After the birth of her second child two years ago, Rachel Hunt Steenblik suffered such a severe bout of postpartum depression and anxiety that she landed in the hospital.
The Mormon mother and scholar was living on the East Coast, away from her close-knit family, including her parents in Provo, as well as the support system she developed while studying theology and philosophy at Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University.
As she got better, Steenblik returned to writing a series of poems inspired by her historical research about the Mormon concept of a Heavenly Mother. Writing “Mother’s Milk: Poems in Search of Heavenly Mother” helped save her life.
“I’m not kidding,” Steenblik says in a soft voice that friends insist sounds like it would fit in behind an LDS General Conference pulpit. “This project rescued me during that time. I didn’t know it would be meaningful to anyone else. I just know that I needed to write it and finish it.”
In the past year, the book has sold more than 2,500 copies, impressive for a debut collection promoted primarily on social media. Those sales numbers are more than the other six books combined published by the independent press By Common Consent in the past year.
The book’s critical attention marks Steenblik as a rising voice among contemporary writers who are reclaiming discussions of Heavenly Mother in Mormon theology. She also is following in the juggling tradition of other female LDS writers, like Juanita Brooks (”The Mountain Meadows Massacre”), who hid her typewriter under piles of ironing, or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian (”A Midwife’s Tale” and “A House Full of Females”), who took writing breaks to make cookies for Mormon children’s Primary classes.
When my daughter cried
for me as I showered,
I gave her soft words.
I’m right here.
I’m just on the other side
of the curtain.
I knew my Mother
Rachel Hunt Steenblik
Since 2013, Steenblik has birthed two babies and two books. Her interviews and podcast appearances are richer for the interjections of her children. “I write because I have to do something else, too, which also means I’m very tired,” she says. “Which means I work when they’re napping or stay up very late.”
Two years of her daughter’s nap times were devoted to her research assignments for “Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings,” the 2015 Oxford University Press collection Steenblik edited along with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright.
Her poems are also included in a new Peculiar Pages anthology, “Dove Song: Heavenly Mother in Mormon Poetry,” published in time for Mother’s Day. “Dove Song” collects historical and contemporary poets, including Eliza R. Snow, W.W. Phelps, Carol Lynn Pearson, Linda Sillitoe, Janice Allred, Maxine Hanks and Joanna Brooks. “Two buds blossomed at the same time,” says Pearson of the timing of the books.
“There’s just an explosion of poetry in this last decade about Heavenly Mother, and I think that’s interesting,” says Dayna Patterson, a poet who is one of the trio of “Dove Song” editors.
Including Mother in ‘God talk’
In person, Steenblik, 34, who lives with her family in New Jersey, has an ethereal, wispy quality, as if she has just stepped out of the pages of a Jane Austen novel.
“Even though you want to be in your nicest petticoat around her, you feel like she would never judge you if you weren’t,” Kristine Haglund, a founding editor for the BCC press, says with a laugh.
“She has a bold tenderness and a willingness to be vulnerable in public, and that’s a form of strength,” Joanna Brooks says.
The idea of a divine mother has been acknowledged by Mormon prophets and celebrated in LDS hymns, as well as in a 2015 Gospel Topics essay. “The doctrine of a Heavenly Mother is a cherished and distinctive belief among Latter-day Saints,” the official LDS essay states, referencing an influential 2011 BYU Studies historical survey, which Steenblik helped research.
Among some religious scholars, the concept of Heavenly Mother is considered one of the LDS Church’s boldest spiritual contributions. But talk of the feminine divine in public Mormon scholarly conversations was arrested in the 1990s.
That occurred after several prominent Mormon female scholars and writers, including Margaret Toscano, a University of Utah feminist scholar, and her sister, poet Janice Allred, were among a wave of excommunications by officials of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
LDS leaders mistrusted the way the figure of a Heavenly Mother was becoming incorporated into a larger feminist discourse, explains Michael Austin, a Kansas-based English professor and academic, and co-founder of BCC press.
Through the years, there’s been a gradual interruption of the interruption, or as Steenblik says in one of her poems, cracks that let in the light of Heavenly Mother. “She recognizes she’s working in a tradition that was arrested,” Brooks says.
Steenblik’s book “should be required reading for every Mormon feminist, and likely for every Mormon,” opined judges for the Association for Mormon Letters in awarding her its annual poetry prize in March.
“What these poems show is that there’s an enormous appetite for exploring these ideas, while the church itself has been largely silent,” says Steve Evans, of BCC press. Through poetry, “she is shifting our God talk to include the Mother God,” says Caroline Kline, a friend and colleague.
It is difficult to say now
if She was created in
my image, or I in Hers.
What is easy to say now is
when I look inside a mirror,
I see God.
Rachel Hunt Steenblik
Finding pioneer spirit in poetry
At a media lunch launching “Mother’s Milk,” she appeared as a literal metaphor for the book’s themes, comfortably breastfeeding her baby son while answering a reporter’s questions and greeting a friend across the restaurant.
She was raised in Oregon in a family of seven children. She studied philosophy at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, then went on to earn a master’s of library science at Boston’s Simmons College — “where Laurel Thatcher Ulrich got her master’s,” she says. In California, Steenblik met her husband, Spencer, while she was studying theology in Claremont Graduate University’s doctoral program. He works as a designer at an architectural firm.
She remembers she was 10 when the LDS Church issued The Family: A Proclamation to the World, which includes a mention of Heavenly parents. Attending a BYU forum at age 19, she was struck when poet Li-Young Lee twice read “Living With Her,” his poem about God, first with male pronouns familiar to the Mormon audience, and then female pronouns. The difference to Steenblik was profound.
Steenblik began studying the Mormon concept of Heavenly Mother at BYU as a researcher for philosophy professor David L. Paulsen, who with Martin Pulido wrote “A Mother There,” the influential BYU Studies essay.
The heart of that essay debunked the notion that Heavenly Mother was too sacred to talk about, Mormon folk wisdom that Steenblik says isn’t based in doctrine. Her research gave her permission to start asking questions.
Perhaps because of her training as an academic writer, Steenblik says she had to call upon Mormon pioneer can-do spirit to claim the label of poet. “Rachel, over the years, continues to show new talents we didn’t know she had,” says father Larry Hunt, of Provo, who is one of her early readers.
Her strong, idiosyncratic persona on social media has helped the book reach beyond the Mormon studies audience, Haglund says.
‘Who can excommunicate a poem?’
What sets apart “Mother’s Milk” is its disarmingly simple language, which serves as a bridge to reach readers who might identify as Mormon feminists and those who are more orthodox. The short poems are paired with faceless “everywoman” drawings of mothers and children by artist Ashley Mae Hoiland.
Short poems are an apt genre for a writer who dictates thoughts into her phone while breastfeeding or walking to the park, notes that later turn into rough drafts of poems. Pearson describes Steenblik’s poems as “literarily very enchanting” for their haiku-like feel.
Beneath that conversational style, Steenblik’s themes arise out of her scholarship as well as her daily life, and the collection carefully nods to her literary mothers. “These are poems that I could write with my questions, my hurt, my hope and my reaching,” she writes in her inclusive introduction, while she invites other poems: “We need them all.”
“It’s so Rachel in its holistic quality,” says Kline, a graduate school colleague who encouraged Steenblik to write poetry for the contest that led to “Dove Song.” “Academic interests turn into devotional passion, then that turns into this expression of devotion in her poetry, and it’s melded together in this sincere whole.”
The poems build to create an image of a powerful figure who seems familiar and unthreatening. The image of Heavenly Mother is both quotidian and deified, Haglund says, expansive theologically and yet less abstract.
Heavenly Mother is involved “in daily physical things that sometimes feels irreverent, but which I think is really very reverent,” the editor says. Steenblik displays “great intuition for where there’s play in the discourse, where you can poke something and find something interesting there.”
Of course, the simplicity of Steenblik’s style doesn’t appeal to every critic’s taste. Kristen Eliason, writing in the most recent issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, dismisses the collection for accomplishing “little more than cursory observations of a feminine divine.”
But to other literary scholars, the poems’ seemingly dashed-off qualities are reminiscent of Emily Dickinson.
Neither the style nor the content is as straightforward as it appears, says Toscano, the U. professor who has been studying feminist literature for more than 30 years.
Mormon women have a history of exploring theology through hymns, journals and personal writing. Steenblik’s use of poetry to advance the conversation, instead of the authoritative arguments of scholarship, is brilliant, Brooks says.
“It allows her to explore, from the body of her experience as a mother, what having a Mother in Heaven might feel like,” Brooks says. “One of the wonderful things that Mormonism teaches us is that experience is sacred. Who can excommunicate a poem? Who can excommunicate your heart’s authentic longing?”
“Dove Song” will be launched at a poetry salon Friday, May 11, at the Clubhouse (5 p.m. mingle, with a reading at 7 p.m., at 850 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City, the building that formerly housed the Ladies Literary Club.
“The Hour She Learned She Was God”
When Her hour
came, She prayed
to be delivered,
Rachel Hunt Steenblik