Zoe Deschanel & the Narrative Arc

Zooey Deschanel

If this were a movie and someone slyly beautiful were playing me, say Zooey Deschanel (with thick glasses to make her look a little less Deschanel), we’d be approaching some kind of zenith, we’d be belaying up a sheer rock face to the tippy top of the narrative arc

where we might temporarily mistake denouement for enlightenment. We might have to endure one more lonely, blood-red sunset, possibly a shipwreck, a little suspension of disbelief or just a suspension bridge with a few key rungs missing, but these hardships would fall away as the deus ex machina of forgiveness and enlightenment are lowered creakily into place,

followed closely by significant weight loss, removal of the glasses, and the heroine, recognized for what she really is—talented, misunderstood, secretly hot—is rewarded with a book deal, a manageable amount of fame and fortune, great clothes and just enough star-fucking, perhaps only briefly interrupted by a minor collapse which serves only to intensify our pleasure when we do, indeed, reach resolution.

Sadly, this is not a movie. Our stories aren’t like that. Our lives are more subtle. The outlines can be hard to make out, especially when we’re in the midst of drawing them. Kind of like poetry, actually.

And the shape of Pokey’s path to enlightenment—if enlightenment it was, and if path it was–looked a lot more EKG readout than dramatic arc. There were spikes, to be sure, places where she felt she was close to understanding how to move forward, but mostly it was feeling her way in the dark.

So, if after the last post you were thinking Pokey had reached some kind of resolution, you’d be right, but only temporarily. I think what’s true is that I found a place to begin.

The Starting Place

Pokey had to let go of certain ideas and habits she held dear: first and foremost, that the only way she could write was to have long stretches of time alone, produce acres of free-writing, and revise, revise, revise.

Nope. Not possible. My creative process needed to bend to my new reality: not enough time, very little silence, ongoing sleep deprivation and a head filled with the minutiae of family life—some of it cherished, but much of it mundane. Not the stuff from which we think to make art. At least, that’s what Pokey used to believe. (More about that to come.)

It’s not a coincidence that about this time Pokey began to write “found” poems: collages of interesting shiny bits stolen from other people’s writing, sometimes poetry, but just as often from text books, newspaper articles, museum catalogs, etc.

Pokey Mama: Starling of the Poetry World

What’s interesting about working this way is that the poems still reflected my concerns—my life and my obsessions, but I felt safer expressing myself because the process created a helpful kind of distance. I didn’t have to produce words, I just needed to select and order them. Not Warhol’s factory, not that distanced, but maybe Duchamp’s “ready-mades” or Cornell’s boxes. (I wish I could name a woman artist here, but you see, I can’t, which is an interesting problem I’ll have to write about another time).

Looking at it as a Mother AND…it was as if these patched-together poems I made weren’t quite my children. I wasn’t really responsible for them. It was OK if they watched too much TV and ate Pop-Tarts for breakfast.

Maybe this is cowardly. But it was what Pokey needed to do at the time—remember, she’s hanging by her tastefully manicured nails from a precipice, right?

The other handy thing about making collage poems is that I could snatch a few minutes during nap or play time and work on a poem without feeling like I needed to lock myself in the bathroom and pretend I had the stomach flu in order to get some time.

I learned to make do with what I had. Stop and go. Drop and roll. Catch as catch can.

Some of the poems from this time aren’t half bad, and they were incredibly fun to write. In a way, it was refreshing, allowing myself to move away from myself—kind of like what I’m doing here: looking back from a distance.

A few of the poems even made their way into my new book. I wrote one where I used only first lines of Emily Dickinson’s poems; that was a really interesting project. (See below) First, as a bonus, here’s an image of a piece by artist Lesley Dill, who uses the life, mythology and poetry of Dickinson extensively in her work.

Lesley Dill: Small Poem Dress (the Soul Selects)

See, I knew I could work in a woman artist!

And here’s my piece.  “Stolen” from one of our great “domestic” poets.

Soul Accounting

I had not minded walls.
I had some things that I called mine.
I read my sentence steadily
from blank to blank.
I breathed enough to take the trick.
I asked no other thing.

It was a quiet way.
It would have starved a gnat.

The sky is low, the clouds are mean—
the moon upon her fluent route
the reticent volcano keeps.
Cocoon above, cocoon below—
How soft this prison is!

Perhaps you think me stooping—
a little dog that wags its tail—
my heart upon a little plate
pink, small, and punctual.

Alone and in a circumstance
I saw no way – the heavens were stitched|
within my reach.
The future never spoke.

Of course I prayed.
Oh give it motion, deck it sweet…
If ever the lid gets off my head…
Over and over, like a tune.

There comes an hour when begging stops—
the clock strikes one that just struck two.
On such a night, or such a night—
today or this noon—
the life that’s tied too tight escapes.

Dreams are well but waking’s better.

So I pull my stockings off.
Soul, take thy risk!
Bring me the sunset in a cup—

the brain is wider than the sky.

Yes, it is, reader. Yes it is.

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.
 

the guiddesses

…but who can tolerate the power of a woman

close to a child, riding our tides

into the sand dunes of the public spaces.

–Alicia Suskin Ostriker, from “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas”

When last we left Pokey she was doodling her way towards enlightenment, having at least identified the shape of what might be her journey (remember the labyrinth?) but still looking around for her very own Virgil—meaning, a guide. And since she’d been granted the opportunity to study her stuckness at The Center (see Pokey Leaves Purgatory) Pokey had to stop stalling. Push through. (Yes, I recognize the birth imagery!) Or, to be excessively poetic, answer the questions that beat against her in the dark with their rough wings. Thwwwack. Thwwwack.

Hitchcock Barbie

So, what were those questions? Pretty simple, really:

Why, if I love my children, don’t I always love being a mother? (Even now, writing that feels like a betrayal, the most shameful of admissions.)

Why, if I love writing, do I not feel like a writer anymore?

What am I supposed to be now, and how do I learn to love it?

As I look back at my emergent Pokey self it’s painful to see how intensely confused and alone I felt as a young mother. A young Mother And…as I’m calling it, now that I have the AND more firmly battened down. I was desperate for company, for connection and understanding. I joined breastfeeding groups and baby-massage groups and play groups and met some nice people, learned a few tricks, was slightly less bored. I was also told by my local La Leche League “leader” that my problems with breastfeeding were probably my own fault and no, they couldn’t help me figure it out.

Yes, she really said that.

In these modern times where all kind of Mommy Blogs run rampant, it may surprise you that Pokey didn’t have anybody to grab her and give her a few kind slaps: c’mon, stop being so hard on yourself. You’re doing fine. It’ll get better. That sort of thing.

Well, a LOT has changed in ten years. Where I live in western Massachusetts, for example, there’s now an amazing organization, MotherWoman, that offers meaningful, non-judgmental support for new and not-so-new mothers. I would’ve sold my soul for someplace like that, where I could be heard and hear, and not be thrown out of the good mommies club for admitting I was supplementing my paltry milk output with formula. Gasp! and that I couldn’t wait to have my own bed back. To sleep, perchance to dream…

My search for poems about motherhood of the non-Hallmark variety was similarly discouraging—where was everybody? Was I the only woman poet in the English-speaking world trying to figure this out? Did I really have to choose either Sylvia Plath (despair!) or Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul (sunshine!) for company? And more important, why wasn’t anyone talking about this thing that so engulfed me: the fact that writing about motherhood was fraught with taboo, and even if you did write about it, no one wanted to publish it. I’m not saying these poems and poets didn’t exist, but they certainly weren’t front and center. At least, not in Pokey’s neighborhood.

So, now that I’d envisioned the shape of what might be my heroic quest, it was time to wrench myself free from my inertia, set off, and get real with the research. And since Pokey needed to be home in time to pick the kids up from daycare and get dinner going, it would need to be a quick, highly efficient quest. No long odyssey on the wine dark sea for this lady.

The Odyssey

Fortified with naught but a hazy idea, library card, notebook and water bottle, Pokey set out on the long, dangerous trek across the quad to the Mt. Holyoke College library (actually a rather pleasant five minute walk from my office at FCWSRC.)

I love libraries. Little ones. The kind where you march straight to the fiction section, fill your arms with books and spend the rest of the day on the couch munching your way through them. Big college libraries, on the other hand, intimidate me. I spent little time in them as an undergrad, which explains much about my struggles there, but that’s another story. And I’m not good at asking questions, either, so usually have skulk around, get on the wrong elevator a few times and wander fruitlessly in the stacks.

And then there’s the light thing. You know how they have those timers at the end of the stacks? Yeah, it took Pokey a while to get the hang of those; she’d just about have her finger on CP.5723.B2 1973 and the lights would click off, leaving Pokey alone in a long, dark, alley of verse. It felt a little too much metaphorical, and a lot too much like scary movie.

The Birds

(What is with those birds!?!)

Anyway, I found great poetry, for sure, great women poets, definitely, but not a whole lot to buoy Pokey’s quest. In the dark corridor of the 2000-aughts, the closest I found was an anthology, No More Masks, named for Muriel Rukeyser’s groundbreaking poem:

Orpheus

When I wrote of the women in their dances and

wildness, it was a mask,

on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,

it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,

fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone

down with song,

it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from

myself.

There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory

of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued

child

beside me among the doctors, and a word

of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,

the fragments join in me with their own music.

The anthology included some amazing mother poems: dark, enraged, celebratory, real. It was good to find poems that weren’t afraid to explore complexity of motherhood, not just the condition of mothering itself, but the condition of woman/mother/writer. Cynthia MacDonald’s, “Instruction from Bly” blew me away, as did Alicia Ostriker’s, “Propaganda Poem” excerpted above and Toi Derricotte’s “The Naming.” These were the guiddesses at hand, and I was grateful, but the anthology was published in 1973: where were the women of my generation and after?

Again, this may seem strange to you young folk born after 1980. In the past five years or so a lot of Mom poets have come out of the closet: strong books are being written (and published) by women about motherhood, and some actually get reviewed. (Henrietta Goodman’s, Take What You Want, and Nicole Cooley’s,  Milk Dress, to name just a couple). Many more women are out there now, writing as mothers, in very different ways. Not just about mothering, in a literal, narrative sense, but in and through motherhood. (If you’re not sure what Pokey means, stay tuned, she’ll be getting to that in another post.)

Point is, these days, we have some choices, other Mothers AND… to look to, and be inspired, and yes—guided by. That’s all to the good. Lest you think, however, that Pokey’s turning Pollyanna and the quest is over—fear not. Or be very afraid. There’s lots more work to do. Witness two of the top articles I found when I googled “woman poet mother.”

The first is a NYTimes piece from 1908, where an irate (and articulate) woman wrote in to straighten them out about Elizabet Barrett Browning in particular and women artists in general. Could’ve been written yesterday.  The other is a piece from April 15 of this year at Psychology Today by Ariel Gore: Can You Be a Writer AND a Mother?

Well reader, can you?

Or, to paraphrase Ms. Ostriker, can you ride your tide into the sand dune of the public space?

pokey finds the labyrinth

Part the Second of Pokey’s adventures studying motherhood and poetry (aka herself) as an Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center

So there was Pokey, box of books and laptop in hand, settling into her office at The Center. Through the high plaster walls she could hear other women getting their nests in order, too. File drawers rolled out and back with authority, highlighters thumped into drawers, pens clattered into broken-handled mugs, hot pots yearned for three-pronged outlets.

We were Associates now. No Fellows here, at The Center, and certainly no fellow-ships, but a wild band of women Associates, itching to bust up the place with our research.

Some of my Associate sisters were, indeed, hot on the trail of some idea or cause at the center of their project. They were PHD’s or post-docs or just more studious (and serious) then I’d ever learned to be. Also, some of them had come here from countries where education, especially for women, was in short supply, and they were not going to waste a precious minute of their time. I was awed by them, and as usual, felt a bit junior. It was hard for me to explain what I was doing there—it felt embarrassingly minor compared to their projects (yes, Pokey excels at invidious comparisons). I didn’t yet know how what I learned (if I succeeded in learning anything) would apply to other women out in the world.

Pokey needed a guide.

Remember, I’d left Purgatory, but where I was going from there I hadn’t a clue. I heard my heroes—Plath, Rich, Bishop, Moore, Olsen, these poets I thought of as my guides—telling me the only way left was down. These women, some with children, some most definitely not, whispered to me:

Face it. Trying to write and be a mother is hard. In fact, you’ll almost certainly fail, never be heard from again, won’t write, won’t publish, or maybe you’ll stick your head in an oven.      

    

It wasn’t encouraging.

But I also knew that it wasn’t just circumstance that was holding Pokey back. Remember my application essay: What exactly are we stuck inside that closes our mouths? What spell are we under and who has cast it?  

What was stopping me?

Now, when Dante was lost he had this guy, Virgil, as a guide. Virgil was a poet!!! I love that. And Pokey needed a poet guide, too, a whole posse of poet guides, preferably mothers. She needed to know she wasn’t crazy or alone, or that she wouldn’t end up crazy and alone. Most of all, she had to figure out why she felt so estranged from her own experience, why she couldn’t value it.

(Note Virgil's red pants!)

So, while my Associates carried on with their quests I took walks through the Mt. Holyoke campus and sat at my desk, flipping through texts, staring out the window and…doodling. Yes, Pokey spent a good several weeks frittering and dithering. Part of me trusted that despite appearances (not so good) I was going somewhere. I was a writer, writing is a process, everybody’s process is different. Right?

The other (louder) part was freaked out. Pokey, no! You mustn’t waste your time this way! Not again!

I chewed and chewed and chewed on this sorry state, and one day, as I was doodling, this time on a piece of colored paper (woohoo, big doins!) I began to write, starting at the very edge of the page, creeping along the edge and turning the paper at each corner so that what I was writing began to look like a maze. I wrote and wrote, in teeny handwriting, until I got to the center of the page and could go no further.

This is the actual page. I saved it.

Pokey couldn’t explain why this felt like a breakthrough, but it did. Something about the process felt essential. She could feel it in her body. She looked at what she wrote and it was kind of like a maze, except there was only one way in, and one way out. Not a maze, but a labyrinth.

Why did I know that? I don’t know! I just did.

So Pokey hauled herself off to the library, and this is some of what she found out: the form of the labyrinth, and walking a labyrinth as a tool for meditation and prayer has been going on for a very long time. Labyrinths that were laid out hundreds of years ago with stone markers still exist, and some of the most ancient cathedrals have tile floors inlaid with labyrinths.  (And don’t forget the David Bowie movie!)

The most important thing to remember about a labyrinth is that it’s not a maze. It doesn’t try to trick you, there are no high hedges or walls obscuring the way to the center, and its path is unicursal, there is only one way in and one way out. BUT—though the labyrinth does not deliberately lead you astray, it does meander, thus at times you may feel as if you are moving farther away from the center rather than closer to it.

Maybe Pokey didn’t have a guide but she had a map. And it looked strangely similar to her brain.

The map told me that even if I was headed down, into the inferno or deeper into the dark woods, maybe I would come back. Don’t get me wrong, Pokey was still scared, she still wished for those mother-poets to guide her, but she had an inkling, a tiny kernel of confidence that she could do this, Warrior-Pilgrim-Associate-Cowgirl-Poet-Mother that she was.

Jorgen Holmuth says in the introduction to his book, Labyrinths & Mazes: “Everything can become a labyrinth…everywhere the centre threatens to disappear…but the message of the labyrinth is to trust yourself—you will find the way.”

Aha!

Next time: the Guiddesses.

pokey leaves purgatory

Time to pick up the thread of the last Birth of Pokey post—no, not those red pants again! The thread of how Pokey wriggled her way out of the little box she was in, not-so-affectionately known as writer’s block.  If you’ve never had writer’s block, or its equivalent for your chosen work (bread that refuses to rise, bad trades, unstuck landings) it’s difficult to describe, and possibly it’s different for everyone. For me, it was like being in thought prision: I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t move on to something else. My own personal purgatory.

Dante

I was desperate for a guide (you know how Pokey loves experts) and I wanted badly to feel connected to other women like myself, poets and artists who had traveled this same confusing terrain.  So, Pokey being Pokey, I decided I needed to study the problem, and that I had to ditch the sweatpants and get out of my house. 

Because I’m old I can’t exactly remember how it happened, but I came across a description of the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center, an organization with an annoyingly long name but, luckily for me, a funky old house on the Mt. Holyoke campus with a residency program for visiting women scholars. No money, but an office, a parking sticker, library card, and a community of women with some fairly serious cred.

I know what you’re thinking: whoa, there, Pokey—scholars?!? One skinny poetry book and an MFA do not a scholar make. Nevertheless, reader, Pokey had just the right combination of recklessness, naiveté and foolish optimism to apply to the program. So she did; she thought of herself as a problem (not much of a stretch) and proposed to study herself.

Here is the actual excerpt from my application. I opened with the beginning of Dante’s Divine Comedy; I wanted to impress them with my scholarness! :

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell

About those woods is hard…

At the age of 42 I find myself at a stopping place. Maybe stuck, hopefully not. One foot mired in motherhood: two small children, a house, a partner, too many part-time jobs. The other foot dangles in mid-air, hovering above what used to be: my writing, a book, teaching, near-ecstatic sojourns at artists’ colonies. I look around for signs. Where to go? I look for strength, for models. You can do this. You can integrate mothering with writing, dredge up the energy, unearth what used to live: a sense of connection with the burgeoning world, a peaceful center inside of which lives creative energy, inspiration, sometimes a kind of resolution and joy.

I look around. I listen. Where are the mother- poets? Far-off voices. A few faint cries. But mostly silence. How can this be, when not only the woods but the fields, the streams the skies, the oceans are teeming with “us?” What exactly are we stuck inside that closes our mouths? What spell are we under and who has cast it? It’s the canon, it’s the critic, it’s our internalization of what’s deemed “fit” for poetry. It’s guilt or shame, the fear of being judged an unfit mother or even worse—a boring one.

Or Tillie Olson was right. Adrienne Rich was right. We are all too busy changing diapers, planning meals and washing dishes to write, to even think about writing. It’s a matter of economy and exhaustion. Of race and class and place. Or it’s… what?

These are impressions. I am not a scholar, not an academic. I am a writer and mother trying to put together a puzzle of which I am a part. This project is as much about recreating my selfhood, as it is about the work itself. I will be learning to do the kind of thorough research, analysis and documentation that the project requires. At the same time I will be challenging myself to do what I am looking for in others: write poems about and out of motherhood that feel true to its complexity, its darkness and light.

Pretty good, right? And guess what? They let me in! Ha!

Naturally, I immediately went into panic mode.  What if they figured out I was a total mess? How long would it take for them to realize that Pokey’s idea of “thorough research, analysis and documentation” is tearing out articles from the Times Book Review and tucking them into my datebook? What if they asked to see actual poems written during my stay? What if I had to give a…lecture?

We’ll return to my stay at The Center (as I liked to call it) in another post, but for now I’ll say this: eventually I figured out which elevator to use in the library, pulled off some research, didn’t write that many poems, and did give a (fabulous) lecture complete with visual aids.

Blake

But mostly, two or three times a week I drove 40 minutes to my narrow slice of an office with its tall, Gothic window, and sat at my desk, taking in the pleasure of my aloneness in the company of others: a passionate, committed, intensely smart and quirky group of women who believed in the project that was me. They wanted me to figure it out.  They thought it was important.  They thought it was interesting.

And this, dear reader, is what we can offer each other as we stumble around inside our rickety thought balloons, bumping into walls and wondering if we’re OK and if anyone notices or cares. Yes, yes, and yes.

Paradise.

Next time: the Labyrinth

the birth of pokey, part II

In which Pokey becomes a Master of Regret and encounters Temporary Blindness.

My friend Maya describes how she recently came across a photograph of herself at a party when her daughter was an infant. “I was wearing red pants! Red pants! What was I thinking? Who does that?”

This, dear reader, is the question of the day.

As some of you know, Pokey Mama weaves back and forth between what’s going on today and how Pokey came to be. It’s time to pick up the thread of what happened after she gave birth and got wise to some of the truths of mothering (spoiler alert: it’s not just the lack of sleep).

My daughter was three when my son was born and I was working freelance, trying to jimmy the lock on my time. I missed writing, missed mornings when I could let the world in by increments, chewing on my own thoughts, ideas bubbling up, taking for granted the leisure to consider and discard. And because Pokey is Pokey, I held what I missed more dearly than what I’d gained. I couldn’t stop looking at my new life through the lens of my old life. I raged against the constraints of the new.

Reader, I did not go gently.

I would hear people say (especially older women):  Treasure this part of your life, they’re babies for such a short time, it’ll be over before you know it, blah, blah, blah.  Well, yes…and no. For me, the early years of mothering were a kind of suspended animation: I could see the cosmos racing away from me outside my spaceship porthole; I knew great stuff was happening out there, I think I even realized, in some tiny dinosaur region of my brain, that I was doing a pretty decent job as a mother, but I couldn’t take it in.

 

I watched other Moms gaze deeply into the faces of their children as if they would never tire of looking at them, never grow impatient with what I saw as the bland diet of infancy. I did my share of gazing, but at the periphery of my vision my “other life,” my writing, that abandoned child, was out there, standing at the bus stop in the rain, no umbrella, no yellow slicker. I felt guilty for not writing and guilty for wanting time away from my kids to write. 

Yes, Pokey was hard herself, but I’m not the only one, am I? Can we ever be good enough mothers? (See Bear, Not Tree for more on that.)

So, here’s Pokey wringing her hands about not writing, longing for that old life, and then it happens: time. Isaac is settled in day care, Maddy in pre-school, glory be! Freedom! But instead of rushing to my desk and letting go of all that had been pressing on me, I found myself walking in circles. I did laundry, shopping, baked, organized closets; all very crucial stuff.

Ever see a dog turning round and round trying to find a spot to settle? That was Pokey, minus the settling.

I had no idea what to write about, or if I could write at all.  Some poets use big ideas as their engine: science, philosophy, history, the human condition. Most of my writing—and my first book—had been semi-autobiographical: stories of childhood, coming of age, angst and bad behavior. I hoped that my poems were not just navel-gazing and spoke to the larger world, but even if they did not, there was no question I had to write them. They emanated from my body; their engine, direct experience. I never really questioned whether anyone would care about them. They were my children; I loved them.

But as a mother trying to be a writer I felt completely exposed. I had always resisted the idea that my writing would be pegged as “women’s work.” I wanted to fly outside the boundaries imposed on women by tradition and the canon, resist the labels by which women’s poetry was stamped: domestic, sentimental, minor. Problem was, I saw my life as contracted, diminished, and if I saw it that way, how could I make it interesting to anyone else? For a long while, the answer was— I couldn’t.

Pokey was blocked.

If we look back at our Pokey posts we see how the threads come together: desire for perfection + self doubt + need for approval from “experts” = blindness. For Pokey, this meant waiting for somebody to tell her she was doing a good job, award her that elusive gold star. It meant she couldn’t see herself and her life as it was: different, but not gone. Definitely checkered with boredom and anxiety but also with pleasure and discovery. Imperfect, but real.

And maybe it wasn’t raining at the bus stop. Maybe Pokey’s writing was hunkered down in a warm burrow, dreaming. Maybe she was loving her kids just exactly the right way for them and for her.

I like to imagine that Pokey’s done with all that tortured self-doubt and regret, but it’s an ongoing struggle—the conflict of who I feel myself to be, who I want to be and who society tells me I am or ought to be is powerful medicine. Let’s not pretend that all is roses for Pokey and for women, artists or no, mothers or no. For me, making this blog is a big piece of my resistance. Telling my story in the here and now, looking it in the eye, speaking to you, reader, letting you decide.  

Getting here, however, was not an easy road, or a straight one. Red pants were almost certainly worn, and worse. There’s more to tell.  Next week (or sometime soon) Pokey Goes to College!

no place like home

click.click.click.   

In the poetry workshop I taught this fall we talked a lot about repetition and variation. We agreed that repetition can be a good thing in a poem, like an engine moving you forward when you think you might be stuck. It worked for Dorothy: there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place…and she’s back on the farm, everything hunky and dory.

But first, don’t forget, she had a little  work to do: road trip, put together a crew, keep the crew out of the poppies, get the monkeys off her own back, steal the goods, incidental murder, dethrone the pretender, lost balloon. Or, as we call it in Pokey country, Another Effing Growth Experience. Or, if we go back to the poetry metaphor: Variation. Deviance. Mixing it up.

So when Dorothy stands before Glinda, footsore, heartsore and having succeeded at a task no one believed she’d even survive, and Glinda bobs her head around like a marionette and says ever-so-sweetly: Why Dorothy, you’ve always had the power to go home, don’t you know that? Does Dorothy smack Glinda upside the head with the broom and snap her shiny little wand in two?

No. She doesn’t. Because frankly, my dear—Glinda’s got a point. Dorothy had to want to go home. She had to want it.

Well, we’re three snow days into January, and Pokey has begun to imagine a tiny apartment in a foreign city, with just enough room for one. The repetition is accruing on par with the snow banks, and I’m not just talking routine, which admittedly, can get to me: Pokey does like her variety. I’m talking my son, who is 9, and excels both at emitting repetition and requiring it. The other day it was this:

I exist, I exist, I exist, I exist, I exist, I exist, I exist, I exist, I exist, I exist

You don’t exist, you don’t exist, you don’t exist, you don’t exist, you don’t exist

We exist, we exist, we exist, we exist, we exist, we exist, we exist, we exist

Over and over, until I did, indeed, question my existence and ordered begged him to stop.

No, he’s not reading Sartre. At least not to my knowledge. I think he just likes the feel of those words in his mouth. It soothes him. It’s his mantra. He’s up in his kingdom fitting tiny Lego pieces together without a plan, practicing Negative Capability, breathing in and out these words that have come to him from…somewhere.  And who is Pokey to deprive him of this clearly pleasurable activity when I myself have been known to get carried away at kirtan despite the fact that I know very few of the words and those I do know are in Sanskrit? Apparently, Pokey is all for repetition as long as she’s the one doing the repeating. Otherwise, Pokey would like to move on. As in, it’s 8:20. We’re about to be on time for school and I will not be late for work. All we have to do is get out the door.

Pokey Mama: Isaac, five minutes. (2X) (Yes, I know 2X5=10, this isn’t that kind of time.)

Some items are gathered up. A boot is put on. The dog is ridden like a pony. Attempt to locate snow pants. The plot from a book is re-told. Home work retrieved from kitchen table. Lunch box contents are examined. Name put on home work. Dog ridden like pony. Coat located. Gloves taken off to zip coat.  

                *                *                  *                 

(These star-thingys represent time passing wherein encouragement, nagging, cajoling and technical assistance are provided at intervals that correspond to rapidly decreasing levels of patience. Or they mean Dorothy’s going back to Kansas.)

Pokey breathes deeply throughout. She pretends the repetition is her mantra and at the end of this is enlightenment. She reminds herself that it’s better than it used to be. No one is crying. It used to be crying. Sometimes just him, but sometimes Pokey had to go stand outside the front door and whimper quietly to herself. Sometimes tears streamed down her face as she dropped her children off at school and drove away carrying the bad morning in her stomach like too many donuts.

She remembers how painful giving birth was, and how this is so much better than that. Better than colic, better than not sleeping, better than tantrums, better than toilet “learning,” better than chasing a toddler around at parties where delicate, expensive things on low shelves ache to be touched.  She knows this is just a new thing to learn, and then it will change, too. She reminds herself that they are making this moment together, Isaac and her, that it doesn’t belong to her alone.

(Yes, Pokey’s selfish, but we hope you love her anyway, because she’s trying, and for reasons to be discussed at a later time she often thinks of herself as alone when clearly she is not.)

Repetition, variation. Repetition, variation.

Isaac is ready, smiling. He tells a funny joke that isn’t really funny but he’s so happy in the telling of it and all of his clothes are on, his backpack is zipped and Pokey is smiling, too, as they make their way down the walk, almost on time, past the fort they made the other day when it was snowing and no one had to go anywhere and it was as if quiet was falling out of the sky with the snow and the snow held the quiet separate from the sound of their voices and their digging and fort-building, and it was easy to be happy with the progress they made which was not very much and therefore really quite considerable.

It’s good to be back.