Poetry or Prose: Writing and Motherhood
I have not written a poem since Max was born. I spent a few hours revising when he was about four months old, as a nap went on longer than expected. If revising had been on my to-do list, the files would have likely stayed closed. The last continuous stretch I had to write was while I was pregnant. As the days grew progressively hotter, and my body progressively larger, I worked on In the Light of Nothing, a manuscript that responds to the 52 sections of Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Whitman’s poem about the body, life and death, and poetry itself, was a guide into those themes. Some of the poems in the manuscript are nearly finished, while others are fragments. One draft of a poem, “Recitation for the Past,” has just two lines: “Blessed is however broken / you began.” I hear the poems calling me to complete them. The book calls to be completed.
But as soon as Max was on the way, I stopped deciding things alone. A vegetarian for 20 years, utterly averse to meat, by eight weeks of pregnancy I was eating chicken and steak. Max wanted me to eat, drink gallons of water, and sleep, sleep, sleep. The exhaustion was endless, nothing that coffee could touch. Not that I could stand the taste of coffee. I gained 60 pounds at least; I lost track. My body was so unfamiliar, I didn’t care.
By seven months, I couldn’t sit comfortably at my desk. I walked up and down the hallway of the department where I teach, holding books out in front of me. I was reading a collection of poems by Lea Goldberg, On the Surface of Silence, with a section called “Fragments.” She writes, “The distance between me and the poem’s she / is like the distance between my body and its shadow / on the wall.” Like Goldberg’s speaker, late into the night, I paced in our living room, watching my reflection in the glass door grow huge and round. In spite of the physical discomfort, I did write for an hour a day. The rest of the summer was spent waiting for my due date, watching videos about breastfeeding, breast pumps, milk storage. How to make baby food. Avocados, bananas, peas.
Max arrived during Sukkot, the holiday of the fall harvest. Since that day, my poems, they sit untouched. I suffer for not writing them, even as I revel in the joy that Max has brought with him into the world. A joy so immense I fear to speak of it. In the morning, he reaches for me from his crib, says the name he knows me by, Mama. In the afternoons, we go to the playground, and birds reflect like dashes in his blue eyes. Before having Max, I carried an ache that refused to be filled by anything but a child. Stronger than an ache, it was a lack that I would beg the universe to remedy. Yet, as I push Max in a swing, I can’t help but be aware of the space, somewhere in my core, which cannot be filled by anything except poetry. There’s no one to beg for the words to appear. I’m the only one who can let them out. I miss the poems and wonder if I am betraying them.
If it were simple to give up writing, I would. But writing was, like Max, a long process of becoming. I filled years before I wanted to be a mother, and the years of waiting to be a mother, with poetry. Reading, writing, researching, teaching poems. Translating poems. Beyond an art form, poetry is the mode by which I reckon with pain, anger, love. In the collection I wrote before Max, In the Absence, I grieved the death of my father through poetry. I spent years moving through grief to a celebration of his life. Poetry is how I honor history and memory, how I comprehend my sense of self.
If I were to give myself advice, I might say, Good, do nothing. I’m in favor of not writing for months, years. I give this advice to students when they haven’t written for a while. Writing benefits from these supposedly dormant periods, when the mind, body, and spirit are emptied, then refilled. Poems often become clearer after they are out of sight. In terms of my own state of being, however, not writing at all is not sustainable. I am most at peace with a day free to linger over lines and line breaks. It’s how I write best. No teaching or grading. Plenty of time for a poem to reveal what it wants to be about. No pressure to respond to anyone, to rush, be home by 5:00, which means 4:30, which, with errands, means 4:00. I haven’t been able to find a day like that, without responsibility to anything but poetry. As I work on this essay, I’m preoccupied with whether Max ate enough for lunch. I’m watching the minutes tick by on the screen: 12:26, 12:27. The two hours I’d set aside to write are down to one, because when Max was out of the house, I needed a bite of something, to close my eyes for a minute.
One evening, when Max was about five months old playing next to me on a mat, I managed to have a conversation with a friend who is a poet, translator, teacher, and mother herself. I told her that I had forgotten who I was before Max. Already. Any work that I’d done up to the moment he was born was erased and replaced with . . . what? I can’t remember what I was writing before Max. I simply can’t get back to those poems. As we talked and Max pulled at my shirt, I realized that I will probably never return to the writing, or the writing practice, that existed before him. That daily practice, with nothing but hours in front of me. Having Max was like emerging from a mikveh, a ritual bath. His birth has (re)made my life. I can’t be the poet, or the person, I was before him. My writing, too, deserved a mikveh, to emerge anew.
Rather than force a return to the poems I was working on, I needed to write differently. I needed to intentionally mark the rupture between past and present, before becoming a mother, and after. I needed to explore another genre altogether. I knew only to start with the question I’d been asking: poetry or prose? As the screen began to fill with words, I realized that in prose, I wasn’t experiencing as much hesitancy to write. Words were closer to the surface; I didn’t need to dig as deep to unearth them. Not that the writing or revising has been easy by any means, but in this less-familiar genre, writing happened. The parts became a whole in stolen, stitched-together patches of time. This freedom seemed to come only after accepting (to and for myself) that the shift to motherhood has been profound and life-altering, and that writing has required a comparable shift.
At some point, I do hope to break the poetry impasse. I don’t like that the poems are left unfinished, and I would be happier to answer their call. But today is not for poems. I am no longer seeking what I was seeking there, not the same way. The urgency to delve into grief is diminished. My relationship to the body has changed, now that I’ve given birth. My understanding of my purpose in life has evolved, perhaps expanded. When the poems are revised in the future, it will be from another perspective, after we have both been transformed. I wonder who they will become, how I will see them. In the meantime, prose is an attempt to step into this identity that is writing as a mother. A voice is there, waiting to be claimed.