Inside the Body, Everything’s Real: The Poetics of Maternity and Mortality

Rachel Richardson

Blood Lyrics. By Katie Ford. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2014. 80 pages. $16.00.

Instant Winner. By Carrie Fountain. New York: Penguin, 2014. 96 pages. $20.00.

(Click on cover images to purchase)

The new poetry books by Katie Ford and Carrie Fountain are explicitly packaged as books about motherhood. That is, the publishers’ book descriptions frontload it as the subject; the back jacket blurbs reinforce it; the books are dedicated to the authors’ own children; Fountain’s book even has an image of a teddy bear with a human heart inside it on the front cover as further suggestion of theme and tone. Perhaps these poets, or their publishers, wish to capitalize on this zeitgeist in contemporary poetry—the new-motherhood narrative as catalyst for perspective shift on the world—which is receiving significant attention in recent years. (Stephen Burt, Joy Katz, and Dan Chiasson have all published essays on the topic, to name a prominent few.[1])

I agree with those paying attention: it is a startling and delightful trend. And it says something about where we are as a poetry-reading audience that this information should be front and center in our first encounter with the book (or its Amazon page), rather than to be unearthed only within the poems, as it so often was in the motherhood books of decades past, like those of Adrienne Rich, Bernadette Mayer, and Sharon Olds. Poets who are also parents, and poets who are new mothers, in particular, are announcing their stance centrally: that this is the lens through which they view the world right now. It’s not to say the poems are about babies. For the most part, they’re not. That’s a central facet, in fact: these poems are, rather, about motherhood, or better yet, are written from within motherhood. They may occupy domestic spaces (or not), but they are still centrally about the concerns of a wider and more public world.

Ford’s and Fountain’s books follow from a lineage I have been watching closely in recent years, for the reasons a reader might expect (that I too am a poet who recently became a mother). In the past half decade in particular, a flurry of books has emerged describing in visceral and intimate detail the experience of becoming first an incubating vessel and then a responsible party for another human life. Some of the best examples have been Rachel Zucker’s Museum of Accidents, Jessica Fisher’s Inmost, and Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda. More even than that physical and psychic change, these books have let us in on the change in external awareness—the heightening of existential questions, and vertigo at the simultaneous smallness and largeness of the world.

To this tide of forceful collections, Fountain and Ford have added new waves. Katie Ford’s Blood Lyrics takes as its catalyzing event a harrowing birth of a premature child. In the book’s second poem, “Of a Child Early Born,” which I will quote here in its entirety, she lets us in on the central narrative:

For the child is born an unbreathing scripture
and her broken authors wait
on one gurney together.
And what is prayer from a gurney
but lantern-glow for God or demon
to fly toward the lonely in this deathly hour,
and since I cannot bear to wish on one
but receive the other,
I lie still, play dead, am delivered decree:
our daughter weighs seven hundred dimes,
paperclips, teaspoons of sugar,
this child of grams
for which the good nurse
laid out her studies
as a coin purse
into which our tiny wealth clinked,
our daughter spilling almost
to the floor.
You cannot serve God and wealth
but I’ll serve my wealth and live,
yes, and be struck dead
if lightning staggers down the hall of mothers—
and it does,
                     so walk low, mothers,
fresh from your labors.

From this beginning onward, the book gestures to God and to other mothers, simultaneously, and acknowledges the “wealth” that motherhood brings as an encompassing one—one that must be “served.” It is also one that surpasses, and therefore may be an affront to, her God. With that primary conflict set in motion by the child’s birth, the book explores all the avenues of faith that being a mother of an ill child in the contemporary American context presents.

Ford has long been interested in religion, of course—both Deposition and Colosseum, her first two books, chart Christian belief and the speaker’s own faith in Biblical stories and doctrine. The first half of Blood Lyrics focuses on poems of the body, poems critically concerned with the birth and survival of the infant (and, thus, the survival of the mother as such). This section, titled “Bloodline,” is rich with images of birds and flight, weightless things, as well as their opposites, great weights. The weights —lead, iron, a winter’s worth of snow, thunderous sounds, stones—are the world’s rough offerings, the items that must be borne by those who inhabit this place. And yet the child, “unbelievable / with feathers neither swift enough / nor bird enough nor feather through / and through . . . ,” continues her humming, her weightless living. It is the mother who must bear (and this word comes up repeatedly, refracting into its multiple meanings) the heavy world, her own brutal physicality.

The title poem, “Blood Lyric,” closes this section, ending on a triumphant, though fleeting, moment: “I am without wound, but this is a small slat / I speak through and briefly. / . . . Long live such confidence as I have these five minutes now.” Ford’s speaker is also acknowledging the singularity of her story, that there are so many that may not continue happily, for whom God had different plans. Still, she ends with this moment, a metaphor for her aim as the author of such a story: “Long live the surgeon steady enough / to examine the bloody heart beating in his hands / before the minutes are up / and it must be put back / inside.”

This moment of celebrating the examination of the bloody, awesome machinery of human life, marks the transition to the second half of the book, which she titles “Our Long War.” What I found jarring and, ultimately, powerful, about reading these two halves together is the simplicity of the architecture: the first half of the book occupies that intensely intimate space between a mother and newborn, in home and hospital. The only outward views we get come from within the mother’s head looking to her memory and daily travel radius for ways to describe and translate that interiority. The second half of the book, in contrast, considers war on the global scale. Here Ford abandons the narrative material of the first half entirely and speaks only looking outward. Her physical stance in the world has not changed—the first poem in “Our Long War” is titled “To Read of Slaughter,” reminding us of her great distance from these events: only to read of it, not to see it or experience it. And so, while the baby is not the subject again until the final coda poem, the metaphorical images are folded over on themselves, performing now in this new sphere, those weightless birds and twigs and houses suddenly, sickeningly, bringing the war into the living room. In “The Throats of Guantanamo,” Ford opens the poem, “Morning opens with the comforts of my unbeaten body / a tinkerer’s stack of quiltings and cannings the cloth finch // half attached to a mobile of warblers and wrens . . . ” Other, structural, parallels include her subtle titling: after “Children’s Hospital” in the first half of the book, we get “Immigrant Hospital” and “Makeshift Hospital” here, in which the primary outcome for patients appears to be death—“to be hastened into the kingdom / of unspecified light.”

The lightness of Ford’s touch in both setting these stories in parallel and in resisting comment on them is perhaps the book’s most appealing trait. She makes few claims, and those she does are deferred to faith. Looking back at Ford’s earlier books, it’s hard not to hear a distinctly more self-assured voice; the language of the poems is full of declarations, whereas in Blood Lyrics, it is hard to find any at all. The disarming quality of these poems comes out of that lack of certainty, as if we are walking though the turns of her mind with her, rather than hearing her conclusions after the fact.

The final poem in the collection, “Coda,” performs the only explicit weaving together of the motherhood and war themes here. “When I looked up from her hospital crib / could I help it / if I saw a war?” Ford’s speaker asks. She speaks directly to us, her readers, defending her stance as new mother and her need to speak: “If you wish, call me what the postpartum have long been called: / tired mother, overprotective bear, / open sore / a body made sensitive / to the scent of fire or fume. . . . ” And then, ultimately, she claims her right in this rare and quietly triumphant declarative statement: “just as your mother would have been / when you were born, you who are alive / to read this now.”

 

Carrie Fountain, in Instant Winner, mines a similar vein—walking us through her uncertainties in the weeks and months after becoming a mother, with a long series of poems as prayers centrally woven through her collection. The subject of birth is also prominent, though without the suspenseful urgency of an endangered life. Her dominant response to the circumstance of new motherhood seems to be wonder, but not that wide-eyed, reverent kind; rather, a quizzicality that this life has descended upon her, that she hasn’t yet woken up from this strange dream and its attendant duties.

In “Surprise,” an early poem in the book, she writes:

                                                   . . . Hey,
do you know where we put the sky?
I haven’t seen it for months.
When I was in New Mexico last week
all I did was push the baby in her stroller
and worry about the sun on her legs
and think about coming home. Now
I’m home and I’m thinking of the way
the light came in off the runway
while I was waiting in the airport
for the return flight, feeding the baby
a hundred Cheerios, one by one, thinking,
I don’t even know how to visit New Mexico
anymore, thinking, I guess there isn’t going to be
a time when I live like I lived that summer
in Santa Fe, that summer-into-fall
I’ve for so long told myself I will someday
return to, that place I’ve kept, that ace
in the hole . . .

The mind describes a bodily confusion borne of sensory memory—a feeling of the past being just next door, a familiar house, located within one’s grasp, yet with a locked door. And even if she could re-enter, she doesn’t know how to live there anymore. She ends:

                                                   . . . Oh,
that summer: Why did I have to leave it
cracked open behind me as I went? How
did I even do that? How did I get that
one sky to stay wedged there, blue as the sky
and just as big?

If time can be place—past, present, and future coexisting as different landscapes, all the more frustrating because so seemingly accessible—then metaphor too can distort and thwart. One of Fountain’s tactics in this book, and a highly effective one for dis- and reorienting the reader, is to collapse metaphors in the same way she collapses and reframes time. We think, in the final image of “Surprise,” that the sky will be compared to some other thing, but then it is one sky “blue as the sky.” Perhaps this is one sky (the sky of the memory) being as blue as the sky of the present, or perhaps this is that remembered sky being like a sky, as in a shimmering mirage, almost real but not quite. Either way, the sentence has refused us a clear image, has circled back on itself just as the mind does.

Later in the book, Fountain includes several poems that present her speaker as a writing professor, one who, suddenly, doesn’t desire to teach anything: “More? I keep asking your essay about pollution, as if More? is a question your essay about pollution can answer. Where the hell do I get off, anyway? Always with the better idea, the advice, the pointing across a room to whatever it is I think you need to be looking at.” This passage comes from “Poem at the End of the School Year,” a prose poem that resists even linebreaks in its desire not to impose its “lessons” on anyone.

The voice of these poems is loose and conversational, often quite funny. More than anything, this is the element that attracts me to Fountain’s book. I am charmed by the person who can begin a poem with, “Great, I’ve been wanting for a while to live / my real life again . . . ” (in “Instant Winner”) and “When I said I wanted to work harder than / everyone, I didn’t mean work harder. I didn’t // mean that I wanted to answer more e-mails / and forget to eat lunch” (in “Prayer (Stop It)”).

But it is not simply a colloquial quality or seeming friendliness that draws me to Fountain; underneath this voice, there seems a highly charged current of desire and need. It is not the overt need of Ford’s voice in Blood Lyrics, yet it cannot be disregarded. Early in the book, the speaker keeps waiting “for [her] real life to call, to say, Is this Carrie Fountain?” (in “Instant Winner”). The concept of the real, that parallel track that she somehow left, keeps eluding her. And the recurrent use of the word “prayer” as a title for poems emphasizes that desire for change. But that’s not, after all, what we get. The prayer poems resist the obvious directions of devotion and request, and instead only observe and chronicle.

In an early poem, “Eating the Avocado,” Fountain begins, “Now I know that I’ve never described / anything, not one single thing . . . ,” an observation triggered by the act of feeding her baby her first solid food. The desire to describe, simply, without comment (“More?), is ultimately perhaps the most notable trait in both of these collections, and one that I suspect is highly correlated to the state of early motherhood that Ford and Fountain write about (and write from). Near the end of Instant Winner, in a poem called “Prayer (Become a Buffalo),” the last of the prayer poems, Fountain’s speaker finally acknowledges that she doesn’t actually know how to pray at all. She follows this by saying, “Inside the body, everything’s real.”

In the end, the desire is not for a different life, a phone call saying you’re an instant winner, here’s your new life story; rather, it is simply a desire for the real. To know it and to be able to describe it. To live as animals and infants do, with a sense of each moment as concrete, sensory, filled in. Not a phantom of some past shimmering out of the corner of your eye. Ford too finds a voice in Blood Lyrics that lets go of declaration and explanation, even most metaphor—those desires to make the world so by claiming it as fact—instead, these poets let us share in their attempts to describe what happens in the body and the mind that attempts to make meaning from it.

Both collections speak with startling intimacy about the world and the body, that microcosm of all experience. I hope these books will not be considered limited by their subjects as “project books,” or “motherhood books.” Although motherhood is undeniably a central subject in both, its more important function here is as a mode of observation. The work of the previous generation of mother poets has opened this field to us: I am reminded in particular of Eavan Boland’s statement on writing poems about motherhood, in A Journey With Two Maps, that “I could see I would have to do more than write this subject: I would have to authorize it.” Ford and Fountain, and all of us, have benefitted from Boland’s generation’s authorizing. Now these poets plough forward by turning the focus not toward the subject but through it. What we get to see in these books is not just the story of the body and family, but the urgent desire of our momentary lives, and the ever-striving of language to grasp it.

 

Notes

[1] See Stephen Burt’s “Smothered to Smithereens: The Poetics of Motherhood” (Boston Review, Jan/Feb 2010), Joy Katz’s “Baby Poetics” (American Poetry Review, Vol. 42 No. 6, Nov/Dec 2013), and Dan Chiasson’s “Mother Tongue” (The New Yorker, June 2, 2014).

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