Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
We Are Not Alone: A Review of The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood

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Edited by Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman (Middletown CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003. $70 cloth; $24.95 paperback)

The Grand Permission is not a book to read straight through. It invites -- as does motherhood -- interruption. It accumulates, it grows, it overlaps. Persephone arises in one essay and reappears in another, as do (of course) Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Tillie Olsen, and other mother-poets. Children interrupt and inspire throughout.

I am not a poet, nor was meant to be, but reading The Grand Permission reminds me of the hard work of poetry, the way language breaks apart and re-forms in those short lines. Here poets stretch out into sentences and paragraphs, essaying to articulate the linkages between their poetry, their poetics, and their maternity.

Dienstfrey and Hillman, poets themselves, divide the book into sections: "Piecing Commotion: Social and Historical Contexts," "Ob(lit)eration: Genre and Representation," "Signals Given: Language Paradigms," and "A Third Space: Temporal and Other Crossings." The essays speak to each other across these sections, however, as well as within them. What I notice most about all the essays is their specificity, their refusal (for the most part) to generalize. Not "motherhood is" but "my motherhood is" (or "has been"). And the writers use the same approach with poetry and poetics, about which the authors are both focused and allusive. Many of the essays appear with datelines below the title: "March 10, 1997," or "San Francisco, June 1997." In Elizabeth Robinson's piece, "Gaps, Overflow, and Linkage," she claims in a footnote that "At a different time in my life, I might interpret motherhood and writing in a different way" (261). Any one of the authors could have written that. This specificity makes it hard to generalize about the book; the poets represented here do not propose a theory of maternal poetics, nor of poetic maternity. They weave together lives and words, poetry and politics.

Maxine Kumin's delightful reminiscence of mothering and writing with Anne Sexton will stay with me long after the book is back on the shelf. It is one of the more conventional of the essays, narrative and historical rather than theoretical and lyrical. In it Kumin braids together her writing, her friendship with Sexton, and her motherhood. Among her laments -- the "sexist condescension that regards poems about domestic relationships as . . . unworthy of serious critique" (9). It's a condescension that, as Kumin knows, even feminists have felt -- and the poets throughout the anthology do their best to undo it.

Carol Muske-Dukes's "Heart Murmur" belies the French feminist contention (popular in the early 90s, though less so now) that somehow women are shut out from language, excluded from a patriarchal linguistic system. Rather, Muske-Dukes claims "my earliest sense of language has to do with my mother and unpredictability" (187). Her mother's heart murmur becomes a metaphor for her unpredictable moods, her interruptibility becoming its own poetics, an arrhythmia that informs Muske-Dukes's poetics, her prosody. Carol Ostriker similarly makes a claim for a maternal language, rejecting "the famous masculinity of language" with -- what seems just as self-evidently true -- the claim that "Silence is masculine. Masculinity is silence. . . . He keeps a stiff upper lip which makes it difficult to talk" (156). Yet Pam Rehm's essay, following on the heels of Ostriker's, depicts a differently gendered language, a family in which the father told stories "while, on the other hand, the women in my family have always used talents -- talents with a use value: canning, baking, sewing, gardening -- to represent themselves, never words" (169). Rehm turns this feminine silence, however, into its own poetry: "my poems are full of words that I'm afraid of saying" (169). Language has no gender, but we who inhabit gendered selves make language our own, these essays say, in any number of mysterious and powerful ways.

In another lovely, fractured essay (many of the essays in this book are fractured, built up like mosaics or collages, interrupted as if by the calls of mothering, or dialogic as so much of parenting is), Susan Griffin juxtaposes the stages of pregnancy, childbirth, and early infancy with writing, so that "Conception" is followed by "(Epic)" and "Lullaby" by "(Resonance)." The literary terms, italicized and in parentheses, here seem to take a back seat to the quotidian, elemental signifiers of motherhood that precede and, thereby, to some extent, direct them.

This review, like many of the essays in the book, feels formless. There is so much to say about motherhood, about poetics, so much to respond to, that what I choose feels arbitrary. I could write something else about this book tomorrow. We impose forms on language, on experience, so not to drown in it, but we know -- always -- that the forms are illusory, could be shattered at any moment, by baby's cry, by labor pains, by unspeakable loss or unknowable joy. The essays impose form on the formless experience of motherhood, acknowledging the ways in which poetry imposes its own forms, also partial but also true. Dale Going, in "Poetma," writes that mothering helped her writing, as it forced her to "act as if I knew more than I did" (227). So, the form creates the content, enables it -- and then doubles back on itself, as she also notes: "My daughter's becoming a mother . . . released me. The cycles of motherhood and daughterhood have become more fluid. I can be with her now and still contain my girlhood, not just hers. We can be several ages, several selves, at once" (230). Thus, the roles we assume, the forms we choose, are not permanent, perhaps, but enable each other.

This stunning collection of essays cannot be the last word on poetics and motherhood; it breaks new ground, though, by putting the two terms together and letting them play, giving the poets room to explore the contours of two experiences, so disparate and, yet, for these poets at any rate, so connected. Not every poet who is a parent will agree with everything in the volume -- indeed, not every author represented in it would agree with every other one. But between them, they open up a space for other poets, other mothers, to explore their own experiences, to compare and contrast them to what they read here.

For me, C.D. Wright's "In a Ring of Cows Is the Signal Given: Ruminations on Mothering and Writing" brought nods of recognition: "When my husband and I met other couples with a baby, we joined heads and bored into their glowing faces to ask in abrupt, strained unison if 'it' slept. And if 'it' did, we shunned those people" (195). It wasn't sleep for my husband and me, it was colic, but that sense of an in- and out-group of parents, of those who were "getting it" and those who weren't, resonates powerfully for me. But this won't mean the same for those whose "it" slept and didn't cry, I suppose. They may feel mysteriously rejected, shunned for no fault of their own. To them I apologize, and direct them to someone like Barbara Einzig, perhaps, whose baby slept (from 5 to 7 am, at least), and whose "FIRST THINGS FIRST: notes toward a discovery of BEING A MOTHER BEING A WRITER" details the particularity of early childhood, the dangers of generalizing. Both Wright and Einzig move beyond those early days of difficult parenting and create poetry out of, sometimes even against, their experiences. Both are right (I first typed "write," one of the pleasures of the book being the ease with which the poet-authors pun and play with language).

The Grand Permission invites us in, as the title suggests: it begins the conversation which its readers can continue, as I will continue to dip back into the book and discover new nuggets, new wisdom. There's plenty here for mothers who are poets, plenty for mothers who aren't poets, either, but who struggle to make sense of their experience in whatever way they can. We are not alone.


Libby Gruner teaches English and Women’s Studies at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA, where she lives with her family. Her academic writing has appeared in SIGNS: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Children’s Literature, and other journals. Her personal writing has been featured in Brain,Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers the Seal Press anthology Toddler: Real-Life Stories of those Fickle, Urgent, Irrational, Tiny People We Love, and Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life.


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