Last Spring I enjoyed lunch in Santa Cruz with an learned, conscientious relative of mine, who is an uncomfortable transplant from the East Coast into Northern California, and who occasionally feels compelled to justify herself before a kindred spirit. Since I was myself a transplant from Southern California onto the stones of New England–a metaphorical reversal of her journey–, she sometimes has this idea that I possess a native understanding of her shame: she actually likes California, with its eternal sunshine, its sensual beaches, the endless mild summer days, and vineyards everywhere. Everyone is mellow, or tempted to be, which she instinctively mistrusts as a shallow, unconsidered, inadequate response to the dire state of the world–which everybody on the Northeastern Seaboard knows is better served by angry competitive sarcasm, and a sort of crowbar analysis that pries into every aspect of daily life. There are too many dudes in California.
And they seem to be procreating. Cynthia (This is an entirely made-up name that, by my intention, is wholly unsuitable to her) is embedded within a cohort of graduate students, professors, and thirty-something professional friends who have made a start on their families. Consequently, each of her social occasions now requires elaborate transportation schedules to determine who can pick up which toddler at whatever private day care, and how much time they can free up between dance lessons and basic math tutorials. Conversations drift inexorably toward theories of early childhood development, and how they pertain to any given tantrum in preschool. Her friends are highly educated, self-motivated, and perfectionist, and they tend to conduct their family duties according to manuals they have researched beforehand. Thank god for Google—which allows you to discover which foods have gluten in them, or which supplements can augment the virtues of a Paleo diet.
Ambition has invaded the world of parenthood, and for a thoughtful person like Cynthia, the spectacle of her friends struggling to apply academic theory to the spontaneous surprise of an actual two-year-old can be intimidating. For that matter, so is the decision itself to become pregnant. How do you even make that choice?— which carries with it a definite political charge, something like wearing a Sarah Palin For President button. She wouldn’t dare.
So conversation over lunch drifted into inquiries about how, in my case, that decision was made. I was exactly the same age that Cynthia is now, and Deborah was almost 2 years younger, when our daughter was born, so the topic had pertinence. Nonetheless, I think we let her down by our process, if you want to call it a process, because we had failed to talk much about our decision. In fact, we hadn’t spoken at all about starting a family, not a single word, until after we had bought a hand-knit baby sweater we saw while vacationing in Quebec. That was our method, if you can believe it: we bought baby clothes on impulse, then in our shock started talking about desires we had until that moment failed to notice–or, to be honest, had failed to put into words until the moment when words could translate the other sensual languages expressed within an intimate relationship.
So okay, I wasn’t much help to Cynthia over that particular lunch as she contemplated when, if ever, she and her partner might want a baby. But I’m thinking now I can maybe send her a copy of Threshold, which is a new book of poetry by Jennifer Richter—which is among the most articulate, startling, substantive books I have had the pleasure to discover. I can’t get over it. There is no trouble finding words here to express the slippery, perplexing themes of motherhood. Richter extends her imagination for scary distances into the darkness of sensual life as a whole: what it means to be sexual, to have a gender, to have a partner, to have a body that can be inhabited by other beings within the very intimate places of nurture. Here is an early poem in her book:
ASK YOURSELF WHETHER YOU ARE HAVING CHILDREN TO BE LOVED, OR TO LOVE
You can say it now, he’s four, he has a younger sister, now you can say you wanted a girl first. Wanted the strange changing body in yours to emerge as yours.
You can say it because what happened? Today he gave you acorns, two tiny ones attached at the caps. This is between the two of you. He knows you keep it all. He knows your body better than anyone.
Once he picked a daffodil, dunked the bloom in his bucket and watered your name across the hot driveway. He didn’t mean for you to see, he crouched down and blew to make you go away. Say it, you can say it now. It’s like lovers: all the loyalties and letdowns.
What is it exactly that she has wanted to say, but has withheld until now? First the guilty confession that she hoped to have a girl, not a boy, because it would be easier for her to think of the creature moving independently inside her as simply a related version of her own body. No big deal. Giving birth would be a form of personal replication, and as such it doesn’t have to be too disturbing—not like the way the male imagination commonly treats pregnancy as a version of Alien, in which the fetal creature is definitely not a version of the host, but a competitor, the proper relationship with which is mortal combat. Hence the Oedipus Complex, the Anxiety of Influence, and so forth.
Richter has different ideas—not easier to accept, really, but at least they are not competitive, quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, they are disturbingly intimate. That is the other statement that she has wanted to say in her poem: she is given permission to confess her gender preference because she has recognized a connection with her son that she does not anticipate sharing with her daughter. “He knows your body better than anyone,” she admits without flinching, and in case the reader is too decorous to acknowledge what she is saying, she restates the insight explicitly: “Say it, you can say it now. It’s like lovers: all the loyalties and letdowns.“
When is the last time you heard a mother plainly state that her relationship to her son resembles lovers? I can check a couple of occasions off my own mental list. I have a physically disabled patient on my caseload who carried on a ten-year sexual relationship with his mother, but most people have not considered this in a positive light. I also have a physician friend who was unable to nurse her infant son because his act of mouthing her nipple turned her on, which also freaked her out. So thereafter he received his breast milk from a plastic bottle: better risk the PBA’s from a warmed-up bottle, than a maternal slip of confidence in policing thresholds between different liberal states of affection.
So on the one hand we have a failure to maintain boundaries at all between mother and son, and on the other we have a boundary maintained by an anxious flight from nurturing connection. In neither do we have anyone as clear-eyed about the risks, or as tolerant as Richter is about the anxieties elicited by the freedom children take with the maternal body. In her poem, YOU WERE BORN TO BE MINE, SEE, WHY EVEN FIGHT IT? (which sounds as if it were written by one of our contemporary torch singers) she declares
I’m good at making hearts. Seven years ago inside me I made yours. Bedtime tonight, you pull me close and whisper; you ask me how to spell “admirer.” You don’t ask why I wipe my eyes or why your father’s out again or why each night we think our voices rising down the hall don’t keep you up. A boy your age once hid this in my desk: “Now I’m positive I love you.” The first time you wrote “love”, you handed it to me. But this new word in your careful printing, I know I’ll never see. Once I held you in my lap and showed you how to cut a heart. You tried and tried. Yours looked like a little mouth, surprised. You held mine in your hands. Yes, I said, You can have it.
Here we have the poet acknowledging the frictions with her adult partner: the father is out again, she’s wiping tears from her eyes, and she wonders whether their voices rising in conflict down the hallway are threatening to wake the sleeping baby, or prevent him from going to sleep at all. In this context she can imagine another type of lifelong commitment, another devotion that is not merely a matter of fickle adult choice, which can be rescinded, but derives instead from affinities that are biologically engendered. She created her son’s heart during the evolution of her pregnancy—and there is a commanding possessiveness inherent in that claim.
And though Richter is wise to the sexual overtones in her poem—she is intentionally playing them up, in fact—, she actually is not really that interested in them per se. That little frisson of forbidden contact puts a charge in the language of relatedness, but what she is truly after is a different sort of boundary, a different kind of ending. Her true question is, Now that she has chosen to start her creative event—to create that filial heart—, where do the consequences of it end? Once she put her pregnancy in motion and thereby started an independent life, at what point can she deviate from the inertia of her own act? At what moment in its moving trajectory can she separate? The boundaries that trouble her are not the sexual ones—she never displays much anxiety about those—, but rather are the temporal limits to commitment. When do they end?
Because maternal commitments have no promised resolution, nor does devotion come with automatic borders that can equably separate what is hers, and what is his. What are the rights here? Her son was inside her body, where he was created in minute cellular detail. He feels entitled to other rights of possession as well, as he grabs her mouth—and she consents to let him take it—at least this time, in this poem. But in other places she acknowledges that both she and her son need to go their different, if related, ways:
“GIVE US THE BABY, GIVE US THE BABY, THROW US THE BABY“
When my son calls, it’s about Survivorman, the show, the man who, four days left and starving, dug deep holes for traps then stalked his bait, who turned his camera on, put it in the bottom of one pit and filmed straight up so those at home could see. Away for the first time, my son notes how to live on his own. I’m the guy on tv: counting the days, talking to myself, lying awake. Obsessing on what the body can’t survive without. Water: it caught the jet today. Everyone’s okay. My son’s describing Survivorman’s camera, the bright circle of blue it filmed, the silence and the shifting sky–then he says You can’t believe what all of a sudden fell in. On the wing, a woman clutched her baby boy; the Hudson rose around them. Though men in the lifeboat reached and screamed, she wouldn’t give him up. Of course she wouldn’t give him up. I’ve seen Survivorman not even last a week alone. I hold my son’s voice like a rope. He keeps on telling me what it’s like inside the trap.
In this poem we have two narratives of survival–both televised. In the one, espoused by her son, we watch a stranded man on his own assume challenges, endure deprivations, deal with disappointments, and construct ingenious engines that can capture what he needs to sustain him in the wilderness. In the other narrative, espoused by the poetic persona of the poem, we watch a woman on the wing of an airliner–itself sinking in the Hudson River–who faces a different set of choices, though they are equally dire. As men wheel around her in a lifeboat, she has to decide whether she thinks they can do a better job of saving her boy’s life than she can do. They are screaming at her to throw the baby over into the boat, just in case she doesn’t make it.
But the mother won’t do it, which is a desperate refusal as the plane sinks, a risky commitment to her baby that Richter understands, and with which she empathizes. “Of course she wouldn’t give him up,” the poet asserts with some asperity. No fucking way is she going to throw her baby anywhere, and especially not to those frantic cowboys in a pitching life boat. Who can blame her? Richter notes that she has seen the program her son is watching–Survivorman–, and explains “I’ve seen Survivorman not even last a week alone”. Indeed, even when he does scrape by for a few days, he mainly has to subsist on fried scorpions or something, which he has to catch first without killing himself. So neither she nor that sinking mother are willing to risk giving their children away to a beckoning, unknown environment.
However, Richter acknowledges that this refusal is not tenable, finally. In the last line of the poem we have a clear, definite distinction to make between the dramatis personae of the narrator—the narrative voice standing in for the poet, or at least speaking for one of the lines of her reasoning—, and Richter herself, who constructs her poetic document in such a way that she leaves us acknowledging how this carefully orchestrated scenario is an ambush, a tempting subterfuge. The poem concludes when she informs us that her son keeps “on telling me just what it’s like in the trap.” And in truth, the “woman-on-the-wing” as a model of anxiety is all kinds of traps: Not to be fearful of the world, even when it appears threatening, for instance. Not to hold on to her son and prevent an independence that is likely to save him. You have to admit, Richter does nothing easily. The lesson that she is teaching herself derives from the direst of circumstances. Most parents find separation in driving their kids to a sleep-over summer camp somewhere, but Richter imagines either drowning with her son in the icy Hudson River, or throwing him to strangers in a tiny, rocking boat—and hope they catch him. Things have to be extreme for the poet if they are to be certain.
In case you are wondering, she has known this all along. The opening poem of her book is the title poem:
where mothers prop themselves, welcoming, waving, mostly waiting. You are a frame your child passes through, the safest place to stand when the shaking starts. You brace yourself. He draws you like this, arms straight out, too stick- thin but the hands are perfect, splayed like suns, long fingers, the hands he draws for you are huge. Thresh, hold: separate the seeds, gather them back in. In his pictures you all come close to holding hands, though the fingers of your family never touch; you’re in the middle of all this reaching.
From the outset, the poet defines her role of ‘mother’ as a frame—one feature of which is, as Blake might assert, the bounding outline that keeps outer things outside where they belong, and allows an internal, protected space in which children are kept safe. Richter also imagines the frame as a kind of portal or doorway, through which her son exits on his developmental course into an undefined, unbounded place. In this sense, thresholds define the gateway that allows congress between what is familiar inside, and what is mysterious outside. Further, as every Californian knows, thresholds are also strong architectural constructs beneath which people should stand when caught indoors during an earthquake—“when the shaking starts.” In sum, there are different uses for thresholds, different aspects of the concept—though each is protective, each defined by its utility and its capacity for creating a nurturing safety.
To be so useful, so central to every need, brings with it an individual, personal cost: she is reified by her role as the framework of the young family, and as such she loses a degree of her own intrinsic value and principle. Her huge hands are used protectively, for the good of others. She has control over lives, and over lifetimes. She determines who gets into the family sphere, and enforces who remains outside of it. She shields against falling debris when the world caves in. She is powerful, and responsible—and depleted. She is the finite resource toward whom everyone reaches, and from whom everyone grabs their particular necessity. So the question remains, What does she have left to bring to other roles in her life (which may have something to do with her conflicts with her adult partner)? What does she have left for herself that may not be fulfilled by motherhood—such as, if I had to make a random guess, the time and energy to write her poetry?
She has her answers, which are various and nuanced—but not definitive. The book has at its core a material focus upon the thresholds created by the physical features of our bodies. In other poems in her collection, Richter observes how bodies allow for illness, and a coexisting vulnerability to pain, which is a theme that the poet develops throughout her book, with which I have not dealt at all in this review. There ought to be reasons for each of us to read Threshold for ourselves—and my incompleteness might be construed as one of them. I have not covered everything that Richter puts in her book to be discovered, and so there are treasures remaining to be found and appreciated. Go for it.
With that said, I will conclude with a poem that in some respects provides a threshold itself between those themes I have dealt with, and those that I have not:
AFTER THE MUD BATH
We rose from the earth headfirst:
faces, necks, shoulders, outstretched arms.
With her eyes the attendant pointed
our black-crusted bodies toward the shower,
said with her eyes You are nothing new.
Millions of years fell in clumps at our feet,
wet volcanic ash streaking
a thin grey slip on our skin
until we used our hands, my mother
and I facing each other in our bodies
I once willed the same.
She knew she was touching where others had been
and with both hands she swept my breast clean.
I knew part of her that year
had stilled like ash in thick tubs.
Men and their hands slid toward the drain
until water was the only sound
and we had nothing to do with anyone else.
She was taking me back into her.
I felt my heart just below
the skin, our skin free of this
heavy earth. Then under the spigot
she parted her legs. Black like silt
rushed to the tile: sudden
flood of what once burned.
The two mothers rise autochthonous from the ground: vital principles that pre-exist even the millions of years of earth they shed as they wash themselves. When they face each other, each embodying features of the other, they represent a sort of infinite regress of relationships, like two mirrors facing each other: mother/daughter, mother/daughter. They clean themselves of the inessential male principle: “Men and their hands slid toward the drain/until water was the only sound/and we had nothing to do with anyone else.” At this juncture, they are about to merge into each other again to conjoin each half of their duality.
However, the poem concludes with her naked mother parting her legs to wash the rest of the clinging mud from herself, and the poet notes that “Black like silt/rushed to the tile: sudden/flood of what once burned.” It’s hard to read these lines as an emblem of triumph, particularly since they abruptly arrive to interrupt that near reunion they almost share, but do not. The image seems to indicate something approaching perversion, almost a necrophilia that nowhere does the poet celebrate. The menopausal end to fertility is not treated as a relief, or as a freedom from biological strictures, but as the opposite of reproductive vitality: a flow of black ashes representing that “part of her [mother] that…had stilled like ash in thick tubs.”
For Richter, vitality appears to depend upon fertility. Whereas both allow the possibility for confusion, real physical pain, and emotional vulnerability—they both together offer as well an invitation to future strength and continued liveliness. Richter votes decisively and intelligently for continued living community. There are, of course, other visions of a sustainable future, but Richter in Threshold suggests that any plan is incomplete unless it includes the beauty of biological promise. That is the fun part, the compelling feature of engagement with the unknown: the promise of a future to which you want to belong, to which you contribute, even though you don’t control it.