Mashed potatoes and milk are both white, so they rhyme– or, the Languages of Motherhood

by Jane Malcolm


For Halloween, when I was pregnant, I dressed up as a pregnant pause.  I carefully drew and cut out the pieces of a semi colon and pinned them to my shirt over the widest part of my belly.  I thought that using my body as a grammatical joke was incredibly witty—a sarcastic endorsement of the public gaze to which I had become accustomed as my belly grew.  I had faked this wit a few years before—once as a Law & Order “Special Victim,” wrapping my pillow stomach with caution tape, and again as a pregnant nun, an homage to the irony of my Catholic school education.  But my pregnant pause was the first attempt to turn my body into a poem, to address the pregnant subtext, to literally make maternity textual.  When I think about it now, I wonder if I was asking for/enacting the space to understand the language of (impending) motherhood, or asking how becoming a mother would alter my relationship to language, my poetics, such as they were.  Around month seven, a friend gave me Anne F. Walker’s Pregnant Poems, and I was immediately enamored with #24 (tea cozy):

You begin to learn the shape of things
underneath things
                             Knit winter hat
and the curves of pot handles or spout pushing
like a twisting baby’s arm or leg

in a seven month sack 

My pregnant pause had been exactly that, my attempt to “learn the shape of things underneath things,” to allow myself to be read and to acknowledge and embrace that reading.  The tea cozy, its surface and depth—a new topography required new maps.

And then, during labor, I had a textual revelation.  As I felt my way through things—feeling trapped, feeling raw, feeling like I had “exceeded my boundaries”—I actually thought about Mina Loy’s “Parturition,” and I understood labor’s clichés.  In the midst of an otherwise very primal, intensely unthinking experience, I knew what it meant to be “the centre of a circle of pain.”  There was only now, and in that now, “I am knowing / All about / Unfolding.” 

I have told this story several times (with varying degrees of embarrassment!), and I think it epitomizes the conflict that motherhood presents: out of a profound acquaintance with the self (labor, the epitome of self-knowledge) comes a relationship that asks us to set aside ego, to reinvent subjectivity.  Loy wrote poems in between the mending, the laundry, and the cuddles.  I am writing this in the dark, as my son sleeps on the bed next to me.  Motherhood has become my subtext, the material condition that shapes what and how I write.

He just turned three, and I am still trying to invent a language to describe motherhood.  It is somewhere between the pregnant pause and the “knowing,” this attempt to render what is both exceptionally normal and exquisitely unique.  Sometimes, I like to think about my son as an unfiltered version of myself, whose relationship to language is raw and utterly present.  He apprehends the world in manageable meters and ideational rhymes, and in this sea of words, I see a kind of poetry (of my own creation?) that gives me pause.

Jane Malcolm is an Assistant Professor of English at the Université de Montréal.  She has written previously on the poetry and criticism of Laura Riding and the poetics of Occupy Wall Street, and is currently working on a book about  ambivalent gender and modernist innovation in the poetry of H.D., Mina Loy, Laura Riding, and Gertrude Stein.  Her co-edited edition of Laura Riding’s Contemporaries and Snobs is forthcoming from the Modern and Contemporary Poetics series at the University of Alabama Press.