Touched by This Most Perfect Thing: The Mother/Child Papers by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

The Mother/Child Papers

The Mother/Child Papers
BY Alicia Suskin Ostriker
(University of Pittsburgh Press, Reissue Edition, 2009)

The painting by Christine Carmel on the cover of the new 2009 edition of Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s The Mother/Child Papers shows the heads and shoulders of a man and a woman, bare, joined as one, though each wears his/her own heart like a small tattoo. The colours are warm and the couple seems peaceful: she in front of him, held, inclining her head toward his, pressing into his cheek, his lips touching the side of her chin. The cover reflects the confidence of Woman in this re-edition of the 1980 text: She can be outraged, hurt, aggressive, murderous, loving, tender, dominant, aroused, and vulnerable — a complete person to whom Man is a virile partner, present as a father and lover.

As the new preface suggests, the book is about invasion and struggle: the baby’s arriving in the womb, in the mother’s life, even as bombs and soldiers are dropped on Cambodia: “[t]here never was a war that was not inward.” Her indignation at the supposed motivation of the invader: “the need to control, to dominate, to conquer, while claiming that your invasion is for the benefit of the invaded,” prepares us for the advent of the baby into the life of the mother and the conflicting feelings that this arouses. There is also a hope that the “complexity” of “childbirth and mothering” could be elevated in our minds to equal the position occupied in literature for centuries by “sex and romantic love.” It is a matter of political will: of an appreciation that “the personal is the political.” In “Cambodia,” the mother is humiliated when the doctor takes away the pain of her birth and so appropriates for himself the control of the birth, the power of giving life, just as a country is humiliated when its government appropriates the power of life and death — and exercises it to deadly ends – despite the wishes of its people. The way the preface and “Cambodia” intrude — slice — into our expectation of immediately encountering the poetic – the dissociated, the metaphoric, the imaginative — rather than the concrete — the journalistic, the documented – is a reflection of the author’s post-birth feeling of having been “cut in half and bandaged” after an unwanted anaesthetic.

The collection is divided into four sections: “Cambodia,” “Mother/Child,” “The Spaces,” and “This Power.” At the beginning of “Mother/Child” (pp. 7-30), we come among a small scattering of words, among them one of the Biblical imperatives: “be multiply inherit earth,” falling vertically like a cascade beside words talking of the past, especially of “dreaming” and “water.” There is also a hope that the ‘complexity’ of ‘childbirth and mothering’ could be elevated in our minds to equal the position occupied in literature for centuries by ‘sex and romantic love.’ It is a matter of political will: of an appreciation that ‘the personal is the political.’ Following this poem, the death of student protesters sends them through a “sweet tunnel,” likening death to the passage of birth, and in the next poem words cascade once more, in steps, from life, to chilling fright, to death: from “dreaming” to feeling “cold and very afraid.” The descending staircase architecture of the words on the page instils in the reader a vertigenous uncertainty: we are on the brink. Two pages later we are positioned as the baby, similarly descending through tears to sleep. The baby has been reincarnated as human from depersonalization as a “package” in the previous poem, this term recalling the author’s rage at the shot protesting students and of being deprived of pain at birth: deprived of the right to pain, to life, of the politics of life and death, of the agony of living, recalling Yeat’s yearning for escape from the “crime of death and birth.”

The mother is relieved when the husband leaves for a time with the daughters. They are soon forgotten; light pours in the windows and “holds” mother and child in its healing embrace, reinforcing their symbiosis as it “wraps [them] like a gauze.” The husband is nevertheless needed to “stop the pain” of separation, or weening: when solitude can no longer palliate. At times the mother/poet feels manipulated by the forces of nature, by the “moon,” “stars, the tides,” in her attentiveness to her child: “what elastic / pulls me to his hunger,” which leads her to see beauty in the interplay of form and formlessness, of “things” that “vanish but reappear.”

The baby at times is “greedy,” exciting her as he “tug[s]” and “tickles” her nipple, making her feel “alive” in her womb, in her “sensitive groove;” she notices the baby’s “lashes,” seemingly attracted, but suffering as her breasts are sore. The baby goes about its affair like a “business man,” making her dream, as if during a painful though liberating affair that has its climactic “suckling” in “all rooms,” “all woods,” “all boulevards,” and “all rivers”; but the body feeding on her own is invasive, leading her to think of “rape” and infanticide, imagining “stabbed” babies, “hoisted up to the sky on bayonets.” The next part of the poem, a cascade of words, shows us that “suffering” alternates with and underpins “bliss” and “peace.”

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