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 resolutions with a side of black-eyed peas

Every New Year’s Day, after the hoppin’ john, my family of four pulls out a box that gets packed away annually with the Christmas ornaments. It contains lists we’ve been keeping since before our kids, now 13 and 16, could write. We reread them, laughing or chagrined or occasionally pleased, before drafting a new list for the following year. Some highlights in various hands: “Get better at drawing robots.” “Be good so I get a hamster.” “Unlock every single guy on Super Smash Bros.” “Schmooze at AWP.” “Remind whole family to floss regularly.” “Floss no more than 20 times in next 2 years.” “Don’t let Mom make me floss.”

I’m always appalled by how my yearly vows to eat less and exercise more don’t do a lick of good. I should take a lesson from my most successful resolution ever, which was doable and specific: if there are four flights or fewer and I’m not carrying something very heavy, I take the stairs (conserving fossil fuels, spending my own stockpile). A series of resolutions did make my diet healthier—higher in veggies, limited in fats and sugars—plus, having discovered dairy and corn allergies several years ago, I can’t eat most processed foods. Still, like many middle-aged people, I grow a little jollier-looking ever year. Remember when you were twenty, and all you had to do was swear off midnight cheeseburgers and the pounds just melted away?

We’ll see what I write on that slip of paper tonight about diet, exercise, and drawing robots. Here, in the meantime, are my literary resolutions for 2014.

1. Maintain a list of every book I read so when I get those end-of-year “Best of 2014” requests, I can remember favorites from before October.

2. Read at least some of every poetry volume that gets shortlisted for the major post-publication prizes, THAT YEAR, instead of discovering five years later, “oh, that really WAS good!” I’ve asked my library to order them, which should help.

3. Persist in seeking publication for poems and essays, and especially for the new poetry ms, Radioland, despite clerical tedium, existential crises, etc.

4. Draft the middle third of Taking Poetry Personally, or Poetry’s Possible Worlds (title in flux)—this critical-memoirish thing I’m writing, and which I just reread the first third of, and which I immodestly think is kind of exciting.

5. Apply for an NEA, because what the hell.

6. Revise ruthlessly and decisively.

7. Remember my priorities. It’s good to help other people and hard to say no, but I need to be better about directing my not-unlimited energy at the projects that seem most urgent. I have a plan, as far as writing is susceptible to plans anyway, but I’m constantly letting it get sidelined.

As I drafted this I saw a similar post from January Gill O’Neill and liked her list better than mine. “Have a vision” is basically like “Remember my priorities,” but I need some version of her “Ditch what’s not working.” That’s hard for me, letting hours or days or weeks of work result in nothing, even harder than the submission-rejection wheel of pain.[1] Easier, though, than flossing.

 

[1] Unintended pun. I’m Wheeler, and I work in Payne Hall. Hmm.