Miriam Pederson is a rebel.
Surely not! You may think. Successful poet, professor at Aquinas College, happily married wife and mother—what, of this list, could possibly herald a devious side? But, it's true. She's a teacher's worst nightmare. In graduate school her professor chided her for writing so much about home life.
"When you gonna get off this domestic kick?" he asked. Far from leaving that "kick" behind, she made it one of her trademarks.
"I don't have to apologize for this way of expressing poetry—it's coming out of me," said Pederson. "There are so many examples of poets that write out of their lives…especially women poets."
Her chapbook, This Brief Light, published in 2003, beautifully illustrates Pederson's understanding of the universal nature of this kind of writing. While her poems remain simple, they exude an emotional complexity that reflects the hardships and joys of daily life. Despite her professor's doubts, these familiar glimpses into family and household resonate with a wide readership.
"I've learned it wasn't just about my life, it was about the human experience," said Pederson.
"Erosion," the opening poem in This Brief Light, was written just before Pederson's first child was born. It catalogs the anxiety that an expectant mother feels about bringing new life into an unpredictable world: "I am afraid to bear a child / with this thinness all around-- / …Who can know when these shoes will wear our / and my child will walk barefoot / over what is left?"
These lines express a hyper-awareness of the environment in which the child will grow and develop. The speaker recognizes the absolute fragility of existence at any given moment, and knows she cannot protect her child forever.
"That poem probably even has more significance now [since 911]," said Pederson. "There is even more of a sense that bringing a child into the world is a risky thing."
Not only "Erosion," but all of Pederson's poems are thick with striking images, many of which hold cultural and generational significance. The poem "Mothers Newly Gone" expresses a deep longing to grasp the significance of a bygone domestic life. At the same time, the poem recognizes the incompatibility of domestic practices of the past with today's modern-day haste.
"Our mothers are leaving us… / Their remedies for flu, for heartache, are somewhere in the cupboard; / the names of relatives to be invited / are mixed in with the old Green Stamps. / What are we to do / with these old compacts, / these letters, cards and cold creams?" The speaker struggles with the task of finding a balance between old and new, heritage and future, family and self.
"A lot of it—the female voice in me—seems to be searching for what I have become—the legacy," said Pederson. "What is it that has been passed on that I can embrace?" Pederson's pursuit of her heritage can be seen throughout her book. In fact, several of the poems in the collection seem to be dedicated to Pederson's mother or grandmother.
"I think there still is a desire to please her—look at me Mom!" said Pederson. "It's for our parents to give us acknowledgment and approval—that has become…a theme." This theme is never more apparent than in "Choosing a Monument," a poem about continuing to try to please mom—even after her death.
"That childlike need never goes away," said Pederson. "We all need approval." Pederson admits that this theme may be deep-rooted, and has sparked a trend in her poetry.
"There are certain poems that are triggers for other poems because they've hit something," said Pederson. "When you've written a poem that really hits home to you as a poet, then I think that encourages you to keep exploring that."
The arrangement of the chapbook is deliberate, and seems to progress on a timeline through Pederson's own life. It begins with her first pregnancy and moves through her experience as a parent, wife, daughter of aging parents, and reminiscent granddaughter.
"The arrangement of the collection was important for me in setting a tone and sustaining that tone," said Pederson.
The tone of the collection may best be described by specific recurring themes, such as nostalgia for the past, joy of motherhood, and grief at losing parents and grandparents. The poem "Grandmother's Recipes" combines nostalgia with a feeling of loss as it explores the great generational divide between grandmothers and modern women. Pederson said the poem "reflect[s] the change of the world and the pace that doesn't allow us to savor or appreciate."
On a broader scale, the book's enduring quality may be summed up by its capstones. The opening poem "Erosion" may be indicative of the book's progression. With every poem, another layer of Pederson's existence seems to be exposed, until eventually only the essential elements of life are left: love, home, and family. The closing poem of the chapbook, "More Light," is the culmination of this sentiment. Beautifully woven lines from the poem, below, evoke the notion of mortality, while also suggesting that the basic tenets of a happy existence are somehow, timeless.
"In this solstice time / we feel eternal-- / …We own a sweet forgetfulness / that leaves will fall, / that sun will age our skin, / and that this light is ours / so briefly on this uncommon earth."
When asked about her style, Pederson smiles and admits this is something that may be hard to describe. After a moment, she says, "Sometimes the endings of poems [are]…the hallmark of a poet's style." For something that can define a poet, Pederson's endings are rather, well, undefined.
"I think there's an open-endedness that I try for. I want the reader to be aware of some ambiguity," said Pederson. "Ambiguity is something that's a part of all of our lives—how do you express that?"
One thing that is certainly not ambiguous is the success Pederson has had in this vein of her work. Perhaps this could be a lesson for all students: the next time your professor offers you some pointed advice, you may want to search your soul before following it.
What She Has Become
by Kara Madden
Submitted on September 28th, 2008