Dayna Ellen Patterson excavates her family tree in If Mother Braids a Waterfall (Signature Books, 2020), digging into her roots to understand her ancestors and the religion she was born into. Through her poetry, Patterson seeks to understand the intricacy of heritage and genealogy, the burden of carrying the past into the future without knowing every detail, every piece that makes a person whole.
A unique addition to the poetry collection is a family tree which acts as a preface, introducing the readers to the complex nature of her Mormon genealogy beginning four generations ago. The slow pacing of the opening poem is reflective of the rest of collection. It sets the background for If Mother Braids a Waterfall, acting as a summary for the pieces that follow. In this way, Patterson comes full circle by visiting each point made in the beginning. The poem itself is beautiful, impactful, and holds a significant purpose in the overall book.
The following piece, “Ode To Polygamy”, interestingly sets the tone and focus for the rest of the book; this is where the reader comes to understand that Patterson is seeking to make sense of the past. It is also where Patterson recognizes that her existence is an accumulation of the ancestors that came before her, that she is made up of every piece of her family history including the parts she doesn’t like. “Ode to Polygamy” is characterized by Patterson’s passion, candour, and reaches brilliance through her story-telling techniques.
This piece also provides more background to the practice of polygamy. We see her attempt to justify the practice and cure the dissonance she feels between her own preferences and this part of her ancestral history. Polygamy returns frequently throughout If Mother Braids a Waterfall, alongside Patterson’s fear of it and her own jealousy.
Many of my favourite pieces from this collection were of Patterson’s letters to different ancestors and some historical figures. Mentions of polygamy occur the most in these letters as she asks her family members how they coped, how they lived, what they thought of each other. What made me enjoy these poems though were Patterson’s lyrical and emotional writing. In “Dear May”, Patterson writes “You said the poet needs / no religion, that poetry and spirituality are redundant. / You rebaptized yourself with language, reconfirmed a tongue / of fire settling Pentecostal on your word-wilding art. Yours is the / legacy I would name myself to, would willingly inherit. Yours / the prayer I would pray, an orison of sound and sense and shape.” Each word of this poem is so clearly intentional, so carefully crafted. The genuine passion of this piece turns it into a prayer itself.
As the book progresses, it seems to capture her gradual transition from believing to questioning her faith to leaving the church behind. We see that her departure from Mormonism is influenced by many different experiences. She mentions her daughters questioning the exclusion of women in church positions, rituals, and rites, and struggles with her inability to answer them. In “Proselytizing by a Marian Shrine in Québec”, she speaks of her missionary trip in Montreal, where she meets a follower of Mary and asks “How can I, a traveller here, a woman, / ask these devotees to abandon Mary?”. There is also a recognition and appreciation of other religions and mythologies in “Former Mormons Catechize Their Kids”. This poem is a turning point in Patterson’s journey and in the collection as it is followed by a strong sense of awareness. In “Dear Susannah (2)”, her typically warm letters to her ancestors take on a bitter tone and Patterson directly names the colonial violence perpetrated by her white settler ancestors against Indigenous peoples. From this point on, Patterson’s poems depict the distance between her and her religion; she writes about the little things she had to do to adjust to a life outside of Mormonism as well as how and what she had to unlearn and relearn.
Dayna Ellen Patterson shows brilliant promise in If Mother Braids a Waterfall. Her complicated lineage and religious journey are wonderfully captured by her poetry and when she leans into her story-telling abilities, her writing is transportive. If Mother Braids a Waterfall is a good rainy day read for when you want to relax and reflect—especially for those interested in ancestry, migrant stories, and deep analyses of religion. I hope to read more of Patterson’s work in the future and to see her delve deeper.
Iqra Abid (she/her) is a young, Pakistani, Muslim writer based in Canada. She is currently a student at McMaster University studying Psychology, Neuroscience and Behaviour. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Kiwi Collective Magazine. Her work can be found in various publications such as Stone Fruit Magazine, Tiny Spoon Lit Magazine, Scorpion Magazine, and more. You can find her on Instagram at @iqraabidpoetry.