Academic journal article Hecate

Representing Mothers

Academic journal article Hecate

Representing Mothers

Article excerpt

   I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
   An elephant, a ponderous house,
   A melon strolling on two tendrils,
   O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
   This loafs big with its yeasty rising.
   Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
   I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
   I've eaten a bag of green apples,
   Boarded the train there's no getting off.
      (Sylvia Plath, 'Metaphors')

   I have read each page of my mother's voyage.
   I have read each page of her mother's voyage.
   I have learned their words as they learned Dickens'.
   I have swallowed these words like bullets.
   But I have forgotten the last guest--terror.
      (Anne Sexton, 'Crossing the Atlantic')

Anne Sexton, like Sylvia Plath more famously before her, was a poet and a mother. And a suicide. As mothers, academics and writers, it is not hard for us to understand the difficulties faced by these clever, passionate, creative poet mothers with respect to mid-late twentieth century Western patriarchal motherings and motherhoods, difficulties that arguably contributed to their suicides. However, we feminists seem to focus somewhat religiously on these female lives and deaths, as if motherhood and thinking, motherhood and writing, motherhood and creative production in general are, unequivocally, violently destructive dance partners. As such, our fascinations may often replicate and perpetuate (albeit unintentionally) the classic patriarchal distinction between masculine production (creative invention) and feminine (re)production (repetition). (1) When a woman lives both culturally gendered forms of production the result is, as this highly seductive biographical script tells us, female self-destruction. Motherhood, in nuptial embrace with a creative, intellectual life, will apparently be the death of you; indeed, your suicide: the modern, mythico-feminist-political (2) martyr who burns herself at the stake as her child (and her husband, or partner, or whatever we call them) watches on. And if you should kill or harm yourself (in real life or in creative representation), know that your work will take on an aura you could never have dreamed possible. You will become an icon, a role model; an ill divinity. Though, as Dorothy Porter's character Lou scathingly (and I think a little uncharitably) quips in The Monkey's Mask, most young women poets 'think they're Plath/without the loony bin.' (3)

Of course, I wonder if these uppity, self-obsessed, over-sexed, perhaps angst-ridden young women poets to whom Lou refers are also mothers. I doubt it (is it too cynical, or given what I've just said, too easy to suggest that they might then suffer as Plath did?) Still, I think Porter is right about the apotheosis of Plath as the young (masochistic) feminist's Madonna. Weren't many of us, secretly perhaps, in love with the domestic poesis of Plath's final act (above the poetry itself), and a little later by Sexton's repetition of that act (two poet mothers gassed themselves to death, Plath in her oven, Sexton in her garage). Do not Plath and Sexton each figure both the apotheosis and the pathos of maternal-cultural productivity, still? We need to ask why it is that these two social identities--'mother' and 'writer'--seem not only mutually exclusive but also antagonistic, even (self) destructive. To begin, we might remember Adrienne Rich's perspicacious statement: 'to be a female human being trying to fulfil traditional female functions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination.' (4)

There is little doubt about the problematic relationship between mothering and writing. Mother (still) is generally understood to be selflessly devoted to the nurturing of family, especially her children. As naturally nurturing and unselfish, she stands in direct opposition to the image of the (male) artist, who is generally aloof, passionately devoted to his art, 'an ivory tower type who avoids all responsibilities, including the domestic, in order to develop "his true self and his consecration as artist. …

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