Mutability: Scripts for Infancy
University of Chicago Press, paperback
112 pages, £10.50, ISBN: 978-0857420909
Vicky Sparrow on the struggles of poetic language to express ‘the revolution in experience’ that is motherhood in Andrea Brady’s ‘dangerously lucid’ Mutability: Scripts for Infancy.
At a recent London poetry reading, a father-poet reading work about his children quipped that ‘male poets don’t write about their kids.’ But even if this feels true now, it certainly hasn’t always been the case, which Andrea Brady – as an Early Modern scholar and active poet in the male-dominated world of contemporary poetry – knows all too well. Brady is a professor at Queen Mary, has been writing acclaimed experimental poetry for many years, and she also runs the uniquely important online database of poetic performance, Archive of the Now. While Atkins’ comment draws attention to a latent tradition of poetry about motherhood, which Brady’s book locates itself within, it is nonetheless a relatively marginal mode of writing – especially within experimental poetics. Brady’s work shows how mother-poets, far from being relegated to the arena of ‘women’s issues’, can present a complex of revealing and exciting connections between motherhood and poetics. Brady’s focus and intellectual incisiveness is as ever-present in Mutability as in her previous poetic output, which has often been preoccupied with questions of how disruptive poetics can think through political engagement and figure political resistance. This collection does, however, feel a bit different; it’s not so much a departure, but it perhaps represents a shift.
The overt (con)fusion of author and speaker presented in Mutability is uncharacteristic for Brady’s work, yet throughout this collection we are introduced to ‘Ayla’, the author’s daughter and the daughter of the book’s lyric speaker. An astute, and very human, female voice narrates throughout; she sketches out the development of her little daughter’s first couple of years, and the ups and downs of early motherhood. The collection consists of six parts, all written in a prose poetry arranged in blocks with accompanying non-chronological dates, giving them the feel of diary entries. These are interspersed with lineated poetry, which seems to grow out from the prose pieces, as if rising from the blocky foundations of lived experience. This is the form Brady develops in the hope that it ‘would catch rather than cauterize this pouring’; the pouring is that of time and lived reality, as well as evoking the fluids lost in childbirth and rearing. And, as the metaphor suggests, this is corporeal poetry: muscular and blood enriched. At moments, in this book, the poetic mode of lyric appears so pressurised by its proximity to the work of motherhood that it spills down the side of the page and has to get dammed up into prose. This is a poetry that feels compelled to represent its origins in the excesses of messy physicality, as it shuts itself in cubicles struggling: ‘I’m trying to get cleaned up here | but the water overflows the edge | and the edges are overflows with claret, | thick and thin’.
The immediacy and intimacy of the poetry might explain why Brady, in a recent interview, described her new book as feeling ‘dangerously lucid’. This lyric ditches all ironic, eyebrow-arching depersonalisation (‘I am too tired to be ironic’) and subsumes it into the tough, sinuous, inescapability of motherhood: an ontology whose grip is so firm it is never to be shed. Part of what Brady articulates so brilliantly in this collection is the way that motherhood encompasses all – becoming a mother is a radical shift, a kind of revolution in experience which shoots the clocks and makes every date relative to one date: that of Ayla’s birth. Brady seems to be testing poetry for how well it deals with her child.
Mutability’s disconcerting commitment to experience makes it feel precariously decentered at times, something Brady’s speaker is fully aware of: ‘I can’t occupy the poem in process of building it. I’m taking notes on what is happening somewhere else. […] The meaning has already been made, on the flower-printed blanket, with the floppy lamb, the melting spoon’. The poetry itself has to be constructed around the child, who becomes its central focus of meaning. The book is built as a kind of linguistic home or monument for Ayla – this is undoubtedly a collection where poetry and childcare can’t be dissociated – but this means it struggles with its status as a reifying poetic memorialisation, and also as a mode of speaking for Ayla.
Brady states: ‘when you speak for yourself I’ll have to stop […] By then we’ll finally know you on your own terms’. In exploring and constructing the possibilities of what these terms might be, linguistic colonisation becomes a common anxiety. Brady writes, ‘I occupy the language which she will need; and the charter of that occupation is outlined in these cables I am writing, for and on her’. Lines of lyric snake round the infant girl, and Brady is constantly aware of her position as writer-mother: is her work a memento mori? Or even maternal narcissism? Here, the poet-mother takes on a kind of linguistic guilt.
Yet there are also moments where poetry seems to be the only mode structurally sympathetic to the experience of the baby:
———–maybe in the newborn’s incredible eye,
searching the hospital scenic for an explanation,
there is something like that impulse,
to make sense of the wildness by nerve
mistaken for rational cogitation.
In the eye of Brady’s newborn, we find a prototype for poetic cognition (or perhaps poetic cognition is merely an imitation of this formative moment, tapping into a residual cognitive trace) in which making ‘sense of the wildness by nerve’ and ‘rational cogitation’ are distinctively blended. In an almost Worthwothian sense, then, poetry might link us back to the infant’s mode of comprehension.
There are times in the poetry, however, where Brady’s wondering explorations of the experiences of her infant are taken over by the unequivocal relentlessness of full time child-care. She lucidly evokes the sheer boredom of the confines of domestic existence:
Today I spent hours standing in different places. Sometimes, a mirror, or a window. Sometimes a light switch. I checked the clock. I felt abused by the vacancy of your needs. […] We live entirely in the present.
It’s no accident that Brady illuminates the conditions of hidden maternal labour. One part of her project is to represent the isolation of early motherhood – a state many women in our society experience but which is also largely invisible or ignored. Even later on, when she pays for outsourced childcare in order to return to work, the problem is only absurdly shifted into its opposite: ‘I sit in a meeting, biding my time, all the tedium of wage labour will congeal in a single sentence: I do this to earn money to pay another person to keep company with my girl’. Brady is careful to always balance the economic and political content of this collection with the direct emotional impact of such forces: pathetically, she writes ‘I sit in the library cubicle, mournfully expressing into some toilet paper’. Behind the text, we have the sense that the reality of Ayla’s existence sometimes makes poetry feels like a similarly pointless expression. Who does it nourish?
Expression and language are an important preoccupation in Mutability, and Ayla’s language learning becomes a source of great consideration. Unlike Walter Benjamin’s collation of his son Stefan’s childhood chatterings, Brady’s primary aim isn’t to capture childhood speech (‘I don’t want to compile a book of quaint dicta’); her writing serves instead to record the disorientating changes the advent of the child wreaks upon language itself. This happens right from the start, from those hours of birth – which appear towards the end of the book – where labour ‘pain [is] an excuse for the dissolving | of language and thought’. Brady’s poetry and prose dealing with the birth is amongst the most affecting of the volume yet she’s aware throughout of the impossibility of the birth’s linguistic representation; the writing itself seems to dissolve into its content, absorbed elsewhere and only partially able to report back:
My mind splits off. Get me out. Torso in scarlet agony. […] I suspect you might be human, etc. Hot water rushes over the table. The high-pitched howl becomes a grinding, growling exertion. She’s pushing, someone laughs. The room fills.
Language is made to carry and bear more than usual; the content here seems to grip the prose so hard it leaves it fragmented. Brady’s language does indeed seem to dissolve: ‘even my prose slackens’.
Later, as Ayla makes her own noises and begins the long process of learning to speak for herself, Brady questions how language can represent the generosity of the experience of what she terms the natural ‘childwealth’. Tellingly, it is in the playground, where children begin to communicate together, that ‘there is | private property. No, that’s not yours. Give it | back. That’s hers. That’s mine. The potential | for collectivity [is] trained out of them’. Possession is trained into the nascent selfhood, and the question becomes, how much is language implicated? Brady is also aware that even as language seeks to overcome social alienation, it serves as a marker for it. ‘How can I translate your instinctive grammar?’ she asks, and seems to give a kind of reply later: ‘I go backwards in prosody’. Brady asks frequently, what is lost in the learning of language? The infant’s capacity for total empathy with objects – ‘Noddy that beats his head against the table leg, | shares your category’ – is destroyed in the learning of our artificial systems of classification. Mutability feels at times to be almost an elegy to the loss involved in language acquisition, even as it celebrates innovative form and poetic expression – steeped, as it is, in literary allusion and quotation. Brady nods towards Spenser’s rich and complex ‘Cantos of Mutabilitie’, in her title and such metaphysical themes as constancy and fluctuation are redeployed in her Mutability, in relation to language and its history – both literary and personal.
The book’s exploratory tone searches for a language equal to such a powerful and unique relationship – which is fundamentally necessary if poetry is to be written from the mother’s perspective. The mother-child relationship ruptures linguistic categories: the I-you binary loses sense when ‘there was nothing to you that had not come through my body, tho’ I wasn’t poor’. This is the latent aspect of Brady’s project in Mutability: to construct a poetry which represents the mother as a figure whose relationship with her child proposes a radical model for re-imaging the basis of linguistic categorisation (playfully suggested by Brady’s phrase ‘a milky dialectic’). This forms a conceptual problem for lyric poetry, as the I and you; the subject and object, already form a radical continuum, productive of ‘unspeakable relations’. But Brady’s work is too astute to settle on a poetic solution: she allows her questioning to remain ranging and unresolved, as it is here:
Is this – not your infancy or my motherhood but both together, in-mixed with the writing – the ‘fantasy of totality’ or of ‘narcissistic completeness’ which Kristeva describes as a ‘sort of institutionalised, socialised, natural psychosis’?
Brady’s collection thinks through the origins of ‘natural psychosis’ via the preoccupations of childhood and motherhood experience, and of language acquisition and writing. By turns it questions, then reinforces the idea of a limitless economy of love and the production of the parent – the fantasy of a mother who ‘wasn’t poor’, whose resources weren’t depleted by the ‘praxis of care’. This is a unique document, heavily freighted with praxis, and is one which ultimately goes further than most in generously and perceptively forging a home in language.