Of all the sexist poses adopted by the male-centric critical establishment, one of the most puzzling is the dismissal of writing about motherhood. The argument is that books dealing with conception, childbirth, and its aftermath do not have the same heft or historical reach as books about weighty subjects like art or politics or war. Motherhood, by contrast, is denigrated as a subject by way of terminology – confessional, domestic – that not-so-subtly suggests the writing is less worthy of attention. (The feminist critic Joanna Russ explores this tactic in action in her 1983 volume How to Suppress Women’s Writing.) But even ignoring the evident chauvinism behind this attitude, the centrality of motherhood in the propagation and replenishment of the species – i.e. the thing that makes art and politics and war and all that other, putatively more significant, subject matter possible – would seem on its face to argue against its ostracism as a legitimate subject for literary inquiry.
In her third book, Vancouver poet Adrienne Gruber gives voice to the anxiety, elation, pain, and confusion wrapped up in the experience of carrying a child – in this case, the poet’s daughter, Quintana Roo – and dealing with the aftermath of becoming a mother. Postpartum depression is addressed in a series of “Haikus for Baby Blues” (“Don’t worry, experts / coddle. You should be able / to just shake it off”), while the poet’s apprehension about bringing a child into the world (“to have a child is to give / fate a hostage”) is acknowledged right up front.
These are searingly honest poems that address the reality of the birth process in frank terms, laying bare the indignities and effluvia that flow unfettered and uncontrollable. “There’s enough of my fluid / to douche a small village” Gruber writes in “Ode to Lucy’s Pelvis,” while in “Time Is Still (Linear),” the speaker complains of being “fermented // in amniotic piss.”
Though the poems unflinchingly depict the physiological ignominy and associated bodily fluids that flow both pre- and postpartum, Gruber’s writing never feels prurient or voyeuristic, and is leavened throughout with a sharp (albeit barbed) sense of humour. Addressing the newborn baby in “Investment,” the speaker muses, “I’ve been conditioned / through shared hormones, cells, / genetic imperatives / to believe you are the most intoxicating being / on this planet. / For that reason alone / I should not eat you.” Elsewhere, Gruber lampoons the absurdity of century-old guides to pregnancy and birth (“Mustard, pepper, hot sauces, spices will engender / a love for stimulants in the infant”) and a mid-20th-century patent for a device that was meant to induce birth through centrifugal force (“The physician acts simply as an amusement-ride operator, there to employ the emergency brake only if the velocity of the child’s expulsion into the world fails to trigger the kill switch”).
Gruber’s syntax is straightforward and accessible, if somewhat lacking in musicality. She tends to prefer internal rhyme (“organ split / clit clipped”) and alliteration; the end-rhymes in “Breastfeeding in My Parents’ Basement at 3 a.m.” feel forced, awkwardly rhyming “walker,” “stalker,” and “mock her.” And the imagery is devoid of the kind of surprising juxtaposition that allows disparate objects or symbols to accrete deeper or unexpected meaning by being yoked together.
But what the poems lack in linguistic inventiveness they make up for in emotional force. Q & A traverses fraught terrain only to end up, on its final page, with a resolution that feels potent and – not unimportantly – earned. These are poems that confront their subject matter directly and with scant regard for a reader’s refined sensibilities, and the net result is a suite of verses that should act as a sharp rejoinder to those who wish to dismiss Gruber’s subject matter for being confessional or domestic. What she offers us is nothing less than the stuff of life itself.