Poetry & the Mother Language: A Conversation with Gertrude Stein, Bernadette Mayer, Kathleen Fraser, and a Young Californian
According to Hélène Cixous, Kafka writes, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?” (Cixous 59). It also seems that we should write only the kind of books that wound and stab us. Words must be as violent as the severance of mother from child, allowing us to finally wake and to see. Words that are motherly hide our eyes behind hands that caress our faces. They comfort and they blind. Yet, Cixous also claims that a woman who writes is a woman who dreams of children. “Will I or will I not give life?” she asks. (Cixous 78) Words come to her from the outside and her body is the vessel of dreams. But from where does the language of dreams come? Who sires the text? Is it God?
How can I learn to stop loving like a mother who knows her child will leave her?
For the Young Californian, on his birthday
I’d like to ask you, what is it you see while standing next to me looking skyward, full moon, Wild Turkey in hand? What is it that we are waiting for?
hands unable to reach
our bodies of matter revolve
orbit around invisible unspoken
Last spring, I read that all of the hydrogen in the universe was created during the Big Bang. From this single-electroned gas, stars formed…and then they died.
But the universe is cyclical and death gives birth.
The Phoenix rises from the ash in the flame.
Supernovas. The fire birds give birth to new elements.
internal multiplicity and the creation of bonds
The atoms of our bodies, born of stars, born of fire and light.
Why have we not talked much of cosmic space?
And how can I learn to stop loving like a mother who knows her child will leave her?
Navel to navel on autumn days.
Think: smell of dirt, skin of earth, creak of trees
All bodies of stars.
Remind me that it was I who cut the cord, leaving you ready to breathe your first breath.
Does the mother feel her missing child like a phantom limb? Will your mother’s body quiver slightly more today as she remembers you, the gape in her body these past twenty-seven years?
You pain me and I ache in the presence of your absence.
I thought I could mother you as you came from my body.
Now, I consider this: motherhood is severance,
the maternal woman chews through the rope that binds her young to her,
close to her
rope made of human
She chews through the fibers, sinewy self,
a motion toward death is a motion toward life.
But still, remember the laws of quantum physics. On a sub-atomic level, the universe is an organic whole.
The fire bird spits flames and burns a little of us all.
We are earth and we are stars, electrons gliding among space, simultaneously here and there, multi-dimensional, and matter is an infinite possibility.
We bind, my fingers, the ink of these words, the space that is you far beyond my horizon.
And when I am still
and when I am calm
and when I am quiet
I remember, and feel your movement run through me.
In the preface to Gertrude Stein’s book, How to Write, Patricia Meyerowitz writes:
When I was asked to write an introduction to this book I accepted gladly without knowing at all how I would approach it. Open the book anywhere you like and if you are unfamiliar with the work of Gertrude Stein you will very likely give up before you have gone very far. And even if you are familiar with her this book will have no immediate meaning to you because it certainly does not tell you how to write. What it does tell you is how Gertrude Stein was writing at the time she wrote it.In How to Write, Stein writes, “It is full of finally why me. When you see remember me. This is a very fine sentence.” (Stein How to Write 17). I write words. Words write me. Thinking while writing; writing while dreaming. “This is a mixture of a memory and a reproduction. This is never noisy,” writes Stein (32). “A hope. Will be fed.” (18). Feed the dream. Feed the baby. Feed the sentence. It is quiet, unlike emotion. Quietly feeling. “A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is” (25) but in the beginning, there was the word. In the beginning, there was breath.
And so the question that presented itself was how could an outsider who was not writing creatively in the same way as Gertrude Stein describe exactly what she was doing. Having stated the question the answer was immediately apparent. It really is impossible to do it because to describe it in another way would be to make it into something different for its meaning is contained within its method and moment of creation.
I’ve been reading about the mother language. Kristeva claims poetry as the mother language and uses the form to elicit the pregnancy and birth process in “Stabat Mater” in Tales of Love. Ann Rosalind Jones says of Kristeva that she “sees semiotic discourse as an incestuous challenge to the symbolic order, asserting as it does the writer’s return to the pleasures of his preverbal identification with his mother and his refusal to identify with his father and the logic of paternal discourse. Women, for Kristeva, also speak and write as ‘hysterics’ as outsiders to male-dominated discourse’ (Jones 371). Jane Tompkins calls upon Ursula LeGuin’s “mother tongue” in an argument for personal narrative within criticism. At the Bryn Mawr College commencement in 1986, LeGuin said, “The mother tongue, spoken or written, expects an answer. It is conversation, a word the root of which means ‘turning together.’ The mother tongue is language not as mere communication, but as relation, relationship. It connects…” (Tompkins 29). Dana Beckelman points to the meanings of our vocabulary: “Conceive: to become pregnant; to cause to begin: originate; to take into one’s mind; to form a conception of: imagine, image. The classic dualism: women begin in the body; men begin in the mind. Women become pregnant; men imagine” (Beckelman 286). I can say that any language that is not the traditional academic language, not the traditional mode of literary criticism, is the mother language. But, I don’t care what it is called. I have argued that it comes from my body, but still I wonder, where is the father? Are we all Madonnas? But, I am tired of being the virgin mother, but I am also tired of constantly searching for the father. And Bernadette, what do I do with you? The baby is irrevocably yours, and I feel that if even you in your pregnancy can write about loneliness, there must be no hope for any us. You say, “The novel is a rigid form, it’s not like life like they say it is and it makes money” (Mayer 57), but some people go “on with it anyway as if our lives as poems were so blessed” (44). Lives are poems because life cannot be rendered as ordered through the order of language, but only through poetry that wrestles language from the words. The poem is paint on a canvas and there is no language that can adequately explain. This is what we must understand. But to write is to expect, to anticipate. Perhaps like Cixous, the words come from elsewhere and then through our bodies. It is not of our control. Meaning accumulates at the end. To write is to acknowledge the anxiety. What will become of it all? What is the baby/object/meaning to be? And even after birth, can we ever really know? How can I think beyond language? And how can I communicate and relate when language cannot suffice? Will you ever understand?
The other day, I was asked about the WWI poets—Sassoon and Owen. Don’t forget to add Isaac Rosenberg to the list. Besides, he was also a Jew, not that it matters. But in terms of early 20th-century Anglophone poetry, America was where it was at. What happened after Yeats? The atrocities of war were an appropriate subject matter. No more glory. No more three cheers for British Imperialism. But what about form? Nothing like the Americans. Form over content. But soon, what the British had was the novel. We had Fitzgerald, but they had Woolf, Joyce, and Ford Maddox Ford, novels that could make your heart break. Perhaps these are not the novels Mayer writes of. Incongruencies, sense accumulates, in style and mode, and not content alone. Surely one feels wounded and stabbed while reading Mrs. Dalloway. It is painful and it is beautiful.
The poem “untitled what’s thought of as a boundless” transgresses the lines of all maternal things, though this word “maternal” is not the word Mayer uses, “continuous expanse extending in all directions or in three dimensions within which all material things are contained.” “Infinitive the matter at hand” infinite, simultaneously me, the baby, the father, the world I labor in, boundaries boundless and blurred, and to cite The Four Tops, I’ll say “I’ll tell the world, you’re a part of me, Bernadette.” This is my gift to you, though it has not much to do with me. What are the “dimensions within which all material things are contained in addition never existing before” the womb must women carry all of the burden and how do men write? I will never know I will never be a man. Germination in the mind, but like Cixous and like Mayer I do not think this way and something previously unknown spews forth and I must look to see what it is a boy or a girl. Of course it is something that is partially me, in that everything I see and understand is partially me, but who are we? In the book and not in the poem, you say, “I became as if obsessed with truth and its clarity and then that became something I could only admit to in writing, that and the energy to find that life allows me—accounting for what just happens—to be identified consistently as Bernadette Mayer, or the person who looks like the person who has that name if you knew it” (Mayer 92). It is all a sham, even down to our names, false sense of stability, when there is momentary similarity between a body and a name but never the same correspondence twice. We don’t know who we are because we are no one in particular. Maybe. Another new age guru will say that we are simply life in the cosmos and life is love, but how is that ever going to made meaningful to me because I am still and always trying to make things personal. If all is life and love, then there is no need to write. The dream is the same and if we could all sense beyond an ego, we could feel the pulse of the universe in its singular form. This is God. This is what the New Age gurus say. But as I said, I’m not interested in being the virgin mother. Call me selfish, but I’m interested in me and what comes from my body. So Bernadette, screw the cosmos and stop smoking so many cigarettes in those New Hampshire mountains. The baby is only partially you, but your body is still the vessel of its dreams.
I wanted to birth something important
from me to you with you.
But I am no longer pregnant in this labor.
Shall I cut open my chest,
break my sternum,
move my ribs aside?
There is no baby and I’m afraid
the only thing to see in a heart is the pulsing
It doesn’t bleed for you,
but if you held it over a goblet,
I would say “drink, this is my blood for you.”
A poet says that life is like a poem,
and soon we are caught up in the meta-
I have forgotten the point—
incongruent phrasings, associations,
sense accumulates at the end.
Must we wait a lifetime for meaning’s maturation?
Even now, we grow old
and already I see your appearance change.
A red-blond beard can cover your child face,
but there is more it seems.
It lies in the weight of your body.
Suddenly, you carry the heaviness of a man.
I say this as a compliment,
and I wonder from where does your growth come.
What have you learned in this time?
I have learned nothing but to falter with lines and words,
clumsy manipulations of language,
To hope to discover…
I have learned nothing but to say, “I love you.”
I have spoken like a child,
wavering between worlds that are known and unknown,
where there are only hypotheses,
waitings for salvation and redemption.
I suspect that secretly I still expect the Savior to rise from the dead,
because I believe there is a gift in infancy.
But our fetus was lost, aborted in the summer heat.
It is left decaying in the autumn landscape, and so
we must tell ourselves again and always, death gives life.
Is religion merely the digging up of a skeletal corpse,
no flesh nor blood, but anticipating a resurrection and eternity anyway?
What is the point? Tell me because I continuously forget.
But maybe this means nothing to you.
Is there no renewal for one who is raised a Jew?
Is there no room for forgiveness? And must you only repeat my words…a tooth for a tooth.
Yeats has murmured the Second Coming is at hand,
and I wish I could write as beautifully as he,
but always I stumble and trip and miscarry.
But the point is this:
if life can yet be a poem waiting to be read,
I should like to choose this faith.
What is the point for you? Again and again, remind me.
The connection between life and poetry is tenuous.
And does it really matter?
If only we too can survive through the dying winter.
I have been given a new way of seeing. Or maybe I have been reminded of what I had been forgetting to look at. In Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity, Fraser reminds me of the Arabic language. She quotes the Syrian poet Adonis. I will quote him here:
In Arabic, things have a multiplicity of names. Let’s take the names of elements belonging to the material sphere, such as “earth,” “dust” or “rain.” To each of these elements corresponds forty names. And what belongs to the conceptual sphere, such as “exploration,” “knowledge” or “ignorance” can in turn often be designated by at least thirty names…. The name does not designate the wholeness of the thing, but only one of its aspects; the thing, therefore, is an ensemble of situations and aspects, an ensemble of words.The word is essentially a token and the poet writes with token-words. As a consequence, for the Arab sensibility, language is not language by virtue of its referent. But on the other hand, the thing is not a thing but by grace of the word that names it. It’s not that language “descends” toward things, but that things “ascend” or aspire toward language, which poeticizes them. As if a thing might not exist except through locutions, or as if it might acquire presence only as it is interwoven with language or transformed into language. (Fraser 11)
To Dig the Embryo
Rethink. Quantum physics out-dated.
Begin to consider new string
Loops in space.
Move back and fore ward In time
To the womb.
Matter/Names are infinite possibilities.
Before Adamic words.
We began postpartum.
Motherhood is severance.
Third trimester. “The baby”
Pronouns—he or she.
Visible protrusions. Public expectations.
The mother and is the child.
Internal multiplicity and the creation of bonds.
Beckelman, Dana. “In Between Abject of Object: The Mourning Sickness of the Expectant Mother, or, Three Movements of the Blues in B Minor.” The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Eds. Diane Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993. 283-292.
Cixous, Hélène. Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
The Four Tops. “Bernadette.” Reach Out. Motown Records, 1967.
Fraser, Kathleen. il cuore: the heart. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1997.
--------. Translating the Unspeakable: Poetry and the Innovative Necessity (Modern and Contemporary Poetics). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
Jones, Ann Rosalind. “Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of L’Ecriture Féminine.” Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997. 370-383.
Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
Mayer, Bernadette. The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters. West Stockbridge: Hard Press, Inc., 1994.
--------. “untitled what’s thought of as boundless…” Onward: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Peter Baker. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1996. 12-13.
Meyerowitz, Patricia. “Preface” How to Write. By Gertrude Stein. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1975. v-vii.
Stein, Getrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
--------. How to Write. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1975.
--------. “Picasso.” The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. Vol. 1. 3rd Ed. Eds. Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, Robert O’Clair. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003. 178-180.
--------. “Roastbeef.” Three Lives & Tender Buttons. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Tompkins, Jane. “Me and My Shadow.” The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism. Eds. Diane Freedman, Olivia Frey, and Frances Murphy Zauhar. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993. 23-40.