Touched by This Most Perfect Thing: The Mother/Child Papers by Alicia Suskin Ostriker
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.”
The baby is with the father on the bed: she is no longer the child’s sole focus. She experiences a “pang” of ambivalence: “measureless pleasure? / Is it measureless pain?” The “other,” the husband, is virile: “the strong one.” The mother has been weakened by her day-to-day death-struggle with her baby boy; she endures “[h]our after beastly hour” of his “claw[ing] her “skin” and “nipple,” his “[s]cream,” being “confine[d]” by him, which transforms her into a “witch” who perceives him as a “[l]eech,” who wants him to “[d]ie.” Even as on the changing table she gives him every attention, she is taken aback by the “intense, impersonal… icy” “power” projected “through” his “staring eyes”: he is a tyrant, and has her heart: “the son of beauty, the bow bent, and the arrows drawn.” She is smitten by her baby boy, but both will survive; she will “be singing” of fine days with “blue sky” once all he has ravaged in her has regenerated: “when all the forests you have burned are green.”
The poem continues with a cascade of words that ironically suggest light and conviviality, but which call to mind the atmosphere surrounding the deaths of the protesters…
“I hold you, boy” she says, seemingly de-naming him in an attempt to distance herself from the pain of separation, as she “leave[s] him “a minute”; we recall that ten days before his birth, students had been shot dead by National Guardsmen, depersonalized as protesters. With their resolute double-line, the words “The Guard kneeled / The Guard kneeled” rip into the body of the poem like bullets. The poem continues with a cascade of words that ironically suggest light and conviviality, but which call to mind the atmosphere surrounding the deaths of the protesters: “bright,” “warm,” “la la,” “loud,” and “sweet”; then we are reminded of the shots, the slump of bodies: “one after the other / one after the other.” “All that is weak invites the brute,” the author warns us. She, too, must admit her violent phantasies vis-à-vis her infant, to “acknowledge my will / to murder the child, to wipe him like a spill from a counter” to be able to love without “chok[ing].” This shocking reality must be faced; we must not flinch. “Fear teaches nothing / that is my message,” she writes. However, there is the ever-present threat of disintegration: growth means “pain” and “division,” and leaves us “open” to “danger.” Being alive has responsibilities, including the search for unity: “consciousness” will only be a “blessing,” rather than a “curse,” if the child, when older, “seek[s]… a healing of division.”
In the poem “Letter to M” (p. 33), in “The Spaces” (pp. 31-58), the writer speaks out against the “sentimentality” of attributing to mothers “altruistically, self-sacrificing ‘maternal’ feelings, as if they did not enjoy themselves”: perhaps the “erotic pleasure of nursing” is “another love that dare not tell its name.” In “Song of the Abandoned One” (p. 34), beautiful things have been spoilt and are now repulsive: the biggest lily in the garden has broken, and “snails are on it.” It is “ugly,” and the writer “doesn’t care.” She is envious of the infant’s “silver cup / with milk in it” and rejects his “ugly doll face,” depersonalizing his “rubber arms,” mutating him into a toy, readying him as an object of murder, even as she is aware of the tragedy of her feelings: “kill the baby / I am sorrow / kill the baby” (“Song of the Abandoned One,” p. 34).
Earlier in the poem, there was less remorse, as is reflected in the “ki” assonance and the resonance of other hard consonant sounds:
Kill the baby
— “Song of the Abandoned One,” p. 34
The tyrant would die, like the deposition of the king recalled in the poem “Macbeth and the Kids in the Cabin at Chester” (p. 35). “He’ll murder the king, right?” asks one of the writer’s older children, seeking reassurance, though eager, for the fatal blow. Does rivality with younger siblings underpin our fascination for regicide? It is the “fate” of parents to feel murderous and not to kill, and neither to die for the sake of their children. Yet death awaits us all. As we get older, the poet wonders in “In the Autumn of my Thirty-Seventh Birthday” (pp. 37-38), “[m]ust I learn to crawl naked into the cold?”, into the “dreary” world where “cherry blossoms” belong to “age[s]” past, in contrast to the youthfulness of “flirting and shrieking” schoolgirls, an age at which one is oblivious of the sites of death, to a “graveyard”? Children grow; nothing can replace the climactic fulfilment they once brought her. She is left with a bodily memory: “It is right here, the hole / no good thing fills” ( “In the Autumn of my Thirty-Seventh Birthday,” p. 38).
Yet while indulging her infant, taking him on a bike to get “extra sweets,” it seems she is not doing other things that might be important to her; her projects perish: “while he hugs me / the pumpkins rot / in the fields” (“In the Autumn of my Thirty-Seventh Birthday,” p. 38).
It seems she is also wasting away; “I want my healing dreams,” she says, and rails at a friend who refuses to prevent her life from falling apart: “what does she want? to die?” Tender moments with her baby make amends in “Exile” (p. 40): “soft / kisses stitch us together”; but she dreads future “years without kisses,” when he will reject her, “turn away / not to waste breath,” leaving her a tenuous hold on existence, to
— “Exile,” p. 40
In “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas” (pp. 43-49), motherhood — taking on “the burden the responsibility” of being a mother — is necessary in order to experience perfection as a woman, something women might “have been waiting for,” because the “connection” with a baby — “being touched by this most perfect thing” — is “better than sex”— which is merely “bitter honey”— and a way to reach what is divine in humanity without the disappointments that come with a partnership of ungodlike adults: “Your baby is / the / Most perfect human thing you can ever touch” (“Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas,” p. 44).
Giving birth makes a woman “less vulnerable” physically, makes her “happy,” and contributes to the “destiny” of the world. It is empowering, subverting discourses that position a woman as “acceptable if she is / weak /… a victim,” even a “witch,” “an angry victim.” The writer cries out against the “acceptable” image of the “deodorized sanitized sterilized antiperspirant / grinning efficient woman,” the absent commas emphasising the description as a label. Patriarchial society cannot “tolerate the power of a woman / close to a child” in “the public spaces”; a woman happy, strong, empowered, with a hand in her/our destiny.
In “2: Postscript to Propaganda” (p. 47), we experience the attrition of children on the physical and emotional existence of their mother: “They limit your liberty… your cash… Your sleep is a dirty torn cloth. / They whine until you want to murder them.” They are disgusting, self-destructive, vulnerable in their sickness, “your life peeling away / from you like layers of cellophane.” The mother resents their instrumentalization of her: “you are wheels to them… you are grease”; she struggles to remain whole, independent of them, in control, citing their “disobedience,” whereas earlier in the poem, in “1. The Visiting Poet” (pp. 43-46), she glorifies having a child as “the joy that hurts nobody / the dazzling circuit of contact without dominance.” Women: “cut down” by patriarchy, and by the children themselves. Like warriors, women who bear children end up “wrinkled as tortoises;” but the paradox is that this sacrifice is necessary to empowerment, and noble, hence the war cry with echoes of the Genesis imperative, “Go forth and multiply” —
Come on, you daughters of bitches, do you want to live forever?
— 2. Postscript to Propaganda” from “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas,” p. 47
An obstacle to glorifying motherhood is that some feminists have decried this notion as “the sinister invention of patriarchy.” Indeed, in the third part of the poem,“What Actually,” the very suggestion to 1970s’ Parisian academics that the “goddess image” might be “re-emergent… in women’s art” was criticized as fascist. Yet if motherhood is not a useful concept, what might describe that need for connection, body to body, that healing symbiosis of a mother with her child, which would lead a mother whose son was dying of cancer to pine for this connection, to wish to “take pictures of him in a teeshirt and shorts, as naked as she dares”?
An obstacle to glorifying motherhood is that some feminists have decried this notion as ‘the sinister invention of patriarchy.’
Refusing to enter into motherhood, protecting oneself from the risk of being “put to use” by children, has its dire consequences: “(…) we get like wornout houses, but only / the life that hoards and coffins itself is already dead” (“3. What Actually,” from “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas,” p. 49).
In “The Leaf Pile” (pp. 50-51), the mother has hit her son’s cheek as punishment, “like a woman slapping a carpet / with all my strength.” She notes that he “will not remember he remembers it,” seemingly a hope that this is the case, that “[t]he mind is a leaf pile where you can bury / anything, pain,” even cover up the “screaming woman,” the violent witch in her imagination, “that is sticking in [her] mind,” who “wears a necklace of skulls.” The skulls might indicate other moments of violence; while the boy has a mark on his cheek, he “is not crying,” apparently unshocked by this form of relating.
In motherhood, thoughts are interrupted; work suffers. Yeats, we are told, articulated the dilemma: “[p]erfection of the life or of the art.” In “The Seven Samurai, the Dolly, and Mary Cassatt” (p. 52), the poet derides “the merry childlessness of [Mary Cassat’s] art”; she has Paris in her life and “white gloves.” Those who choose both life and art — children and writing — are destined to imperfection, though when younger the poet decidedly “wanted both!” The creative impulses must remain under-expressed, or unexpressed, their death imminent, like the roots of great trees at the end of winter which must wait still longer before their revival, their “change”: “the great melting.” In “The Change” (pp. 53-54), these trees
— “The Change,” p. 53
Will the change happen before we are “too old”? Or can we escape our condition? In “One, to Fly” (p. 55), the boy, now nine, dreams of fleeing from humiliating circumstances in which he is being bullied. He wishes he could fly, reading a book “twice / because kids fly in it.” In contrast, his older teenage sister, in “In the Dust” (pp. 56-57), seems to have mastered her world. She has discovered “perfection” in her dancing and her “body, her readiness” seems to beckon to the cosmos as she lies down on her towel near the pool. The author is moved by her daughter’s physicality, wishing to “run / my hands over her nude body,” over the perfect young being sprung from her womb, now ready for creating life herself. Her nubility seems to create “whirling in the dust” — an invisible, ubiquitous, and supernatural “powerful movement.” She is ready; the poet is letting her go “willingly.” In “His Speed and Strength” (p. 58), the writer’s son is active again and more confident now, taking risks: racing her home on his bicycle, doing “flips” on the diving board. She is encouraging and enjoying his virility as she races him, “buzzing” up the street and “flashing around the corner.” She is able to celebrate the energy of her children — this same energy that has demanded her attention and distracted her from her work, that has worn her out, that has led her to want to “kill” them.
In “This Power” (p. 64), the poet realizes that it was the power of giving life and assuring the growth of her child that fulfilled her own mother as the caretaker of her “rooted garden.” It was her relationship with her daughter, the “weeping and hugging,” that provided “the sun.” Despite the demands of motherhood, her mother maintained her own emotional and intellectual life apart from her children, with her “folders of secret poems.” Her “boyish energy” seems to have kept her alive: characteristics, it seems, she shares with her daughter. The final poem, “The Dream” (p. 65), is a celebration of being “in labor… giving birth.” The dream, the labor, lasts “for days,” recalling the lost opportunity of non-anaesthetized labor during the birth of her son, of her desire to live the full range of emotions that motherhood provides.
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