Helen Calcutt casts a critical eye over and shares her personal connection with Writing Motherhood, A Creative Anthology, edited by Carolyn Jess-Cooke.
The morning after my daughter was born, I got straight back into writing. She had been late, and struggling to find a way out. We both underwent a speedy and painful induction. When induced, the body suffers contraction after contraction, without rest. The natural rhythms are suspended, and a new chemical urgency swamps the body. I couldn’t manage the pain (or the fear) and screamed for an epidural. From this point, I couldn’t feel. She was struggling to reach me, and I couldn’t answer. I’d been numbed to her throughout the pregnancy – fighting her every step of the way. But still, somewhere inside, I’d sensed her insistence; her slow, relentless beauty. Now in these crucial throws, I had no way of communicating with her at all, and it was mortifying.
In the final pushes, I was heavily assisted. My partner tells me the floor of the hospital room was like a butcher’s blood bath. ‘She was the real sea, and all the blood to follow.’ I didn’t know how to push, so had to lie on my back attached to a monster of machines by tricks and wires. When the last toe, slipped soft and white from the vertical wound, she spleened into the world. Hungry for life, she suckled perfectly.
And despite being left alone that night on the hospital ward, torn and psychically dislocated, having to feed every 3 hours and sleep none, I still found energy for inspiration. The morning after the dreadful day, and the long, clicking hours of the night (it never ceases to amaze how many machines there are in hospitals; how many people breathe like crickets) I woke to a nest of crumpled silk. Her lily hands, her familiar face. I watched her sleep in the plastic bed, I ate biscuits. I took out my yellow notebook (in that new sense of quiet, that uneasy calm) and began to write.
I, or we, have been operating like this ever since. And she has always, selflessly, allowed me to spill my ink. Some might think this is selfish of me. I think it’s magic.
When first asked to review Writing Motherhood, A Creative Anthology, the free, unbridled ‘account’ of motherhood that I’ve given above is much what I’d hoped for. I wasn’t disappointed. For a potentially ‘samey’ subject – at worst self-righteous, at best a pointless glorification of poet-mothers and their pens – Carolyn Jess-Cooke has produced something remarkably well-balanced. Surprising at times, speaking like an old friend in others, this collection of poetry, prose, essays, and interviews is indeed a ‘chorus of voices on the wonders and terrors of motherhood’ collected and collated by an astute and insightful editor. It’s aim? To re-introduce the ‘pram in the hall’ argument, that creativity and motherhood (and everything that comes with it) no longer need be opposed, but can, as the ever-wonderful Zoë Brigley puts it, be ‘valuable for the creative life’:
Does creativity have to be incompatible with domestic life? Once all the…..rubbish is cast off, what might be left behind is a more positive way of parenting that demands focus, mindfulness, and awareness of others. It’s a way of life that can be inspiring and empowering…
(Motherhood *is* valuable for the creative life, Zoë Brigley, Pg 116)
In short, Writing Motherhood celebrates those truthful, and perhaps controversial accounts of the double occupancy of being a writer who is also a mother. No, the pram doesn’t have to sit in the hall for you to sit productively at your desk. Play, compromise, and mindfulness, are all (potentially) creative pathways of being. Much like walking, which is often celebrated as a major outlet for writers, it physically pulls you away from the desk and immerses you in the dusk and distractions of daylight. Motherhood too is a distraction, and a ‘dusk’. It’s your rise and fall (like the sun), a physical re-immersion of the senses, and of the heart. It gives you a reason to go away, to engage with, and fully experience, the fruits of your own flesh. It also gives you a reason to go back.
On reading Writing Motherhood, with all its scope and complexity – I felt relief. It was like holding onto a familiar length of rope; you know the weight, the grip, the exact roughness of it. It was like being tossed a life-line. Something to pull and tug against, and settle your feet under:
My baby flicker-kicks
with all five ounces of her weight,
with all four inches of her length.
I dream her hand
Pipping from the egg of my belly
Like a wing through a shell….
…In perfect folds and ref-folds
her cells gather, graceful as an origami swan
she flicks and settles, settles and kicks;
(Pg 33, Die Schwangere, Nuala Ni Choncuir)
This poem, ‘Die Schwangere’ by Nuala Ni Chonchuir, is a highlight, and extraordinary. It is an astute, organic piece of work, driven right from the depths of what is to carry life. It’s the most common thing in the world, but unique, making you (and your little one) an extreme paradox. A catalyst for your love, your pain, your sickness. The tone here is like that of Popa or Pilinszky, but its spring-loaded musicality is close to traditional, common-place almost.
The poem also isn’t so much a poem about being pregnant, as it is about listening. Nuala heard her child. She annotated its movements, its particular-rhythms, its repetitive heart-motor – all echoed in the repetitive energy of verse. This is a testament to this mother-poet’s openness, and her willingness to inwardly observe the recurrent nature of her child. Its ‘flicker-kicks’ and dreaming ‘hand’. It’s also a testament to editor’s vision. If nothing else, Jess-Cooke’s selection of writings on-the whole serve and satisfy the reader’s need for the individual’s experience. To not only read about relatable moments, but also moments we’ve never had to face, but because we have access to empathy, can understand. There will also be moments when you’re simple reduced to tears. As with poems such as ‘Strange Fruit’ by Kaddy Benyon:
Sometimes I just want to show
you the places I’ve mottled, rotten
and bruised; I want you to lean close
enough to hold the strange fruit
of me and tell me I may yet thrive
(‘Strange Fruit’, Kaddy Benyon, Pg 81)
Others will leave you disturbed, yet somehow in the same breath, soulfully uplifted:
The Mud Man whispers to me in a dead language.
Noli timere, he hisses. But I am afraid.
I do not know how I got here, and I will not pray
(White Pebble, Hilary Menos, Pg 54)
We’re quite often afraid to recount the finer details of motherhood, focusing purely on its gentle joys. It’s as if we’re admitting defeat if we go openly with the idea that it’s bloody difficult. Even worse, that we use those intimate, close-held experiences as the needle with which to thread the beginnings of a new work. Writing Motherhood, embraces these stark realities; ‘the advantage of motherhood for a woman artist’ (Pg 15, Intro), as well as the heart-breaking possibility that, for every child born, there’s potentially a book lost. Reading this anthology reminded me that either can be true, it simply depends on your perspective at the time.
There are many accounts and approaches to motherhood within this collection, offering the reader a panoramic view of the subject. To help with this, the book is grouped into six sections, ‘Transformations’, ‘Slow days, Fast Years’, ‘Loss, Absence, Suffering’, ‘Mothers Work’, ‘Mothers and Others’, and ‘Transitions’. As mentioned above, this anthology has been shaped to reflect and render all approaches to the creative-mothering experience. Most admirable is its open acknowledgment of loss, and that loss of a child is as much a part of motherhood as seeing them through their teenage and adult years. What’s impressive is that the few writings that explore this theme (there are fifteen of them) introduce the critical notion that loss also has a scale. There are many ways in which we can lose a child, and suffering and death has many guises. Be it ‘a startled lullaby’, the ‘feeble constellation’, the ‘ninth day’, the ‘seed flesh’, or quite simply:
a torn sail
and loss, and loss, and loss, and loss.
(The Foster Mother’s Blanket, Becky Cherriman, Pg 79)
‘The Weight of a Girl’ by Nuala Ellwood is a particularly special piece. It’s prose, but it’s poetry by spirit:
We took out our matter and gave her a name: Nerina. The sea nymph, the girl whose being was too heavy to bear. And we took her down to the river that runs through our city and let the water carry her away. She is there as you are here in my head, two girls swimming in different directions, but never coming home.
(The Weight of a Girl, Nuala Ellwood Pg 76)
This was difficult to read. It is hard to imagine how difficult it was to write.
The true accomplishment of this anthology is its unashamed approach in handling subjects we find difficult to air. Many of the pieces here hold your inner gaze long after reading – they’re profoundly genuine in spirit. It’s second feat is its eclecticism. Jess-Cooke has brought together a volume that will speak to readers who are not just mother-writers. But I am convinced, that if you’re a man who writes, a woman who doesn’t, a man with children who doesn’t write, or a man who does – you will find something here that stirs you. A series of gems are poems such as Liz Berry’s ‘Connemara’; Alice Oswald’s ‘Poem for carrying a baby out of hospital’; Sasha Dugdale’s ‘Lifting the bedcovers and there’; Becky Cherriman’s ‘The foster mother’s blanket’; Mary Austin Speaker’s ‘After the first child, the second’; Karen McCarthy Woolf’s ‘White Butterflies’; Carrie Fountain’s ‘Working Mother Poem’ – the list goes on. Essays include Zoe Brigley’s ‘Motherhood is Valuable for Creative Life’, and of course Jess-Cooke’s stunning introduction. I’d go so far as to say that it’s worth buying to read this alone. There’s also an interview with Sharon Olds that’s a must (though I don’t feel she so much answers any of the questions as simply asks more) and her poem to follow, ‘Her First Week’.
The only piece I unfortunately cannot endorse, is Holly McNish’s piece ‘31 May’. It is not the way the piece is written that lessens its effect, but the idea itself. On the whole it feels flabby. The language is clumsy and there’s too much of it. While its an ambitious piece of work with potential, it simply comes across a barrage of frustration, and it hasn’t been scrutinised. Where is the self-editing here? The self restraint? The moment’s of reflection? It covers the ground, but nothing grows up. And compared to the other pieces in the book, it doesn’t have the same ring of truth, the same emotional affluency.
As women writers juggling the tricky task of raising our beautiful children, while fostering our beautiful writings, it’s important that we address the world, and this anthology is the starting point for that. Crucially, how one’s learned experiences, as someone who bleeds into a page, and bleeds time for her children – can enrich, influence, and educate the creative industries.
Surely too, it’s about our ‘species’, as Olds put it, that ‘art is as old’ as we are. There’s a lot to be said for how motherhood instils you with ‘precious knowledge’ (Pg 46) about the human condition. How we relate to one another, and are determined by our patience, our frustrations; our ever-evolving abilities to compromise. ‘I think it’s a matter of our survival and the Earth’s survival for us to get to know ourselves as quickly and deeply as we can,’ says Olds. Indeed. Motherhood is a hugely accessible starting point for this kind of learning; as is Writing, one of the most influential methods of sharing our experiences with the world. Writing Motherhood, A Creative Anthology has re-opened this crucial dialogue.
I was also able to sit, with two men, with the book in my hand and say, ‘This is fantastic. I always knew there was a way of letting this go’, and could openly announce, with rivered language, that I have finally embraced my life choice. Furthermore, it was this book that led me to do so. That led us into an hour-long discussion about it all – my personal anguishes and memories, nervously intertwined with the glittering affirmations and tales of complete strangers. What a remedy.
Writing Motherhood, A Creative Anthology is available now from Seren.
Helen Calcutt is a poet, dancer, choreographer and contributor to Wales Arts Review.