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.
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.