Poetry Review

Review: Small Mammals by Cati Porter

Cati Porter’s Small Mammals is an exploration of a number of things, but primarily what it means to be the mother of teenage boys. It is both what one might expect and not expect at the same time. Of course, there is the chaos of the teenage years, but there are also many scenes of surprising tenderness and love from her boys. There are moments of violence, and of compassion, and a discussion of what friendship means.

Running through all of it, however, is a theme that intrigues me the most, which is how difficult it is to know another person. So much of what we do comes from moments when we are acting unconsciously. Often, we don’t understand our own motivations. How difficult it is to know why other people act as they do, to know who they are. Porter’s collection helps to prise out the idea that no matter how much you love someone, that person will remain a mystery, and that mysteriousness is not something to lament; being there for someone ends up being more important than understanding them completely.

The terror of not knowing someone is that impotent feeling that comes with knowing there is nothing you can do to save them as they act dangerously or foolishly, especially when dealing with teenage boys. In one scene, one of her sons and his good friend have been pushed out of a moving car while unconscious from excessive drinking. Why a teenager would do this is clear. Many of us have drunk to excess in our teenage years. Still, as he sleeps, she wonders about his subconscious life, “(Is he asleep? Is he dreaming?)” (23). This is the mystery of all people. We can never know what another person is thinking. The book draws out how powerful this fact is and how much it affects our relationships.

This is perhaps most powerfully drawn out in “Lost and Found: A Broken Crown.” This is a 15 poem sequence about her son’s good friend who is her child, “Not of the womb, but of the heart” (47). Like many boys, he starts down a self-destructive path that ultimately ends in a suicide attempt. She does not understand what is inside him, what is driving him to these kinds of extremes. Suicide is ultimately unknowable. However, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t care for him. What is important is that she and her sons are there for him, showing him that he is loved:

Your friends love you, talking you down and through
the tunnel, ladder to the ledge, get you off that hill.

The difference can be made by a friend.
What is a heart if not hope’s womb?

You are all my sons. I am all your mothers
Against stacked odds, I place my bets with you (50).
What matters is her unconditional love.

The poem “What to Expect: The Teenage Year” helps to set up another theme: there is no way to know what person your son will grow into, and adolescence is when people develop who they will become despite whatever their parents want. She writes,

. . . there were no guidebooks to tell me
how to teach you to drive, how not to wind up in the ER
after a drinking binge, or how to make you love
poetry, or me. That book doesn’t exist, but I imagine
if it did it might begin with a chapter or two on mourning
who you’ll never be, and accepting that (24).

She cannot control what her sons will do or love, and she won’t even be able to understand that, but in the end, none of that matters. What matters is that her sons have fulfilling lives, and the way that she can ensure that they do is by showing up and witnessing their lives. She even praises them for the idiosyncrasies that she does not share as a reaction to the death of one of their friends:

Praise dirty socks left on the bathroom floor!
. . .
Praise the car keys missing from the rack by the front door,
and praise the car that my teenager rode off in.
Praise their acne, praise their obstinacy, praise their hair
that has grown past their shoulders.
. . . (25)

There is no way to tell what they will do because everyone is different. The tragedy and the joy is that she gets to find out who her sons and their friends are as they grow.

Cati Porter’s Small Mammals is an exceptional collection. As with much of her work, it explores the everyday world, showing us that what happens on a day to day basis is not banal. She gives us insight on why it matters and why it’s powerful.


cover of Small Mammals by Cati Porter
Small Mammals by Cati Porter

Purchase Small Mammals by Cati Porter

What are you looking for?