One Way In, One Way Out

in which we pick up the thread of Pokey Mama’s struggle with post-partum writer’s block and her year as an Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center looking at the impact of motherhood on the work of women poets…

Are you old enough to remember the Wayback machine on the Rocky & Bullwinkle show? If so, picture Sherman and Mr. Peabody just for a moment, and walk through with Pokey to that moment of revelation, when she found The Labyrinth and realized that the only way out was to go further in.

She had to push through to the center of what was stopping her, tame it, sit with it, bake it some cookies, douse it with water and grab its broom, whatever it took to free herself; regardless of whether the construction was imagined, self-imposed, repurposed, home-made,

Pokey had to go there. And the way to go there was to write. Write those poems she was so afraid of, that she was certain were trite, tired and totally terrible (don’t you just love alliteration?)

and because Pokey was still in residence at The Center, still studying her condition with unparalleled navel-gazing abilities, she had to write about the writing too, because the end of her residency approacheth, and that meant The Talk.

The Talk was a public presentation of your work, proof you hadn’t frittered away free office space and parking privileges.

So Pokey signed up to give a talk in the fall and the fall came and went and she rescheduled her talk to the last available slot in April. Gave herself some breathing room. After all, she’d only just discovered the Labyrinth, only just met the Guidesses, she was just getting started!

Pokey is slow, and she needs her rest.

But there’s nothing like a deadline and the prospect of public humiliation for motivation. Pokey began to write, and it was painful, because she hated everything she wrote. Worse—she didn’t recognize her writing, it felt like it was coming from another person’s body.

Pokey wrote some terrible poems during this time. Terrible because they were written to please, written for some imagined judge, to sound like the poems of whoever was winning contests and getting published and having their picture taken by Marion Ettlinger.

Pokey's Faux Famous Author Headshot

I won’t show those poems to you.

If you’ve been following this story you know that Pokey would like you to think of her journey as a quest, because it makes her feel heroic, in a Lucy Lawless kind of way (remember Xena Warrior Princess?!?).

So we could think of those terrible poems as her trials and center of the labyrinth as being the darkest place you can go, the place where you have to stand naked, face your humanity or your cellulite—whatever for you is the scariest—your imperfection, your vulnerability,

and kill it.

Or we could think of the center as a place to stop, look around, maybe even rest, because, frankly, there’s no place else to go, and you’re probably pretty beat. Once released from the pressure of the quest, the feeling that there’s something to be gained by slaying the beast—a being of your own creation—once you let go of that, maybe the most heroic thing you can do is just hang out,

wait a while, see if the scary thing bites,

and when it doesn’t and when you’re ready,

take the trip again, but backwards.

Think of it as acceptance. Or practice.

Pokey found a kind of acceptance at The Center. She had the support and encouragement of real, live women: the other “fellows.” She found the guidesses, mother poets who came before and slogged through the patriarchal swamp before her, not exactly paving the way but at least leaving a rough trail to follow. Most of all, a couple times a week she had the time to let her head be empty of what was next on the endless mother-worker to-do list. That’s the practice part. I wish that for all mothers.

If I were a wealthy person I would establish a colony for Mothers AND… where they could come and work on a project or just sit and stare at the wall. If they wanted to bring their kids they could, but the kids would be at a fabulous daycare so the women wouldn’t have to feel guilty for taking their alone time. In the evenings, after the kids were in bed, the mothers could drink wine and talk and then walk back to their little studios under the stars…

Doesn’t that sound good?

Anyway, Pokey eventually got around to finishing her talk, and it turned out kind of well, but we’ll talk more about that later. She also managed to eke out some poems that she didn’t know were decent. Some of them have since been published—people liked them! But she couldn’t see that at the time. She knew only that she had to keep writing, and hoped she’d get where she wanted to go and it would look familiar, like home, but better. Nicer furniture. Painted woodwork. Gas stove. You get it.

Here’s one of the poems from that time: it’s in the Morning Song anthology and will be in my new book. It’s been a long haul, but I can finally appreciate it.

Most of all, I love that it’s a document of where I was in that moment of parenting my daughter, and where she was in her daughtering of me.  Now that she’s 13, we can read it together, which is pretty amazingly wonderful and great.

 In the Tree House
I empty the rusty teapot 
of blue water, mud and leaves,
retrieve pink tea cups
from the sand box, play food
strewn through the woods.
I put cups back on their hooks,
arrange ham beside pepper,
cabbage and egg.
I would live here forever

but as I sweep 
sand from the burners
on the painted toy stove,
sand my six year-old calls fire—
why can't you just leave it?
I remember this house is hers, 
and I have to give it back, leave 
a little fire on the stove, 
the sink, fire even on the floor.

21 thoughts on “One Way In, One Way Out

  1. I love that poem so much. That you knew about giving your daughter space and control even when she was young enough to play tea party in the tree house might be the reason that you are able to give her whatever space she needs now as a teenager. Inspires me. Humbles me. Gotta remember to let them make a mess… Thanks, Amy.

    1. what still amazes me about writing poetry is that i didn’t know that I knew until after i wrote the poem. I usually have only a faint idea–more like a pressure–when i begin, and when I’m done I discover what was behind the impulse. Usually the impulse is image or sound-based, not idea-based–so the idea is almost always a surprise. I love that! Thanks for the comment.

  2. I keep reading and re-reading this post, letting the words swirl around in my mind like a kind of centrifuge. And as it all settles and unswirls, here’s what sits with me:

    keep writing
    slay the beast
    been a long haul
    finally appreciate it

    Faith overcomes fear, doesn’t it? You keep proving it. Poke, I think you’re my modern day Rosie The Riveter. We Can Do It!!

  3. Another great post Pokey. I’m with you! I eagerly await the next installment – the quest, the slaying (or acceptance) of cellulite, the whole Pokey Mama Philosophy of life. A heartfelt and slow thank you!

  4. Thankyou again Pokey, for validating the mother/artist journey….You are such an inspiration, and hopefully as I get closer to venturing back into the studio – you will deem me worthy of your ” mother guidess “care!!! I love the labryinth, the” practice” ideas which I feel so strongly is the place I will struggle with most after such a long irregular hiatus from MY work Also can I be the first to sign up for the “Colony” ahhhh sounds like heaven and lastly, I’m not sure which is worse at this age, facing one’s humanity or cellulite really!!! hee,hee…

    1. i am not worthy, but would be more than happy to provide guidessness when you can find the space to return to your OTHER art form.
      But I do think cellulite tops humanity for scariness..

  5. thanks again, pokey. i check your new posts out without fail – always something to make me smile, remember, brood on. count me as one of your regulars!! and thanks…

  6. being of the age when Xena slayed Peabody, i so appreciate the layers and angles of this post– just came from a wedding where the cake had surprise fillings– tart next to sweet next to chocolate– it’s like this now as i savor this post

  7. Beautiful poem Ms. Pokey! I am still slogging my way to The Center. I am hopeful that when I get there I can stay for awhile.

    1. slogging is the preferred method of transport to The Center–you are doing exactly what you should be doing to get there and you are right on time. In fact, you may already have arrrived. Thanks for the shout out.

  8. i love the way back machine and the labyrinth..and xena..
    but most of all i love all the wandering around, ending up with the stellar final much fire can one floor withstand?

  9. I really like this.

    And I am impressed that you have raised a daughter who can understand some (all?) of this poem. You are raising a young woman who will be in touch with her artistic, empathetic and intellectual self.

    She is a gift to you, but you are to her as well with this kind of writing.

  10. In the Tree House is one of my favorites of all of your poems. It reminds me of when I cut all of the guns off of my kids cowboys and indians which left them “fiercely pointing at each other”….Ah what we mothers do!!! xox

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