"Suspended between the Two Worlds": Gestation Metaphors and Representations of Childbirth in Contemporary Irish Women's Poetry

Article excerpt

Introduction

The representation of childbirth in writing is challenging, due, on the one hand, to a tradition that has appropriated simplified images of gestation and birth to describe the writer's creative process and, on the other hand, because of the sheer extremity of the act of parturition. In a letter to his wife Nora written in 1912, James Joyce attributes maternity to the realm of women's, and outside literary experience:

I went into the backroom of the office and sitting at the table, thinking of the book I have written, the child which I have carried for years and years in the womb of the imagination as you carried in your womb the children you love, and of how I had fed it day after day out of my brain and my memory (Ellman 1975: 202-3).

The analogizing of Joyce's literary creation, nourished by his brain, to his wife's experience of maternity in the womb implicitly assumes the existence of a "natural" boundary between the two worlds. Rather than being the product of Joyce's individual bias, this position reflects the predominant cultural paradigm of the time when these lines were written, which was premised upon an inapt dissociation and gendering of male mind versus female body, with the implicit assumption that the corporeal was unworthy of art and literature, with the exception of highly stylized images as in the example above. This conception of the somatic as marginal to cultural representation is in contrast with the ancient Celtic tradition, where, as Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill explains, "[t]he body, with its orifices and excretions, is not treated in a prudish manner but is accepted as an naduir, or nature, and becomes a source of repartee and laughter rather than anything to be ashamed of" (1997: 51-2). As will be argued at more length in the analysis of Eavan Boland's "The Oral Tradition", in modern Ireland this alternative perspective on the somatic was preserved in oral culture and folklore, which have been valuable resources for redressing the aesthetics of representation that the excerpt from Joyce's letter exemplifies.

The cultural environment contemporary Irish women poets contend with tends to be suspicious of such simplified categorizations into gender binaries as manifested in Joyce's statement, but Medbh McGuckian explains that childbirth is still difficult to record in poetry: "No, it's impossible for the person who was born, and it's impossible for the woman who has gone through it, because she's usually so knocked out or crazy, suspended between the two worlds" (Holmsten 2004: 95). While McGuckian does not identify the "two worlds" between which the mother-to-be is suspended in parturition, the poems discussed in this essay demonstrate that certainly the worlds of creative expression and maternity are not mutually exclusive, as Joyce's letter to his spouse assumes. The first part of this article focuses on the implications of the gendering of the creative process in employing metaphors of female gestation, exemplified by the opening quotation from Joyce's correspondence with Nora, while the second section analyzes how, given the obvious challenges involved in writing about childbirth that McGuckian addresses, this traumatic event is recorded in a selection of poems by contemporary women poets in Ireland.

Metaphors of Female Gestation in Contemporary Irish Poetry

In "Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor", Susan Stanford Friedman argues that "the childbirth metaphor validates women's artistic effort by unifying their mental and physical labor into (pro)-creativity" (1991: 371), whereas in a male text it apparently has the opposite effect:

   A male childbirth metaphor has three collisions
   for the reader to overcome: the literally false
   equation of books and babies, the biological
   impossibility of men birthing both books and
   babies, and the cultural separation of creation
   and procreation (376).

No doubt the extensive tradition within which male poets have analogized the creative process to gestation and birth (an equation which remains "literally false" when employed by women) causes many problems for a necessary revision of the discourses of maternity and femininity. …