of a kind water
where I couldn’t find her
but she would be safe
& the red left her
In the welcomed sleep of a crying child, red transcends being a color and takes on the abstract properties of confusion, anger, exhaustion, abandonment—the feelings of a baby too new to this world to make sense of it and a woman navigating motherhood with “only my own body / the husk of me that was.” Red, here, is pain.
The Falls primes readers to experience this color as a form of hurt as early as its epigraph. “Red,” wrote Charlotte Mew, “is the strangest pain to bear.” No poem more thoroughly explores this idea than “Dear Charlotte, November,” in which the speaker asks of Mew, a literary mentor from beyond the grave: “How much weight were you buried under?” and “Could you hear / the shovel ramming down?” These questions, though, read more like the speaker’s own self-inquiry into what weight she must now bear in exchange for her closest relationships. “What I mean is,” the poem ends, “you are the only one who might hear me, and you are still dead.”
This is the point in the collection at which the structure of an inverted triangle takes shape when viewed through the red lens of pain. Mohn-Slate often crafts her poems with broad observations of human behavior (the top segment of an inverted triangle) and then distills her poems to a moment of empathy (the triangle’s downward tip) that implicates herself in that humanness.
“So Easy,” the collection’s opening poem, is a brilliant example of this structure. “A woman,” the poem begins, “forgot her baby in the park. People found it / murmuring in the bushes, called it Fairy.” Instead of analyzing another mother’s moment of forgetfulness through the false dichotomy of moral versus immoral behavior—a societal construct often placed upon those who experience motherhood—the speaker goes on to share her own exhaustion from raising children. The speaker’s child can’t sleep unless she walks around the park. The speaker wants to be left alone. “I forget things so often now. I never forget my glasses,” Mohn-Slate writes. “It would be so easy to forget the baby.”
Readers encounter this structure again in the poem “Maybe.” The poem’s speaker has just received an update email from what we can infer is a pregnancy app or website, informing her that, at 12 weeks pregnant, she may now “be able to feel the baby’s kicks.” Instead of thinking further about this fetal development, however, the speaker begins to reflect upon recent horrific and tragic global events: the recently discovered bodies of undocumented miners decomposing in an abandoned gold mine, a woman in Delhi murdered while walking down the street. When reflecting upon a third international tragedy in lines 9-14, the speaker writes:
a plane missing over Nepal
over the mountains where we
ate mango on twin beds pushed
together, unsealable crack between
bony mattresses, & talked about babies,
how maybe we were ready.
How does one commit to bringing new life into a violent and dangerous world? Mohn-Slate offers no answers here, but instead actively leans into the ethical complications considered by soon-to-be-parents or those who choose to opt out of parenthood entirely. Her words draw the top line of an inverted triangle through broad-scale observations and distills it down to a fine point of empathy which implicates us all.
If the collection breaks from this shape, it is in the closing piece “I’m trying to write a joyful poem.” Here readers find a triangle that goes un-inverted: it begins with the “I” and then expands upon itself in the direction of observation. The speaker shares that she has recently read a poetry collection by Ross Gay, which made her feel “like maybe / a world in which figs fall / from a city sky is possible[.]” We now feel empathy for the speaker, who, in light of the difficulties of being a person and a mother in this world, is trying to hold on to joy, who goes on to observe that maybe joy is her son dancing, is a cramped coffee shop full of chatter. It is what entices and eludes us all. In The Falls, Emily Mohn-Slate has constructed a collection that bears the strange red pain of living and invites us to use the broad and forgiving lens of observation to reach our own fine-tipped points of empathy, both with others and with ourselves. The Falls reminds us that “Joy must be at least / as complicated as sorrow[.]”