TEXT review


This mother-house anthology

review by Dominique Hecq

 

 

Jennifer Harrison & Kate Waterhouse, eds
Motherlode: Australian Women's Poetry 1986-2008
Puncher & Wattmann, Glebe, NSW, 2009
ISBN 978-1-921450-16-7
Pb, 342pp, AU$29.95



We start life with an experience we forget and end it with one we anticipate but cannot understand. Writing comes to life within the temporal space afforded by these two unknowable boundaries. Poets on the battlefield have noted that the last word dying men pronounce is 'mother'. In our end is our beginning, so at least this new anthology of Australian Women's Poetry (1986-2008), Motherlode, infers again and again. Out of the night grows the seed that joins us back to the night. The world is a womb beyond the womb, 'a garden closed/ on a lost and fabled world' (Dorothy Hewett, from 'The Last Peninsula'), where 'I am the earth, I am the root/ I am the stem that fed the fruit/ the link that joins you to the night' (Judith Wright, 'Woman to Child').

Motherlode is an anthology of poems by women with a thematic focus, namely, 'the very broad subjects of mothers, children and what lies in between'. Apart from the second section titled 'Icons', the book is structured like a circular journey through a woman's life stages from night to night: 'Nature', (mind the gap), 'Pregnancy', 'Birth', 'Infancy', 'Sons & Daughters', 'Daily Grind', 'Loss', 'Old Wives' Tales', 'Mothers & Grandmothers', 'The World', and 'This Last Retreat'. The poems are sourced from existing anthologies as well as from collections by individual poets, predominantly published by reputed editors. The aim of the book is 'to speak to ordinary women', an aim that rings in its title, despite the strong yet erroneous echo to motherhood in the spoken word 'Motherlode' - a mining term referring to a principal vein or ore, and hence figuratively to a rich source to tap into. While most would perhaps find the use of the adjective 'ordinary' in the third paragraph of the introduction as a gesture of inclusion, it had the opposite effect on me. For me 'ordinary' woman is the silent partner of the 'reasonable man' now upgraded to 'ordinary reasonable person' we encounter in law manuals. Nonetheless, it came as a surprise, that though the editors acknowledge the earlier Motherlode anthology edited by Stephanie Holt and Maryanne Lynch in 1996, they do not mention the more modest - too ordinary? - Mother Lode collection edited by Jean Sietzema-Dickson in 2003.

As an anthology, Motherlode is polished and accomplished, if technically not particularly adventurous or challenging. Albeit dealing with sometimes difficult material such as rape, miscarriage, abortion, war, or surviving the death of a child, the poetry is accessible, palatable and recognisable. This is doubtless one of its appeals. Another is that, it is emotionally engaged without being emotional. What I mean by this is that it has a consistent affective tone and a certain restraint in the presentation of a whole range of emotions. Particularly striking is a kind of fluency, consistency of attention and transparency towards the world it constructs by accretion. Oddly, though, I found this smoothness unsettling.

Why, when the book's smoothness exudes not only reverence for its material, but also respect for the reader's feelings?

Perhaps it is because it felt at times too polished, and ultimately too well rounded. Let me explain.

When the editors write in their introduction that they were 'surprised not to find more poetry about the difficulties of managing a career and children', for instance, I guessed theirs would be a polite anthology. In the margin of my book I wrote in pencil 'poets are mothers with a conscience' - this may have been a little presumptuous: who wants to read their mum's poems? When I reached Amanda Wilson's 'The Double Helix' I knew I had been right to distrust the editors just so. Her Dream of the Shuttling Planet contains poems that scream on the topic. I guess it's a question of taste. There are no raw poems in this anthology. Deb Westbury's 'Ofrenda for Luke', for instance, is tame in comparison to her devastating 'Reading the Signs' from Surface Tension (1998). It may be that the editors have simply made a deliberate leap of faith beyond the unpalatable and the irrational.

As the architect Christian Norberg-Schulz has written regarding buildings that appear too self-sufficient because they are too rounded, the sphere is 'the most forbidding … of the elementary stereo metrical forms'. Spheres, having 'no directions', rest in themselves. 'The closed curve … returns to its starting point' and suggests 'closure', defying the perceiver's 'participation' in a form too forbidding to be desirable in architecture, a form of ostensibly material and public art when it is intended for other than religious purposes (136). I mention this passage because in it Norberg-Schulz suggests that closure is in aesthetic effect religious. Put differently, one could say that the religious is the form of inclusive closure, of closed inclusiveness, the unitary signifier, the form of self-sufficiency, rounded, resistant. As intimated in my previous paragraph, there is something of the religious in this anthology. For many readers, Motherlode will prove complete in itself, as a dome in which poems bounce against each other, spilling round things such as seeds, eggs, roses, grapes, figs, berries, apples, pomegranates and moonstones, moons, stars and suns. In the spaces in between there are also holes and vessels - some empty, others full, the curves of open hands empty or wings that enfold wombs, empty husks and joeys in sacks.

However, for some readers the perfection of the One might feel a little exclusive. These readers might resist what Donna Haraway calls in a different context 'the god-trick', whereby god is One, one circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Here are some other 'god tricks' we play on ourselves: mother + baby = one; man + woman = one; lover + lover = one; and other + other = one. I'm not at all suggesting that motherhood or female experience is a bipolar affair, but for all its wonderful richness, the principal vein exploited in Motherlode is, despite its inclusion of indigenous works, remarkably monocultural and sanitised - as you can see, poet + academic does not = one.

Motherlode opens with Gwen Harwood's 'Mother Who Gave Me Life' and closes with Judith Wright's 'Woman to Child', thus extending the faith and reverence implied in these two poems - one centred on the mother, the other on the child, to their creators, two magnificent mothers of Australian poetry. One of the pleasures of this book is the ease with which it flows despite the varied forms of the poems. And so the first poem in the section 'Nature' flows on from the reverential mood with Lucy Dougan's exquisitely crafted 'Even by her Bones', based on an encounter with the skeleton of an unknown woman in the Natural History Museum at Selborne, Hampshire. The second poem, Patricia Sykes' 'ancestral', picks up on the same sentiment with a poem where the Modewarre (indigenous animal) places 'faith in eggs'.

The poems roll on in this fashion, working the main theme and main sentiment by accretion while covering a broad range of poetic styles. There are well known works by Rosemary Dobson, Diane Fahey, Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett, Barbara Giles, Kate Llewellyn, Jan Owen, Elizabeth Riddel, Judith Rodriguez, Judith Wright, and Fay Zwicky that provide anchoring points in the tidal waves inside the dome whose pull leads to Harwood's famous poem 'In the Park'. This said, there are many names of younger established as well as emerging poets in this collection. This provides an opportunity for vigorous conversations between women poets across three - if not four - generations, also allowing for some interactive participation on the reader's part. For indeed, moving through this anthology as though you were reading a novel - as you are encouraged to do in the introduction, a kind of three-dimensionality, almost a physicality, that you might miss by reading each poet individually, imposes itself on you. This, I believe, is the editors' secret gift: to create a set of poetic themes and motifs which they mine inventively so as to disorient the reader in time through the sheer powers of metaphor and metonymy.

If motherhood is the dominant theme of this anthology, there are also poems about domestic and social rituals, time and tidal movements, dislocation, loss, urban and imaginative life. The weather and natural elements often offer a backdrop to the dramas that unfold inside the poems. There are also a few poems about language where the poet tests the limits of words and the effects of a reliance upon their worth such as A. Frances Johnson's lyrical 'Fontanelle' ('Not a complicated rhyme scheme like a villanelle', but rather 'the first wageless wager of the bones/ that suddenly makes possible/ complicated rhyme schemes'), Claire Gaskin's 'There is a Word', Jan Teagle Kapetas' piece from 'Waiting for Asylum', Francesca Haig' s 'Villanelle for a pregnancy test', or Robyn Rowland's vindictive 'Adhesion'. This is poetry that confesses its commitment and takes risks but not without due calculation and an astute awareness of the balancing act that is both art and life.

Actually, there is no such balancing act between art and life. There is only ambiguity and ambivalence. Re-reading Jane Gibian's 'As I Write' I was struck by the sheer number of poems in which a partner intrudes. More often than not, the partner is, as in 'I Write', a male who smothers the speaker by his sheer presence. In Rowland's 'Adhesion', however, the intrusive one is the mother. And so I asked myself whether it would be bad faith to call this anthology a 'feminist' work. However the question needs to be asked, if only at a personal level, for both the business of balancing art and life and the issue of feminism bear upon questions of ontology and ethics.

As evidenced in most of the poems in this anthology, motherhood within early feminist struggles and still today, interferes with retrograde myths of free-will. Motherhood, especially feminist motherhood, still confuses the normalised order of gender and power, for a feminist motherhood would derange the supposed natural and historical progression of culture. In short, feminist motherhood would aspire to complicate the dominant institutionalised idea of motherhood.

If we are to believe the voices in Motherlode, we are not there yet. Take poems by younger women like J.S. Harry, Sarah Holland-Batt, Bronwyn Lea or Emma Lew, for instance. Despite their savage, sometimes brilliant, attempts at busting out of the sphere of patriarchal conventions, they fail to break free from ingrained cultural expectations because they are set in opposition to patriarchy. Though these poems oppose the very institution of motherhood, they are locked in the ambivalence towards the maternal which is at the heart of patriarchy. Sarah Holland-Batt's 'Remedios the Beauty' exemplifies this most brilliantly as she turns Marquez's virgin eccentric, Remedios the levitator, into a grotesquely threatening mother goddess who looks down on 'life's livid beginning/ its blood toll, the lichen and microflora/ greenish and whitish in my mother's/ mouth, the grit of snail-shells, rubbed/ out segments, and silt met with petrichor'. In a more controlled fashion, in her 'Woman Holding a Vase', Bronwyn Lea protests against the roles assigned to women in a patriarchal culture and questions the unfair two-ness of this order. This is true also of Wilson's 'The Double Helix', which is at the same time an exercise in triangulation and a meditation on what two-ness and three-ness look like from the vantage point of the speaker, who tells us in an oblique way about infidelity. This is the stuff of tragedy, but what Wilson does amazingly is to speak from the third position, where neither moral nor erotic nor spiritual codes apply, where the ethical is revealed with bare words: 'An odd equation wrenches/ The double image/ Off its axis - '

Despite the diversity of voices in this anthology, still blatant is a patriarchal representation of motherhood that is caught up between an ever-present 'natural space', another based in an unexciting invisibility where too specific still means too personal (or other), and one in which women deliberately construct and label the 'feminine' (thereby often devaluing the status of motherhood). Such ingrained cultural perceptions beg the question as to whether representing and living feminist motherhood in Australia are a concerted reality or still a dream of the future. I do not want to sound resigned, but I personally think that try as we may - and as most of the poems collected in Motherlode do, to revalue certain traditional characteristics of the maternal, such as nurturance, care, empathy, and passion as well as maternal traits outside their previously limited range, we are bound to remain in feminist hyperdream.

All said and done, there may be 'no answers/ only questions/ but the child/ lives in the ageing body/ unreconciled' (Dorothy Hewett, from 'The Last Peninsula'). I will therefore return Motherlode to my bedside table and trust that you will enjoy its riches.

 

References

Harraway, Donna 1989 Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, p. 172

Holt, Stephanie & Lynch, Maryanne, eds 1996 Motherlode. Melbourne: Sybylla Feminist Press

Norberg-Schulz, Christian 1979 Intentions in Architecture. Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 134

Sietzema-Dickson, ed. 2003 Mother Lode: Poems Reflecting on Motherhood. Mont Albert: Poetical Christy

 

 

 

Dominique Hecq is the author of a novel (The Book of Elsa), three collections of short fiction (Magic, Mythfits and Noisy Blood), and three books of poetry (The Gaze of Silence, Good Grief and Couchgrass). One Eye Too Many and Cakes & Pains were performed in Australia, Belgium and Germany. Dominique's awards for poetry include The New England Review Prize for Poetry (2005) and The Martha Richardson Medal for Poetry (2006). She was short-listed for the inaugural Blake Prize for Poetry (2008) and highly commended in its second year. Out of Bounds is her latest collection. She works at Swinburne University of Technology.

 

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TEXT
Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
http://www.textjournal.com.au
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb
Text@griffith.edu.au