Writing Fatherhood, Part Three

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mother and child

by rob mclennan

Read "Writing Fatherhood, Part One" and "Writing Fatherhood, Part Two".

Much of the poetry I know of that writes around parenting and the domestic composed by women has an entirely different flavour than similar writing by men. There is frustration, even anger; resentment, loneliness, distraction and rage. There are the poems on other subjects that children simply wander through, given the impossibility of any thought or idea without an appearance or intrusion. Wandering sections of our poetry bookshelves, I work my way through Toronto writer Lola Lemire Tostevin’s ‘sophie (Coach House Press, 1988); through British Columbia poet Sharon Thesen, a passage of the poem “Discourse” from Holding the Pose (Coach House Press, 1983): “A quiet night, they all are. / My kid asleep / my husband out screwing around / the cat also.” Christine suggests I look through Sylvia Plath, and I discover poems in Ariel: The Restored Edition (HarperCollins, 2004) from the original Ariel (1966), such as the poem “Barren Woman” (“Empty, I echo to the last footfall,”) or the poem “Morning Song,” composed on the birth of her daughter Frieda, that includes:

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue
In a draft museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand

I pour through the work of the late Vancouver poet Pat Lowther, and the opening passage of “Two Babies in Two Years” from This Difficult Flowring (Very Stone House, 1968), discovered deep within The Collected Works of Pat Lowther, ed. Christine Wiesenthal (NeWest Press, 2010): “Now am I one with those wide-wombed / mediterranean women / who pour forth litters of children, / mouthfuls of kisses and shrieks[.]” The final two stanzas read:

Now that the late summer stays,
the child hangs in
the webbing of my flesh

and last year’s baby, poised
on the lip of the spinning
kitchen, bedroom,
vacuum, living
room, clings to the cord
of my skirt, afraid yet
of her first step.

There is Winnipeg poet and fiction writer Méira Cook and her Slovenly Love (Brick Books, 2003), with a photo of toddler Shoshana on the front cover, writing within, “This moment won’t recur, / a sky rubbed thin / beneath the barefoot feet // of last summer’s children.” Throughout these poems, there is the appearance of children, whether direct or indirect, and the loving chaos they bring to everything else. From Christine’s shelf, I discover the work of Scottish poet Kate Clanchy, and the end of the poem “One, Two,” that opens Clanchy’s third collection, Newborn (Picador, 2004):

In the humid space beneath
my dress, my body is bent
in the small effort of buckling,

the sag of my stomach briefly
leant on my thigh,
and, at the crux, in the press

of my nerveless places, you
are putting me on, easily,
the way a foot puts on a shoe.

Closer to home, Ottawa poet Brenda Leifso works on what will be her third collection of poems, a book of “domestic writing,” titled “Arsenic Hour.” In her essay “In Praise of ‘Domestic Writing” posted March 29, 2023 on the “Women Doing Literary Things” blog, she opens: “I have a confession to make: I have begun writing about the much maligned or ignored ‘domestic sphere’– even worse, about motherhood.” In her work, she writes a domestic that seems to struggle against her own expectations, such as the poem “Poor Thing” from Daughters of Men (Brick Books, 2008) that opens with: “Think you can squirm into this scene, / into this blood, like some vestal fluid / moving under cold-puckered skin / just plucked and purpling / into bruises shaped like thumbs.” It is as though to write such a deeply personal subject as one’s own children forces one to be fearless, whether consciously or unconsciously, forced to confront one’s own dark places. It is a love more complex and primal than one with any lover, friend or even a parent. It is a love far deeper and broader than love, and far more dangerous.

In the book-length study Elizabeth Smart: A Fugue Essay on Women and Creativity (Women’s Press, 2004) on the Ottawa-born author of the infamous By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), Toronto writer Kim Echlin explores how having children was an essential and even indistinguishable part of Elizabeth Smart as a woman, and as an artist. Echlin articulates Smart as being entirely incapable of not pursuing both motherhood and her writing equally, and intertwined, even as the rest of the world and the culture around her (including her own mother) pushed back as hard as it could. Echlin writes: “It is important to remember just how unacceptable it was to have a child out of wedlock in Canada in the 1940s. It is equally important to remember just how unacceptable it still is, in certain circumstances and cultures. Birth control and abortion were illegal in Canada until 1969. Our social services are still required to support young women who are estranged from their families because of babies conceived and born outside of marriage. Though we no longer have “homes for unwed mothers” run by religious groups, we continue to need similar services that have evolved from these roots.” In another part of the book, Echlin writes:

The narrator of By Grand Central Station is no victim. Her pregnancy is part of the continuum of her love affair. She willingly welcomes the husband’s betrayal of his wife. She feels no empathy for the husband:

                How can I pity him even though he lies so vulnerable up there in the stinging winds, when every hole that bleeds me was made by a kiss of his? He is beautiful as allegory. He is beautiful as the legend the imagination washes up on the sand.

When even considering the combinations of writing and parenthood, my first thought is always of Toronto writer Margaret Christakos, one of the finest contemporary Canadian poets overall, and one who provides one of the deepest, most complex and most complete portraits of parenting and children (as well as language theory, experimental writing, sexuality and the body). From her wipe.under.a.love (The Mercury Press, 2000), she speaks her fears aloud, writing a depth of “domestic” that acknowledges the absolute primal aspects of the experience: “i turned from one baby to catch / the other, and the first spilled / from the small staircase, grating / her temple in sand, at contact / the neck was mid-twist and imaginably / snapped. these are the futures i propose / before i sleep: you will never break / i will never lose you, the air / will cushion untoward outcomes.” Another poem in the same sequence reads:


my breasts out of their bra cups
swing low, sweet chariots of milk
the babies rode into the sunset, horses
rehooved several times, the coach
reupholstered for aesthetic comfort
the reins gone slack. leather doesn’t last
forever despite the advertisements
coming for to carry me home

            THEREFORE :
my breasts out of their bra cups
coming for to carry me home

Another personal favourite on the subject is New York City poet and doula Rachel Zucker, through her own trade poetry collections. As Christakos, Zucker is unafraid of being visceral or bloody when necessary, and she has written broadly, specifically and extensively of the experience of mothering, children and marriage through four books. Nearly the other side of the Christakos coin, Zucker writes out the emotions of every aspect of children, both good and bad, fearlessly delving into an exploration of what the entire experience means. In her third collection, The Bad Wife Handbook (Wesleyan University Press, 2007), the poem “Squirrels in a Palm Tree” includes:

some day they will leave you

                                                and you will visit the kingdom of adult concerns and never leave

and will want to and will dream of night wakings and tiny spoons of temperate cereal on hands and knees for spilled cumin seeds you will remember the every night of tiny things back in boxes and on shelves and under and in and the ache ache ache of your back as he learns to walk or the relief of finally squatting in a parking lot to nurse him stop that wail

a woman with young children is not a woman but a mammal, salve, croon, water carrier

                                                                     she has a prize they all desire

                                                                                                         lift, lift, life

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include the forthcoming notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), and a second novel, missing persons(2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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