Image Credit: Sharon McCutcheon
Elisabeth Horan’s chapbook, Bad Mommy, Stay Mommy is a raw soliloquy from the perspective of a woman struggling with post-partum depression after the birth of her second child. Mental illness is an attack from the inside and this book is a look into the core of that struggle. The speaker is constantly going after herself— “Bad Mother” is a repeated refrain throughout the collection. At one point, she says: “I am in my head, my head, spinning planets, colliding particles, rumination monkey brain, anger rage, then again – the shame.” This collection shows how our loudest condemnations are often our own inner voices.
As the title suggests, many of the pieces use child-like wording of stereotypical nursery rhymes, and tender platitudes. However, they are juxtaposed with gruesome images. For example, in “Small Souls,” the line “Goodnight, little ones/Momma’s here, sleep tight” is tender, but is said by a woman who doesn’t seem to sleep, instead wandering the house at all hours of the night, ruminating in circles over what upsets her. In “Heavy Woman Drown,” the speaker says: “Who says/mother, may I who/ asked Daddy permission/ for whom does the church bell/ chime knowing children//will to suffer.” Here, doom-ridden imagery and a Hemingway reference are combined with a children’s game to create grim, gallows humor. It’s a stunning effect, pulled off with skill. It gives a sense of what should be, but isn’t. What should be is joy, the picture of idyllic motherhood that is so celebrated in our society, and what, in this situation, exists—a woman who is struggling within herself. The collection hits a loud cacophonous almost manic, feverish crescendo towards the end, where the pieces begin to experiment with chaotic diction before finally coming to a point of peace.
Bad Mommy, Stay Mommy poses the question—does mental illness make someone a bad person? Is it still possible to be redeemed, despite the chaotic, destructive things that brain chemicals cause a person to do? Is it possible to love oneself when it’s so much easier to listen to that nagging inner voice that is telling one to self-destruct? The Speaker constantly trying to cut herself down, calling herself a bad parent. At the same time, I’m so sorry is also repeated, indicating remorse and love. The final piece, “Stay Mommy,” is a testament to what the speaker has been through, and how her love for her children and their love for her is worth fighting for. When she mentions her children’s reaction to her outbursts, it’s heartbreaking, but it’s so relatable. Because when you’re mentally ill, you’re not the only one who suffers—friends and family also suffer.
As a poet who writes about mental illness, I’m glad to read a collection like this, which portrays mental illness in such a realistic way. Bad Mommy, Stay Mommy is a good addition to the tradition of literature which discusses mental illness. This collection is a step forward in undermining the stigma around it. I think the biggest challenge that writers in this tradition have is running the line between shock and melodrama because people who are not mentally ill tend to view our symptoms and experiences with fear. Elisabeth Horan presents it in a way that says something different. She juxtaposes her experience with other female writers in the tradition—Plath, Woolf. But here, she presents a different alternative to the ultimately devastating route that they took, but at the same time, not condemning them. Elisabeth Horan establishes herself as a poet with a strong voice and a keen sense of craft. It is currently available for pre-order, and it comes out in May.