Reading the wry, surreal tales in Sabrina Orah Mark’s short-story collection Wild Milk often feels like navigating an anxiety nightmare dreamt by a wittier half-sister of the Brothers Grimm. The stories are narrated with a matter-of-factness that could be misconstrued as detachment or lack of feeling, except that this narrator—who is usually a woman entangled in a web of relationships, exchanges of love and need—evidently feels too much. A third of the way through the collection, when the narrator of the story “Spells” says, “Peace is what pain looks like in public,” she might as well be describing the tone of the book. It is also the tone that often dominates my conversations when I am struggling through a depression: My body feels like a well of tears about to brim over, and so much of my energy is focused on stopping the flood that my affect is likely to be read as either sharp or flat—a steel lid containing the inner turmoil. If Mark’s narrator cannot articulate that agony viscerally or connect psychic pain to an embodied state, perhaps it is because her body is already in use, always at somebody else’s disposal.
Although the narrator’s name changes from story to story, she often seems to be the same character with slightly different attributes, as in a dream. In “Spells,” the narrator is a mother widely called upon for her skill at removing lice from children’s hair, though she is never given any public recognition for her genius. She has even trained her nine sons to remove lice, but a spell activated by the lice transforms the self-sufficient sons into needy daughters.
“I don’t like change and I don’t like daughters,” this mother confesses. What does she have against daughters? As is often the case in Wild Milk, the protagonist’s private weaknesses have just been waiting to confront her. A husband who was never necessary before appears out of nowhere, but it “is possible he has been here the whole time.” Then the house begins to flood, and the narrator is transformed into a tree in response to her family’s needs—her own survival being secondary to theirs: “My husband and daughters touch my bark. I stand very still. Soon they will chop me down and use my body to save themselves. A log to hold onto. A Melody to row them all the hell away.”
The conclusion in “Spells” is a contorted version of the ending of the earlier story “Tweet,” which begins with the narrator “following the Rabbi” her friends are following, literally, from place to place, until she arrives at an apartment where the Rabbi is slow dancing with “Beautiful Leonora,” whose beauty surpasses everyone else’s. When the narrator, in frustration, decides to unfollow the Rabbi, she finds herself alone and in need of a leader but with no one else to follow. At last she turns around to find that her husband and babies are following her. But she seems unable to lead, as her needs quickly become subordinate to theirs:
I put My Husband and My Babies on my back and carry them through the dark city. I search for the Rabbi everywhere. I search for Beautiful Leonora. I search for my friends. Like an animal, I howl for them. My Husband and My Babies are so heavy. Who will feed us? Who will keep us warm? How am I supposed to know where to go?
As in “Spells,” the narrator’s family appropriates her body as a mode of transport, a means of escape, this time from a city that, without a leader, has suddenly gone cold and dark, unilluminated.
Often Mark’s narrator is stuck in a kind of rut, inhibited by self-doubt, entrenched feelings of inadequacy, and obligation to family members who are stuck in their own narcissism or self-absorption. In “Sister,” the narrator is forever being slighted by her mother and younger sister, who operate as a vicious, tight-knit team of two. The narrator—named Judy, though her sister insists on calling her Mumford—will always be an outsider in her own family. At one point the sister proclaims, “Let me shed some light on why you are soused in a sadness that could’ve so easily been vanished had Mother doted on you for one second. It is because on you, and I hope I get this right, because on you she cannot dote.” The narrator has evidently internalized this assessment of her own worthlessness, because even when she is in a position of power after seizing the sister’s gun, she can take no action. Instead, she asks, rhetorically, “Where is my insurgency?”
In “Mother at the Dentist,” the protagonist’s mother has been calling her from the dentist’s office every day for ten years, berating her daughter for her “lack of gumption,” demanding, “Where’s your get up and go?” But the narrator cannot get up and go, because she has been pinned in place by her duty to answer her mother’s calls. The narrator’s father has long since gone away, tired of endlessly waiting for his wife at the dentist’s. When the dentist himself disappears, and the mother, left with no one, finally asks if she can come to her daughter’s, the narrator wants to say yes but instead refuses. “If my mother has taught me anything it’s to change nothing,” she explains.
Mothers appear and reappear throughout the book, in myriad shapes and surprising forms. In the title story a mother is accused of feeding her baby “wild milk,” the only kind her breasts will yield. When her baby’s daycare teacher transforms into a blizzard, taking the baby with her, the mother’s only option is to climb onto another mother’s shoulders and wait until spring, apologizing profusely for her inadequacies. The second mother, who now carries all the weight, falls asleep and never wakes up.
Are You My Mother? is the name of an existing children’s book by P. D. Eastman, which ends happily when a hatchling is finally reunited with the mother he has been searching for. But in Mark’s book, the story by this name shuffles along a line between hilarity and despair. When the narrator’s mother, the writer Francine Prose, calls to inform her that “there has been an error” and she is not her mother after all, the rejected child goes off in search of her real mother—working through an illustrious list of possibilities, including Hillary Clinton (in this story, the narrator’s cleaning lady!), Jorie Graham, and Diana Ross, who one by one reject the motherless child—but then, hopelessly and hilariously, she arrives at the door of the dead poet John Berryman. “He is not a good mother,” the narrator remarks, but he is in need of comforting. Of all the potential mothers, this maternal failure is the only one who lets the forsaken child climb onto his lap while he, the “mother,” sobs.
“The Roster” might as well be one of my own anxiety nightmares. In this story the narrator, a creative-writing instructor, has accepted a tenure-track teaching position at Shadow College, where she loves her students so much she finds herself rendered speechless in the classroom: “Many times I tried to speak, but my mouth filled up with stones. They carried on as though I wasn’t there.” The more her students ignore her, the greater her love for them, until it reaches the level of obsession:
I would see them moving down the halls of the English Department in deep discussion and I ’d say, “Hi guys,” but they never saw me. Never heard me. I became feverish with longing. I stopped sleeping, stopped eating, stopped bathing. Sometimes in class I would lie down in the middle of the floor and hope they would pile on top of me. Smother me. I wanted to be the coats they wore. I wanted to be the scarves around their necks.
This story is, like any anxiety nightmare, rooted in reality. Like many educators, I have sometimes woken up in the middle of the night with my heart racing, worried about a student’s depression or extended absence from class or plummeting grades or disturbing poetry. There is always that invisible line between caring enough and caring too much, and potential calamity awaits those who find themselves stranded on the wrong side.
Such dangerous negotiations lie beneath the unspeakable pain in Wild Milk—pain so impossible to articulate in public that it could be mistaken for peace or even transformed into humor. In an interview in The Adroit Journal, Mark says, “I’ve always believed if you’re not trembling, and a little afraid—as one is when trying to survive—the joke’s not funny.” How does a woman, a mother/daughter/sister/teacher/lover, survive the narratives she’s trapped inside, where she is always at risk of being consumed by the twin burdens of her own love and others’ bottomless need? As the narrator of “I Did Not Eat the Child” remarks, “This is the problem with hunger. This is the problem with love. There is no end in sight.”
Wild Milk. By Sabrina Orah Mark. St Louis: Dorothy Project, 2019. 168 pp. $16.00, paper.