I hope this finds you well and you don’t mind my getting in touch.
We met briefly in February in Tucson – I was visiting with my partner from the UK and we happily coincided with the Bagley Wright Lecture Series […] I’ve been commissioned to write an essay for Poetry London, and have decided (daring myself) to write about mothering, motherhood, the fraught maternal field and how these are entangled with poetry (the writing and reading of). I am not so much interested in poems about mothers/mothering as I am in poetry as mothering; how often do readers seek a ‘mother’ in what they are reading? How often do we seek out writers as (safe, because distant) mothers, and in our own writing, mother others? Furthermore, how do we handle experiences of harmful mothering in a feminist context, when – as Jacqueline Rose rightly points out – mothers are held to account and blamed for all the world’s ills, personal and political?
As you can see, these lines of thought have been very influenced by your book MOTHERs […] I’m getting in touch specifically to ask if there is anywhere online I can read or listen to the lecture you gave in Tucson on the poetics of motherhood. I was very moved by your discussion of failure in relation to writing on this, but failed to make adequate notes …
I heard back from Rachel Zucker within a few weeks of sending this email, though for a while I feared I wouldn’t at all. Rationally, I know to put anyone’s lack of response (in most cases) down to busyness and, in Rachel’s case, her slew of commitments as poet, teacher at NYU, editor, host of Commonplace podcast, mentor, wife and mother. Yet what I interpreted as ‘silence’ served to reinforce the relationship I had already half-consciously made to Rachel in my mind: she was a potential mother, while I was a bad daughter, undeserving of attention.
I wanted to write about this tendency – to make others mothers – in writing and in reading, in life. I wanted to write about the feeling famously described by Adrienne Rich of being ‘wildly unmothered’ and how poets write – or don’t write – about this, how they write through or from it, and beyond that: the consequences of directly addressing it. Every time I sat down to write, the spectre of essentialism loomed over me, picking at every word. Could I get away from biology without also universalising or devaluing it? And why make the assumption that it’s a mother being sought, rather than a father, or better: how about a less stifling non-heteronormative and cisgender type of parent? Why set these traps for myself?
I explored the word ‘mothering’ with a friend, how its everyday use carries a pejorative inflection (‘stop mothering me!’), a silent ‘s’ (‘smothering’), and is often used in the passive: you are mothered by someone, but rarely is the declaration ‘I mother’ or ‘he mothers her’ a positive assertion. Mothering is something done to you. Fathering, on the other hand, is usually bound up with biology; to ‘father a child’ is not to raise or nurture it, but to impart genes during conception. Fathering in the sense of nurture, we concluded, is more likely to be described by the gender-neutral ‘parenting’.
The word ‘mothering’ left a nasty residue in my mouth. Saccharine, simpering. Mothering Sunday. Stop mothering me! I wanted to shrug it off like a fusty old cardigan. But I also knew it was valid in so far as I felt wildly unmothered; I sought mothers – nurturing and distant, warm and angry – in reading, and made a cradle of words in writing. Like Emily Dickinson (‘I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled’) whose mother was alive but distant, I identified with the paradox of grieving the living: not a sense of what’s lost but of what could have been; presence imbued with absence; the old spiritual ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’, whose simile admits its confused origin but is still sung with the integrity and intensity of something actual, lost.
There is something deeply unpalatable about saying this. A kind of eyes-averted, God, you’re spilling everywhere! Poetry isn’t just rehab for leaky jars! I mean, poetry is where the leaky jars are at, but at least plug it (or in French: tampon) with some form or craft, won’t you? I recently learned from a friend that there is a Spanish word for feeling shame and embarrassment on behalf of someone else; the closest equivalent I can think of in English is ‘cringe’, but this is a poor translation, conveying nothing of shame’s ability to flood the thresholds of selves. In poetry, the confessional is served up with this feeling so often that they might be considered composite, two parts of the same whole.
Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) identifies chronic feelings of unmotheredness as the result of patriarchy: ‘Few women growing up in patriarchal society can feel mothered enough; the power of our mothers, whatever their love for us and struggles on our behalf, is too restricted.’ Elaborating on these restrictions, Rich sutures the individual child’s experience of the emotionally absent working mother to wider social injustice: ‘The child does not discern the social system of the institution of motherhood, only a harsh voice, a dulled pair of eyes, a mother who does not hold her, does not tell her how wonderful she is.’
Of all the titles in 2018’s deluge of literature on mothering and motherhood, Jacqueline Rose’s MOTHERs most takes up Rich’s mantle. It begins with a comprehensive outline of the argument it will deliver: that historically – and today – mothers are made the ultimate scapegoat ‘not just for the ills of the world, but also for the rage that the unavoidable disappointments of an individual life cannot help but provoke.’ As she goes on to put it bluntly, ‘Mothers always fail.’ Rose is particularly astute in her discussion of race and class and their role in what Rich called the ‘institution of motherhood’; to what extent is the ideal mother a figure of white, middle-class, heteronormative prosperity? A mother that is ever available and attentive to her children, as she can rely on a husband to bring in a wage and non-white labour to keep the house in order?
I found myself nodding in agreement throughout Rose’s analyses of motherhood and daughterhood, inequality and patriarchy, as I had with Rich’s. Growing up in a low-income single-working-mother family, surely my own feelings of unmotheredness were a case study of Rich’s point? Yes, but, a small voice said somewhere in my gut. Yes, but. Yes, but, feeling cannot always be expunged by awareness of its origins: it lingers, stubborn and illogical. ‘The woman who has felt “unmothered” may seek mothers all her life – may seek them in men,’ Rich wrote. That was the feeling I was interested in, that seeking that thrives in the psyche in spite of critical awareness, in dogged coexistence with the political convictions it
It was the yes, but part of me that was allured by the work of Rachel Zucker, by her poetry collections that detail her ‘real life’ as wife and mother (by which I mean that Zucker never consciously fabulates or writes in persona) and in particular her nonfiction book MOTHERs (2013). In the acknowledgements, Zucker writes ‘I decided to write about something I didn’t understand. I was afraid to write about my female poetry mentors and was deeply afraid to write about my mother. So I began.’ Accordingly, the book interweaves anecdotes about Zucker’s biological mother (the storyteller Diane Wolkstein) and her self-appointed poetic mothers (a mostly New York school matrilineage including Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer and Jorie Graham); dispatches from her own marriage and experience as a mother; and encounters with other maternal figures in her life (her doula trainer, the director of her children’s daycare centre, her homeopath who tells her ‘There was really no one very reliable when you were a child and so you learned to be very vigilant’).
Zucker names the feeling of longing that goes beyond just wanting to be liked and brings an unwieldy desire for attachment to certain relationships: ‘I wanted Jorie to notice me in the audience. I wanted her to acknowledge me’; on watching the poet Olena Kalytiak Davis read: ‘I’m blind with jealousy for a moment as if Olena were my sister and Alice [Notley] our mother. And if she were, what would Mother Alice say? Why can’t you be more like your crazy drunk sister Olena? Maybe Alice would. Maybe she would.’ I recognised that fantasy of belonging as well as its immanent rupture; as soon as Zucker enters the familial idyll she ruins it just by being herself: she disappoints Mother Alice by failing to be as interesting as her imagined sister. This is not the result of any misbehaviour, but a conviction of innate wrongness which adheres in the daughter.
Shame is a state highly alert to wrongness, a radar for risk and imminent danger. If the self is wrong, any display of the self will reveal this wrongness to others, and may provoke attack. Is the shame or cringe transferred from reading confessional poetry a contagion of this fear? Do readers sense the risk of attack that comes with self-exposure?
MOTHERs culminates in a flourish of half-answers to the question – and sense of foreboding – that formed in my mind throughout reading: What were the consequences of writing this? In a short afterword to the final chapter, three paragraphs written by Zucker’s mother are generous, but unequivocal: ‘I appreciate your writing this book. I wish you would not publish it. I feel embarrassed, ashamed in public…’ The epilogue following this section, written by Zucker, details the circumstances of her mother’s death. In the last days of her life, we are told, ‘She sent her therapist a draft of a letter to me she’d been working on that included three paragraphs she wanted me to publish at the end of this book. A few hours later she called an ambulance.’ Although there is no direct meditation on causality between Zucker’s writing and her mother’s death, this link takes the form of a mythic undercurrent. Perhaps the shame generated by confessional poetry is not just a vicarious fear of attack, but also, like a child’s confusion about their own powers, the sense that one’s honesty might inflict damage on others.
In Tucson, I listened to Rachel Zucker read excerpts from The Poetics of Wrongness, an Unapologia, a book of lectures forthcoming from Wave Books. I was halfway through reading MOTHERs at the time, for the first time, not knowing how it would end, and Rachel was saying ‘I needed to keep writing in order to survive the possibility that I had, through my writing, been responsible for my mother’s death.’ She was not only owning the risk of writing (about her mother) and the consequences of doing so, but also the impossibility of ever fully owning or being reconciled to them. This spilling out of the hermetically sealed text – blurring the lines between writing and its relations and iterations in the social world – was a step beyond confessional poetry as I had previously encountered it. In another excerpt, Rachel discussed the confessional in contradistinction to what she terms ‘say-everything’ poetry: ‘confessionalism trafficks in shame, say-everything poetry is speaking truth to power’. In her description of say-everything poetry was the condition that ‘its content engenders significant risk to the speaker.’ This risk is what separates the confessional from the say-everything, that the speaker may not come out of it absolved or purified, and may even look worse.
After Tucson, I returned to a poet in my own piecemeal matrilineage, Denise Riley. I was preparing for an interview commissioned by a literary journal, which never materialised because – I heard via an editor – Riley had declined to be interviewed. This was in line with what I’d been told of the poet’s humility, but still my psyche’s rickety reflex was to log this as some personal rejection (cue another familial fantasy). Before I knew the interview wouldn’t take place, I was re-reading Riley’s Say Something Back, Selected Poems and Impersonal Passion, and noted some antagonisms they seemed to present to Zucker’s ‘say-everything’ poetry.
In Riley’s poem ‘And another thing’ the speaker asks: ‘Does sifting through damage ease, or enshrine it; how grasp / a past, but not skid on embittered accounting?’ ‘Grasp / a past’ is a slippery formulation, as difficult to get your mouth around as what it describes. I skim through the poem’s verbs: sifting, easing, enshrining, grasping, skidding, accounting. They are mostly gestural, theatrical, belonging to realms of the kitchen, religion, slapstick comedy. ‘Ease’ close to ‘accounting’ refers me to quantitative easing, which in turn makes me think of a competitive economy of damage, in which severe pain may be ‘eased’ by flooding the (social) body with truth-telling. This is – seemingly – the release brought on by confessional poetry, yet as Riley’s poem appears to warn us, too much truth will hyperinflate or ‘enshrine’ the damage, and what may follow is humiliation and incipient shame: skidding on the banana skin of your own truth, turning damage into a caricature.
In the essay ‘“Lying” When You Aren’t’, Riley complicates assumptions about the straightforwardness of truth-telling. On being invited to a party and suddenly feeling too feverish to attend, the would-be partygoer realises that if she were to phone her hosts and tell them the truth, they would not believe her. Life is full of such instances, where the truth is too banal or cliché to be credible. Instead – to save face – she invents an alternative truth: an old friend has just arrived on her doorstep. No one wants to be the boy who cried wolf; no one wants to be the poet that perpetually cries bad mother!, although this is exactly what a British critic accuses Zucker of in a review of one of her collections. A snag in Zucker’s ethics of truth-telling, ‘say-everything’ poetry (no fabulation, no lies), is that sometimes lies are more believable, or at least more affecting; although I can’t imagine Zucker being interested in cultivating belief or empathy on false grounds. ‘And doesn’t compulsive truth-telling mean you haven’t grown up enough to abandon your illusion of being transparent to quasi-parental others?’ asks Riley, which takes on a slightly scolding tone when read in tandem
with Zucker’s fidelity to saying-everything.
Does reflecting on damage ‘ease, or enshrine it’? In MOTHERs the answer is another question, troubling the opposition of ease and enshrine. Can’t it ease and enshrine; ease one wound while inflicting another? Furthermore, truths – being partial and subjective – are changeable; the difficulty in committing to say-everything is that everything is always changing, so you have to keep saying it. This is a considerable demand of endurance to place on the self.
While MOTHERs embodies a radical vulnerability in one sense – putting the self in all its wrongness on view – for me the taboo it breaks is its refusal to please others. More potent than shame, what ultimately stirred me was the book’s confrontation of terror: terror of what will ensue if one ceases to be a good mother and a good daughter (a good writer?), or refuses to gulp down one’s anxiety in order to placate others. I began to write poetry as a young teen, in snafus of fights, court cases, meetings with child protection officers and seemingly endless new schools. But when I started to get published I began to censor autobiographical details for fear of consequences. Poetry is amenable to this; it can employ other languages for expressing what you must say but can’t, ways of transmitting absence or rage, joy or ambivalence, without rendering their real-life correlates traceable. Such ‘emotional truths’ can be highly symbolic, metaphorical, individualised or coded, but still capable, often, of greater affect than verbatim accounts of events.
It would be remiss not to consider the effect of poetic traditions and cultural milieux on the differences in Riley and Zucker’s poetics, but equally remiss to reduce these to glib generalisations about American forthcomingness and English reticence. Both poets’ methods are clearly the result of sustained ethical enquiry, staying with difficulty and refusing to take the well-trodden path. If there is a spectrum of how much to ‘say’, in poetry, from saying-everything to the elliptical orbiting of Say Something Back, mostly I park my seat next to Denise Riley, where difficult states are mapped but not 1:1 scaled to their real-life territory, as in Borges’s story ‘On Exactitude in Science’. But my gaze settles a few seats along, on Zucker, my heart in my mouth, hyper-alert to the sense that while, like sin, the wages of saying-everything might be (symbolic or actual) death, such deaths might also be necessary, clearing the ground of old growth so that new life can root.
Jorge Luis Borges, ‘On Exactitude in Science’ (1946)
Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) Virago
Denise Riley, Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect (2005) Duke University Press
Denise Riley, Say Something Back (2016) Picador
Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty (2018) Faber
Rachel Zucker, MOTHERs (2014) Counterpath
Daisy Lafarge is a writer, artist and editor based in Edinburgh. understudies for air was published by Sad Press Poetry in 2017. Daisy received an Eric Gregory Award in 2017, and was shortlisted for the 2018 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award.
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