Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The mother loves, period

I've been trying to think more about the figure of mother as speaker in a poem.  But not necessarily making a lot of progress.  I've spent nearly the entire day spooling through task after task after task, all family-related.  So the challenge lies in posting at 10 pm EST and remaining coherent.

I was going to post an old poem by Karl Shapiro and discuss it, but, as it happens, the book is upstairs and I am downstairs.  The poem's title is some sort of variation of mongoloid idiot, which is what children with Down Syndrome used to be called.  It's obviously a dated poem, and not just in the labels it applies to the disabled.  

And, voila, the book appears, as if by magic--the poem is "Mongolian Idiot."  I came across this poem because I subscribe to the American Poets Project of the Library of America, which is quite a good series if anyone is interested.  But, ordinarily, I probably wouldn't be reading too much Karl Shapiro.  The first three stanzas of this four stanza poem compare a 35 year old man with Down Syndrome to a series of abilities latent in various animals, refers to the "bare room of his mind," and points out his child-like qualities unsettling in a man of 35.  

But it's the last stanza that really gets to me:

"Pity and fear we give this innocent
Who maimed his mother's beautiful instinct;
But she would say, 'My body had a dog;
I bore the ape and nursed the crying sheep.
He is my kindness and my splendid gift
Come from all life and for all life."


I'm certainly open to people who have other views of this poem--in writing it, Shapiro seems focused on the spectacle of disability.  Perhaps this seemed bold when he wrote the poem in the 1930s or 40s (it's published in a collection from 1942): what other people might shut away, the poet is putting on view.  The ugliness, though, implicit in the comparison of the kid to animals, the assumptions about the adult's intelligence and, apparently, worth are hard to get past.  In some ways, little about perceptions of disability have changed--it can still be spectacle for others.  And people are, perhaps, generally more compassionate these days, but I'm reasonably sure based on my experience with Robert, that people judge relative intelligence based on physical difference from the norm.  

Shapiro puts 'compassion' in the voice of the mother, however.  The stereotyping here is tremendous.  I'm not suggesting that mothers are not compassionate toward their disabled children, or that they should not be.  (Of course, you're not going to catch me comparing Robert or any other disabled kid for that matter to apes, dogs, or sheep).  My question is, why must compassion be couched in the voice of the mother?  Shapiro is playing here upon the natural and the unnatural (offensive, yes, but it is what he's doing)--the person the mother gives birth to is less than human (according to Shapiro), but loved (natural) by the person the child (unnaturally) injured.  The mother appears to "naturally" love the child, while all those around the two are free to express loathing or uncertainty or discomfort.  But that's the mother's role.

This is part of what I was trying to get at when, in commenting on another post on another blog, I noted that the mother's voice is too easily locked into stereotype.  There are very narrow channels through which a mother's voice can be received.  What Shapiro sets up is a black and white situation: there is no room for ambiguity--the mother loves, period.  It's what mothers do.  And in many ways, the mother is dehumanized as well.  The act of loving becomes uncomplicated by any sort of emotional richness--the whole poem funnels down to her statement, which the poet even ironizes.  After viewing what he shows us for four stanzas, a typical reader response is a sort of horror: how could she love that?  What's wrong with her?  

I guess what I'm trying to say as we press on toward midnight is that speaking only from the perspective of defending and protecting makes a mother into a mouthpiece that can speak only in clearly articulate dichotomies: love or not love, protect or leave vulnerable to attack, loyalty or disloyalty.  And being forced into a speaking position that cannot accommodate ambiguity allows an omniscient narrator (a read or observer) to ironize the mother's voice or make her into a parodic figure.  

How do you express a more complex voice as a mother, or a mother-figure or speaker in a poem, without someone accusing you of unethical thoughts or behavior?  Is it a matter of what a reader will accept, or a matter of guiding a reader toward a more complex and nuanced understanding?  I hope this makes some sense.  I wish I could find this other poem about disability that I read in VQR a year or two ago--a speaker (perhaps male) observers a father with a disabled child.  Much different than Shapiro's poem, with a speaker/observer who is much more self-aware and discomfited by disability as spectacle.  It was a poem that stopped me dead in my tracks a while ago--partly offended me, but also drew me to it.

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