Permission to Read

Permission to Read

Bill Stobb

“Rather than gathering in the South Ballroom for the plenary, we read into gardens, playrooms, cars, stores, home offices, and kitchen tables. These sites are not homey, though, in any Palmolive way.”

Bill Stobb reviews a collection of writers who consider the complexities of artmaking and motherhood.

When a lost history is suddenly speaking, and its voices are all richly individuated, intelligent, earnest, uninhibited, and infused with wonder, everyone should be happy. Everyone is present. History was disoriented and panicked because… well, have you ever been disoriented and panicked because you can’t remember where your children are? Or for a few minutes were you doing something so intently that you forgot you had children? When everything is found the world is immediately all forward again. Always was. the grand permission: new writings on poetics and motherhood seems newly awake and aware. Not granted permission, but permission is given - permission is a given. The mothers and partners and children seem to have always been together: can talk about seeming to have missed each other and now seem hopeful that they will be more to each other than ever.

The 32 contributors to the volume are all poets, spanning seven decades of experience in mothering and art-making. The collection was inspired by and developed through a trio of 1990s’ colloquiums, but the book doesn’t seem like an academic conference. Rather than gathering in the South Ballroom for the plenary, we read into gardens, playrooms, cars, stores, home offices, and kitchen tables. These sites are not “homey,” though, in any PalmoliveTM way. In fact, if the book is against anything, it’s against the commercial image of a mother - a nurture-bot (with a sparkling smile!), armed with top products and full of the absence of unruliness. And the book is against silences, too, I think. But mostly the book is all now and forward.

Not “homey” sites because we don’t associate intellectualism and bright thinking about artistic form with pastels. Home is an arena of multiple functions for these writers - no: it’s more organic, a kind of chaotic fecundity, matter and energy and fleeting meaning on multiple levels. Home is complex by virtue of its diverse necessities. Elizabeth Robinson’s essay, “Gaps, Overlow, and Linkage,” supplies a good example of the volume’s blending of imperatives. Here, parenting, child development, scholarship, art-making, and poetic theory are present and together:

This morning, I watched Wilson with a red marker. He concentratedly colored his toes and then made thicker connecting whorls on the bridge of his foot, which then continued, naturally enough to his sense, to the grain of the wood on the floor. Inside and outside, self and other, are permitted to remain distant concerns resulting in “expansion of the borders of self rather than a collapse in the structure of the self” (257. Robinson quotes Roslyn Diprose’s “The body biomedical ethics forgets” in Troubled Bodies, ed. Paul A. Komesaroff. Durham and London: Duke UP, 1995, p. 212)

Like most of the essays in the collection, Robinson’s offers fascinating analysis and speculation, grounded in personal experience. She considers the potential significance of language’s common properties of synesthesia (think of describing someone as warm, or a tie as loud), which, for the mother-who-is-a-poet, richly weaves language into the world. Robinson goes well beyond the linguistic and aesthetic subjects-at-hand, though, to arrive at the religious significance of synesthesia - the flesh made word - in ways that both provoke us to think widely (wildly?) and that also remain grounded in her family relationships. It is this integrating character of the essays that most engages my imagination as a reader-who-is-poet-and-parent.

Though many of the writers here draw on the French psychoanalytic tradition, I want to say how much more wet the writing seems here (a distinction I once heard Terry Tempest Williams make - wet versus dry awareness: a contrast between knowing that is connected to lived experience and knowing that is based on data or dogma). It’s because the boundaries between “personal” and “theoretical” are explicitly permeable, throughout the collection. An example: Gillian Conoley is one of the many contributors who draws substance (sustenance) from the French. Here, it’s a quote from Julia Kristeva’s “Women’s Time”: “A mother is a continuous separation, a division of the very flesh. And consequently a division of language - and it has always been so.” The resonance is sermonic, here, to me, and contrasts importantly to the less idolized intelligence I find in the grand permission ‘s essays. For example, Carol Muske-Dukes’s essay, “Heart Murmurs” works some intense, psychoanalytic territory with an ease of intelligence that suggests frankness, or the absence of repression:

My first sense of language was that it had rhythm, but startlingly, elusive rhythm… It seemed to adhere to no pattern. As to the profound evidence of pre-cognitive order - that is, the totemic iambic of the heartbeat (heard amplified by the unborn in the mother’s womb) - my own prebirth chamber was otherwise sound-equipped.

My mother had a heart murmur. A random murmur. I didn’t hear (I suppose) the reassuring regularity of lub DUB lub DUB…

To this day I crave rhythms that accrue and alternate the “meaning” of the heart “murmur” with the regular heartbeat. (188)

Certainly the collection offers a number of styles and essay forms. Many of these mothers-who-are-poets work at the present-tense edge of language, re-shaping grammar to their own purposes. In this sense, the essays are formally related to l’ecriture feminine and their authors’ central poetics: the essays aren’t secondary texts at all: their authors don’t compromise their values by writing in an “explanatory” manner. However, it’s an earlier French tradition - the tradition of the personal essay out of Montaigne - that most welcomes me to the collection. In the less experimental essays, essays that endorse a somewhat centralized speaker, my sense of the writers is rich and full; these are mothers, poets, scholars, questioning, believing, trying.

Though the essays in the volume are by no means predictable in form, they commonly offer some kind of before/after scenario - a narrative of poetic and personal development beginning before and progressing into motherhood. Carolyn Forché describes the change of her poetic which corresponded to her entrance into motherhood. Of her early work, she writes:

My first two published poetry books were written during my teens and twenties, in the mode of the first-person, free-verse lyric, a writing which seemed to me very much to corroborate le monde vécu, the lived world. I thought of words as the crystalline precipitate of conscious attention: particular, precise, and resonant with as much “poetic” euphony as I could “hear…” (59)

Following the birth of her son, Sean-Cristophe,

the “I” of my previous writing receded, having become an emptiness, replaced by a polyphonic and Schoenbergian symphony of cacophonous utterance. Absent this “I,” whose selfhood the poems formerly served, words became material and translucent, no longer apparently communicative of the sensibility I no longer possessed. (62)

Readers of Forché remember the strangely fierce debates over the ethics of some of the Salvadoran poems in her collection, The Country Between Us. Forché’s “use” of her first-person experience came under sometimes vicious scrutiny, as if it were more a form of manipulation than an authentic art. Mostly, to my mind, the debates reflected the status quo in poetry - a poet might be praised for freely challenging all kinds of formal or aesthetic barriers, but if she challenges the political and economic allegiances of her readers, she can expect to be thoroughly scrutinized.

When her subsequent volume, The Angel of History, arrived on the bookshelves, it was clear that Forché had undergone a significant stylistic, perhaps even epistemological, shift. The first person “poem of witness,” building its credibility on ethos and pathos, had dispersed. The decentered, fragmented lyric (though still “political” in subject matter) had become Forché’s project. Had she abandoned her earlier style under critical pressure? Had the often hyperbolic critical discourse surrounding her work contributed to this break in style? My reading of her essay is, in a sense, polluted by questions like these, which stem from the reception of her work. Regardless, the essay rewards on its own terms, offering a gracious discussion of Forché’s activism, her entrance into motherhood, the philosophical traditions that sustain her, and her evolving writing practices.

Forché’s particular poetic progression - from the centralized to the decentered - seems representative, in many ways, of the volume’s theoretical base. Throughout the 20th Century, Modernism, Surrealism, Objectivism, Feminism, Post-structuralism, and Physics all worked to undermine the privilege of the first person poet/speaker in romantic tradition. The careers of many poets, I would argue, repeat a version of this romantic-to-postmodern progression (is this because the individuation of the self - from parents, siblings, peers, etc - is still performed in a primarily romantic way, while the passage into adult maturity is now marked by a sense of unboundedness?). the grand permission chronicles numerous fragmentations and reformations. Brenda Hillman aligns with a Romantic tradition through Keats, whose concept of “negative capability” influences the dispersed poetics of many of the grand permission ‘s contributors. In her essay, “Split, Spark, and Space: a Poetics of Shared Custody,” Hillman shows her poetic language dissolving and reshaping even as her relationship to her daughter accommodates new distances.

The sense of the single “voice” in poetry grew to include polyphonies, oddly collective dictations, and the process of writing itself. This happened in part because of a rediscovered interest in esoteric western traditions, and in part because I came to know a community of women who were writing in exploratory forms; also, I had gone through a divorce and was mothering a child under those conditions… Realizing that a mysterious quadrant of my daughter’s week would take place apart from me, I began to perceive phenomena differently… A new set of betweennesses happened in language as her body came and went through time and distance… A poetic method which had heretofore been based on waiting for insight, suddenly had to accommodate process, an indeterminate physics, a philosophy that combined spiritual searching with detached looking. (246-247)

Blending scholarship and personal narrative, Hillman goes on to thoughtfully explore the spaces where one can locate meaning in physics and Christian mysticism. Like Hillman, many of the volume’s contributors find and generate traditions in departure from the unified first person - no surprise, as linearities and egocentricities are gendered to the male and are, regardless of gender, simplifications of life and nostalgic justifications for poetry.

In her essay, Jill Bialosky raises a question about poetic experimentation that, I think, haunts the volume: “Was [the] backlash against the personal in poetry also a backlash against women legitimately entering their experiences into the canon?” Bialosky suggests that the poetic mainline of the decentered lyric might, itself, represent another silencing of women’s personal voices. Now we have a poetry culture that centrally values a post-feminist aesthetic, but, because that aesthetic doesn’t honor the first-person, we don’t find that many actual women’s voices. By raising this argument, I think Bialosky helps balance a kind of futurist zeal in poetic experimentation - the desire to always open language and identity toward the Holy Grail of the present moment. Language now, in its own uncontrolled play. The child language that’s not restrained by social construction. Yet it’s okay - right? why wouldn’t it be? right? - for the poem occasionally to represent the dramatized speaker. The narrative construct can be a site of powerful rhetoric, if not transcendent tongues, while the poetic experiment can revitalize an exhausted idiom, optimistically forming new relations among subjects, verbs, and objects.

The ethics of poetic experimentation is certainly a ripe subject, and this collection offers a particularly interesting perspective. The confluence of decentered poetics and motherhood seems so turbulent. We are bombarded by a dominant image of practical, nurturing motherhood. How can such a pragmatically tender being throw language around wildly, with esoteric, erotic, fragmentary results? Is she having a breakdown? Is she having a tantrum? The answer, of course, is that the volume fully rejects the commercialized mother-image and opens the discourse on art and motherhood to the range of thought and feeling available to the parenting artist.

In her “Parallel Play” - an essay written in separate, parallel tracks running in two columns down the page - Carla Harryman frames this persistent conflict as an argument of definition between the sociological and the aesthetic. Harryman invents a “Plain Jane” artist who struggles to create work with aesthetic imperatives without compromising the mother-role she sees as aesthetic: “When her writing is not aesthetic, it seems distracted, an emanation from a queen with no country or a woman senator in an all-male assembly, or a revolutionary without a purpose. It begs questions and opens itself to attacks. The language of poetry falls away” (129). Implicit is a criticism of the nature of the division that’s routinely made between the aesthetic and the sociological. Later in the essay, Harryman offers a narrative that startles that division, and would probably raise the neck-hairs of most any administrator of our sociological offices of “education”:

A friend of mine recently taught one of my anthologized poems to high school students…. The poem, a satire of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, probably could not have been taught in a public school. “The ventriloquist plunges his hand into her ass and pulls it out screaming, minus a finger,” is one of the lines in the poem. (124)

Harryman’s explanation of the value of this study is profound:

It is important to allow young people access to sophisticated literature by women, including literature with sexual content…. This is not simply about some superficial notion of health, as if teaching poetry were a nutrition class. It is about honesty and human sexuality and children’s and particularly teenagers’ concern with honesty. One aspect of honesty withheld from children is that concerning the adult - particularly any woman’s - erotic imagination. The withholding of this kind of information from teenagers contributes to their feelings of being outcasts. (126)

Like many of the essays in the volume, Harryman’s is founded partly on psychoanalysis, but primarily on lived experience. In this narrative of poetry and education, I love Harryman’s radicalism and groundedness - this lesson plan only seems “out there” because our sexual worlds have been stunted, and Harryman draws persuasive evidence from her scholarship and from her life.

Several of the volume’s contributors bring the aesthetic into contact with the social through their descriptions of the practice of writing. After all, a house with children is a literal heteroglossia. What better place for a kind of semi-automatic process of language transcription? “I was constantly bathed in conversation,” writes Alice Notley, “including that of my sons. I invented forms which included all this talking as much to keep writing as for any other reason: I had to write while people were around. And in the midst of active mothering” (140). Supporting the centrality of children’s actual language use in the poetics of motherhood, C.D. Wright’s essay includes a list of questions asked by her son, such as “How can I write a Bobbsey Twins book, I’m not even Italian?” and “Is it illegal for men to shave their legs?”

If the collection contains rich stories of children encouraging the opening up of their mothers’ poetic practice, the same stories often testify to struggle. Wright herself allows that she sometimes wishes for solitude for writing. Stephanie Brown’s “Not a Perfect Mother” describes three years of devastating conflict between parenting and work, following the birth of her second child: “With each succeeding year I felt the energy and enthusiasm drain from me a little more. I had our lives carefully scheduled and planned. When either of us would have to change our work hours, I could be thrown into an abyss of frustration and anger. If we didn’t have a babysitter, it could pitch the day, the week, into the wastebasket” (27).

I found Brown’s essay to be one of the most riveting of the volume. It’s a straightforward narrative, describing her preliminary rejection of the category of “good mother”- stays home with the kids, doesn’t work, etc. When she admits that one of the specific reasons she didn’t want to quit working was that she definitely didn’t want to spend more time at home with the kids, I admired the courage of this recognition. A page later, confronted with her oldest child’s radical needy-ness, Brown quits her job as a librarian, pulls the child out of school and stays home to raise and educate him. “They are not happy if I want to sit on the sand or the grass behind my sunglasses and read. They like me to do goofy faces and silly voices. They want to laugh! So now I play with them. Now I run and play and read with them and I pay attention. It’s been the antidote for my impatience” (30). It seems the essay is turning toward a happy ending, but just a moment later, Brown writes,

Where am I today? Running a household… I have to be the one to say, `Come on, put your shoes on, let’s go!’ because on the way to get their shoes, they might be suddenly pulled into a toy’s imaginative possibilities, and start flying rockets or pretending to be a tiger I have to be the one who brings them back to the real: socks and shoes. Now. I have to answer their imaginative questions with unimaginative, logical, down-to-earth answers…

Sometimes - standing in Super Kmart - I feel like one of the many women in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, hypnotized, albeit more subtly, with our slogans and our puttingkidsfirst and our family values - our real selves, our feelings and our minds kept under cover of our Mother-uniforms. (31-32)

Many of the volume’s essays present triumphs of poetic ideology or epistemology in the face of the pressing realities of motherhood. Claudia Keelan describes her ideal of poetic exile, based on Keats’ “negative capability” and the idea of a “utopic” homeland that can only be approached, never reached. Somehow, the position she constructs in her aesthetic practice - “Exile is the paradigm that ensures my poetry’s restless individuation, its refusal of community” (38) - proves compatible with the often fiercely localized imperatives of parenting. I admire Stephanie Brown’s piece because it doesn’t have everything figured out. The writing ideology has not joined neatly with the parenting practice. Real emotional swings are evident in the writing.

It may be that I feel particularly connected to Brown’s essay because her personal situation seems so similar to my own. We are both married to corporate workers - our careers are the second careers in the household. As a graduate student, and now as a college professor, the relative flexibility of my schedule means that I am frequently the one transporting children, or staying home with sick children, or stopping at Super Kmart to pick up the product that the children need. It’s fine. What’s hard for me to accept is a sense of secondary status that also comes through in Brown’s essay - that the work of teaching and writing is not as demanding, not as real, as corporate work. I sensed that Brown understood this conflict.

So it is ironic that her essay should be the one to most forcefully raise another of the volume’s interesting questions. What is the status of men in the collection? Brown writes, “other than [a] change in the way I write and the way I revise, I can see no connection between poetry and motherhood… Does anyone ask this question of fathers? Of course not. And who cares, anyway? Men writing on fatherhood would be as self-indulgent as men writing on golf” (31). Wait a minute, I want to say, (until I remember that I have tried to write about golf and it was really stupid. Then I feel… pegged.). I can handle being othered, here, and I understand that my gender’s oppressive history puts me in a position of no standing in the discussion. It does bum me out a little that the writer I felt most connected to should be the one who least desires me, as a reader, but the question I want to raise is larger than my own affective responses. What, I want to know, is the status of the men who have been raised to adulthood post-Masters-and-Johnson, post-Julia-Kristeva, post-Annie Sprinkle, for that matter, post-Hilary (and Bill) Clinton, post-Melissa Etheridge, etc.?

In her Foreword, Rachel Blau Du Plessis notes the “fascinating absence of partners” in many of the volume’s essays, suggesting that “the anthology still registers a strongly `dyadic’ ideology” (x). When Camille Roy writes from the position of the non-birthing partner in a lesbian parenting relationship, perhaps she questions the categories of the dyad and triad. Obviously, these terms describe very primal, basic relationships, defined by thousands of years of biological experience interacting with cultural practices and mythology. If the collection is evidence of a changing paradigm, and if the imperative is open acknowledgement, then questions of sons and partners would seem to arise naturally.

After Alice Notley describes the entrance of her sons’ voices into her writing, she goes on to say that they have become grown men and poets, and that she has seen her own voice appear in their writing. A healthy interchange, I would say, and a very positive sign that some young men, at least, are growing up with powerful women inside them. In her recent interview with Claudia Keelan, published in the May/June, 2004 issue of American Poetry Review, I was a little surprised to see Notley object to male poets’ assuming of female voices. It’s not a contradiction, really. It’s delicate territory, fraught with important questions of authority. Notley is gracious with her own voice and toward her own children’s relationship to it. Other appropriations warrant suspicion. I’m really not trying to quibble or defend - I can’t even frame these questions adequately. My gender role as a parent and writer sometimes seems post-feminist, and I guess I just wonder whether my feeling of solidarity with some of the women in the collection is permissible. And I’ll understand if you say no.