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Paradise, Piece by Piece

by Molly Peacock

It’s a pleasure to share one’s memories. Everything remembered is dear, endearing, touching, precious. At least the past is safe – though we didn’t know it at the time. We know it now. Because it’s in the past; because we have survived.”
– Susan Sontag, Debriefing (1973)

I can’t quite lay a finger on it, it feels just out of reach, but lately when it’s a memoir I’m reading, I’ve come to expect the accompanying vision. If that sounds a little too proudly mystical, a little too New Age and incense-fogged, I guess I could scale it back from vision to the more sober strong sense. Whatever you like. Anyway, it’s something like a quick flash, a mental portrait, the author in question standing there with one of those quizzical kinds of just-woken looks on the face. How in the hell, that face says in blinky disbelief, did I survive this?

Again, to be clear, I’m not claiming any special communion here, and I’m definitely not offering my services as a memoir-medium. And I don’t necessarily believe these flashes are in-built to the form, a naturally occurring effluent. I only know that they tell me that the books with which they occur – books, recently, like Bruce McCall’s Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Canada, Ernest Hillen’s Small Mercies, and now Molly Peacock’s Paradise, Piece by Piece – are addressing me more directly, more deeply than I’m used to. I only know that they tell me I’m on to something.

All three of those books are stories made of memory, but in none of them does memory feel like an agency that has anything to do with age or distance. These are books in which it’s as if some last gap between writer and reader has been bridged: the past feels like a now in which nothing is safe, or decided, everything’s up for grabs, the future is still unfurling. These are books of rare excitement, books in which it’s not merely a matter of witnessing a life, but of being involved at the scene. Paradise, Piece by Piece is luminous in that way, and in another. Peacock’s wisdom, wit, honesty, and sensuality are as exciting as truth.

Molly Peacock is a poet, the author of four published books. With her husband, an English professor at the University of Western Ontario who specializes in the study of James Joyce, she lives part of the time in London, Ontario, part in New York City.

How adultly balanced her life sounds compressed into those brief sentences. And yet, of course, balance is an achieved effect, sometimes hard-won, ever in danger of upset, something you work at, yes, piece by piece.

In an introductory note, Peacock writes that she originally intended to tell only the story of a decision – her decision not to have children – but then found that that story was impossible to tell without the rest of her stories. And so while Paradise, Piece by Piece is largely concerned with the absence of offspring (beginning with a single-line show-stopper: “When I was three, I decided not to have children”), it’s also a story made out of love and loss, pain and success, poetry and disappointment.

Peacock’s plain facts are these: she was born in Buffalo, where she grew up in a household populated by a troublesome younger sister, a mother whose attention wandered, and a father who drank too much and broke the furniture. If you want a measure of that home, measure this: mother taught daughters to hide the kitchen knives from their father. If you want another, along with proof of Peacock’s artistry as a writer, there’s the description of her mother’s smile, played over “those straight, slightly purplish lips whose carmine lipstick had disappeared to find a better home on the filter tips of cigarette butts in a square glass ashtray, an ashtray so heavy that when my father let it fly against the wall in an argument it didn’t even break.”

Any wonder that young Molly looked at her parents and thought, Their lives would be better if they didn’t have kids. By the time she was five, Peacock writes, she was already psychologically “past childbearing age.” But of course the issue wasn’t decided quite that early; it dogged her long after she’d left Buffalo and her parents behind.

Through college and on into New York, to which Peacock moved to scrabble a living as a poet – always doubt came lingering along, always, in a society in which we use children to define success and happiness, it found a place to perch. “A woman who does not have children,” Peacock writes, “whether she chooses not to have them or simply ends up not having them, is always defined by a kind of minus. Whether she calls herself childless or childfree, motherhood is so entrenched in the definition of female that not mothering comes to be seen as not fully female. The move a woman has to make is from feeling negatively empty to openly empty.”

Peacock’s personal triumph is in having made that move. It’s not simply a question of adjusting her definition of herself. No, it’s propelled by her whole life: her parents, in sickness and in health, her education, her sister, her friends, her poetry, her husband, her heart. Those are the pieces of her survival, and of her paradise. And as it is for all of us, she never quite stops from puzzling on just how they fit together.