Review: If Mother Braids a Waterfall by Dayna Patterson

“The Mormons Are Coming” opens Dayna Patterson’s recent poetry collection, If Mother Braids a Waterfall (Signature Books, Winter 2020). The Mormons come with “cheese-and-potato casserole” and “a package of diapers” and “glowing faces with shiny hope.” Then, before a reader gets too comfortable in the lulling repetitions and list of endearing cultural images, the poem swivels: “My daughters ask Why do only boys pass the sacrament?” Then, “My daughters ask Why are all the statues of men?” By the poem’s end, we learn the speaker has “agonize[d] for half a decade’s doubt before deciding to leave.”

Deepening jolts, like this, exemplify much of Patterson’s debut book, simulating the challenging, urgent quest for spiritual authenticity that If Mother Braids a Waterfall presents. Alongside evocative photographs of her Mormon pioneer ancestors—everything from stoic headshots to family portraits of an ancestor among nineteen sons before later posing in prison stripes for practicing polygamy illegally—the poems evoke core themes of what the speaker grapples with: a harrowing faith transition from Mormon to Post-Mormon (not Ex-Mormon), a chance to interpret family legacy, a search for a more feminist theology, and a way to honor the past alongside both the sacred present and an uncertain future.

The speaker offers tender glimpses into these complex characters, but resists sentimentality. Throughout, she explicitly and implicitly critiques the church’s treatment of LGBTQ+ people and women, especially in relation to the lingering ghost of polygamy and the patriarchy. Patterson also critiques the mythologizing of the Church’s history, be it her ancestor’s struggle to survive on stolen lands or reenactments glorifying Utah’s settlement.

Contrasts provide one of the many tools Patterson uses to illuminate the tensions, such as during a parade to commemorate Brigham Young’s arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. “Pioneer Day” shows the child-speaker lunges to retrieve saltwater taffy “from hot asphalt, / a pinch of scorch.” The sugar burns with a hint of danger. Contrast, also involving taste, appears again when the speaker learned her ancestor had married his fourth wife, who was only seventeen at the time, while the speaker was eating “the best peach pie I’ve ever tasted, assaulted / by the tang of peaches.” The speaker is astonished that her “family tree twists, branches” in ways she “wouldn’t have guessed,” while also acknowledging, “Fact: I wouldn’t be me without it.” Throughout the collection, the speaker navigates the sweet alongside the tartness of her history and relationship to Mormonism.

In addition to contrasts, cycles and the gesture to return or revisit create a powerful throughline for the book. The speaker invokes ancestors by writing direct letters, such as to Ellen, a matriarch who fled an abusive husband in England to cross the ocean, the U.S., then struggled to survive in Utah. Ellen appears as a recurring character. The speaker longs to hear Ellen’s own words, which she doesn’t have, as described in “Dear Ellen, 1863”:

…All I have to go on is his diary, his words.

Consider this my standing invitation. Dear Ancestress, Matriarch,

 

Root: I want to taste your song, to hear your salt.

By the time we reach “Ellen: 2018,” towards book’s end, the speaker finds a way to reclaim parts of Ellen’s story while also identifying with her struggle, perhaps best exhibited in the lonely, isolated line sandwiched within this final passage:

Hero who left a brutish husband and Manchester’s

familiar for a new country’s blank. Brave lady

who forsook your foremother’s faith for a new truth,

one that sang to you out of the dark.

I know it’s the hardest

 

trek I’ve taken. Ellen,

 

despite the shards in the pane, we climb through.

Though doubt plays an undeniable presence in the poems, the speaker cracks open the meaning of faith. She learns to let go of the traditionally scared, like Mormon temple garments, while more fully embracing what is sacred to her: yellow pollen, her marriage (“God doesn’t have your hands, / your broad shoulders, your way of breathing”), stained glass, whales, motherhood, daughterhood, canoeing, volvelles, and even Star Trek.

The speaker seems particularly drawn to the feminine divine, a subject of many of the most illustrious poems. The feminine divine is a tantalizing but often underexplored part of Latter-day Saint/Mormon doctrine. Patterson expands and revitalizes the concept. She deliberately names women, both mortal and goddess, throughout her collection. One poem is titled “Eloher,” a mash-up of Elohim (the Hebrew word used in Genesis, which translates as ‘the gods’) and the feminine third-person pronoun her. In the titular “If Mother Braids a Rainbow,” Patterson threads divine femininity between gaps of white space and suggestive distance. The reader realizes she longs to “relearn Mother”:

in a country here no one speaks

Her language     if She’s a shrine

Few bow to, few supplicate     if She’s a book

 

no one reads, verses

rich as incantation…

Does the speaker offer some satisfying reconciliation from all this sorting and searching? The writing process itself seems a sacred act of love, as described at the end of “Former Mormons Catechize Their Kids”:

Wherein lies redemption?

 

In parents turning their hearts to their children,

children turning their hearts to their parents.

 

In shorter showers and flicking off the unused lamp,

Hybrid buses and solar power.

 

In sharing poems, songs, stories by lovelight,

This web of wondrous narratives.

Writing as sacred assemblage echoes thematically again to close the book in “Still Mormon.” Patterson creates a tour de force through thirty-three reasons why she retains so much of her Mormonism, despite her loss of belief and departure from the faith at the age of thirty-three:

33.

Still Mormon the way paper gives itself over to

blade and page and pen,

but remembers what it was like to have roots, thick

woody skin, lenticels, xylem,

loved by sunlight in a copse of its kin

If there is a limitation to this book, it is perhaps the specificity of the cultural references that will be missed by many, despite a few notes and explanations at the end of the collection. As a reader with a shared Mormon heritage, I could relish these details that might otherwise go unnoticed or underappreciated. I was deeply moved by this collection and haunted, in the absolute best of ways, when it ended. The specificity of Mormonism is also the books’ greatest strength and what makes the speaker’s trek through her heritage so rigorous and authentic. The universal themes of spiritual transition, grappling with family heritage, and the feminine divine will resonate with readers drawn to these questions.

About the author

Rachel Rueckert is a nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia.

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