review by Dominique Hecq
Jennifer Harrison & Kate Waterhouse, eds
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?
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
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.
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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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb