As an intensely shy, bookish adolescent, I wrote poetry as a way to voice what I could not say out loud. Yet all the poets we read at school were white and male, and what female poets I discovered seemed doomed to write of madness (their own), or domesticity—views from kitchen windows, babies in cribs, perhaps a patriotic yearning for men at war. Ted Hughes, with his brutal depictions of nature, defined the current poetics. At university, I was chastised by an older male poet for using the word "plastic" in a poem. Later, I discovered the anthology of women's poetry, An Early Ripening, edited by Marge Piercy, and decided I should move to North America.
Since then I have figured out that it's not the subject of a poem that defines a poet's stance, but how they approach it. My third collection, Dream House, is ostensibly "about" midlife, the ageing and death of a mother and experiences of female embodiment, but its use of dense metaphoric language represents, amongst other things, my own rebellion against gendered definition and confinement. The following works of Canadian poetry and prose by female and trans writers excite and inspire me in terms of how they approach related themes with utter originality and fearlessness, and a maturity scarcely imaginable back in 1987 when Piercy's anthology was published. Do any of them contain the word "plastic?" To be honest, I don't remember. Either way, I hope they excite and inspire you, too.
Midwood, by Jana Prikryl
In this second collection of poems, Canadian poet Prikryl (now resident in the US) writes in a surreal, angular present tense of contemporary life interspersed with dream narratives, in a voice unlike any other. Midwood alludes to pregnancy loss, motherhood, childhood and the tension of moving through the world at one or two removes while maintaining the appearance of normalcy. "Can you reach abstraction without going/ through chaos/ winter asked itself, replied/ yes, fall was orderly/ in coming apart and I learned a lot/listening fully formed inside its head."
The Outer Wards, by Sadiqa de Meijer
A chronicle of early motherhood, illness, existential doubt and the beauty and terror of waking up alive and in service to an infant, The Outer Wards names the steps and the breaths a woman takes to pull herself forward each day and does so in poetry that reads like an Iliad of motherhood.
Grief Notes and Animal Dreams, by Jane Munro
Jane Munro has published several astonishing collections since this was published, however the poems in this collection about her mother, who died in a house fire, remain to me brilliant examples of how poetry can enter experiences of devastation and rescue beauty from them, the spare and unsparing lyricism of the unadorned truth, fully witnessed and known.
Exculpatory Lilies, by Susan Musgrave
When your relationship with the deceased is "complicated," what results after a bereavement is complex grief, a condition not well understood in a society where grief itself remains taboo.
This searing (and darkly humorous) collection of sharp, unsentimental and unsparing poems burns off the fog of cliché to render the experience of complex grief, and of living on, living after, vivid and true.
More House, by Hannah Calder
A savage, fearless romp through the macabre world of the nuclear family and indeed literary fiction itself, More House is dizzyingly meta, screamingly funny and devastatingly on point. A movie within a movie within a novel within the author's imagination, this brilliant experimental narrative set in the author's UK birthplace should be better known.
Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, by Priscila Uppal
Not all mothers are nice, and not all mothers stick around. The late Priscila Uppal's witty, clear-eyed memoir of attempting to reconnect with her mother, who abandoned her husband and children decades previously, is unputdownable.
Dream Rooms, by River Halen
These poetic meditations on the contradictory strangeness of daily life function on the one hand as a record of the author's life leading up to their coming out as trans. On the other, they enact a deconstruction of the binaries of literary genre, social gender, and moral hypocrisy. "At some point during the process / of understanding I was everyone/ I began to understand the moths/ were a ghost...." A generous, generative work that celebrates the revolutionary power of imagination.
Waking Occupations, by Phoebe Wang
This most recent collection from a powerful, original and incisive writer examines the pressures society puts on the "individual" to uphold colonial and patriarchal falsehoods, and in particular the use of the dream of home to manipulate and oppress.
White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood, by Rishma Dunlop (Editor)
This wide-ranging and ambitious anthology was conceived of, assembled and published before the MomLit craze took hold, and inspired by Rishma Dunlop's experience of early motherhood as a writer and academic, "writing in milk and night." It stands as a tribute to her, and her determination to render visible the web of connections between care and creativity.
My Ariel, by Sina Queyras
Too many women artists and writers are remembered not for their work, but for their lives. Sylvia Plath's poems were some of the first I read, by myself, as an adolescent, and I still feel as if I have a direct, personal relationship with her that predates her over-exposure as the tragic, overreaching mother par excellence. Queyras' propulsive, autobiographically-inflected repurposing of Plath's iconic posthumous work is gripping and virtuosic.
Learn more about Dream House:
A long poem in six sections, Dream House takes its cue from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space in its investigation of female embodiment, calling up such feral, liminal spaces as the pregnant body, the aging mind, snail shells, broom closets, low-ceilinged pubs and abandoned pizza boxes. Part Tardis, part townhouse, part Howl’s Moving Castle, this wry, surreal and many-peopled narrative interrogates what metaphor might hold of history, both personal and social, after a mother’s passing. Its migrant speaker trawls through hedgerows and recipe books to unearth stained birdsong and undead civil wars, tracing a matrilineal path across four generations while traversing the haunted margins between existence and belonging.
Comments herecomments powered by Disqus