Life Worth Crowning
Reclining Mother and Child, Paula Modersohn-Becker, c.1900
by Andrea Brady
To begin with an incident outside
language, beyond recollection,
enforces the solidarity of our work
to build up into sound. Pethedine concussions
and a nozzle of oxygen to plead across
running like a horse, spare us
the knowledge that there is no knowledge
come rushing down, feral.
Effacing into perfect silence,
the working tongue in a yellow corridor.
I began writing Mutability, a series of poetic and prose ‘scripts for infancy’, during my pregnancy and in the year following the birth of my first child, Ayla. I started not knowing what I was doing, as a parent or a writer. It was a good place to start.
Ayla revealed herself gradually. For a long time my occupant was nothing more than an abstract idea; when it fluttered, I still didn’t know which end of it was up. I gave it access to all my activities, the taste of my lunch, the secrets I traded, the rate of my heart at rest and turning the corner. To get metaphysical about it, it fed on my blood. It slopped from side to side as I slept, blinked under the red shift in my lights, was inside my clothes. I knew nothing about it, other than that it was becoming human, and probably alright.
While I was waiting for Ayla, her mystery and the mysterious plenitude of poetry was in and around me, both part of my body’s making and its image on the page. Fanny Howe describes pregnancy as an acquaintance with ‘the zone of the unknown.’ Once the ‘stranger’ is born, it ‘seems to carry with it a missing potential, a double, the might-have-been, the not-even-imagined’ (‘The Pinocchian Ideal’, in The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, Middletown CT: Wesleyan, 2003, p. 263). As Tom Jones has argued (Poetic Language: Theory and Practice from the Renaissance to the Present, Edinburgh UP, 2012), a poem likewise makes the contingent seem necessary: it is also a zone of unknowns which harden into possibilities, its imperfections and specificities shadowed by the other poems it could at each moment have become.
Now, as a mother to three young children, each entirely specific and chosen and present, each emerging out of the zone of the unknown and never wholly knowable, I marvel, adapt, and live with my failures to recognise them adequately. The art of writing is also sometimes penitential, the poem a coded lament for truths barely eligible to sense which fly from the writer’s fingers.
Mother as Sponge
Parenting and writing are for me twin arts of the miraculous and the mundane, of transformation and residence in the delirious, boring and intimate present. The space my family makes together is as tough as other houses, its work and manners sometimes so traditionally distributed that it seems like a joke. But it is also a utopia: a good place, no place, newly stocked with objects softened and pliable, with pleasure and harmlessness. We wanted to be ready for everything. We stuffed our house with things which were animated, friendly, toothless. Things which promised to contain even the rages they might provoke.
To call it utopia is not to deck it with lilies. I was prepared to encounter some rage of my own, but also to learn to contain it. To make my fattened self into a sponge for pain, where the teething, the bellyaches and the miseries of recently existing could dissolve. I would be soaked through with carefulness, learn to tame even the wild beast which sometimes in the middle of the day, the middle of the night, made me want to chuck myself and/or the squawking infant out the window. I would forget how to sleep, and eventually learn that sleep is only given to those who quietly accept being awake. I would see familiar histories rising up in my house and settle them down again, make my body the crest and sink of their violence.
Her birth was the first and hardest lesson in making myself a soak. In labour I needed to learn to accept my own passivity for the person in transit. Then she was there, the torrent of pain slammed shut by a blizzard of miraculous newness. The midwives gave me a new name, her eyes stretched open in incumbent shock, and everything was different, including space and time: the yellow hospital corridor in the night suddenly intimate, the communal space between breaths, their commemorative prosodies.
Containment, anger and love; the continent house, the original language; perception coming on slowly, a fuzzy skill, and sudden recognitions which spin institutions on their axels; repetition, the abundance of the day, the scarcity of concentrated time; the pain and joy of discovering new worlds, the body which soaks it all up. These motherings are not unrelated to the work of making poetry.
Plenty and Scarcity
Before I had my kids, I thought of poetry as a site of plenitude. Burdened, sometimes shackled, the poem nonetheless opened to a nearly unbearable fullness. It was both corroded by and glowing with potentiality, a portion of limitlessness, always dissatisfying, never fully achieved, and for that moment endlessly seductive: almost there, always, not quite. Its failures to honour the totality out of which it was carved was a reason to keep returning and beginning again.
Since I had them, I haven’t written very much. It is of course a question of time. But also, writing no longer feels like plenitude; it now feels like a deprivation of the complex richness of the real.
Many of the poems of mothering are about the difficulty of keeping up with that newly enriched reality. The writing self starts to disintegrate; identities pull and tear. Of course, you’re tired, and you find yourself smiling because you’ve managed to unload the dishwasher; glimpsing the bottom of the laundry basket you feel like you’ve seen the seabed suddenly exposed by a titanic wave during the perfect storm. Writing is a practical problem, to be managed in a life which seems to consist entirely of practical problems.
For example, to write you must have time away from the infant. While you are gone the infant will disappear. To have time away from the infant you need someone else to watch it. Your household becomes smoggy with reification. I squirm under the privilege of being able to pay someone to look after my children while I work. I am matronly, managing a household staff, making tough choices, prioritizing needs in an austere temporal economy. The children radicalize the full and empty values of my work.
Baby Marlow, a six months boy, has just woken up and I am putting him off with this sentence. Abel at two is seduced by the machine I miser for myself. Ayla has her own understanding of what a poem is, and draws architectural plans for me to build on: for my last reading she prepared a ‘three-headed snarf’. I like to collaborate with her but of course writing is also a way to ease myself away from their realities. I fob them off with promises of ‘later’ and other times.
A day with an infant is an eternity. Feeding again, crying again, sleeping again, dictatorial time. You point out the light switch and spend time swaying in front of the mirror just to kill time. Another day under your belt, they are incrementally closer to independence and/or death. As one of the greatest poets of mothering, Alice Notley, wrote:
The form of the day keeps slipping away
from my control
and he wants food & play awake at
constant irregular intervals
the day now it’s him now it’s me again him
what is this with babies anyway?
all this for the pleasure of holding this?
Yes Why Don’t know Animal Magic (NFMO 87)
But then, an infant’s day is a blink. She changes so rapidly, so rampantly, that to notice exactly what you love – a smell, a roundness, a sound, a weight – is to feel it disappearing. Writing offers to fix those rapidfire qualities and stick them with you. At the same time it returns your own antique realities, other selves.
How can this fast reality be contained? Many poets use prose. Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, miraculously keeping up with the commotion of a family; Jean Donnelly’s ‘Bonnet Gospel’; Carla Harryman’s ‘Everybody was his mother’; Ann Waldman’s ‘Hermeneutical’; Alicia Ostriker’s ‘Mother/Child Papers’ and ‘Paragraphs’. All these texts, collected in Not for Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on child-Getting and Child-Rearing, ed. Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff (Fence, 2007), share a panicky sense that – as Lee Ann Brown writes – time is ‘speeding past’; ‘I have so much to say to you and the headlong rush seems the way to go if I am to attempt to catch up on all the varied strands of thought and experience that have transpired’ (NFMO 359, 362).
Another prose book by poets, Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker’s Home/Birth: a poemic (1913 Press, 2011), makes a political argument against medically-managed birth. The book reiterates the need for someone to ‘hold the space’ for the birthing woman. The poet who is used to ‘holding the space’ of the page might also feel that it cannot be held, against the surge of a new being and everything bearing down behind that wave.
The space of the poem which I was accustomed to holding felt immediately more vulnerable and more fortified. Full of my child, magnified by her, I was not a blocked portal, resistant to all attacks, but I was stronger. I felt waves of love passing through the air like concrete.
The Memory Artists
To publish these scrapings and leavings also felt like a waiver of my rights to the exclusive and (in Britain) largely masculine coterie of difficult poets, for whom infancy is a philosophical condition of cognitive primacy or somesuch. J. H. Prynne wrote in these terms of the infant as anti-philologist:
The babe, when it comes to its mother’s breast,
takes the milk and thrives, it does not search
for the root and well-spring from which it
flows so. It sucks the milk and empties
the whole measure.
The exceptional Denise Riley knew otherwise, when she wrote that ‘A blind baby feeling for the breast knows the taste of milk’. The taste is already in the mouth, as a memory, and a primordial language. In her book Marxism for Infants (Cambridge: Street Editions, 1977), Riley dared to imagine an alternative to the bourgeois family: ‘in St Petersburg now Leningrad we have communal kitchens / the cooking is dreadful but we get to meet our friends’. At a distance from this fantasied collective, the speaker experiences family as both encumbrance and solidarity. A single mother imagines herself as a tree which gives shelter to ‘children’ who ‘grow / up under my leaves and rain’.
In our own shade
we embrace each other gravely &
look out tenderly upon the world
seeking only contemporaries
and speech and light, no father.
Riley describes a domestic enmeshment of women and children, ‘their feet and their children’s feet are tangled around like those of fen larks / in the fine steely wires which run to & fro between love & economics’. Prosodic feet are also snares.
Wendy Mulford, who collaborated with Riley, also wrote extensively about child-rearing (among other things) in her book The ABC of Writing (1979-80). She recognised a difference between male and female speech which was driven by ‘that practice of being available, as hands, lips body, limbs from the earliest total presence to the later availability at any time on demand of ear, tongue, hands, is directive of how we listen, how speak, basic rhythm of attention and response. In doubleness and multiplicity, balancing, an ear to this claim, hand to that, fragmentation that by sleight-of-being stays whole for the audience at whatever cost to the performer: multiplicity that is not metonymic of privileged condition, not value to be sought as release from male bondage, of the single, erect, unified, but is condition of continuous struggle in daily, social experience.’ For Mulford, the avant-garde practice of multiplying voices and fragmenting selves originates in the mother’s experience of distraction, demand and compensation.
Among the male poets of this generation, Mulford’s partner John James, Tom Raworth and Doug Oliver, who was later married to Alice Notley, did write about children. Oliver’s disabled son provided a beatific example of harmlessness on which he founded his ethics and his poetics. However, in the British avant-garde poetry of the 1990s through the present – perhaps as part of a backlash against the feminism which fortified Riley and Mulford’s foregrounding of familial life, perhaps because of the near-total absence of female poets writing it – children (and the family in general) are largely missing.
Lovers are of course present in abundance, as ciphers or targets, often for the poet’s heroic dissent from capital; but it still amazes me how many google-driven poetic encyclopaedias of modernity exclude the relations which, however much they have fucked us up, have for so many years kept us alive.
In this context, my secretive poetics of difficulty and critique had begun to feel less like a way of challenging the reader, and more like a defense. Performing and reading some sloppy texts about my daughter in public violated not only the privacy of our home, but also the decorum of a poetic universe in which erotic love and political urgency were the only acceptable currency.
So I wondered if I should dress the text up, like the infiltrators in the film who steal the enemy’s uniform, call it: a phenomenology of infancy; a negotiation of the oikos, origin of political life; a prosody dictated by biological needs rather than intellectual acquisition, wage labour and history; a theatre for performers with no audience, their dialogue making social life; a challenge to the premises of the autonomous subject.
All and none of these descriptions are accurate. It’s true to say however that trying to depict the child, mothering, mutuality, the remaking of the world together, has been the most intensely political experience of writing in my life.
Reading it now, six months after the birth of my third child, I am staggered by how much I have left out. From the moment of their slippery amphibian entrance, the children are constantly sliding away from me. If when I’m with them I mourn a self sunk into cotton vagueness, when I think about them I feel like I’m dreaming, unable for some reason to move as the graces dance away. I fob them off, until suddenly they are standing in a shaft of light, and I see them as I should always see them: bright contours, full bodies, thick with their miraculous reality. Then they go about their own business, and I get done the other things that need to be done, cook their dinner, put caps on their markers, wash their pyjamas and buckle their shoes.
Mother as memory artist, until too many objects crowd into the space of planning a route out through the day. Then, dizzy with the contemporary, I feel weepy and stricken at the speed of their lives. I see them standing in adulthood, bored of me, ashamed of our archaic intimacy, having been forever at the centre of their worlds. Their births have displaced me from the centre of mine; I speak from now on from a periphery. They fell into the world and slowly wriggled away. Eventually they will find the idea of me almost disgusting.
So how to break the dream seal over the mouth, solve the practical problem, restore the bounty of language and say more than nothing? The babies marked up my body, my practice, my tired or exalting mind. ‘Holding the space’: writing becomes a ground held, against these intrusions, a way of doing the marking yourself.
I still wanted to be partially who I had been. Alicia Ostriker writes candidly about the experience of childcare: ‘This is a prison. It exhausts the sap, the very juice. It does nothing but open its mouth. Can she never regain her autonomous self, her sunny wind-drenched leaves?’ (NFMO 41-2). The answer comes as a no: the revolution has already happened, this is what a collective subject feels like; the autonomy banished in the birth pool, on the table with its offensive stirrups, was a fantasy in the first place.
So Mutability is a record of emerging presences, of several changeable selves, and not I hope irrelevant to those who want their poems to give them an alternative to the politics of possessive individualism. It is a knitted portrait, a ship’s log, an architectural model, a tape, an ice sculpture. Annotations toward. Indices. Poetry had been for me a space held against the failed and limited reality which the bounty of language constitutes. This is a daybook, accompanying processional selves.
The day makes you: that’s poeisis. You can recognise the signs of the routine, the circulation of human business everywhere. The newspapers are published, the buses go, the coffee and the beer are drunk and people get drunk and they take baths and go to bed. And you are awake in a corridor; the trauma has been snapped up by fresh air, and the world has just begun, shining like a small moon in your blanket. How can you annotate this privilege? Only by living in it and keeping yourself awake to the life of unremitting care, for one, for all the others at once.
True life waving in silver marks
the intersection of all our possibilities:
before you know it you are
on them, a creator, mittened and brave.
The work of grazing, building an aspect
made of all our resemblances
multiplies the hope that you are
and always will be, vehicle in the world
to the good life contracted. It is no saint
already, its wet bed no bundled hayrack
we may not regret the piercing
we age with. But the light shining
from the epochal hole in the gate,
from the dark where
the echogenic pulse empties into bone
is an echo of all possible lights: the same
that emanated from you across
the impossibilities of ever knowing how,
to be called to happiness, to that resemblance.
Life worth crowning, bird worth feeding.
About the Author:
Andrea Brady is a poet and critic whose interests include both early modern and contemporary writing. She has published four collections of poems and performed throughout the UK, Europe, Canada and the US, and her work has been translated into French, German and Spanish. Andrea’s scholarly interests in early modern poetry overlap with her own artistic practice. Her recent research focusses on metaphors of embodiment in Renaissance writing, as well as on metre and bondage across several historical periods, and she has long maintained an interest in the interaction between poetry and politics in this period. Her book English Funerary Elegy in the Seventeenth Century appeared in 2006, and has been followed by an edited collection of essays on The Uses of the Future in Early Modern Europe as well as a large number of journal articles, essays, and interventions in debates on contemporary innovative writing. She is the founder and director of the ‘Archive of the Now‘, a repository of recordings by over 100 poets reading their own work. With Keston Sutherland, Andrea runs the small press Barque.