When I was in labor, at the height of contractions I began to scream, “Mama! Mama! Mama!” in a voice I did not recognize: I had never in my life called my mother “Mama.” Yet, despite my delirium, I experienced a surge of strength beyond muscle, reason, determination. Time and space collapsed, the nurses and midwife stopped whispering the word Caesarean, and I delivered my son vaginally despite the mounting odds.
Carmen Giménez Smith’s memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds: On Mothering, Art, Work, and Everything Else, returned me to this experience anew and allowed me to recognize my maternal strength, stamina, and grit. Bring Down the Little Birds carries the power to shift our perception of motherhood and the way we see ourselves as mothers. “The word mama existing in so many languages,” Giménez Smith writes, “Or is it all languages? Mother, roots that fix me to the earth. Umbilical tethers. Matrices, then cicatriz. . . . Spanish for scar. Motherhood = scar. The stretch marks on the skin over my hips, that cradle they make. Matrices like the pith of an orange, ragged and juicy.”
An award-winning author of three poetry collections — Goodbye, Flicker; The City She Was; and Odalisque in Pieces — Giménez Smith brings poetic impulse to every syllable of her latest work. At once memoir, book-length essay, and epic poem (motherhood as heroic quest), Bring Down the Little Birds gathers, weaves, and illuminates the multi-faceted complexities of motherhood. I am tempted to label it a “literary nest” spun from fragments of experience, memory, reflection, imagination, pop culture, literature, and language.
The book opens when Giménez Smith is pregnant, her daughter is “the bud of a baby inside me,” and her son is a toddler. Early in this second pregnancy, she discovers that her own mother is beginning to fail, her memory in decline. It is this tension — pregnant daughter facing mother’s mortality — that propels the plot and provides a vantage from which Giménez Smith explores the interior and exterior landscapes of motherhood. She begins with the interior:
I daydream that I’m thirteen sitting in an attic in my mother’s wedding dress. I discover a notebook, in it the evidence of my mother’s secret life. I write notes from her book into mine, which is, years later, discovered by my son.
This opening fragment binds three generations through a mother’s uncensored musings and also lays the groundwork for the structure of the book. Bring Down the Little Birds reads like the notebook of a mother who snatches bits of time to jot down her thoughts. Yet make no mistake: this is a literary notebook crafted by a poet who delights in each turn of phrase — “Aging motherhoods you,” for example — and who trusts us to follow the associative leaps of her mind forward and backward in time. The opening continues:
From my mother’s imaginary notebook: sketch of dancer, sketch of cabaret singer. I engage in gluttony and wild behavior.
I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet [Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own].
From my notebook: A secret is a curse. I was picked from the throngs with nothing to show.
I wonder if my children will one day discover my secret life?
Will they read the notebooks in my study? Will they care?
By weaving literary quotations into her narrative without citations (credits are appended), Giménez Smith reveals the mind of a woman who is both mother and writer. This clash of identities sparks Giménez Smith’s internal conflict: “Which is it: Selfish Mother or Selfless Mother? Is this the only choice?”
I know lots of mothers. Mothers who mother and rock climb, mothers who mother and midwife. But writing further complicates the idea of how one makes things in the world, other things. Words, thought, language. I’m talking about language. . . .
Anything I try to write: fraught with motherhood.
As her pregnancy progresses, her own mother’s memory further deteriorates. The relief of an eventual diagnosis — brain tumor — is nullified by fear of the unknown: Will her mother survive the surgery? Indeed, fear of her mother’s mortality heightens the narrative’s urgency as it deepens Giménez Smith’s yearning to know her mother, a yearning that contains the emotional truth of the narrative. Giménez Smith needs to know her mother (hence, the imaginary notebook) to relieve her own internal mother-writer divide, a divide that threatens to silence her writer self, embitter her mother self. She roots this conflict in the way she sees her mother: “Because I cared little for my mother’s interior, it didn’t exist for me. My mother couldn’t be a mystery. . . . She was only a mystery when I needed one for the story I made of my life.”
The mystery, we understand, sparks Giménez Smith’s burning question: What exactly is motherhood and who am I as a mother and how in the hell did my mother do this? This question insists that she look at her mother not through the eyes of the girl she once was or the rebellious adolescent or the dismissive young adult, but through the eyes of who she is now, a mother-writer expecting her second child and feeling conflicted about the demands of motherhood and, indeed, her identity as a mother. “Why I became a writer: To write my mother’s way out of the tedium.”
Giménez Smith then shifts the lens to her identity as a writer’s wife — her husband is writer Evan Lavender-Smith — and her husband’s experience as a father. She weaves this thread into the central mother/wife-writer conflict when her husband “gently suggests that our son is watching too much television.”
I think: Better a child versed in Gilligan’s Island than a mother in a padded room. Better a pop-culture blogger than a mother who irons his underwear because somewhere along the line she lost herself.
Writing, for Giménez Smith, becomes an act of self-preservation, a measure against loss of self, that she continues to contrast with her husband’s experience: “I can’t admit I need the writing like he does. Or he doesn’t believe me: Wolf wolf.”
This passage offers a wry innuendo that suggests the mother/wife-writer as a wild, yowling animal while simultaneously invoking Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the central conflict of women’s literary history: time and space to write. Perkins Gilman, a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century feminist writer and lecturer, argued that a woman “should be able to have marriage and motherhood, and do her work in the world also.” Giménez Smith, who is a professor of creative writing at New Mexico State University, carries this torch, as it were, into the twenty-first century. She draws on her experience in the “world of work” to voice the friction between motherhood and career:
I try to explain the timeline of pregnancy to my boss. I think to say, I feel as if I am floating on air but also fraught with arrows, but of course I end up telling her it will be very easy to balance work and family. I efface the rigors of the last weeks of pregnancy, guarantee that I will stop working for one, two weeks at most.
Thus emerges a portrait of a woman who exercises her smarts to preserve not only her sense of self but also her job and her dignity: her freedom. In doing so, Giménez Smith pushes back against the biases still leveled at mothers in the workforce today without minimizing the internal conflicts that continue to pull women in so many directions.
Despite this heavy reality, Giménez Smith never loses her sense of humor, which is wickedly self-deprecating. “I’ve got a bustling bottom,” she writes at the height of pregnancy, “These days, if I wanted to — and yes, I want to — I could knock down skinny, childless women with my bottom.” After her daughter is born, she muses on how her mother, who kept herself fashionable, “mothered and played lovely at the same time.” In assessing her own “mien,” Giménez Smith quotes a refrigerator magnet: “Does my fat ass make my fat ass look fat?” thus layering her literary landscape with pop culture and her own unapologetic quirks. My favorite instance of her ubiquitous quest for identity occurs en route to Disneyland to vacation with her mother before her mother’s surgery:
Who am I? I ask myself at the airport magazine stand. Am I Vogue or am I Good Housekeeping? Allure or Redbook? I want to be Forever 21, but I’m actually Ann Taylor.
Signature Giménez Smith, this short fragment manages to convey the cultural expectations of womanhood, her own internalized self-image, and the implicit reality that career women — Ann Taylors — lack the tight-jeans sex appeal of twenty-one year olds.
Bring Down the Little Birds upholds the tradition of memoir in that personal experience illuminates motherhood, but the book also engages an essayist’s tendency to penetrate a topic in relentless effort toward self-discovery. “It is a thorny undertaking,” wrote Montaigne, “to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds, to pick out and immobilize the innumerable flutterings that agitate it.” The crux of Giménez Smith’s “thorny undertaking”? Rage. A rage that further escalates the mother-writer conflict:
A long day at home, no work. Full of resentment. . . .
My thoughts turn to violence. To rage, screaming. . . .
I remember. . . antagonizing my mother. She snapped and dragged me to the bathroom, put me in a cold shower. I shrieked as the water struck my clothes. . . .
Is this abuse? I wouldn’t do it to my son. . . But I understand the impulse. I yell. I rage. . . .
My mother’s rages passes onto me, into me.
By writing her rage back to its “innermost folds,” its roots in her own mother and her own childhood, Giménez Smith begins to diffuse the mother-writer conflict until motherhood and writing converge. Motherhood becomes her syntax, her language: “When I resisted writing about them [her children], I had nothing to say. Now I spend entire days composing around them, around me through them. Motherhood is my subject and my object.”
Yet as all mother-writers know, resolution is never that easy, that final. Giménez Smith continues to ask, “Art or motherhood?” and with that question a return to rage:
. . . one day my son slaps me across the face. A straight-up bitch slap. And within a microsecond of his hand touching my face, I slap him back. Stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury [Euripedes]. Wow. I’m that mother, the one yanking her kid by the arm out of the grocery store, the one who gets really close in her kid’s face and hisses.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The Spanking Mother. The Mother Trapped in a Cycle. . . .
To return to her. . . to repossess and be repossessed by her [Adrienne Rich]. Don’t know where my anger comes from or where to put it. To retreat into myself: the dream I have. To undo whatever moved me to hit him. I am a history of mothering.
By realizing herself in this climactic moment of discovery as a “history of mothering,” Giménez Smith elevates mothering to a phenomenon worthy of its own history, its own plot, its own story. And she understands this: Motherhood demands that you show up as your own flawed self, whoever you are, in whatever period in time you are a mother. This includes Giménez Smith; this includes her own mother. Two women who are, finally, less flawed than they are human, joined by desire, by regret, by mortality, and by a lineage of mothers. I cried. The kind of tears that shift perception, promise transformation.