Across rural landscapes that routinely produce tornadoes and hailstorms are stories of women weathering the winds of their own lives in Birth in Storm, a new poetry collection by Leah Sewell. An ever-present quiet that pervades the notion of small towns by no means indicates stillness, and Sewell’s tales of adolescent struggle and maternal strength spin every bit as strong and prevalent as nature’s storms.
The women narrating these poems often become swept up in new, but perhaps expected, roles, quietly settling into the molds of mothers, lovers, and teenage daughters. In “Escape by Wave,” a young girl imagines the sacrifice she would make in order to be a mermaid, claiming, “I’ll trade my ankles for mermaid hair.” An arcane fantasy spurred by an all-too-familiar adolescent low self-esteem, the poem takes an assertive turn when her made-up mermaid self determines, “In place of boys, I’ll ride the narwhals.” The poem “Fast Turn” is another vision of the tumultuous rides on which young women find themselves, and Sewell’s short lines and stanzas quickly carry the reader from one uneasy scene to the next.
Following the harsh weather of childhood is the transition into adult roles, and one such role Sewell writes about candidly and perceptively is that of motherhood. “Portrait of My Mother as a Young Womb” is an emotional portrayal of a woman becoming a mother, against the context of her previous experience as a daughter. The narrator carries the poem through dark descriptions of her mother’s husk-like womb to her own as she gives birth: “I moan / back to clarity & my daughter slips finally / from me – ship from port, / seed rubbed clean / from husk.” The universal journey from being a daughter to becoming a mother is succinctly tied together by Sewell’s recurring husk image.
Birth in Storm is a masterfully linked collection of poems that liken the unpredictability of natural disasters to the uncertainty of natural and inevitable human experiences. Sewell’s stories are often rich in specific detail, all while retaining an accessibility that grounds a perhaps unfamiliar setting with stories readers will feel as though they know — or have experienced themselves.