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Reading (Through) the Mothers

I do most of my writing in a room in my house we call the library, a room that used to hold something like five thousand books–on shelves, in piles on the floor, tucked under the yellow Danish chair that never got used. Very many of those books were written by, or about, the women I consider my literary mothers, poets and novelists and theorists. They were all bought, or written by, or gifted to one of my actual mothers, my husband’s mother, who was the Canadian academic-translator-editor Barbara Godard. Very many of those books were gifted a few years ago to the university to which we both belonged, but many others still line the walls as I write, or come down to share something with me when I need to hear a critical voice that’s not my own.

I’m currently reading and writing my way through the grouping of poems that Jay Macpherson wrote to submit to the E.J. Pratt Poetry Prize when she was in her Master’s degree, poems that she would turn into O Earth Return: A Speculum for Fallen Women, and then into her Governor General’s Award-winning collection The Boatman. Macpherson had been spending a lot of time in rooms very different from my library full of women–in Robert Graves’s studio, where women and women writers were relegated to the position of Muse, and in Northrop Frye’s office, where his library shelves were stocked with very male canon-fodder–and she began to wonder where in those rooms she fit, where she might find the missing mothers she needed as a young woman writer. So she went out to find them, which she did, as I do, through reading and writing them. She found one in Eve, “the mother of all living” (“Eve in Reflection”), and another in the Queen of Sheba. She found others in the myths of Sibylla, Eurynome, Andromeda. But what she also found was that her mothers were in a double bind. In the literature and myth she so loved, women were the object, always subsumed under the male gaze and secondary to the plot of the male story. They only became women in and of themselves after they had fallen, after they had transgressed and been cast off. Then, and only then, in developing a self-consciousness that set them apart from their male creators–as Eve with her apple did from God and Adam–did they have an identity of their own.

So, Macpherson let them fall. And found her mothers, who had been hidden in the canonical texts she loved all along. She also found herself as a writer, not as Graves’s Muse, or as Frye’s disciple, or as a writer bound by the strictures of the canon, but as someone who could freely play with the stories she loved, turning them inside out and upside down in order to see how they fit together, to see how she fit into them, and they into her, however uncomfortably: You fit into me/like a hook into an eye//a fish hook/an open eye. Her poems are full of mirrors and reflections, women drowned and women watching images of themselves wavering on the water. As Barbara wrote in an essay about one of Macpherson’s best friends and poetic daughters, Margaret Atwood, “in paradises of art, grounded in but limited by the issue of gender, we write/weave our mirror doubles, men or women as the case may be, into eternity.” In her early poems, Macpherson wrote to weave her mirror doubles–her fallen women, her personal goddesses–into eternity. Macpherson is one of my fallen women–fallen out of the canon, fallen from critical favour–and now I write to weave her back into the story of the creation of that thing we call Canadian literature. I write to give her a story of her own that isn’t a subplot in a narrative about the canonical men–Frye, Graves, George Johnston, Hans Jonas–who have been credited with shaping hers.

As I sit on my sofa reading words that “the mom,” as my husband Alexis calls her, wrote back in 1987, my reading is mirrored, doubled. I sit reading an article Barbara wrote in the space where the words I read were written. I am reading Macpherson through Atwood through Godard. I am sitting on the sofa with the man who was, in my imagination of one of those days in 1987, downstairs making himself an after-school snack while his mother sat upstairs writing the words I am reading, a hungry twelve year old who now often reminds me to eat because he knows hangry when he sees it. I am finishing a dissertation on Canadian literature in a house that used to be home to one of the people who made doing that possible, who forced English departments like the one we both called home to teach the literature of our country, to recognize it as a legitimate subject of inquiry, to put writers like Macpherson on the syllabus and the comprehensive exams. I think about what it must have been like to do this work–the writing, the reading, the advocacy–as a mostly single parent with a growing son, what sacrifices that must have required of both of them, what sacrifices I don’t have to make because Alexis is grown and because we don’t have children of our own and because Barbara and my other mothers made them before me. And I recognize that because of Barbara and Jay, the mothers who came before me, I don’t have to go looking for my academic and writerly mothers–they’re here, in the room, on the shelves, and with me as I write.

Photo credit: James Gillespie. 

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