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What if Your Mother

ISBN: 1-887344-11-X

By: Judith Arcana
Review by: Moira Richards

January 2009

Judith Arcana was one of the seven ‘Janes’ of the US underground abortion service of that name who were arrested in Chicago in 1972, and against whom charges were subsequently dropped in 1973 after the country’s Roe vs Wade decision. What if Your Mother shares not only Arcana’s activist experiences as a young woman, but also her reflections on all aspects of the USA’s abortion/anti-abortion debate over the last three and a half decades. The book is dedicated in part to her own mother who had an abortion a few years prior to Arcana’s birth.

The poems in What if Your Mother are grouped under four headings and the first, "Separating argument from fact," presents poems showing some of the many faces of babies, motherhood and also of the complexities, heartaches of making the choice to be a mother or not. As for example, in these lines,

You think we take them out, like gangsters;
disappear them, like generals.
You don’t know how
it works then, do you?
You don’t know what
sits on both sides of the scale,
what it means to decide: (“You don’t know” 14)

"Information rarely offered" is the header for the second group of poems and it continues the motherhood / abortion debate, exploring the horrors women making the choice to abort have to face. The following extract is from an ironic look at the terms ‘abort’ and ‘abortion’ when applied to the acts brave men perform;

Why do they make this choice? Not because they’re afraid.
We know they’re not afraid. All of them are brave …

We know they won’t abort from cowardice
or carelessness or foolishness. We understand that

… We trust them
to know it would be foolish, dangerous, wrong
to continue. Whatever has been started they know
must now be stopped. Yes! Gallant men in uniforms
[pads sewn tightly in the shoulder] can choose
under fire, even when the countdown’s in their bodies,
quickening pulses. We see them sometimes decide this:
what has begun cannot continue, cannot be completed. (“Courage under Fire” 36-37)

Much of the poetry in the third group, "Don’t tell me you didn’t know this," comprises persona poems. You will read there the chilling deposition of a young schoolgirl, arrested with her boyfriend for smothering their new-born baby and hiding ‘its’ body in a dumpster (Sheila’s deposition, 1997, 45-46). And you will read of suppressed heartbreak in a prose poem narrated by a woman who gave her baby up for adoption; who years later was able to make herself available to be found by her daughter, should she want that.

“After a long time (she thought about it nearly a year) she called me. And when the phone rang – I swear to God this is true – when the phone rang, I knew before I picked it up that it was her.” (“Noreen’s phone calls, 1999” 49-50)

And finally, in "Here, in the heart of the country," are poems that bring insight to the grim brave world of necessity and of working in ‘The Service’ during the late sixties and early seventies in Chicago. There are snippets of stories told by the women whom the Jane abortion service helped, and which give the merest glimpses of the desperations that drive women to the certainty that this is what must be done. That abortion is the decision that must be made (this book makes it very clear that the word ‘choice’ in no way conveys the weight, the import of the matter).

Here are poems about the nature of dangerous work the Janes did and of the risks they took because of their conviction that no politician, no law maker, no anyone, has the right to legislate away the control a woman has over her own body. One poem, “Felony Booking, Women’s Lockup, 11th and State: A Short Literary Epic” (79-81) opens with these lines,

None of us had been in jail before: middle and working
class women with education, fresh as daffodils;
we were all students, housewives, mommies
casual potsmokers, rudimentary feminists
and here’s the thing, citizens: criminal abortionists
charged with several counts (Monte Cristo,
Dracula): all felonies, nothing small.

That poem brought home to me the bravery of the women, the Janes, who were prepared to take such personal risk to help other women; who were determined to provide an essential service to other women despite the potential cost to themselves. And I was awed to know what an amazing bit of history, of feminism I held in my hands between the covers of Judith Arcana’s poetry.


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