Writing Birth: on the poetry of motherhood

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Rachel Bower

 

In her 1995 work Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (Carcanet), Eavan Boland described a powerful dilemma at the heart of women’s writing about motherhood. She suggested that ‘the woman poet today is caught in a field of force’, offering an example of the woman who leaves the kitchen to lift her child from the garden who, for the third time, ‘is about to put laburnum pods into its mouth’. In the garden, with the child in her arms, ‘hot and small and needy’, the woman notices the ‘frills of shadow around the laburnum and freakish gold light from it are in her eyes’. However, when she finally sits down to write (after wiping the flour off her hands and setting down the child for a sleep), a series of ‘powerful, distracting’ voices come to her. On the one hand, ‘poetic conventions’ whisper that this experience is not fit material for poetry, and that it must be changed to make it worthy of inclusion. On the other hand, she feels the pressure of a ‘feminist’ force which suggests that such experiences are the fit subject for anger, and that the anger itself the proper subject for poetry. Despite these persuasive voices, Boland becomes convinced that the woman is standing ‘at the center of the lyric moment itself, in a mesh of colors, sensualities and emotions’ that are ‘equidistant from poetic convention and political feeling alike’, and that if she can only ‘detach the lyric mode from traditional romantic elitism and the new feminist angers’ then she will at last be able to express this moment.

Given this dilemma, and the scarcity of literary ancestors writing about pregnancy, birth and motherhood, it is perhaps all the more remarkable that recent months have seen the publication of a number of stunning poems and collections about the subject. Most recently, Liz Berry’s pamphlet of fifteen poems, The Republic of Motherhood, was published by Chatto & Windus, the title poem of which has just been awarded the Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem. Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems was also published this year (Faber & Faber). The striking final poem, ‘The Sandpit After Rain’, reflects on the birth of a child and the death of a father.

When I began writing this article (several months ago while I was on maternity leave), these collections had not yet been published, and my own pamphlet on pregnancy, birth and motherhood had just gone to press (Moon Milk, Valley Press). The processes of researching and writing this pamphlet continually brought me back to Boland’s dilemma. Where, for example, could I find my own lived experiences of growing, birthing and caring for a child in the history of literature? Where were the poems (or short stories or novels) about shame and loss, about unbearable love and unimaginable boredom, about the intersection between birth and death? How could I write about these experiences without being labelled a ‘women’s writer’, or a poet writing thinly veiled autobiographical pieces? How to write of the betrayals of the body – in miscarriage and illness; of the disorientating, otherworldly experiences of birth and breastfeeding; of the pressures and anxieties of pregnancy and motherhood? How could I forge a language through which to speak something true of such things?

There were certainly poets who could help. There have been a number of excellent collections published in the UK in recent years, that have begun to carve out a space and language from which to begin. Rebecca Goss’s beautiful collection, Her Birth (Northern House, 2013), charts the devastatingly short life and death of a baby who has an incurable heart condition and the complexity of the birth of another child. Karen McCarthy Woolf’s unsettling collection, An Aviary of Small Birds, was published in 2015 (Carcanet); Hollie McNish’s frank diary and poems, Nobody Told Me in 2016 (Blackfriars), and Clare Pollard’s forceful collection Incarnation in 2017 (Bloodaxe). In addition, a number of anthologies have appeared: Ten Poems About Babies (Candlestick, 2016), edited by Imtiaz Dharker; Writing Motherhood: A Creative Anthology (Seren, 2017), edited by Carolyn Jess-Cooke; and Musings on Mothering (2012) edited by Teika Bellamy, of Mother’s Milk Books, to name a few.

The backing of big publishers and the rise in anthologies seems to suggest an increasing acceptance of birth and motherhood as subjects of poetry, or at least mark a shift away from the vitriol with which Kate Clanchy’s 2004 book, Newborn (Picador), was received. Whether we view this rise in books about mothering as progressive, or more cynically as a move by literary institutions to tap into a potentially profitable market, it is clear that the difficulties described by Boland remain, particularly if the poet wishes to write in the first person. Most of the questions I have been asked in interviews since the publication of Moon Milk, for example, relate to my own autobiographical experiences (and sanity). The majority of the reviews and blurbs about the above poetry collections, my own included, include an appreciative (if surprised) comment about how we have succeeded in writing about birth and motherhood without sentimentality. The implication is that such writing necessarily sets out from a place of sentimentality; that the risk of ‘bad’ writing is particularly high. Or, to put this differently, these well-meaning comments imply that the writing begins with a subject that is not entirely proper for poetry, and that it must therefore escape these experiences in order to be of any merit or skill. Although this seems to leave us in the predicament described by Boland over twenty years ago, the outstanding work produced by recent poets shows that it is certainly possible to write of birth and motherhood without compromising aesthetically, and without beginning from a preoccupation with transcending the ‘domestic’. Indeed, this new poetry show how the domestic is at the heart of who we are, connecting the personal to the political, the singular to the universal. This new poetry is certainly to be celebrated, and the remainder of this article looks closer at two of the most recent collections on the subject: Berry’s The Republic of Motherhood and Sullivan’s Three Poems.

 
Liz Berry’s The Republic of Motherhood
 

Two of the poems in The Republic of Motherhood were first published in the Verse Matters anthology, edited by myself and Helen Mort (2017). In this earlier version, one of the poems, ‘Kejimakujik’, reads:

 

There were moments giving birth
when the pain shone
so deeply through my bones
I believed I wanted to walk
into that lake at Kejimakujik,
that silent star-mirroring lake.

 

This poem is redrafted as ‘Transition’ in The Republic of Motherhood, a title which refers to the extremely intense stage of labour in which the woman’s body shifts from the opening of the cervix to the baby’s descent. The first nine lines of the poem read:

 

When the fires swept lit my body ablaze
I wanted to crawl into that lake at Kejimakujik
silent star-mirroring lake so deep
It knows no grave no soul
slip my flesh     and slither     loose an eel
clot-dark and sinewy     skin the sheen of the lake
of the night the lake swallowed
an arrow of blood quivering
through the water loveless     childless

 

In this poem, as in so many of the recent poems about birth, the poetry of Sylvia Plath continues to reverberate. In this case, the echoes of ‘Ariel’ can be heard: the arrow, the physicality, the merging of blackness and blood, the physicality and the entanglement of birth and death. ‘Transition’, we might venture, takes its place at the heart of that lyric moment identified by Boland: taking the visceral, individual bodily experience, and transforming it, not only in catharsis or in anger, but to reveal its very essence.

Berry’s ‘Transition’ brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s complex essay, ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society’, in which he writes that the ‘lyric work hopes to attain universality through unrestrained individuation’. Without suggesting that there is a simple conclusion to be drawn from Adorno’s difficult essay, this poem shows how the dialectical movement of the lyric ‘I’ is able to temporarily transcend itself. Pain, one of the most individuated experiences, speaks here of universality: of life and death and of that which connects us. Even though this poem strains so hard against the language that it must be contained by, the specific, individual experience remains social, precisely because it must contained, at the last, in language. The skill of ‘Transition’ is perhaps clearest when we look at the difference between the two published versions of the poem: the first relies more heavily on the narrative, and on telling; whereas the second pushes against this by juxtaposing unsettling images and sounds and prising open white space on the page, which allows a momentary leap out of the language in which this highly singular experience must be articulated, even if the poem must inevitably fall back into it.

This poem, like the others in The Republic of Motherhood, also makes visible the labour of women and mothering, exposing the secret lives, the hidden work, the exhaustion and bewilderment: the ‘Feedingcleaninglovingfeeding’ (‘Republic’). It is the work described thirteen years earlier in Clanchy’s poem, ‘Not Art’: the ‘intricate wiping and wrapping’, the ‘gains inchingly small / as the knotting of carpets’. Clanchy’s Newborn addressed this dilemma head on, taking the work of mothering as poetic material, whilst refusing to reduce this solely to anger. Berry’s opening poem goes even further – the speaker crosses ‘the border into the Republic of Motherhood’ and finds it ‘a queendom, a wild queendom’. She takes its ‘uniform’ and

 

lay down in Motherhood’s bed, the bed I had made
but could not sleep in, for I was called at once to work
in the Factory of Motherhood.

 

The poem embraces the institutions: the ‘parks of Motherhood’, ‘Motherhood’s cemeteries’, the ‘chapel of Motherhood’, the ‘whole wild fucking queendom’ and ‘all the souls that were in it’. This poem thus begins to show how the hidden, largely unspoken labour and institutions of this republic of motherhood are not ‘personal’, but instead the basis on which many modern societies are built: the factory, the municipal baths, the supermarket, the hospitals, the cemeteries. Berry refuses to compromise aesthetically in charting this republic. The connections between her earlier work, particularly her acclaimed collection Black Country, and her work on motherhood make this clear: both are anchored by the lilt and diction of the Black Country, both rely on the attachment to birds and both are saturated in the sensuality of image and language – the change of subject does not mean that Berry must abandon her poetics.

One of Berry’s poems, ‘So Tenderly It Wounds Them’, refers to the mothers ‘Who are lonely / Though never alone’. The speaker of this poem feels herself strangely connected to this disparate community of women, although also alienated from them. This is a dilemma also captured in Pollard’s ‘At Peckham Rye’, a poem which attempts to locate literary ancestors. The speaker addresses William Blake directly:

 

yes, my child reveals the holy in dull reality,
but he makes dullness and reality my responsibility

 

This poem insists that poetry about children should take account of the messy and everyday, as well as the sanitised, romantic image that has been passed down, and shows how this has historically erased the labour involved in bringing up children. Like Pollard, Berry also explores some of the social pressures that weigh upon pregnant women, and shows how judgements about ‘proper’ mothers, and post-baby weight loss are connected to fundamental questions about the rights of women over their own bodies. The final long poem in Sullivan’s Three Poems also explores these pressures and judgements, showing how they are inextricable from the experience of birth.

 
Hannah Sullivan’s ‘The Sandpit After Rain’
 

In Berry’s poem, ‘The Visitation’, the birth is not as it should be: the woman ‘opened too soon, a foxglove, on that papered bed’. This poem, like Sullivan’s ‘The Sandpit After Rain’, provides an insight into the guilt that surrounds birth and women’s role in this. Sullivan’s long poem opens with the line: ‘Things happened in the wrong order, out of nature’. The poem continues:

 

This was a week past due. Nothing was favourable.
The neck of the womb was hard and closed.
The midwife couldn’t reach to strip the waters

 

The voice in Sullivan’s long poem is more direct than that in Berry’s poems – more insistent, and darkly comic – but, nevertheless, evokes a similar mix of bewilderment, pain, loneliness, resentment and joy. The poem recalls the barrage of advice which the woman has received – ‘Try pineapple. Try reflexology in Kilburn’ – as she struggles with her failure to become a participant in the perfect birth. The speaker continues:

 

I lurch along the street
On slippered size 9 piano feet
The woman who has done everything
She shouldn’t do,
Everything unmotherly and queer,
Taboo,
Frantically googling:
taboo pregnancy what not to do
+ dietary restrictions
+ death

 

The woman in this poem is constantly trying to do the ‘right’ thing, even as she recognises the ludicrous expectations imposed on her. Her guilt is overwhelming. And yet, there is clear privilege in this situation, of the kind sharply observed in Clare Pollard’s Incarnation, particularly in her poem about the pressures on pregnant women and mothers, ‘Suffer’, which opens:

 

Your negative thoughts might harm the foetus
and you might abort the foetus or think about aborting the foetus
or just not be maternal
and you got pissed at that wedding and cava can harm the foetus

 
Like Sullivan, Pollard relies on humour to expose the incessant judgements of women’s bodies and behaviour:
 

you have a routine or no routine
and are probably yummy or slummy
 
Also you might watch her starve because you brought her into a world with finite resources
and an unsustainable rate of population growth.
You might watch a fly dance on her eye.

 

This poem, however, goes beyond individual anxiety and connects the process of birthing with inequalities of class and race, and clearly exposes the accident of one’s birth to be a matter of life and death:

 

You might live in a war zone and be unable to protect her.
You might not live in a good catchment area.

 

Pollard’s work shows clearly how the personal is political, and exposes some of the hypocrisy in parental discourse around wanting the best for one’s child.

Like Pollard, Sullivan also captures the inextricability of birth and death, and on the penultimate page, the poem states: ‘You started dying on the morning you were made’. ‘The Sandpit After Rain’, in many ways, is a meditation on the ‘entropy of things’: the ‘sea coming in’; the ‘floor before a toddler’s pasta dinner’; the endless invisible work that is, in Adrienne Rich’s words, ‘work that others constantly undo’. In reflecting on entropy, however, the poem meditates on the drive to continue, and on human empathy and connection:

 

So we remember the courage of street cleaners,
Because of the hopelessness of their work,
And house painters in seaside towns
And the charity of shift workers in hospital car parks
Because they sit drinking tea and smoking,
And do not care for fining the dying.

 

Death and dying are ever-present throughout this poem, which witnesses birth and death ‘on adjacent wards’, and one of its great achievements is to show that writing about birth cannot be neatly separated from what have been considered the lofty historical subjects of poetry: love, sex, death.

There are very few poems about caesarean birth, and Sullivan documents this surgery through ordinary, concrete language which still succeeds in being lyrical and evocative. The experience is also highly satirical:

 

The fish thrashing on the hook that happened to it.
Well, of course: who wants to be born?
And to be hauled out, in a windowless room
Somewhere near Paddington to Radio 5 Live?
To be born purple, your hair scrambled like eggs?
I have never heard a person so incredulous with rage.

 

Sullivan conjures up this experience through mixing: reflecting on the way things ‘mix together’, from the ‘ombre moons, pistachios and ash’ swept by the verger to the ‘matter’s endgame of fawn-dun’

 

So when something singular
Comes along, it is a miracle.

 

This couplet brings us to the heart of the matter, to the lyric moment itself: the colour, the intensity, the irreducible singularity of each birth and death and, at the same time, the irreducible universality of life and death. The increasing number of women writing about birth and motherhood, evoke this miracle, reflecting on growth, illness, love and shame; laughter and resentment; work that is constantly undone. Each of these poets must traverse this largely untrodden ground whilst navigating the dilemma described by Boland, positioned between sentimentality and anger; between ‘poetic convention’ and ‘political feeling’. This is no easy task, but it is certain is that the poetry of writers like Berry and Sullivan is pushing against this dichotomy, and opening up new aesthetic possibilities that do, momentarily at least, take us to the heart of the lyric moment itself.

 


  
Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. ‘On Lyric Poetry and Society.’ In Walter Benjamin. The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940. Ed. Theodor Adorno & Gershom Gerhard Scholem. Trans. Manfred R. Jacobson & Evelyn M. Jacobson. University of Chicago Press, 1994: 37-54.

Berry, Liz. Black Country. Chatto & Windus, 2014.
—. The Republic of Motherhood. Chatto & Windus, 2018.

Boland, Eavan. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time. Carcanet. 1995: 239-254.

Bower, Rachel. Moon Milk. Valley Press, 2018.

Bower, Rachel and Helen Mort, eds. Verse Matters.Valley Press, 2017.

Clanchy, Kate. Newborn. London: Picador, 2004.

Dharker, Imtiaz, ed. Ten Poems About Babies. Candlestick Press, 2015.

Jess-Cooke, Carolyn. Writing Motherhood: A Creative Anthology. Seren, 2017.

Goss, Rebecca. Her Birth. Northern House, 2013.

McCarthy Woolf, Karen. An Aviary of Small Birds. Carcanet, 2015.

McNish, Hollie. Nobody Told Me. Blackfriars, 2016.

Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. Faber & Faber, 1965.

Pollard, Clare. Incarnation. Bloodaxe, 2017.

Sullivan, Hannah. Three Poems. Faber & Faber, 2018.

Rich, Adrienne. ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing and Re-Vision’. 1971. On Lies, Secrets and Silence. Virago, 1980.

 

Rachel Bower

About Rachel Bower

Rachel Bower is a poet and Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Leeds. She is the author of 'Moon Milk' (Valley Press, 2018) and 'Epistolarity and World Literature, 1980-2010' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Rachel is the editor of 'Verse Matters' (with Helen Mort, Valley Press, 2017), and her poems have featured in Stand, New Welsh Review, The Interpreter’s House, Frontier, Popshot Magazine and many other places. She has had work shortlisted for The London Magazine Poetry Prize and her poems have won several other prizes. You can find her on Twitter @rachelebower and her website is at www.rachelbowerwrites.wordpress.com. (Author image credit: Jan Bella)