Bright Torture

by Craig Santos Perez


Anthologies from the past decade—such as The Grand Permission: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (Wesleyan, 2003), and Not For Mother Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting and Child-Rearing (Fence Books, 2007)—attest to the diversity of poetry about motherhood and resonate with Sylvia Plath’s observation in her poem “Morning Song”: “Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival.” Three recent books, all from 2009, further magnify this vibrant field: Rachel McKibbens’ Pink Elephant, Hoa Nguyen’s Hecate Lochia, and Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Ito.

Rachel McKibbens’ first book, Pink Elephant, exposes the trauma of childhood and the redemptive joy of motherhood through emotionally powerful, poignantly narrated, and heartbreakingly confessional poems.

The speaker’s domineering father, who physically and emotionally abuses everyone in the family, dominates the first half of this book. The father even assaults a man with a crowbar who calls him a “wetback.” Perhaps because of this violence, the speaker grows up without her mother: “an infuriated child tucked beneath / her father’s bed, waiting. Waiting” (11). In “Weather’s Here, Wish You Were Beautiful,” the speaker endures how weekend visits with her mother “faded into a nineteen-year / carnival line where I waited for you until the sights and sounds / of families and laughter made my stomach plunge” (15). The poem ends as the speaker internalizes her feelings of neglect: “I was just some filthy hitchhiker you never meant to pick up. / A greedy little fetus. An accident waiting to happen” (15).

The narrative accretion builds as each poem unveils a different moment in the speaker’s childhood. One of the more traumatic moments occurs in “The Doll,” a poem about the speaker’s sexual molestation by a stranger. As she recovers, her cousin Jennifer visits carrying a brand new doll, “hand stitched by her mama, so there was no / way to duplicate such love, no store to snatch it from.” The speaker takes the doll and calls her “whore,” “bitch,” and “orphan.” The anger continues:

Then I twisted her up in my hands, mangled
her cloth body until I knew she felt it.
And then I shoved her down my pants,
rubbing her against the worst part of me
I could think of as I spoke to her between
my teeth, Hello, pretty girl. You have
such beautiful long hair.            
My name is Thomas.
What is yours? (13)

We acutely feel the mother’s absence in the fact that the doll—soiled by the speaker’s displaced anger—was hand-stitched by a mother’s love that the speaker would never find. This absence culminates in the short poem “Orphan”:

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like
to be in the same room as your mother.

To be able to look at a woman’s body
and say, I lived there. (37)

Throughout, McKibbens slowly unfolds the narrative with an impeccable eye for detail and pitch-perfect ear for tone. Additionally, her use of enjambment creates both narrative suspension and rhythmic torque, arriving at an always memorable and sometimes haunting last line. The measured craft of these poems, however, barely manages to contain the brokenness of their stories. In “Easter, 1981,” the speaker’s mother actually appears when she drives to the speaker’s home. The speaker’s father is inside beating up his current girlfriend while the children sit outside:

Is that the bitch screaming in there? She asked.
We nodded our heads. He hits her too, huh?
And I saw that she was pleased. Finally,
I had something. Something she could love me for.
He does it all the time, I said,
You should have been here for her birthday. (19)

Any dream of a loving mother quickly fades in “The Pacifier” when the speaker, now a mother herself, remembers how her mother used to tease her during breastfeeding:  

Sometimes, it wasn’t a nipple at all—
she’d graze my cheek with her knuckle
or a lousy finger,
haunting my dumb and helpless face.

That is how I learned the difference
between women and mothers.
That is when I knew
what I wanted to be. (69)

At this point, the book turns to the speaker’s experience as a caring mother (according to her biography, McKibbens has five children). In “Central Park, Mother’s Day,” the speaker’s son picks tulips in the park as a gift, yet she scolds him because the flowers do not belong to them. Later, she feels regret:

A mama forgets what her weapons can do.
Can’t know which of her failures
will be what does it.
Tommy’s turn with the belt, in fifteen years,
becomes Meaghan’s throbbing black eye. (79)

The poem ends with the speaker finding thirteen tulips at the foot of her bed. She kisses each one and names them, imagining possible consequences: “The Crumpled Photograph I’ll Find of Myself in the Garbage,” “The Dog Smacked with a Tire Iron,” “A Lock on the Bedroom Door,” to name a few. The last tulip is named: “Mom, Do You Remember That Day / at the Park? It Was Your Birthday, I Think. / Do You Remember? How Small I Was, / How You Didn’t Even Say ‘Thank You?’” (80). The speaker’s determination to be a good mother, conscious of how her actions can affect her children’s future behavior, will hopefully end the cycle of familial abuse.

Hoa Nguyen, in her second collection Hecate Lochia, invokes the Greek goddess Hecate, who is associated with childbirth, nurturing, witchcraft, gates, the household, doorways, crossroads, and torches. Lochia refers to post-partum vaginal discharge (mucus, blood, placental tissue) that may occur for weeks after childbirth. Thus, Hoa Nguyen’s work creates a post-partum Hecate, a guardian of the household at the crossroads of domesticity, culture, politics, economics, and globalization.

Unlike McKibbens’ absorptive narratives, Nguyen hews a poetics of perceptive and syntactic openness. In “Butterflies, Breastmilk, Chinese Jade, Continuous Present, & Motorcycles,” Nguyen writes: “The continuous present streams by / We step in it.” Within this stream, language becomes “a book conscious of the eating / world    the breathing world     the alien / self and her lover / son” (38). The connection between linguistic consciousness, the breathing world, and the eating self underlies Hecate Lochia. From “Birthday Poem”:

It’s my birthday             and throw myself
a party                        Hard to be born            live variously
and have a job                        Be grateful
for the job            heat in winter                        9 AM
and 3 I love you’s            Wipe poop […] (19)

Echoing the personism of Frank O’Hara and the field composition of Charles Olson, this stanza captures the speaker’s immediate thoughts and actions. Because the continuous present moves the poet from perception to perception, thoughts about mothering always exist within contextual vectors. Take, for example, the poem “Up Nursing”:

Up nursing            then make tea
The word war is far

“Furry” says my boy
about the cat

I think anthrax
and small pox vax

Pour hot water on dried nettles
Filter more water for the kettle

Why try
to revive the lyric (13)

Nguyen suggests that writing poetry within the everyday, continuous present is enough to capture poetry’s lyrical impulses. Just as Hecate nurtures the dangerous crossroads, the speaker nurtures a domestic space continually penetrated by threats from the outside world. Other poems are haunted by the dangers of global warming, debt, the housing crisis, the war in Iraq, and high gasoline prices. 

Nguyen also explores the experience of a mixed ethnic family. The poem “Eurasiacan” takes its title from the neologism for “European,” “Asian,” and “American.” The poem opens as the speaker talks on the phone while meatballs are simmering on the stove. Amidst this domestic scene, the speaker muses: 

Maybe my baby
whitens me
Turtles and blue eyes

“Pet” turtles discarded
in the pond
crusty deformed shells

Ground deer
meat balls mixed
in my mutt hands

Ma = horse
Ma = rice seedling
Ma = graveyard
Ma = mother

Even though the question of whitening remains unanswered, its significance becomes re-articulated in the images of shells and “mutt” hands. The poem ends powerfully with a moment that traces the variable cultural pronunciations and shifting meanings of ethnicity and mothering. 

In Hecate Lochia, the national, environmental, and cultural intermingle within the domestic space (one thinks of reading the figure of Hecate Lochia as an interesting counterpart to Charles Olson’s Maximus). Just as it’s “Hard to be born,” it’s hard to be a mother in difficult, insecure times. Within this difficulty, Nguyen shows that poetry can be nursed from every ordinary and tragic and joyful moment.

Hiromi Ito is considered the foremost poet of the wave of “josei shi” (“women’s poetry”) that emerged in 1980s Japan. According to the introduction by the translator Jeffrey Angles, “the rise of feminist discourse encouraged women to speak about their experiences, desires, and bodies, stating that to do so was a significant social and political act” (vii). Killing Kanoko: Selected Poems of Hiromi Ito is the first full-length collection of poetry by this revolutionary poet translated into English. Angles selects Ito’s most important and dramatic works from six of her collections, published between 1980-1993. Quite different from McKibbens and Nguyen, Ito’s most anthologized poems contour the darker psychological effects of pregnancy, childcare, and motherhood. In terms of form, Ito’s work is much more Beat than Black Mountain, much more shamanic than narrative.

The opening poems of the book explore suicide and eroticism, the line “between the female genitalia and the anus,” breastfeeding, masturbation, diarrhea, and weight-gain. One poem begins with a long list of foods (i.e. white squid, fatty pork, lotus root) and ends with a dizzying meditation on menstrual blood: 

Grandmother gave birth to my mother when she was forty
Mother gave birth to me when she was thirty
When I was born, my seventy year-old grandmother had not menstruated for years
I gave birth to my daughter when I was twenty-eight
When she was born, my fifty-eight year-old mother had not menstruated for years
When my water broke, dabs of blood came out too
Almost like I was menstruating (16)

Ito’s work rejects Japanese classical metrical patterns in favor of a more colloquial style with Beat-influenced rhythms (in a blurb, Anne Waldman calls Ito a “a true sister of the Beats”). Additionally, Ito uses vulgar and profane language, grotesque images, and childlike vocabulary. From “Postpartum”:

Childbirth was not dying nor defecating
Childbirth was just a very painful period
For the thirty-seven hours from beginning to end
I kept on bleeding just as if
I were having my period
I wanted to change my maxi pad, change it right away
I was constantly aware of my anus but
I knew I didn’t have to defecate
The pain was unpleasant, nothing more
The pain was unpleasant
The pain was unpleasant
Dying is unpleasant

April 30, 9:47 am, a baby girl
3,650 grams, 51 centimeters (26)

Prevalent repetition and sudden shifts of register exemplifies much of Ito’s work. Each line moves with trance-like propulsion; “Logical Like a Baby” presents a striking example:

Kanoko’s diarrhea started as liquid stool that seeped through her diapers. Then she started vomiting violently.
After four bouts of vomit and ten bouts of diarrhea, her stool turned white. That is, the hard bits of stool mixed with the liquid were white.
It did not stink. It smelled acidic like rice being cooked.
After thirty-four bouts of white stool, the diarrhea stopped. It took six days from start to finish. The day the diarrhea stopped, Kanoko started to say iiyoo. (21)

According to the translator’s note, “iiyoo” is a childlike way of pronouncing the Japanese word for “That’s nice.” As the poem continues, the area from Kanoko’s rectum to her labia grows inflamed. Even when the speaker places a warm, wet gauze on Kanoko’s skin, Kanoko continues to cry and “pull over and over at her swollen, red labia from the pain.” Kanoko repeats “iiyoo iiyoo iiyoo iiyoo iiyoo in her musical refrain.” Pain, bodily function, sexuality, and language converge to create a visceral atmosphere. 

In “Healing Kanoko’s Rash,” the fear caused by a child’s illness comes to the fore. The poem begins almost sweetly but takes a dark turn:

Sweet cow milk fattens me
Countless eggs fatten me
Beans cooked into mush fatten me
Milk from my breasts
Fattens my daughter
Kanoko gets wet from my gushing breasts […]
The protein from
Cow milk
Countless eggs
Beans cooked into mush is foreign
Foreign protein fattens me
I fatten Kanoko
A rash forms on Kanoko’s forehead (30)

As the poem progresses, the rash consumes Kanoko’s body, which is inexplicably covered in bruises. The speaker realizes Kanoko is allergic to the foreign proteins. Frighteningly, “the oil from the oily rash on Kanoko’s forehead congeals, dries, and stands up” and eventually walks off, leaving both child and mother completely powerless. 

The most powerful poem is the two-columned title poem, “Killing Kanoko.” The right column narrates the suicide of a friend, moves to the speaker hitting Kanoko over the head with an alarm clock, and ends with the speaker finding a dead baby sparrow covered in ants. A refrain echoes throughout: “Congratulations on your destruction.” The left column narrative begins with the speaker’s younger sister asking if the speaker ever had an abortion. She did. The refrain, “Congratulations on your destruction,” continues in the left column and takes on new meaning:      

Kanoko eats my time
Kanoko pilfers my nutrients
Kanoko threatens my appetite
Kanoko pulls out my hair
Kanoko forces me to deal with all her shit
I want to get rid of Kanoko
I want to get rid of filthy little Kanoko
I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko who bites off my nipples
I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko
Before she spills my blood (36)

Ito acutely expresses her exhaustion and fear as a mother, pushing her towards thoughts of infanticide. This passage stands in stark contrast to McKibbens’ work, which turns away from violence, and Nguyen’s poetry, which captures a safe and mothering domestic space. However, all these writers point to mothering as a fragile state susceptible to psychological, physical, cultural, and societal pressures.

Anna Akhmatova once wrote: “motherhood is a bright torture.” Reading Ito, Nguyen, and McKibbens together demonstrate how the multi-dimensional experience of motherhood embraces different aesthetics and a spectrum of emotions, from “bright” to “torturous.”   

Craig Santos Perez is a non-parent male. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent (Hawai’i Dub Machine, 2011), and author of two collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008) and from unincorporated territory [saina](Omnidawn Publishing, 2010). He is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches Pacific literature and creative writing.