Stride Magazine - www.stridemagazine.co.uk
OF LIFE AND LANGUAGE
THE GRAND PERMISSION: NEW WRITINGS ON POETICS AND MOTHERHOOD edited by Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman
$24.95, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT 06459, USA.
It is arguable that to be a poet is to experience the world with the wonder of a child, to see as if seeing for the first time. This is a recurring theme throughout The Grand Permission; many of its contributors experiencing with fascination their infant’s initiation into language, and finding that in turn language is itself made new to them. The collection includes a variety of poets, each having interpreted its theme uniquely. For many, there is a tension between the creative joys of motherhood and the effect its duties have upon the spaces they have carved in which to write. Many speak of late nights and snatches of time stolen amidst their duties, and of the guilt and frustration of attempting to reconcile their needs as writers and mothers. Conversely, some find the shift in temporality thought-provoking and distractions essential to their work, even incorporating interruptions and baby-language into the fabric of their poems.
Pregnancy and birth shift the perspectives on the self that many of these writers have held. Some, like Kathleen Fraser, express this in the form of their writing; breaking essay conventions to explore motherhood and poetics creatively; ‘An otherness you know nothing of. Can you write this? Can you hold it quietly?’. Like others in this collection, this piece makes little concession to its reader, it asks that we read the work as we might ‘read’ the needs of a child, that we become part of it as an organic process which is at times familiar, and at others strange and unsettling.
For some, motherhood has disrupted their poetics at the minute level, has broken it apart and required them to re-form their poetic ‘voice’. The ‘otherness’ of the child reflects the ‘otherness’ inherent in the act of writing. Poems themselves are included in autobiographical accounts, as in ‘IT’ by Alice Notley;
It lies curled up all around is dark
warm water, we did too but can’t
remember, or envision such adequate
Stephanie Brown explodes the myth of the ‘perfect mother’, describing her struggle to empathise and come to terms with the individuality of her son and his demands on her own identity and ambitions. She is at times infuriatingly unforgiving and expresses some controversial views; ‘Men writing on fatherhood would be as self-indulgent as men writing on golf’. This brings up the interesting question of the absences in this collection namely the experiences of the father-poet or of the child of a poet.
Many see the poet as a ‘vessel’, embodying absence, existing to facilitate the creation of the new. Like the mother, the poet must anxiously ‘let go’ of her creation and release it into the world, an issue which Fanny Howe explores in the final essay ‘The Pinnochian Ideal’, in ways which are witty, disturbing and touching.
Dale Going recognises the ‘imaginative connection’ between a mother and a child, a connection which mirrors that of the poet to her work, but must recognise the independent life of both: the need of both child and poem to be ‘themselves’.
The themes of temporality and death thread their way through the poet’s preoccupations. Susan Geritz draws parallels in her personal experience of the birth of a daughter and the death of a grandmother. She includes a poem whose rhythm resonates with the natural pace of the human breath, dramatising the corporeality and temporality of language.
Alice Ostriker envisions the living language as essentially female, feminine and sensuous, while the printed word is its male counterpart. Poetry seeks the body behind language; to incorporate an ‘equivalent’ world of ‘gestures’ and ‘intimacies’.
The idea of boundaries is the focus of Susan Griffin’s piece, with the mother at the boundary between two worlds, worlds that she both experiences and creates in the equivalent world of poetry. Eavan Boland’s discussion of Sylvia Plath extends this idea to the mother/poet figure embodying ‘nature’ herself. She is one with nature in her act of creation.
Ultimately, The Grand Permission finds itself exploring not only poetry and motherhood, but the grander narratives to which they are inextricably linked; life and art, birth, death and re-birth, love and loss. The essays will be immensely valuable to any writer who has struggled with incorporating their creative practice into everyday reality and anyone concerned with the nature and role of language. They are also marvellous examples of how academic work can be transformed by creativity, reinvention and passion.
‘…all creative acts, whether it is giving birth to a child, a work of art, or the self, are unique, arduous and awe-full’.
(Toi Derricote, from ‘Writing Natural Birth’)
© Abi Curtis 2003