Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mothers & Fathers & Husbands & Lovers

In a dialogue recently published at Candor Magazine, Sarah Manguso and Rachel Zucker go full bore at the question of what it means for each of them to write as a mother or as a “non-mother.” They bring extraordinary intelligence and tenacious integrity to bear on one of the most contentious questions women face--a question that becomes only more nuanced and complex the more it evolves with our cultural attitudes (subtly, perhaps; slowly, for sure). In book after book, Rachel’s content (motherhood) is as integral to her development of ideas as the form (poetry) they take. But while it is specific content, it is not limiting content. The content and the form are the way she gets at the core of what used to be called the human condition: love, fear, loneliness, what it means to live now. And while her experience is not mine, her experience allows me to access, understand, and question my own.

Sarah uses content in similar ways, of course, all good writers do. Her latest book is a prose meditation on a devastating illness she wrestled with in her twenties--and, as with Rachel’s work, it is in no way my experience, but it works through matters of suffering and desire in ways that extend my own understanding. But Sarah is wary of the ways motherhood would limit not only her physical capacity to write (the time and focus required to raise kids) but also a reader’s perception of her work (the ease with which a narrowcast mindset can shuttle off a book on motherhood to a “women’s only” section).

What does it say that this question, which feels so unavoidable to women writers now, does not come up with the two most important poets of the modern period, Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein? Nor for two of the most influential poets who came of age in the 1950s, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. The difference is in the cultural context. Dickinson, Stein, Moore, and Bishop wrote before feminism had radically altering options open to women with children. Their choice was stark: kids or writing. There is no evidence to indicate that any of these four ever considered having children. Though they may have thought about it, the question was simply not aired. It is only with the generations that came of age in the 1960s and later that the question of motherhood and
(not "or") writing seemed even possible.

Fatherhood has changed nearly as dramatically as motherhood in recent decades, becoming more and more a hands-on experience. Yet, I can’t think of any men who tackle the question of “father” vs. “non-father” writers. To be sure there has been a recent spate of famous men writing about the occasions of their fatherhoods. But these don’t go much farther than relatively charming (or annoying depending on your angle) exercises in the lovably clueless man adapting to new domestic roles in changing times. The matter of fatherhood is not an occasion for soul searching or culture rattling. It’s just cute entertainment.

In a recent interview for the Poetry magazine podcast, Tom Sleigh spoke of Thom Gunne’s domestic life in San Francisco, suggesting that Thom Gunne was one of the few men who wrote about domestic concerns--even though domesticity in this case meant San Francisco’s gay scene. As surprising as this is to me, I’m hard pressed to come up with counter-examples.

Of contemporary poets, Galway Kinnell has perhaps written the most about his children--what young parent can help but identify with the poem in which his toddler wakes up and crashes the bedroom the instant any sex threatens to occur. But it’s not clear that fatherhood changed Kinnell's writing, or changed the terms on which he encountered the world through his work. For Zucker, motherhood is a radicalizing subject that pushes the very form of the poem in new ways. For Sarah Manguso, "non-motherhood" is a question in the foreground, and choosing against motherhood an occasion for profound thinking (as is the inability to choose to have children for women who cannot).

Mostly, I am astonished that so few (no?) men talk about the ways children affect their work because having children has changed my own work in profound ways. This is true in all the obvious ways: by keeping me physically busier than I ever thought possible (tightening writing time to near zero), and by kid-matter inevitably invading the poems. But, more, the experience of having children has altered my sense of time, being and responsibility. It provided the occasion for the only thing close to a Blakean vision I have ever experienced. I spent the week after my first son's birth with just Miranda and the baby, never leaving, never sleeping, hardly eating. The closeness of it all became a fever dream that collapsed distinctions between inside and outside, night and day. When I first left our rooms to shop for groceries at the corner market, I looked at the 300 lb. man working the cash register and saw in him--physically, actually--the newborn he once was. It seemed neither confusing nor alarming, simply a reality that all the time of his existence was present in that one moment. Looking around, I saw all of us--the 80 year old woman behind me, hunched with osteoporosis, the sharp-lipped teenage girl one aisle over, the homeless man slogging a bag of cans for redemption--in our physical beginnings as infants. There was no distinction, in fact, between any of us. That this vision came from a near total lack of sleep and food is obvious. But while I don't see the layers of time as I did on that particular June morning 13-1/2 years ago, what I knew in that moment remains 100% real to me.

I like to read accounts of cave-meditators about the years spent alone with their infinite mind--the long, slow, boring, rolling, speeding, broiling, burning fact of it. In the course of my day, among all the wounds to lick, covers to tuck, shoulders to rub, porridge to sling, punches to punish, candy to swipe, tears to dry, feet to tickle, homework to enforce, empathy to extract, paperwork to push, soccer to coach, and plates to scrub, I think this father, this once-and-future narcissist known as me, is learning something of what they say.


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful response. Thank you, Tom. SM

Snobber said...

this is fantastic tom, thank you.