Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian's the Flower Master and H.D.'S Sea Garden

By Wheeler, Lesley | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Both Flower and Flower Gatherer: Medbh McGuckian's the Flower Master and H.D.'S Sea Garden


Wheeler, Lesley, Twentieth Century Literature


The relationship between maternity and other kinds of work remains a difficult subject for twenty-first century feminism. (1) Women writers, concerned with the particular difficulties of creating literature while bearing and raising children, have contributed significantly to this conversation. In the twentieth century, most American women writers emphasize the desperate competition between writing and motherhood for time, resources, and creative energy. For example, Tillie Olsen in Silences, Adrienne Rich in "When We Dead Awaken" and Of Woman Born, and most of the women writers interviewed in Judith Pierce Rosenberg's A Question of Balance characterize motherhood as a condition of interruption. Its most debilitating result for these artists is the fragmentation of the caretaker's attention. These women stress the intense love and responsibility they feel toward the interrupters, but although these feelings increase motherhood's rewards, they also make it harder to give priority to any other kind of work. The recent notoriety of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life, which decries pressures that make women choose between motherhood and "high-altitude" careers (6), shows the persistence (and, I think, the persistent validity) of this view, although Hewlett focuses on corporate rather than artistic work.

However, in the last two decades of the twentieth century, some women begin to pair these acknowledgments of motherhood's costs with theories about its "advantages" for writers (Ostriker 130). (2) In a 1983 book, Alicia Ostriker stresses maternity as a rich resource for women writers, a great subject that has been virtually unmined. Ursula K. Le Guin likewise emphasizes in 1989 that while "babies eat books" (230), active parenthood crucially reminds writers that "the supreme value of art depends on other equally supreme values." Rita Dove, like many successful contemporary women, describes trading childcare shifts with an involved partner to manage the time pressures of parenthood; however, she also notes the way children render one "a hostage to reality" (qtd. in Rosenberg 102), newly open and vulnerable to a larger world in ways that can benefit an introverted writer. In a 1998 interview, Lucille Clifton describes how traditional maternity does not prevent writing poetry so much as mandate a different kind of artistic process (81).

Like these American women writers, and perhaps to an even greater degree, contemporary Irish women poets emphasize cross-pollination rather than competition between the labors of raising children and composing poems. The literature itself provides evidence. Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill's work, for instance, strongly emphasizes women's sexual and maternal bodies, and poems such as her "First Communion" intertwine parental worry with religious critique, demonstrating the interdependence of personal and intellectual life. Essays and interviews also exemplify these attitudes. Notably, Eavan Boland structures Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time around her own quest to harmonize the roles identified in her subtitle. Admitting that a mother-poet has "no time to waste" (253), Boland provocatively asserts that material obstacles to a woman's literary production are far less significant than psychosexual ones, particularly the inherited idea that specifically female experiences don't belong in poetry (247). Boland, lyrically describing the suburban landscapes that inspired her to write through children's naps, celebrates the "subversive poetic perception" (244) that maternity can inspire, tellingly equating motherhood with womanhood throughout her book. Medbh McGuckian's many interviews touching on these subjects describe maternity less romantically than Boland does--in particular, she casts childbirth as a cataclysmic "annihilation of the self" ("Interview," ed. Sailer 114)--but still emphasize family life as a top priority and the profoundly influential context of her literary work. …

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