Motherhood is perfect cover; you can hide away, and no one would think to look for you. You are not a free agent, hence uninteresting. Your social self is a wraith in memory while your bodily self mucks about with a bairn in an afterlife quarantined to the physical.
I wanted to hide out, and I got my wish. No more New York City—parties, bar readings. Instead: fixer-upper with a fenced-in yard, a station wagon for diaper runs to big box stores. The car seats advertised my eligibility for the parking spots up front—reserved not for the handicapped but for “members with infants.”
This is all too familiar territory. Dozens of mothers (and some fathers) are getting reputations, not to mention paychecks, from a spate of parenting books, blogs, and essays in lifestyle sections of newspapers. So when I was asked for my own take on this inexplicably titillating topic, my first thought was: “Oh no.” That I had already gone on record (on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog) as being suspicious of “mommy poems” was one reason for my trepidation; another was the knowledge that I was treading on ground covered by so many before me: there was a crowded field at my back. I would have to inhabit this role, mother-poet, once in the flesh, and again through the literature already bodied forth. And this second experience is much like the first: intense, but also kind of boring. I don’t want to read anthologies of mother poems. On the other hand, I am always interested in what individual poets write about their children, in context with all the other things they write about.
I cast my mind back to a recent anthology of poets’ essays on motherhood, The Grand Permission. I remembered feeling smothered by all the talk. The glory of the quotidian. The intellectualization of the mammalian.
The one piece that spoke to me was Fanny Howe’s “The Pinocchian Ideal,” which later became absorbed into “Fairies” in her first book of essays, The Wedding Dress. Howe recaps the original story of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, in which the wooden doll is abused by his adoptive mother, the Blue-Haired Fairy. The violence of this relationship—the boy who lacks and yearns for a mother, the mother who sees he isn’t a “real” child and so torments him with double-binds—stands in for the relationship a mother has with her writing. “Her bad puppet is her writing, her music, her painting, her dance, sculpture, film; it is her critique of society.” It is always secondary to the flesh-and-blood child, Howe owns, but it is safer: it can be experimented with, toyed with. One’s work is liberating; it is precisely the real child, the child one loves blindly, that makes one hostage to fortune. And to fear.
And this relates back to my queasiness with the whole motherhood genre. Howe nails it:
Her problem comes later when she pushes the poor work out the door and into the marketplace and tries to make it “sell.”
This confusion between a thing that is made out of nothing and the market economy that prices all materials is perhaps more intense for a mother than for any other. Her awareness of the supernatural is intensified daily by the cries of the natural.
She loves her child and she adores her work.
Her crisis comes at the threshold to a world where there is a terrifying cacophony of machines awaiting both her work and her children.
As a sequestered new mother ricocheting between the writing desk and the rocking chair, leaving the house only once a day to go to the park or the grocery store, I could not read that without dread.
* * *
I was living in New York City in a neighborhood positively designated for middle-class breeding: Park Slope, Brooklyn. Just a block away, on the main drag, were shops and salons catering to new moms and tots; organic groceries; cafes where one could breastfeed over a cup of lavender-chamomile tea with a pod of other moms (like a holt of otters, urban mothers should have a group category). What was this unspoken imperative that had sent so many of us to these leafy streets of nineteenth-century, human-scale brownstones across the river from the towers and crowds engaged in what Anne Winters called “the mill-race”? This urban pastoral, with its boutiques and branded park (Prospect Park was an Olmstead creation) both marked us and divided us from the real action, the financial and sexual economy that bought and sold products and fantasies, while giving us our little bit of consumer feasting as well. Most of my friends did not have children, and that included poets. Being a mother was rarefied, exotic. It was a different lifestyle with different accoutrements. And it was a “choice” among others.
* * *
When my grandmother bore children it was wartime. She was flung inexorably westward from Minsk; she gave birth on a cave floor somewhere in Germany with bombs falling around her. I don’t suppose anyone ever asked her What were you thinking? the way they might ask a pregnant woman today whose life wasn’t perfectly optimized—husband, income, housing—to receive a child who would need all the advantages to stay afloat in a libertarian economy. And now, in the age of reproductive choice, where the default position seems to be: you don’t have them—until you do, those of us who have embraced chance and children feel closer to one another than we do to our friends who haven’t, and vice versa I suppose. A gulf has opened up, and what was once inevitable, natural, and wholly expected has become boutique: a specialty, a lifestyle, a choice. So when anthologies about “motherhood” come out, and individual poets, usually women, single out this aspect of their identity and make it central to the marketing of their work, they are participating in a larger movement that seals off both poem and identity from the mainstream. Meanwhile, it commodifies them. And—Howe implies this—because both poem and child, poet and mother, exactly stand for the embodiment of soul, it is potent: it masks the buying and selling perfectly.
* * *
(En route to the apocryphal Field of Miracles, Pinocchio has to pass through the city of Chumptrap, populated by those who have sold their treasure: “fleeced sheep shivering from cold, hens with no combs or wattles begging for kernels of corn, large butterflies who could no longer fly because they had sold their beautiful wings, tailless peacocks who were ashamed to be seen, and pheasants who toddled quietly about, mourning their glittering gold-and-silver feathers, now lost forever.”)
* * *
Tangentially, meanwhile, children have become almost as burdensome to a “poetry career” as to any other career. While it seems that only a short while ago we were chock-full of superstitions about poets, the better to understand why poetry is so mysterious, so unpredictable, so difficult to write, now it’s all business. No more Robert Graves and his White Goddess, the Muse available strictly to the male suitor; for that, we can be thankful. But the plethora of conferences and grants and brief residencies by which cvs—and social networks, and reputations—are built, are no less restrictive to the poet-mother who might in time need a job (“the market economy that prices all materials”). The gulf between those who are mobile and unencumbered and those who are ruled by necessity is writ everywhere in corporate America; this is just another iteration of it.
* * *
I’m leafing through The Story of English in the library. (The clean, quiet, free library is one of the main recreational sites of the suburbs.) I happen across a paragraph about the Anglo-Saxons and their poets: it is said that they “valued understatement, and liked riddles, and poems which went in circles.” They loved “ambiguity, innuendo, and word-play.” American culture has turned this preference on its head: the coin of currency is not ambiguity but confession. “You’re hiding something!” they cry accusingly, when poets feint or pun.
Over the last half-century, poetry and memoir have served the function of self-expression, and self-expression is justified as a necessary truth-telling. “Identity” poetry has even claimed the moral high ground, since truth-telling by the oppressed is an ethical imperative. But revelation exists in dialogue with secrecy. Withholding is what gives telling its power. It’s always what gets left out, in country ballads as well as sophisticated verse, that wounds the audience into inquiry. The invisible underwrites the visible; so it is our jobs as poets to gesture to the world’s infinite potential at the limits of the actual. This is how we express hope and futurity.
In other words: the infinitely pregnant. The indefinitely hidden.
* * *
“In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf.” The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a great favorite at the moment, my two-year-old son Gray seems to have it memorized. He gets very concerned when he reaches the end of the long list of foods the caterpillar has eaten, for there he is, the little creature, sad-faced in the illustration. “That night he had a stomachache!” “Oh no!” Gray exclaims, bending over very close, wearing a pained look. “He’s sad! The caterpillar is sad!”
“Since that first morning when I crawled / into the world, a naked grubby thing, / and found the world unkind.” A few months ago, I happened on Stanley Kunitz’s “Hornworm: Autumn Lamentation.” By coincidence, I had seen my first hornworm around the same time—it was my first foray into growing tomatoes—and the thing, thick as a man’s finger and green as goo, almost turned me to stone then and there. It was covered with white—what looked like eggs. I looked it up on the Internet and learned they were parasitic wasp pupae eating their host alive. The caterpillar was en route to being a splendid sphinx moth when its future was usurped by the hymenoptera, but I wasn’t supposed to pity it; gardeners hate these tomatovores. Gardeners rejoice at the wasps. The distinction of Kunitz’s poem, of course, lies in its taking the hornworm’s side, telling the story of creation’s injustice in the hornworm’s own voice.
You can’t judge a work’s value by whether it moves you to tears. When Gray bursts into tears at renditions of Brahms’s “Lullabye” and tells me, “The song is so sad,” I know that weak vehicles can stand for a tenor so vague and tremulous it is unknowable. My tears spring unbidden at the third verse of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” as well, the vision of a holistic, animate, feeling world: “All thy works with joy surround thee.” I realize that the very word “creation” moves me deeply. It touches the feeling I’ve always had that making things was what I was for (the root of poetry is simply making) and the vision of the world as made, and continually being made, and endowed with consciousness of its making—all this was an early glimpse into the power that unifies the subterranean ground between making poems and making new human beings.
The flipside is a sort of naked terror I never felt before I had sons to feel terrified for. There’s something marvelously true to experience in Laura Kasischke’s work—I’m thinking of her book Lilies Without—which locates this terror beneath the surface of suburban motherhood: poems like “May,” where a cherry tree planted outside a school in memory of a dead kindergartener “shrieked into blossom.” In “New Dress (3),” a suburban mother and a mall security guard eerily end up in the same nightmare “screaming” during a friendly exchange over a trapped pigeon. While gothic suburbia was captured—practically trademarked!— by David Lynch a couple of decades ago, Kasischke gives it a fuller treatment from the point of view of the mother who stands between her child’s innocence and death, negotiating the narrow space between them. It is a tonic to the notorious visions of suburbia as wasteland or graveyard of sexuality, as in the famous Larkin poem, “Afternoons,” where “Young mothers assemble / At swing and sandpit” and
Their beauty has thickened.
Something is pushing them
To the side of their own lives.
While suburbia is—to put it mildly—unlibidinal, there’s something trite at this point in Larkin’s poem, something that feels too much like a man playing to others’ prejudices. There’s an appearance of sympathy toward the women but the melancholia is misplaced. Women with young children still have a lifetime ahead of them.
* * *
Sadness at suffering, ecstasy in creation, terror of death—it doesn’t seem like boredom plays much part in this whole endeavor, though if pressed I would have to admit that my days are mostly filled with changing diapers and pouring chocolate milk.
Thou pretty opening rose!
(Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)
Balmy, and breathing music like the South,
(He really brings my heart into my mouth!)
Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star,
(I wish that window had an iron bar!)
Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove—
(I’ll tell you what, my love,
I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!)
Thomas Hood must have written some of the most forgettable verse on fatherhood ever (“On a Sleeping Child,” “To a Child Embracing His Mother,” “Lines on Seeing My Wife and Two Children Sleeping in the Same Chamber”). But he also wrote the wonderfully comic “A Parental Ode to My Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months” with its implicit dialogue between the parent’s public face—all smiles and coos—and the inner curmudgeon (“I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!”). A writing mother can relate, too.
Which is not to say that a tender poem is a deboned one, or that all happy poems are lies. But, say—don’t poets’ opuses grow with every lie?
This is the paradox. Raising children requires an existential optimism that most poets whose names aren’t “Walt Whitman” haven’t had since the dawn of modernity. Poet-mothers have a lot against them: loneliness, tedium, time constraints, imperious children’s constant interruptions, the social pressures of PTA-world. But the apprehensions behind the poet and the mother are hardest yet to reconcile: the embattled, doubt-ridden, mortal apprehensions of the poet, versus the mother who must connect, who must have faith and promote health, who must embrace creation.
If only I could be like the Blue-Haired Fairy—the mischievous mother who tests and teases Pinocchio. And then, in my poetry, I am. And then, waking up with nameless fears in the middle of the night, I’m not.
* * *
It seems to me I’ve been circling around this central fact: poems like Kunitz’s, or Kasischke’s, or Hood’s, drift into my orbit and rhyme with my life for the time being, and this is one way many people read poems—poems of “aboutness”: nature poems, love poems, memories-of-grandmother poems, coming-out-of-the-closet poems. But my relationships with these poems are nothing compared to the depth of my engagement with poets who, by all outward signs, have nothing to do with my identity as such. The extent to which Larkin falls short in “Afternoons” is nothing compared to how right he is in “Aubade,” and in fact he is the poet of waking up in the night with nameless fears, baby or no baby. I get hooked on poems for the music they make, not the mirror they hold up to me—but then maybe some mirrors are more surprising, more disorienting, than others. I’m aroused by strangeness.
* * *
I start to read Pinocchio to my six-year-old, Jacob. It’s riveting! Carlo Collodi has been so outshined by his world-renowned creation that his personal fame must be indexed in negative territory. (Is there a moral here for poets, one that parents already know?) Soon, Jacob can’t wait to find out what’s next, and starts reading on his own between our sessions. Parenthood is getting good. I’m soon thinking about what next big story to tackle.
(I’m still new at this. How can I make any definite claims about a relationship and condition—motherhood—which will have a long and changing history henceforward?
Oh, how can you trust anything I say? In Pinocchio, a thousand woodpeckers descend on the puppet’s outsized nose after he promises to lie no more.)
The story of an animated puppet is a kind of wish fulfillment for kids who surround themselves with stuffed animals or fall in love with dolls and talk to them and secretly feel they will one day talk back. I still remember the stories I wrote at age seven or eight about magical lands where dolls talked. The first poems I ever memorized were the prayers my mother taught me: the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary. These poems were also addressed to personages who never talked back. Later, of course, it became apparent that writing was a way of making the inanimate talk. Stories and poems: making hornworms talk. And it’s not just about throwing your own voice. In poetry, the very language is encouraged to speak itself. We call upon a daemon in it.
(“‘Bravo, dunce! You speak like a printed book!’ howled the rascals.”)
* * *
In the end, as you know, the puppet becomes a real boy.
I sat in a hospital bed the day I gave birth for the first time, and looked at my son. He was a communiqué in the uncanny language of DNA.
Later I wrote in a notebook with my one free hand: “It was as if Nature talked back to me.”