Drawing Down the Moon: A Review of Molly Sutton Kiefer’s Nestuary
For as long as there have been books, people have been comparing them to babies. There are blocked writers who refer to an incubation period, writing workshops that compare manuscripts to the delivery process, and authors who treat their books as though they were their own children. When asked by nosy friends and family if I plan to have children myself, I often reply that I’d rather have a book. But what about those lucky writers who publish books about their own children?
In Nestuary (Ricochet Editions 2014), Molly Sutton Kiefer marries the two. She has masterfully written a lyric essay on her own life as a writer, a difficult pregnancy, and the lore embedded in these two expressions of a most basic human desire for perpetuity.
Sutton Kiefer begins by invoking the “hidden archeology” of the two concepts, relating them to a ritual of “drawing down the moon”: “I imagine a woman in white swallowing the bulb of the moon, wearing it at her center.” Ceremony, witchcraft, and the concept of the Earth mother are central to Nestuary, as is Sutton Kiefer’s own narrative as a wife, a mother, and a writer. In this way, she is able to imagine a world in which a mother’s stomach is made of clear glass just a page away from a list of symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Nestuary is told in a confluence of voices: poetry, history, facts, and figures. The figure of a woman with her skin pulled back a la Body Worlds rests beside the figure of Molly, revealing a “cystic self”, a “smooth pearled problem”. The doctor leaves elaborate voicemails, experiments in Chutes and Ladders, a body of hemispheres, labyrinthine caves. A follicle is described as a crypt; Metformin as “white chalk, applesauce on my tongue”.
The reader is advised early on that, “This story has a happy ending,” that no matter what struggles are to come, Sutton Kiefer was able to conceive and deliver a baby girl; and not just that, but after all the pills, all the counting calendar dates, all of the waiting and all of the rejection, two years later she is able to conceive a second child on her own, after “twenty-four hours of the brownest, saddest blood” (because a symptom of PCOS is the avoidance of menstruation, that obvious memento of ovulation).
Knowing this keeps the reader going through grueling pages of planning and failure. Not that the howling ends at conception; if the wait was difficult, the pregnancy itself is terrible. “I’m remarkably and unsurprisingly bad at being pregnant,” Sutton Kiefer writes, by which she means the next nine months do not go as she’d hoped. This term, bad pregnancy, gives me pause, as it evokes the idea that one could ever be good at—or, better than others at—controlling one’s own systems. Excess saliva, nausea, tingling and numbness in the extremities, changes in hormonal levels are all things I associate generally with pregnancy; none the fault of the bearer of these brutalities, but all horrors to live with for 280 days or more.
What keeps Sutton Kiefer going is a different thing altogether: a burning need for motherhood that I can only imagine, appearing as cruel and illogical as a hollow pit that must be sated, a desire primal and innate. This pre-cognitive facet of motherhood is reinforced in a note from a teacher to her student that Sutton Kiefer includes here. Beth Ann Fennelly writes about the disembodied pain of labor, a pain so intense it wipes clean the bearer’s ability to “recall and relive the memory of the pain”. This is perhaps why some mothers recall the experience of labor favorably, only to watch videos of themselves saying and doing things they cannot remember—things that would negate all sense that theirs was a one-dimensionally ‘happy’ lived experience.
Is Nestuary for mothers only? Speaking as a female reader but not a mother, I found Sutton Kiefer’s essay to be in parts instructive, introspective, and wild. This book is not only one thing; Sutton Kiefer holds motherhood in high regard throughout, but places it in the disparate contexts of historicity, spirituality, and the supernatural. I was lucky enough to read Nestuary on my own kind of spiritual journey, while camping in the wild Northland of New Zealand. As I lay tucked in near-total darkness with only my tiny book light removing myself from the vastness overhead, I learned of Hera and the Milky Way, of Ursa Major and Callisto. Sutton Kiefer taught me about the sound of the stars alongside a noise called “sounding the birth”, a vibrating groan given out during delivery.
Perhaps Nestuary was written with the primary audience of other uterus-bearers in mind. If so, I can appreciate this. And so this odd book, in which babies are described as “warm as an organ” and mothers are celebrated for their human endurance, not as living miracles, comes full circle. Speaking on pregnancy on p. 66, Sharon Olds says, “I have done this thing” and I am reminded of the creative impulse, the idea that anyone can do it, but this thing, right here? I have done it. And so perhaps only those with uteri—only mothers, even—should be comparing books to babies. One step further, and maybe mothers are best suited to be writers after all.