Writing the motherland

“How many of you,” Betsy asked the audience, “think you know your mother’s mind, maybe better than she knows herself?”

Whoops, I thought, raising my hand. That’s arrogant of me. But trying to read my mother’s mind was one of the most urgent and constant occupations of my childhood and teenage years, and I’ve kept up that imaginative work, writing poems from her perspective in Heterotopiaand eighteen months ago, trying to negotiate her into hospitalizations she was resisting. “She’s English” is one of the ways I’ve explained it to others and myself–meaning concealment of suffering is an ingrained impulse with her, forcing me into detective mode. But of course it’s not just that. Many of my friends report the same frustrated efforts at maternal telepathy. And I pass silence down the generations when I clamp my own mouth shut. Sometimes I so fear saying something wrong to my daughter that I say nothing which is, of course, another harmful message.

Early on, my daughter became my very best mind-reader. “You have a tell,” she coolly informed me when she was seven. “When you lie, you raise the pitch of your voice at the end of the sentence.” I was gobsmacked, still am, and think of her every time I try to conceal my own woes but my voice slides up an octave.

borderlands-draftMother’s Day is not far off, but mothering is also on my mind because I just got back from the CityLit Festival in Baltimore, where I was participating in a celebration of Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, edited by Jane Satterfield and Laurie Kruk. Laurie had flown down from Canada for the weekend and read from her contribution, as did Baltimorean Betsy Boyd and Marilyn Moriarty, a Hollins professor I’d somehow never met. Jane played moderator and finished up with a poem by Rishma Dunlop. It was an intense reading, because it’s an intense book. No Hallmark pink aisle fake news here. Mothering is intensely complicated, as is being a daughter, and the many border-crossings addressed in these pieces tend to fray mother-daughter connections still further. If anyone protests that it’s all sweetness, listen for the tell.

When it was my turn, I talked about motherhood being, for me at least, an occasion for constant dread and peril. I’ve been reading the book in small doses–all the poems first, and now the prose–and it’s clear I’m not alone. I just finished Camille T. Dungy’s essay “A Brief History of Near and Actual Losses,” a riveting account of visiting west Africa with her not-quite-three-year-old daughter, who knows a slave dungeon when she sees one. I recommend it, and the whole collection, strongly.

I remember chasing toddlers vividly, but to my surprise, that constant state of vigilant panic never stops. It just changes. Some of it is totally irrational. I once told my 13 year old not to shower until we got back from our walk in case he slipped and hit his head and drowned, and he really gave me an earful. But the same kid, now 16, has been having migraines forever while we wait for the neurologist appointment, and my daughter is planning a summer internship in Siberia. I can talk myself out of full-bore terror about these scares, but it’s right to be cautious, to keep asking questions and paying attention. As they get bigger and more competent, so does the field of risk.

Anyway, at this lovely event, I met the fear head-on. I chose to read Marilyn L. Taylor’s sonnet “To the Mother of a Dead Marine”–a poem that represents a parent’s nightmare–and “Zebra” by January Gill O’Neil, a fierce encouragement to her son to “Raise those ears. Kick your legs,” triumphing over people who would diminish him. I also read my own contribution to the collection, the alarmingly titled “Abortion Radio,” also collected in RadiolandIt features not just worry but the preemptive guilt I always feel, framed by testimonies heard on a religious radio station on the way back from Lynchburg late one night. It owes something, I’m sure, to the famous and much greater abortion poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton, but I don’t know what. A sense of death’s closeness, maybe. The terrible mixture of power and powerlessness mothers feel.

Abortion Radio

God told me and I did not listen, the tinny
speakers lament. Outside the car, ghost boles
of oaks float by. Brown leaves jump up
from the mountain road, swirl down again. I felt
something pass, I caught it, my baby. Tiny
hands, skin translucent. Every stump resembles
a deer that’s poised to leap. My friend just hit
a doe last night, driving home from a conference,
having missed her son’s bedtime for three
nights running. Her first thought: I killed a baby.
She stood in my office door to tell the story,
her eyes pinking up as she laughed at herself.
Shortwave talk refracts through me while I
tune in a stronger signal. A spouse has put
the kettle on, and children sleep in nests
of pastel belief. The deer my friend struck
lay down by the faded line at the verge of the road.
Its sides fluttered fast and then it died.
It went somewhere. Everyone goes somewhere.

Poetry by the Sea, Pt. 1: Edna Rules

“Edna rules!” a woman declared to me in the hotel hallway, waving a vigorous fist. “I mean, Vincent!”

I organized a panel  on Edna St. Vincent Millay for Poetry by the Sea, an annual writing conference in Madison, Connecticut. The other speakers were Anna Lena Phillips Bell speaking about Millay as an ecopoet; January Gill O’Neill discussing the Millay colony at Steepletop; and A.E. Stallings considering Millay as a formalist. Waves were lapping the shore in the big windows behind us. Millay (who preferred to be called Vincent, not Edna) would love the location. I’m already considering whether I can get back here next year. It’s a lovely setting and there’s a lovely vibe here, too, among friendly and talented writers and readers. I’m hoping to post again after the conference ends, reflecting on some conversations I’ve had.

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Some loot (but I’m afraid I will buy more today)

But in the meantime, I’ll just say how interesting I found that Millay panel. My co-panelists were great and offered perspectives I really wanted to hear–of course they did, I chose them!–but I was also impressed by how lively and engaged the (packed) audience was. And more than a dozen people have come up to me since to tell me about their relationship to her work and their intention to read it again. I’m moved and excited by the enthusiasm.

Many readers of my generation, at least, have mixed feelings about the formalist femme fatale. In my two decades-plus of schooling, right through a PhD in modernist poetry, I never, ever encountered Millay on a syllabus. My teachers generally classed her with the “songbirds”–not innovative, not difficult, not male, not worth reading. And my copy of her Collected Poems was a gift from my mother-in-law, which was another kiss of death; Judy identified with Millay as a sexually liberated woman, and I really, really did not want to hear any more on that score. It wasn’t until the wonderful biography Savage Beauty that I went back to the poetry itself and found it quite different than how it had been billed to me: smart, adventurous, crafty, formally various, and often intensely moving, witty, beautiful. There’s a chapter on Millay’s radio broadcasts, and her other experiments with poetry’s various media, in my book Voicing American Poetry. I also treat her work in an essay called “Formalist Modernism” in the new Cambridge History of American Poetry, but I find myself still returning to those poems with more to think about, more to say. As I’ve written in a previous post, I recently became fascinated with her reproductive history, particularly the pregnancy she terminated in Dorset, England, in 1922, via a regimen of long walks and herbal concoctions administered by her mother. The passages of girlhood, pregnancy, middle age–I am endlessly fascinated by how other women poets have negotiated them.

I’ll leave off for now with a poem from Millay’s 1928 collection The Buck in the Snow. While clearly referring to her stay in Shillingstone, Dorset, she also alludes to an unnamed loss–maybe the pregnancy itself, a vanished lover, or, more generally, the poetic and sexual freedom she felt before 1922 (Millay married soon after and started banking on her popularity by undertaking exhausting reading tours). Her life was charmed in some ways, very difficult in others–like many of us, I suppose. Whatever her sorrow, I agree: Vincent rules.

West Country Song

Sun came up, bigger than all my sorrow;
Lark in air so high, and his song clean through me,
Now comes night, hushing the lark in's furrow,
   And the rain falls fine.
What have I done with what was dearest to me?

Thatch and wick, fagot, and tea on trivet,--
These and more it was; it was all my cheer.
Now comes night, smelling of box and privet,
    And the rain falls fine.
Have I left it out in the rain? - It is not here.
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Can you name that poet-editor, walking by the sound?

 

 

Why Edna St. Vincent Millay ate herbs in Dorset

Most of the female poets I read as a young woman had no children, or one. They steered clear of sexual relationships with men or, not having access to birth control, sought abortions. This fact had a terrible fascination for me in my early twenties, especially since the zero-or-one rule also held among so many female literary scholars. I had always been certain that I wanted to bear or adopt children and certain that I need to write. Exactly how difficult would it be, though, to manage both?

Later I met many women poets who, possessed of more choices than the modernists, elected not to have children or raised multiple kids. I also know too many women poets wimageho grieve infertility. I’m luckier than most in that I conceived one child immediately, the other after six months of trying, and never faced an unwanted pregnancy. If I had miscarriages, they were early ones, during that uncertain era when home tests weren’t so prompt. Bedrest from severe nausea and then bouts of postpartum depression didn’t feel lucky at the time, but people took care of me. I’ve muddled along all right since, herding poems and little people. Sometimes those activities nourished each other and sometimes they competed brutally, but I grabbed my good luck by the short hairs and made choices I still feel basically fine about.

I still think, though, about those modernist abortions. When on a recent July morning my spouse, two teens, and I were bound for Dorset beaches in a hired car, I programmed the GPS for a stop in the village of Shillingstone. Edna St. Vincent Millay headed there in July, 1922 with her mother, Cora, and some friends. Edna was sick and broke and unable to write. She was also pregnant after a Parisian fling. Cora Millay, a nurse, helped her daughter have an abortion there.

I don’t have a lot of information about that summer, just what’s in the Milford biography. Back then Shillingstone consisted of a “winding, unpaved street, a few shops and small houses, many with thatched roofs” (238). The group of women rented a house (I don’t know the address but am including photos anyway for local flavor).image Edna turned a hay shed into a studio. Edna’s friends and even her sister back home didn’t know the ulterior motive for the program of long walks on the downs, horseback riding, and stews of wild greens: Cora was searching for abortives listed in an old herbal guide. She did, in fact, induce Edna to miscarry during the first few weeks of the pregnancy.

I’m no botanist, so while I looked up some pictures of alkanet, the key herb in the equation, and went poking along the footpaths, I never found the right blue flowers. I saw dandelions, thistles, and nettles—all named by Edna in a letter as part of the maternal recipe—and trefoil, mentioned in Cora’s notes. Daisies and yarrow were blooming, and mallow purpled every roadside. imageMy own daughter was alarmed that I was even looking, as if medicinal herbs might jump up and dose us against our will. imageTo be fair, it is a creepy errand to conduct with your children. But this is the history behind my own good luck and it should be in my daughter’s rearview mirror, too.

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