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Billets Work in progress

Liz Berry: The Republic of Motherhood

I wanted to write the poems I’d needed to read

Liz Berry

Turning to poetry and being left empty-handed

The Republic of Motherhood is a short collection of poems published by Liz Berry in 2018. In it she explores the conflicting emotions she felt around the birth of her first son and the experience of early motherhood. Here is an extract from an interview she gave to the British Libray, in which she explains why she wrote this collection, and to which purpose.

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Billets Reviews

A review of Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot

As long as we have children and raise them—both badly and well, as we must—the story of the mother in her own voice will have to be told and retold. We will have to break the silence and break it again as we try to become real for our children and, at the same time, come more fully to understand our society and ourselves.

Jane Lazarre, The Mother Knot

The Mother Knot is a memoir written by US author and academic Jane Lazarre and published in 1976, that is the same year as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (read my review here). The two books would go on to have a tremendous influence on writing about motherhood for the decades to come. Both were written by academics who also happened to be « academic wives », and both were concerned with the personal as well as the political implications of motherhood. They both portray, each in their own style, their ambivalent feelings about becoming a mother, which are often the result of the discrepancy between the cultural representation and the reality of the experience. Yet, unlike Adrienne Rich’s book, which aims for a broad understanding of the historical and cultural dimensions of motherhood, Jane Lazarre’s memoir belongs to the categories of individual testimonies with a universal dimension, which liken it to works like Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Which does not mean her discourse is not racially and socially situated: she presents herself as a progressive, Jewish-born white middle-class woman, who happens to be married to a black man, also an academic. In her introduction she explains that part of the challenges she faced in writing her memoir was to testify to her experience as the white mother of black child in a predominantly white setting. Another fact which complicated her experience of motherhood was that she had lost her own mother at a very young age and had been raised by her father alone, who also died while her son was in his early years. As Alison Stone remarks in her book Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Maternal Subjectivity, becoming a mother means re-immersing oneself in the maternal relationship one had developed with one’s mother in infancy.1 For Jane Lazarre, this experience is impossible to retrieve as she is left with very few memories of her own mother. The other consequence of this traumatic loss is that Lazarre was deprived of a mother-figure who could pass on her own knowledge and help take care of her and the baby in the early, fragile moments of his life.

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Work in progress

Why so few babies in literature?

Why indeed?

This is one of the first questions Marie Darrieussecq asks in the memoir she wrote to recount the birth of her first child and her transition to motherhood. (Read the review of this book here)

What is a baby?

Why so few babies in literature?

What about the discourses around them? Why do we say “baby” and not “the baby”?

What is a mother? And why women rather than men?

Marie Darrieussecq, Le Bébé, 2013 (jacket blurb)
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Billets Reviews

A review of Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution

The mothers: collecting their children at school; sitting in rows at the parent-teacher meeting; placating weary infants in supermarket carriages; straggling home to make dinner, do laundry, and tend to children after a day at work; fighting to get decent care and livable schoolrooms for their children; waiting for child-support checks while the landlord threatens eviction; getting pregnant yet again because their one escape into pleasure and abandon is sex; forcing long needles into their delicate interior parts; wakened by a child’s cry from their externally unfinished dreams–the mothers, if we could look into their fantasies–their daydreams and imaginary experiences–we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation, we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.

Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born, 280

That quote says it all. It contains all the complexities and ambivalences of motherhood–the anger, the frustration, the fragility, and the joy as well. Rich’s is a mammoth of a book, a sort of encyclopedia of academic motherhood. Although it was written in 1976, reading it today still makes the reader feel like a major breakthrough is happening, a new light is being cast on a field which had been kept in the dark for ever. Many books have been written about motherhood since Rich’s Of Woman Born, yet the sense of urgency which pervades it still makes it today a compelling read.