Wednesday, February 20, 2008

An Independent Body

I find myself oddly disconcerted by a couple of throw-away comments on the Poetry Foundation blogs.  One is Ange Mlinko writing, in the long string of comments beating up on Reginald Shepherd, something to the effect that certain people who claim to be post-avant, or something like that, are currently involved in things such as "mommy anthologies."  The comment is clearly derisive, and it just seems a sad cultural comment on our time that being a mother is still something people can sneer at without concern.  Frankly, the figure of the mother is iconic and certainly worthy of an anthology to explore its complex representations.

The second is Rigoberto Gonzalez' comments on James Allen Hall's new book, Now You're the Enemy.  

"Mother (with a capital M), mythic figure, source of many glorious beginnings (and a few tragic endings), and indeed the defining lens to the worlds of the imagination and reality, is an unavoidable muse, an inescapable word uttered as an expression of wonder, a declamation of fear, and as the point of reference for things beautiful and dreadful. But Hall’s Mother moves beyond the son’s eye and takes shape as an independent body with agency and history outside male desire. She exists, with and without him."

I can't think of this post as a comment on Hall's book, which I have not yet read.  And, generally, I like the idea of men writing about mothers, parenting, and parenthood--why not mix it up?  Why not explore different constructions, different takes.  I liked his poem, "Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas," which I recently saw somewhere.  

That Hall would enlarge the concept of "mother" beyond the personal is certainly something that I would applaud (and I should read this book)--but what is it that bothers me?  I think the poem that Gonzalez reprints in his post is not my favorite--and it seems to dehumanize the mother--although there's really nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps it is the lens through which Gonzalez sees the book, the figures in it, etc.  Is it the passage, "she takes shape as an independent body with agency and history outside male desire.  She exists, with and without him"?  I mean, what is that?  I know blog posts take shape rapidly and Gonzalez' main purpose here is to say, "look, a cool book you should check out," but, really.  
Can it be that Gonzalez has never considered that a mother would have some kind of separate identity and life?  That mothers only exist within the context of relationships with those around them?   I mean, how basic is that?  That a woman could have an identity that runs parallel to the identity and activity of being a mother?  Or that motherhood is one aspect of a whole person's identity?  I mean, this passage seems to indicate that mothers only exist in terms of their relationship to MEN.  Does it not occur to him that a mother could give birth to a girl?  "Outside male desire" indeed.  

Maybe this bothers me because it places the definition of mother and motherhood squarely within male provenance--male ownership.

I mean, it seems like an interesting book, but seeing the book through the lens of Gonzalez' point of view almost ruins it for me.  What he seems to see is so narrow, so parodic (in terms of the lines he quotes), so, well, sexist--sure, it's good and interesting to explore the concept, "mother" on a broad, high level, but what Hall seems to be doing is providing a perspective on the subject, not a new universal.  And if his perspective runs true to Gonzalez' take, then I'd have to say that Hall's perspective is a little narrow--the poems I've read are good, interesting, provocative, but he seems to be satirizing the concept, "mother," in them, not enlarging it.  I think that satire and parody represent a narrowing of subject matter, not a broadening.  

But I do reserve judgement on this, lest I err in analyzing the reflection of Hall's book from Gonzalez.

What is really bothering me?  It's the disconcerting sense that if a man writes about the complexity of "mother," it's interesting and worth a "shout out."  If women write about the complexity of "mother," it's just another mommy poem in a mommy anthology.  This is the association that my mind has drawn between these comments--the comments themselves do not connect to one another--Gonzalez doesn't mention women writing about mother/motherhood, and Mlinko doesn't talk about men doing the same.  But the bias cuts across gender lines.  And I just don't get this bias: is it the problematic female voice?

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