Martin Langford Reviews Maria Takolander

By | 16 July 2014

It is the first section – comprising poems which are meditations on birth – that raises the impossible question: where can we live? This theme – ‘The Matter of Childbirth’ – does not receive enough recognition as a major new topos, a great achievement of the feminist imagination. One feature of the way it finds expression here is in the degree of distance between Takolander’s meditations on the child – in line with what she knows of the biology of earthly creatures – and the partisanship and forgiveness of the mother. So much poetry is built around the tension between differing points of view: between how we would like things to be, and how, in fact, they are; between the lover’s desire and the partner’s disdain; between the claim, and the ironic revelation. One sphere in which this difference has rarely been allowed to develop is in maternal utterance. Mothers, or so they have been described, are the embodiments of partisan perspective. If a thought runs interference with the way the child is imagined, then it must not, and cannot be entertained. With the exception of lullabies, it is astonishing, in Western cultures, how little poetry of childbirth there has been, until relatively recently. One reason for this may be because the mothers of newly-born babies have not been imagined as possessing minds of their own: as though all instinct and no language, to the extent that they can speak, they are the univocal voices of mother-and-child, and there is little there on which the tensioning of poetry can build. But Takolander, in ‘Morning Sickness’, can read, ‘in a novel by Marie Darrieussecq’, of a woman whose ‘rear-end let forth a litter of mutant-lets, pink and/coarse as tongues and slippery’ and see the relationship to her own pregnancy, ‘the tide com(ing) in, bearing silt stirred from the/fetid sea floor, old with starfish and eel bones. The/moon, for nine months, did not care to claim it again.’ She can lie, in ‘Post-partum’, ‘like an amputated god,/leaking gangrene onto butcher’s sheets.’ She can be, in other words, both participant and observer. She no longer has to withdraw from language as if she had just participated in a process where language did not go.

Takolander is not unique in this. In ‘Spectacular Motherhood’, Marion May Campbell writes with a similar doubleness, both intimate and ‘objective’: ‘my baby has left me. A million singing hooks tug at me, pull me along the highways to her. As in amorous expectation, my body curves achingly around the space she has vacated. My muscles anticipate her known weight in my arms […] To begin to write about motherhood, I have to dislocate myself, from her, from my self.’1 The mother’s emergence into linguistic self-consciousness is something of a last frontier. We have fought hard over the last few centuries, for the right to think independently about those things for which the only language available has immediately undermined the authority of the speaker – dirty-talk for sex, blasphemy for religion, sedition in politics. For mothers, there was baby-talk, which while essential for the baby, also withdrew the mother from the world of public roles. I am not remotely suggesting that Takolander’s maternal feelings are not in perfect order: simply that, like other poets attuned to their own thoughtfulness, she has not foregone the right to speak with the act of birth. Some of this has resulted from the emergence of a terminology, as our scientific understandings have grown (the word ‘miraculous’, apt or not, did not invite one to consider); some, from a permission to acknowledge her own physicality – and some, simply from insistence on the right to speak. The end-result is a considerable distance between the contemplation of the child and the maternal feeling: the sort of distance in which the dislocations of poetry can emerge, and a further powerful sign, if any were needed, of the restlessness and reach of feminist thought.

Although Takolander is only too aware of the impersonality of the forces that have combined to produce her child, she also wishes to resist that impersonality. Watching ‘the black and white plasma screen’, she writes in ‘Ultrasound’, ‘the bud of your nose alone/makes the universe less impossible.’ In ‘Foetal Movement’, she contemplates the twinned gift of life and pain:

As I watch you shadow box with sourness, radiance and din,
the sources of which you must fear like a medieval Christian,
you make of my belly a theatre for unseen marionettes and
for pain that has no origin – except for the life I have given.

In ‘Sleep’, she writes, ‘How the dark years, those abominable millions of dark years,/Endure in this wombing.’ And continues, ‘When comes the slowing into plangency,//And the sun-quickened birds//Rally and remember to rail,/Believe none of it.//Your brightness, like theirs, is miniature.’ In poems such as this and ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, Takolander’s poetry cares about the impossible fragility of our gestures:

Within the undead body of our sleeping child
his brain is desperate as a Punch-and-Judy puppeteer.

There are fighting words: ‘Mine! Mine!’
I write them down. But if I were a muse, rather than a scribe,

I would tender dreams that shimmer
like birch leaves and glow like moonstones,

not these darkling hallucinations of a brain
already wiling away the night on its pitiful past.

There is no doubt that Takolander’s is a black imagination. Work that takes the unforgiving nature of the world as its starting point has become an important strand of the Australian imagination – one might cite the poems of Alison Croggon or Stephen Edgar, though the universes in which the imaginations of Robert Gray, Peter Boyle or Martin Harrison operate are hardly more benign. As soon as one has someone to care for, however, the tone changes. Rather than coming to rest, like the poems of section three, on a note of sufficiently-articulated horror, these poems develop a line of resistance, they seek to negotiate with the dark. They have, moreover, an implicit sense of otherwise. Although Takolander never explores it as primary material, some of them bear the background understanding that we do at least try to construct spaces and gestures which hold this horror at bay. ‘Domestic’ is a sequence about domestic violence, from the point of view of the two young daughters of a stricken household. Despite the mayhem and insecurity, there is also a normality which rage has destroyed: the Scooby Doo that the girls can’t watch because the TV is broken; the family dog still watching hopefully from the sidelines; even the ‘squat woman’, a visitor from the world of adult order, concerned for their safety.

It is as if the relative benignity of the spaces we now inhabit have allowed us to contemplate ‘those abominable millions of dark years’ with a directness we never used to allow ourselves – dwelling so much closer, as we did, to annihilation. But now we have these little rooms of respite, and poets such as Takolander are working the tension between their fragility and the forces which surround them. I cannot imagine how we might ever grow used to the indifference that surrounds and enables us – how, now, we might domesticate it in a narrative. The scientists have given the writers an almighty problem. But at least writers such as Takolander have the courage to acknowledge it as ground, and have set out to explore it with the candour and the steadiness it demands.

  1. Marion May Campbell, Fragments of a Paper Witch, Salt, Cambridge, 2008.
This entry was posted in BOOK REVIEWS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work: