Smothered to Smithereens
The poetics of motherhood
January 1, 2010
Jan 1, 2010
16 Min read time
If you wanted, in 1975, to write poems about war, you could learn from, compete with, or compare yourself to Wilfred Owen, Walt Whitman, or Homer. If you wanted to mourn the dead, you could learn from, compete with, or shrink from Whitman, Dickinson, Milton, Tennyson, Yeats, Anne Bradstreet, Allen Ginsberg, or John Donne. If you wanted to write about giving birth to children; reorganizing your life around them; nursing, feeding, or coming to understand them as they turn from infants into toddlers, preschoolers, and second graders, you had a disturbingly clear field: not that there were no poems about such experiences, but there were not enough, and of the wrong kind. The sentimental poetry of Victorian motherhood held few usable cues (especially since Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt was then unknown); the witty anti-feminism of Phyllis McGinley might have seemed farther away, less useful, than Bradstreet; and the late poetry of Sylvia Plath, still overshadowed by her brief life, could not suffice on its own.
It is no wonder, then, that if we look back on American poems since the 1970s, giving birth and caring for young children are salient topics, perhaps the topics (if we want to segregate poems by topic) that have prompted the most widespread stylistic invention, the greatest number of poems by the most poets that sound the least like the poems of the past. Adrienne Rich began writing Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution in 1972, when her youngest son was in his teens; “at the time,” she recalled, “there was virtually nothing being written on motherhood” by feminist thinkers, in verse or prose. Of Woman Born, the moment it represented, and the strongest earlier poems about the contradictions of motherhood (Rich’s “Orion,” Plath’s “Morning Song”) issued a challenge: not just to describe motherhood in verse, as any journalist might in prose, but to make language fit the deletions of privacy, moments of comedy, somatic changes, embarrassments, injustices, and discoveries of that state.
And that language emerged in poems by Alice Notley, for example, and by Maureen Owen, and in Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day (written in 1978 and published in 1982). “There were no babies in poetry then,” Notley later claimed. If one wanted to write about the realities of pregnancy and child-rearing, “one had to disobey the past and the practices of literary males.” Not all males though: the devices that came from Beat poetry (especially Ginsberg’s), the partly improvisatory, sometimes drug-aided practice in and around the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, turned out almost uniquely suitable for the new poetry of childbirth, motherhood, and early family life. The insistence on the immediate, on the unplanned, on bodily vividness (even on bodily fluids), that in other Beat and post-Beat poetry could sound like willful anti-intellectualism, in the new poetry of motherhood turned out to serve aesthetic and intellectual goals. Alongside them, in the same span of years, came an inescapably popular, sometimes wrenching, less formally interesting poetry of motherhood that emphasized broken taboos, represented first by Anne Sexton, and later by Sharon Olds.
To portray life with small children—so it seemed to Mayer and Notley, to Owen, and for that matter to Olds—one had to break just the standards of form, of closure, of compactness, that Plath (even in Ariel) worked to retain. One had to show language and time as unfixed, uncertain, as in the speech of preliterate children, or in the day-to-day, hour-to-hour reschedulings that children (even older ones, and even given quality day care) require. A poet had to aspire less to immortality than to immediacy, to turn away from made things and toward processes, toward some sense of poems as always—uneasily—shared. Owen called one poem “There Are Too Many of Me.” Notley’s “Three Strolls” encompassed the bleariness, the blurry sense of self, the cuteness, the resistance to cuteness, the sense of confinement, the infinite expectations, and the stretched-out sense of time: “how much of what goes on gets stopped & started.”
the stroller collapsed the calendar
obscured by what the stroller comes in
the ambery varnished wood
dirt mottled won’t come off it
and the way she talks is funny for good . . .
my day is all little birds & bees
swarming colliding collapsing
now warmer, clearing with clouds
On the one hand, the new mom felt trapped, with “no time alone, no free path into the forest,” as Kathleen Fraser put it. On the other hand, that feeling could itself prompt poems, if one could only make the time to write them. One had to sound un-self-conscious, even unrevised; at the same time, one had to make readers conscious (almost in the 1970s sense of “consciousness-raising”) of how life with young children made it difficult to find the concentration, space, and time for poetry at all. One might even make, from that difficulty, a nonce form. Susan Holbrook wrote “Nursery” while nursing, one sentence per feeding per breast: “Left: Trace pictograph of an elk in the fine veins of your temple. Right: If it were a Virgin Mary we’d be on the news.”
• • •
We are now 30-odd years and a few anthologies into the new poetry of motherhood that Midwinter Day and its close allies began. Not For Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child-Rearing, a recent volume edited by Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff, presents, superbly, its practice, as the less exciting (because repetitive) The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (2003) presented its theory. I say “of motherhood,” not “of parenthood,” partly because this poetry so often includes parturition and breastfeeding, and partly because few fathers—so far—seem able to write it. A whole constellation of mid-career poets have written their strongest poems in part by presenting themselves as mothers of young children: I think of Laura Kasischke’s Fire & Flower, Linda Gregerson’s The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, Elizabeth Alexander’s Antebellum Dream Book, Larissa Szporluk’s Isolato, Julie Carr’s Equivocal, Elizabeth Treadwell’s Birds and Fancies—the list goes on. Szporluk’s lunar allegories could not be more different from Alexander’s messy transcriptions, Treadwell’s magical minima, Kasischke’s fragmentary adventures. Yet each of them shares some of the goals named above, and each owes something either to Plath and “confessional” poetry, or to St. Mark’s, Notley, and Mayer, or to both. We even have dissenters from, objectors to, and rigid expectations about “mommy poems.” Ange Mlinko explained in Poetry why she has been reluctant to write them; Holbrook’s “Nursery” knows its subgenre well, vouchsafing, after three pages of left breast-right breast, “the kind of mammaire vérité and deromanticization of motherhood the reader expected.”
Most mommy poems will not last. (Most poems will not last.) Some poets who ought to last have found their métier by integrating the immediacy, the fluidity, the messiness of the mommy poem with other, older goals. Other poets stand out now, as Midwinter Day did then, for their uncompromising pursuit of a style, an affect, a way of using language, prompted by the demands of a new family, of pregnancy, and of young children’s needs.
Rachel Zucker is a mom, a New Yorker, a writer and teacher, and in each role she depicts herself at the end of her tether.
By “other poets” I mean Rachel Zucker, who, after an undistinguished apprenticeship, has produced a disarming, exhausting, loquacious, dismaying, funny, unfailingly vivid fourth book. It is, perhaps, the apex of the mommy poem; it may be the last in that line, and yet what it does, line by line, we could not have predicted from Mayer, or Szporluk, or anyone else. Zucker—the poems in her Museum of Accidents tell us—has three children, the oldest in grade school, the youngest not yet three. She has also suffered an unsuccessful pregnancy, and she works both as a teacher of poetry workshops in New York City and as a doula, a trained nonmedical professional who assists pregnant women before, during, and after childbirth. Museum of Accidents is not only about kids and bodies (no more than is Midwinter Day): Zucker considers the news; the urban built environment; American Jewish identity; global eco-collapse (“If you think too hard about the number of people aboard the planet / you’ll die”); clinical depression; the gap between notion and action; the distance between words and meanings; her off-again, on-again married sex life; and the demise of Spalding Gray. Yet the way she handles all those subjects—as well as the way she handles pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and the needs of children—seems informed on every page, and well informed, by techniques developed to represent motherhood.
Indeed, the book feels like a manifesto, not for motherhood (or parenthood or doula-hood), but for the aesthetic goals that, for Zucker as for Holbrook or Owen, go with it. Long ametrical lines and disconnected sentences, many of them exclamations, splay out across each page, generating an unreliable sense of time: each day can speed by as each minute drags on. Poems flaunt interruptions—sometimes they are nothing but interruptions; at other times they are all perseveration, driving a phrase or a concept into the ground. On the one hand, each day is a repetitive confinement, “the box I live in”; on the other, “it’s always / nothing like / before, // nothing, not even the surprise / of another, so similar day of box-living.” Motherhood seems to erase the poet’s own past: “now all of me but this is gone and I was never a girl”; “today my beautiful child eviscerates me.” That last sentence means both that her life is no longer her own (“children are dying my death / and eating crumbs of my life,” Rich wrote in “Orion”) and that a breastfeeding child with teeth can bite down.
Zucker’s long lines project exasperation just as they suggest improvisation, whether she is in the hospital or in the synagogue, at home or in the classroom, or trying to think about all four locations at once, as in “Long Lines to Stave Off Suicide,” its title the first of many outrages to any too-cultivated, too-careful taste. Zucker says she
can barely hear above the clicking of my why thinking why
am I so obsessed with paint color and the properties of seasons
material objects I’m crazy, so lazy and driven, relentless, no one could stand this
they call it cyclical negative thinking the constant self-checking
am I okay now?
H. G. Wells, dying, wrote a book called Mind at the End of Its Tether. Zucker is a mom, a New Yorker, a writer and teacher, and in each role she depicts herself at the end of her tether. “It felt undoable. This lucky life / every day, every day. every. day.” To seek a poetry of frayed extremes, one that tries hard to destroy aesthetic distance, is to deny (or pretend to deny) technique, and Zucker specializes in such denials: “when my students want to write poems / I want to say wait for everyone to die.// instead I say:the poem must have a surprise and needs images.”
Almost every poem is that “meta” (as we say now), but few stay that way for long, because there are too many other effects and affects Zucker wants to include. For example, the briefly monotonous, the frankly annoyed and annoying, the gratingly singsong. “I sing silly ditties / play I spy something pretty- / gray-brown-metal-filthy / for a little city fun,” she says, as “rats there scurry, scurry” on a subway platform within sight of her sons. “Why, asks my son on the subway, should / you say something if you see something?” after which she reflects, “I’m trying so hard not to show him / my worldview I can barely breathe.” She cannot show him her whole worldview, but she can show us: it encompasses constant self-checking and constant distraction, like any life amid young children, but especially a life in New York City, where Zucker seems less isolated than overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed, but also mischievous. She wants, as Ginsberg once wanted, to make us squirm, in part because such effects keep the poems from lapsing into the flat affect of depression. At times, she implies, only strenuous rudeness, cringe-inducing “inappropriateness” on her part, can keep the dark away. She also, simply, wants to say what happened. “Welcome to the Blighted Ovum Support Group”: the phrase, included in her longest poem, could title a poem by Sexton, or by Olds, and so could the facts divulged therein (“Dr Jew / was the G.Y.N.’s / real name”), but the poem, page by page, is stranger and more demanding than such facts might let you expect, even as it careens through physiological detail. “The placenta just kept on HCG. Have to pee be / sick. protein. sick. protein. told everyone. the boys . . . naughty fetus, hiding like that.” It’s not her best poem, but it’s an apposite test: if you can make it through these eleven pages (in which the other support group members “sustain me with stories so gory I was almost envious”) then you will be ready for what actually may be Zucker’s best poem, “Paying Down the Debt: Happiness,” the raw feel of which belies its well-paced plot. Near the start of its six-page domestic adventure,
Motherhood has taken my I and smothered her to smithereens. I’m bothered.
Hot. Lusty. Restless.
Then, it happens. My son Moses looks up at me all pink-
cheeked and sweet, sweet, sweet-faced and I know:
by evening I can feel his fever across the room. Nighttime he is nuclear,
a febrile jewel emitting a strange honeyed smell. Saturday. Sunday. Monday. Tuesday.
And so on through two weeks of sick, sick days, as first Moses, then his mother, then her son Abram come down with the same scary bug:
The Super Friends are so boring. Star Wars is too fighty. He will not let
me. Sleep. Please, please, please, please. He will not let me. I hold him in my arms
and pace up and down and back and forth through the long minutes of Monday
morning. While children of other mothers are going to school.
If you don’t like these cumulative effects, if you require compression, melodic line, aesthetic distance, you may ask in what sense these lines make a successful poem, and not just an eye-popping “momoir.” If you do like them, as I do, you might say that the excess, the repetitions, the doublings-back, the overlong sentences followed up by verbal scraps, the frantic, almost fugal qualities, make “Happiness” not just one way but the only way to find words for the unruly, guilty, self-consuming contradictions that Zucker finds in motherhood. The titular debt is at once what mothers owe
children and what children owe their mothers. It is also the moral debt a mother believes she incurs when she makes a parenting error, as when Zucker says, in trying to make Abram take medicine, “It would make me so happy.” The self-conscious poet of motherhood imagines that we are listening: “You’ll pay, mutter the audiences, for the sin of saying smother, for / saying these jewels of your womb are not the root of happiness / but are, rather, a toxic love-vapor, a poison, an addictive swill of life force.”
To be a mother for Zucker is not just to bear violently mixed feelings about all that “life force”; it is also to fear, constantly, disaster: in the subway (“if you see something say something”) or in an automobile (“the hard plastic edge of the car seat. the rhythmic crashing / of the back of his short-haired boy-head against my collarbone”). And it is to set the burden of motherhood, which gives her so much to do, against the equally frightening burden of the Pascalian void, against which there is nothing that anybody can do.
I could keep having children which helps a little (hurts
a lot) because eerything for a long time is so
keep-the-baby-alive, or I
could keep more to myself gathering
daily facts inwards towards but this makes for
less interior space
if the line’s
too long—I’m not the first to be beguiled by and not the first to feel
there’s smething [—hang—] I’ve swallowed that won’t go down—
Zucker is a poet of bottom-scraping, blood-chilling existential anxiety, one among many, and a poet of New York City, one among many, and a poet of American Jewish inheritance, one among many, and one of the funniest, too: “What would I want with a shaygets, some nonjewboy with a shayne punim / worth all this tsuris like a special on Lifetime or OTV?”And yet the innovations in her language, its run-ons, its stop-shorts, its tender surprises, its yuks and its yuckiness, have less to do with Manhattan or Judaism or ontology than with children, the family, and the unpredictable body, whose “life force” includes a sex drive too. Zucker asks her husband, not quite comically, “What if you wanted to bed me more than you’d like to stop / the war or see a good Democrat in office? . . . What if you wanted me the way you want coffee?” Here she does come close to stand-up comedy—the sex poems, though funny, are not as linguistically interesting as the poems about childbearing and children.
Yet it remains hard for Zucker to segregate one topic from another: her best poems ask us to see how they all get mashed up—“proximity, infestation, habitation, habituation, joy, terror, loneliness, / smallness, anger, injury, damage, lust.”
As willing as they are to pile up abstractions (as in the list just quoted), Zucker’s lines emphasize embodiment, viscerality, the abject. Her poems might, as we say now, gross you out; when they are not melancholic, they can sound lightheaded, or ditzy. Standard written English has no exact synonym for “gross out,” for “ditzy,” for the same reasons that poetry in English, until recently, did not often represent those affects—one reason they seem so fruitful for writers now, and so hard to present without excess. Zucker has written an excessive book, a rude book, and its longer-than-long lines, its bodily fluids (vomit among them) are not the only ways that it flouts decorum. Zucker can be as disarmingly direct about her po-biz life as about her child’s bedroom or her own: “a week ago . . . I was / the happiest poet in the room, including Matt Rohrer.”
With inferior poets who like to break taboos, the shocks are thematic—not formal—and they get old fast. With Zucker, you never know what the next line will hold. The point, the achievement, is not that she can gross us out, drive us around the bend, report the truth about her body, her husband, her sons, or the profession of poetry. The point is that these long, long lines, these stutters and splutters and blanks and lists, can portray, with more verve than anyone else has brought to such tasks, what it is like to be this person, this mother and teacher, at wit’s end: exhilarated, exhausted, exasperated, and able to show how it feels.
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January 01, 2010
16 Min read time