Feminist theologies are filled with queries and questions about the divine feminine. Whether women need the Goddess. If She really is. Where herchurch might flourish. I have my own complicated views about the subject, and continue to be enriched by those who seek and find. Rachel Hunt Steenblik is the newest voice calling to and from the divine feminine, singing in a distinctively Mormon key.
If you read Mother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother from front to back, you encounter what seem like scratches of verse and fragments of wisdom from a young mother catching time to write in the midst of her graced obligation to feed and sustain tiny bodies. If you read it back to front, you encounter a wealth and depth of engagement with Christian sacraments, feminist theology, sacred texts, Mormon history, modern philosophy, and children’s books and movies. This cacophony of source material and influence is distilled into sparse poems whose brevity bely decades of the author’s feminist engagement with vast religious history, philosophy, and theology.
In my review of Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings, edited by Steenblik along with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright, I noted that feminists in many religious traditions “have had to document their history, make their theological case, and engage their scriptures as robustly as any conservative traditionalist would.” In Mother’s Milk, Steenblik offers us her contribution to the reconstruction of religious tradition. The words of her introduction state plainly: “These are the poems that I could write with my questions, my hurt, my hope, and my reading. Others could write other poems with theirs. I hope they will. We need them all.”
I’m not a scholar of poetry, so I approached this collection as one interested in feminist engagement with religious traditions. I’m also not a mother, so I approached the work with distance from the visceral experiences of mothering that influence Steenblik’s spiritual query. I found in her writing a multi-directional searching. She is simultaneously the mother whose body formed and fed babies demanding attention, and she is the child whose connection to a Heavenly Mother sustains her. Both are captured in this piece:
When my daughter cried
for me as I showered,
I gave her soft words.
I’m right here.
I’m just on the other side
of the curtain.
I knew my Mother
Occasionally throughout the collection, sequential pieces inform each other. The piece that follows “Veil” titled “The Mother is Not Absent” reads simply:
She is taking
a long shower,
a nap, and using
Ask any frazzled young mother and she will tell you the unabashed joy of a shower, a nap, and a closed bathroom door.
These are the moments when it’s evident how much of Steenblik’s own daily experience motivates these poems. Her engagement with academic feminist theology is also clear. This includes “What Carol Taught Me” which begins “The whys women need the Goddess are many” and “What Rosemary Taught Me” which is that “It counts how we / God-talk.”
What makes Steenblik’s work unique and compelling is her Mormon tradition, its history, sacred texts, theology, and contemporary community. The concept of the Heavenly Mother is firmly entrenched in this religious tradition, which too many people know too little about. Years ago, a student of mine who had been raised Mormon told me about it in a feminist theology class, and I was ashamed that I (a professor with a Ph.D. teaching feminist theology!) had never heard of it. That student also told me that people in her ward said, when pressed on gender equality issues, that they didn’t need to worry because they had the Heavenly Mother. When my student wanted to know more about this Heavenly Mother, no one either wanted or was able to talk to her about it. Heavenly Mother, she said to me, was just … there.
Here is where reading Steenblik’s collection back to front becomes an essential resource for people like my student who have questions and want to know more about their own tradition, and a fascinating exercise for someone in my position outside of yet familiar with Mormonism. For example, one poem titled “The Spirit of Eliza,” and a subsequent one titled “I’ve a Mother There,” which begins “Eliza knew it from reason,” invoke the name of Eliza Snow. Snow is a significant woman in Mormon history, as one of the early pioneers converted in Kirtland, moved to Far West, who shared Relief Society leadership in Nauvoo, and migrated with the company of saints to Salt Lake City. I also seem to recall when I visited the Relief Society Building at Temple Square in Salt Lake City that there are apocryphal stories of Snow personally carrying early church records from Nauvoo, Illinois, all the way to Utah during that grueling cross-country journey in the mid-nineteenth century.
For those less familiar with Mormon history and theology, Steenblik has thirty pages of notes with reference to source material for her crystallized verse. This includes Mormon hymnody (including the work of Eliza Snow among many others), texts from the Book of Mormon, and excerpts from other sacred Mormon texts like the Doctrine & Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price. As is the case within the tradition, these texts sit side by side with the Hebrew Bible (“God Remembered Rachel”) and Christian New Testament (“the Mother gathers me / as a hen gathereth her chickens”), invoking sacramental theology (“The Mother offered me / Her breast, saying, / This is My body. / Take. / Eat.”), and Christian liturgy. Taken together, this collection of poems offers new and fresh expression of the perennial search for the divine feminine.
Steenblik’s allusion to more contemporary Mormon writers and activists like Joanna Brooks and Margaret Toscano situate her work firmly in a new generation of this tradition. Verse evoking children’s books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and movies like Moana situate her experience firmly in twenty-first century parenting. Hers is a voice that speaks with the accent of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and calls across the lines drawn by those who associate it only with patriarchy and polygamy. As Heavenly Mother offers source and inspiration, Mother’s Milk offers an invitation to those who want to come and see more.
If I was right in my review of Mormon Feminism that “in order to achieve meaningful institutional change, unimpeachable work and confident testimony is required” from religious feminists, Rachel Hunt Steenblik has gifted us with just such a testimony in Mother’s Milk.
Caryn D. Riswold, Ph.D., will be Professor of Religion as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Iowa starting in Fall 2018, after teaching for sixteen years at Illinois College. She is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Feminism and Christianity: Questions and Answers in the Third Wave. You can follow her on Twitter @feminismxianity.