Frida Kahlo, My Birth (1932)
Today I walked through Bute Park on the way to the University, and it was glorious. The trees are blossoming, the daffodils and crocuses are out (and other spring flowers I cannot name) and the grass is freshly mown. There were, as usual, dog walkers – this time, a small family with an amber-coloured spaniel, who seemed very happy to be out, and an older woman with a border collie that kept pace with her careful stride, his belly close to the path. There were birds – mostly magpies, though by the Taff there were ducks and cormorants too. And French teenagers, who flock here every school holiday.
By the time I arrived on Colum road, I had taken off my jacket and scarf, and put on my sunglasses. Spring feels good and warm; I feel relaxed today. I suspect this is due to the Easter break: time suddenly opens out where previously it was concertinaed tightly in half-accomplished tasks, to-do lists and teaching. As much as I love teaching, I am glad of the rest this next couple of weeks. My students are great – sometimes brilliant – and nice people, but like all great, brilliant and nice people, they are not great and brilliant all of the time (they are always nice to me, though). My main frustration this past term has been that attendance at some of my seminars has been poor, and quite often few students have managed to read the primary text being discussed. I wouldn’t call them lazy – there are all sorts of reasons why students might be absent or unprepared – but nevertheless, I find myself repeatedly having to adjust the exercises and material to adapt to the situation in which we find ourselves. It can be exhausting.
When I say that the MA students I had the pleasure of leading in a reading group on Twentieth-Century Poetry last weekend were a breath of fresh air, then, please forgive me the cliché. We were at Gregynog Hall for the inaugural English Literature MA Conference. Our reading group was exactly as a reading group should be: an exchange of ideas, thoughts, interpretations; a testing and appraisal of critical approaches and arguments; an enthusiastic engagement with literature. Everyone had read the material with an open mind and heart. Yes, heart – because the topic I had chosen for them was confessional women’s poetry on childbirth, and some of these poems are difficult to read not only for their language, but for their emotional starkness.
These are the poems I chose:
‘The lost baby poem’ by Lucille Clifton
‘The Language of the Brag’ by Sharon Olds
‘Her Birth’ by Rebecca Goss
‘Embarrassed’ by Hollie McNish
Initially, we shared our first impressions of the material. Some students expressed their discomfort at reading about pregnancy, miscarriage, grief, birth, and breastfeeding: they were conscious of crossing a barrier, of participating in an experience that they might have felt they had no business participating in. Two of the group were men, and none of us were pregnant or had children. We only knew of these experiences through our mothers. There might be a danger, then, of appropriating experience – of making assumptions about individuals and groups of women, of being essentialist, of appropriating the voice of the pregnant poet. We spoke about the term ‘confessional poetry’: how it suggests wrongdoing and admissions of guilt; how the confessional space can be located in the church, the courtroom, the clinic. We thought about how ‘confessional poetry’ can be contested and reclaimed. We spoke about taboos and feminism, poetic traditions, the power and fluidity of the lyric ‘I’, performance poetry, the power of lived experience and the body. We wondered about the need to tell and share the untold, the unshared and unshareable.
The students were amazing – so amazing, that afterwards I couldn’t speak. I had to go to my room and run myself a bath, and I lay in it for a while, sipping tea and thinking how lucky I was to have just shared and discussed my own particular academic obsession with other people who found it interesting and worthwhile.
This week, the department is quiet and I have returned to my poems, which are also confessional. I am writing about a few things at the moment, but my mother figures highly in them. I wrote a little while ago about survivors of abuse, and it occurs to me that I’ve been writing about, yet skirting around, what really happened for a while now. The man who abused my mother has died. I wrote an angry poem about digging him up; I went all Hammer-horror and treated him as though he were a vampire from the Middle Ages, and I a peasant who had to break his legs and burn his heart in order to stop him rising up from the dead. I’m not convinced that I’ve been fully truthful or authentic in this poem, and that’s important to me, particularly where this topic is concerned. This last couple of days I’ve written another one, this time about going to Chapel. You see, when I was a little girl we used to go to a Welsh-speaking Chapel, and then, after a while, we stopped. I don’t normally share drafts, but I suppose this is part of being a confessional poet. Ironically, you never confess in Chapel; nor do you kneel to pray.
Plant Bach Iesu Grist ydym ni bob un
It is at the turning, when the lambs have tails,
that I think of Chapel: me sitting like a sponge,
frock and frilly socks, Caniedydd yr Ifanc,
its cool green leather under my palm as I sit very still,
as I’m supposed to. I love the solidity of the pews,
the rough carpet underfoot, the vestry’s cold echo, slap-slap
of sandals on flagstones, the school bell. I’m thinking of
the chocolate egg I’ll get afterwards, which I’ll crack
on the kitchen counter, fingerprints smudging its sheen, and my mouth
forms the Welsh, its meaning nestled in my throat and then flying
out to the ceiling, a bright new bird.
And I think of my mother, leading me by the hand
up the aisle for the last time, after it had all come out,
what her Uncle did to her, and the congregation watching,
their judgements upon her, and how on the way out she looks back
at the pulpit and prays I’ll never need them, let me never learn to kneel.