Matronalia by A.B. Dillon
“A mother is a recorder, a journal, an illimitable, constant aperture. We are seers, voyeurs of the worst order,” writes A.B. Dillon in Matronalia. Her first collection of prose poems, in which a mother addresses her adolescent daughter, is indeed an act of witnessing. Part confession, part treatise, part rallying cry, it is as complicated and fragmented as motherhood itself.
The mother recalls her daughter’s childhood, sometimes with a sense of joyful triumph, other times with apprehension, and still other times with a “mudslide of remorse.” The braiding of hair, a shame-faced exit from a schoolmate’s birthday party, the baking of a pie—these shared moments are simultaneously ordinary and
momentous. To the narrator, motherhood is a contradiction. “As your mother, I am almost always just about to run screaming through the streets to find you,” she confesses, after a dream she has lost her daughter. On the next page, her approach is more restrained: “I aimed to teach you I would not rescue you.” She offers her daughter much in the way of advice—on sex, love, and self-preservation—but later admits,
“When I offer you advice, I am always hoping for you to disagree.”
The poems in Matronalia are without titles, which makes for a fluid reading experience as narratives, images, and themes resurface throughout the collection. Some poems span entire pages, others consist of a few lines. Some materialize in paragraph form, while others manipulate line breaks and spacing for emphasis. There are poems that end mid-thought, as though the mother has simply forgotten what she was going to say, a device that feels satisfyingly true to life.
Dillon writes in an unadorned and lucid voice peppered with the occasional burst of lyricism. A crow’s call is “onxy zealotry,” the mother’s chest rattles with “cannon-fire fear,” and the daughter is as plucky as “an aria in a marble chamber.” She uses metaphor liberally, though at times, it feels bulky. The daughter’s secrets, for instance, are compared to birds that might fly from her chest, only to be captured and killed, their feathers plucked by an imagined suitor. The narrator’s wry sense of humour sparkles throughout. “I never thought missing Tupperware lids would bring me down,” she muses.
Her guilt is linked to a mysterious genetic illness, which causes lockjaw, depression, ossification, and the growth of extra ribs. The narrator probes the illness’s pathology, linking its onset to the birth of her daughter. “You have infected me,” she claims. “I was asymptomatic until I had you.” Is the illness motherhood itself? The question might not matter, as Dillon bears witness to the many ways in which motherhood transforms a woman’s mind and body—sometimes beyond recognition.