A book reivew of Dayna Patterson’s If Mother Braids a Waterfall
Whether we decide to stay in the LDS Church or not, the experience of wrestling with faith, family, community, and history is a nearly universal one in our Mormon feminist community. The last few years have seen an explosion of collections of poetry that describe the faith journeys of Mormon feminists, perhaps starting with Ashley Mae Hoiland’s One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly: The Art of Seeking God (The Neal A. Maxwell Institute of Religious Scholarship) in 2017 through to Carol Lynn Pearson’s anticipated new collection, Finding Mother God: The Missing Half of Heaven: Poems, which will be published by Gibbs Smith later this year. These books tend to include themes of personal experience, seeking Heavenly Mother, and connecting the work of our religious and literary foremothers. My own book in this group, Shades of Becoming: Poems of Faith Transition (Amazon CreateSpace, 2019), edited with Kristin R. Shill, emphasizes the process of releasing old identities and claiming something new. Dayna Patterson’s If Mother Braids a Waterfall (Signature Books, 2020) is no different in its themes, but offers a thoughtful poetic narrative that pushes deeper into spaces of discomfort and disconnection with the LDS Church while holding onto Mormon identity. It holds a wonderful range of memories, beliefs, and experiences in tension with each other in a way that few have articulated.
If Mother Braids a Waterfall is a collection of poems that includes illustrations using historical family photographs. It touches on themes of family history, polygamy, the author’s mission, her mother’s coming out, finding Heavenly Mother in nature, and leaving the LDS Church. Patterson prefaces the work with her family tree and dedicates the collection to “my mothers and foremothers.” While not articulated in the table of contents, the poems are divided into three sections. Textless pages with manipulated photographs mark the breaks between sections. Each section follows a similar arrangement, with poems speaking to identity, letters to foremothers, and memories of community holidays beginning each section.
The opening poem, titled “The Mormons are Coming,” serves as a kind of guide to the whole book, introducing the majority of themes and imagery. It celebrates Mormon compassionate service while poking fun at the quirks of Mormon culture, reflects on the patriarchal and heteronormative nature of the LDS Church, and closes with a comment on service for service’s sake. In this, Patterson invokes the imagery of funeral potatoes, cards from visiting teachers, garments, Wonder Bread in sacrament trays, and temple clothing. As she works her way through her own faith story, these and other objects become touchstones of experience that will be familiar to her Mormon readers.
The poems in the first section address themes of polygamy, and the unbalanced roles in relationships between men and women. After my first reading, the most memorable poem from this part was “Dear Grandpa” (p. 21), where the author returns her grandfather’s unwanted cheek pinching and he learns to stop this behavior. The final poem of this section, “Apples,” marks a transition away from the model offered by traditional Mormonism and invites the reader to partake of “Eve’s calling card” (p. 34).
The second part begins with “Post-Mormons Are Leaving” (p. 37), which is both heartbreaking and my favorite in the book. Patterson evokes both Mormon history and my own painful journey with the lines “Post-Mormons are leaving in the night, trailing red / across a frozen river” (p. 39). She defends her fond childhood memories of heritage parades to a non-Mormon newcomer in “Pioneer Day” (p. 44) and questions the wisdom of trying to persuade Catholic women away from St. Mary while she herself was searching for the feminine divine (“Proselytizing by a Marian Shrine in Québec,” p. 47). “Ring Tricks” contains the most compelling imagery for a change of belief, describing Mormon bodies “palimpsestuous” with the ability to rewrite our stories. “When I Beach” (p. 63) ends the section with a description of the pleasure and immanence of sex contrasted with a lack of intimacy with God.
The final section opens with “Former Mormons Catechize Their Kids” (p. 67) and is a description of the many ways former Mormon parents try to instill in their children a sense of religious plurality, telling diverse stories of gods, goddesses, and creations. The poems in this section tell haunting stories of small-town celebrations of colonization (“Founder’s Day,” p. 77); Patterson’s mother coming out while Patterson remained in her Mormon certainty, her “hibernacle” (“Dear Mom,” p. 81); and her grandfather running over her toddler mother with his car (“The Mercy of Mud,” p. 85). She frames the story of her many-greats grandmother Ellen as one of heroism (“Dear Ellen, 2018,” p. 91) and claims former Mormon poet May Swenson as her foremother (“Dear May,” p. 89). This section ends with “If Mother Braids a Waterfall,” where Patterson contemplates the forgotten mystery of communing with Heavenly Mother. The final poem, separated from the final part, declares itself in the title “Still Mormon” (p. 107), where the imagery for her lingering identity is compared with the smell of skunk spray and a tapped-out sugar maple tree.
The collection achieves many goals. The sense of the distant and recent pasts being in dialogue with the author’s voice in the present is one of the great strengths of the poems. Many of these exchanges are facilitated through letters to family members and others, both dead and alive. She seeks for Heavenly Mother without locating Her in a tidy human body. Instead, the longing is for connection, typically expressed through encounters with the natural world. It discusses her journey through Mormon identity, beginning with the first poem (“The Mormons Are Coming”) and still claimed in the final poem (“Still Mormon”). Again,
Patterson holds together her complicated relationship with Mormonism and the LDS Church. This willingness to engage in the complex work of picking and choosing, claiming and rejecting, and leaving while staying Mormon sets the book apart from others in its genre.
Patterson’s writing is full of grief, empathy, curiosity, and insight into her experiences and those of her mothers and foremothers. “Post-Mormons walk barefoot over the wreckage of faith / crisis, exchange bleeding digits for free time” (“Post Mormons are Leaving,” p. 39). As someone who is interested in the sociology, ministry, and lived experiences of people who are going through faith transitions, I want to emphasize that this volume has much to offer in a first reading, but also much to chew on and revisit.