Going for Motherlode: On Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born
"In the interstices of language lie powerful secrets of the
—Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born
In the afterword to Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich quotes Susan Sontag:
"There are ways of thinking that we don’t know about.
Nothing could be more important or precious than
that knowledge, however unborn. The sense of
urgency, the spiritual restlessness it engenders,
cannot be appeased . . . "
Rich’s manifesto—almost three decades old and never out of print—looks long and hard into the chasm separating women’s actual (or at least potential) link to maternity, and the "theories, ideals, archetypes, descriptions" patriarchal culture substitutes for this real relationship. All of us—mothers and non-mothers—are born of women, therefore all have a connection to motherhood "more fundamental than tribalism or nationalism," Rich says. But patriarchal culture "has created images of the archetypal Mother which reinforce the conservatism of motherhood and convert it to an energy for the renewal of male power." Art rarely touches the institution of motherhood critically, in full consciousness, and, Rich insists, it must—lest we forget how much of our lived experience is "not of our creation."
At times I’ve felt as grateful toward Rich’s book as a bone marrow recipient might feel toward a donor, but how have I honored this indebtedness? My own poems might be accused of side-stepping the work of women’s poetry as Rich defines it in Of Woman Born. "Rape and its aftermath. . . marriage as economic dependence . . .the theft of childbirth from women . . . laws regulating contraception and abortion . . .the absence of social benefits for mothers," these are among the core social issues Rich believes art must evoke. Crucial matters, close to my heart, and to my ballot-casting and prose-writing hand, but not confronted head on in my poems. Though my life is fed by my political consciousness—by feminism in particular—it informs my poems only in oblique or submerged ways. Feminism—the feminism of Rich’s generation—is my intellectual mother. But she might not approve of all I do (particularly in my poems). Is this a feminist/post-feminist divide?
The hint of epistemological matricide in the term "post-feminism" makes me uneasy, but I can’t deny I was born to the privilege of fields of possibility opened and made fertile by thinkers and activists who preceded me. Feminists of Rich’s generation (my literal mother’s generation, incidentally—they were classmates at Radcliffe), have x-rayed the hidden machinery of what Rich calls the "Kingdom of the Fathers" with its serfdom of women: "The relationship at the core of all power relationships, a tangle of lust, violence, possession, fear, conscious longing, unconscious hostility, sentimental rationalization: the sexual understructure of social and political forms." Now, in the twenty-first century, a woman with my educational and economic advantages stands a better chance of making it through, even when entering treacherous stretches (the hyper-volatile borderlands of motherhood and the "literary life"). If I’m not, in Rich’s strict sense, an overtly political poet, have I inherited a revolutionary bomb and dandled it like a golden ball? Have I dropped the ball a little? (Can a ball be a little bit dropped?)
Even as The Swan and Desperate Housewives top the television viewing charts, books by women, filled with woman-as-speaking-subject, expand the front- and backlists of publishers big and small. And through those lush thickets, Gen X women poets are cutting quite a swath. Rachel Zucker’s Red Riding Hood—unlike Anne Sexton’s (in Transformations), whom the Bad Wolf swallowed effortlessly, "like a gumdrop"—is thinking hard about determining her own space, own self, own direction. "[L]ittle red riding hood through the woods to see the old woman said bilvi 'must / remember, must remember the words my mother . . .' and (good girl!) took the big road traveled by many men—". She has forgotten (as something in her knows she must) where it is she’s not supposed to go. She goes there, seeking power, looking at and through and into power. Her partial amnesia (she remembers Mother said something, but not exactly what it was she said) might put her in a position of quasi post-daughterhood. This might be a good or bad thing. If the big road is ambition (not simply in the "careerist" sense, but in the sense of magnitude of project), then she’s heading there strategically, and one hopes, believes, wisely. If it’s history, of course, Little Red might still get eaten up (and still stands a greater chance of disappearing than the woodcutter). Which isn’t to say our hooded traveler should remember to stay put, but that she might do well to bear in mind the route forward will not be frictionless, will probably, in fact, be riddled with traps.
Mother-daughter generation gaps are notoriously wide, unnerving even to identify, and sometimes seemingly impassable. It occurs to me that between Rich’s Of Woman Born, written in 1978, and Patricia Dienstfrey’s and Brenda Hillman’s more recent 2003 anthology, The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, a huge literary-political-historical leap has occurred. Though perhaps it’s more a birthing than a leap.
Where the earlier book anatomizes and indicts the false, distorting red-herring symbolism, the private and social brutalities of the "institution," the later (where Rich’s book is several times gratefully cited) finds actual motherhood an opening for philosophical inquiry. The Grand Permission bristles with the "speaking subject" mother’s "spiritual restlessness," her "new ways of thinking." The crowd of voices in Grand Permission is the motherlode that underlies the false structures not of our creation: a potential minefield, yes, but also rich with catalysts for new expression. As Rachel Blau du Plessis writes in her foreword: "[M]otherhood is incredibly tangled, a space in which one is learning and changing all the time, understanding process in a new way. Thus motherhood leads to knowledge, to thinking, to literary thinking, and to poetics."
To my mind, few images in twentieth century poetry approach more perceptively, more thoughtfully, the emotional frangibility of actual motherhood, the acuteness of the experience, the precariousness of an altered identity barely crystallized before erosion begins, and the creepy, haunting pathologies of the institution of motherhood than Sylvia Plath’s famous: "I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand" (from her poem "Morning Song"). Alicia Ostriker, in her classic Stealing the Language, took this image to mean "the mothering of others is death to the self." But the mothering of others is infinitely more complex than this. As is Plath’s poem. Plath’s mother-cloud-mirror equation is as piercingly real as it is phantasmagoric. The child is no mirror (it acts like one for only a few, early, quiet, blissful days at best). And the mother is not—though she might feel like it—actually the mirror’s captive. But she may well be a captive of some very subtle and persistent agencies that made her think this way.
Of Woman Born intends to liberate. To make us see how much of what goes unquestioned outside of feminist thinking—considered "part of our nature," "our natural position"—is actually engineered. Rich wants us to know that there’s a long, continuous umbilical connection between the societies we live in, our personal lives and our art. It might strangle or anchor. It’s wise to be aware of its phenomenal tensile strength, or at the very least, of the slippery fact of its existence.
Plath’s poems come close to the feminine/maternal sublime, but is her biography a cautionary tale for mothers who write too much? It’s one of those life/art stories Adrienne Rich has alerted me to look at closely and critically. Would that I could go back in time (I love this game) and hand a copy of Of Woman Born to Sylvia in that dull, grey London kitchen, and press her to read it. I know I’m not the only woman poet whose list of the more dismal pregnancy symptoms has included endless hauntings by the ghost of Plath. The moment my "First Response" window turned pink, I swore I’d find a different way to navigate those scarily compelling woods.