I reached the peak of my madness when I was pulling up the ground ivy last summer. It had knitted its mint-like tendrils tightly through the cracks of our cedar fence and engulfed the half-finished rock garden on the side of our property like an aggressive sickness. The previous owners didn’t want to bother with finishing the wall or dealing with a garden, or at least that is the conclusion I made when I dug out the plastic “ground ivy” plant tag from the dirt. I wanted the ivy gone, and pulling it up was harder and more physically demanding than I expected. When the kids were in bed, I clipped the baby monitor to my back pocket, and using all my strength and weight I began wrenching at the vines. I bit into the thick stems ferociously with garden loppers. I attacked the roots violently with a spade shovel. It felt good to be outside, to be chewed on by mosquitoes and straining my body. I liked how it hurt. The tangible pain was relief—a soreness in my arms I could identify, a throbbing in my thigh where I accidentally wacked myself with the shovel. But mostly I felt the comfort of my mind gone elsewhere. I was all body, all machine, and nothing and no one else.
I had spent over a year dealing with so much vague, intangible pain that had seized my body entirely. First, it was a nagging pang at my side, then a climbing, twisting ache into my limbs. Sometimes I walked around with an icepack strapped to my torso. Other times, I was bedridden with a heating pad. When the paresthesia set in and my arm or hand would randomly go numb it led to all sorts of scary tests and a variety of doctors. I suffered panic attacks so extreme I took a 3AM ambulance ride assuming I was having a heart attack or stroke. My mind felt foreign, taxed, and toxic. In the end, I had to accept that my body was being wrecked by postpartum depression and anxiety. This was new territory for me—to be broken—not just as mother or a woman, but also as a writer. I felt half alive—a miserable and voiceless bulb from Louise Glück’s “The Wild Iris:”
buried in the dark earth…
…that what you fear, being
a soul and unable
I had already been struggling to get back into writing again. My first book of poems was published in 2011 and since then my life completely turned over. I was now a mother of three. I lived in a quiet country town. I quit my job to be with the kids. In a time where women are still trying to reconcile the “working mom” versus “stay-at-home-mom” dilemma, the prospect of writing, motherhood and a diagnosis of mental illness seemed like a perfect storm of personal crises. So when the ivy cleared out enough to reveal the beautiful, but incomplete rock wall, when there were finally no more vines left to pull, I did the only thing a mindless, wordless body knew what to do—I went looking for rocks.
The reality is that until the 20th century few poets had been mothers. I suppose Elizabeth Barrett Browning is an exception, but she had her first and only child at age 43, and was already an established poet. For many women, the years of early marriage and motherhood are a period of silence—a stretch of time where any sense of intellectual life is nearly impossible. There was an 8 year gap between Adrienne Rich’s second and third book. She wrote in her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution “I remember thinking I would never dream again (the unconscious of the young mother—where does it entrust its messages when dream sleep is denied for years?)” Even one of the most widely read, well-respected feminist poets wrestled with the plight of writing and motherhood, this idea that birthing and raising young children might cause an unfortunate and inevitable creative pause. For a mother to make time to write, it is a hard-negotiated nugget of space where one can only hope for a little luck, inspiration, and a mind lucid enough for clever thinking.
But what of writing, motherhood and mental illness? I personally have never thought of madness as a “badge of honor” for a poet, or proof of authenticity. When I consider the genius of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath I think their writing did not happen because of their madness, but in spite of it. Mental illness does not have greater value than artistic power—in fact, it could be argued that the discipline required to write well is the exact opposite of madness. Sexton gives the impression that she is in complete control of all the issues she brings to her poems whether it is abortion, affairs, depression, or suicide. In her poem “Consorting with Angels” Sexton boldly proclaims, she is “tired of the gender of things,” and it is this defiant feminism that made poets such as myself to yearn to be “Her Kind.” In Searching for Mercy Street, the memoir written by Anne Sexton’s daughter Linda, she never credits her mother’s mental illness as the impetus behind her poetic power, in fact, she says just the opposite: “By writing the sort of revealing poetry that was to become her trademark, my mother took control of her illness—at least some of the time.” The ascendency required over the work that was being created suggests that at the times Anne Sexton was writing she was relatively healthy. According to Linda Sexton, when her mother was in the throes of depression, she was not writing at all.
Plath is no stranger to madness, and her motherhood poems speak to complexities and conflicts between “mother” and “poet.” The faces peering out of the family photo in the hospital room are described as “smiling hooks” in the poem “Tulips.” In”Morning Song,” the speaker stumbles “cow heavy and floral”—the maternal instinct of responding to a baby’s cry. There is a newness of consciousness Plath is trying to make sense of in these poems—how do you harness a poetic voice when the body is split by so many new demands? How does one resist the stereotype of the one-dimensional housewife? Ultimately Plath refuses to be a “drudge” and decidedly takes the reins of those “unmiraculous” expectations:
“…Is there any queen at all in it?
If there is she is old
Her wings torn shawls, her long body
Rubbed of its plush—
Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful.
I stand in a column
Of winged, unmiraculous women,
I am no drudge
Though for years I have eaten dust
And dried plates with my dense hair.
And seen my strangeness evaporate
Blue dew from dangerous skin.
Will they hate me,
These women who only scurry,
Whose news is the open cherry, the open clover?
…It is almost over.
I am in control…
Control. I am in control. That was all I could think of as I rolled rocks out of the woods weighing at least 100lbs, and made my way to the rock garden. I kept searching for rocks until I had enough to complete the wall, and then I filled in the garden bed with barrels and barrels of dirt, each trip with the wheelbarrow punishing my muscles and blistering my hands. I was making something—it wasn’t poetry, but I believe there is epiphany in moments like this—when we stretch our bodies to the limit. To be a mother is a such major physical undertaking—pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, parenting. It is easy to get lost in the chaos of those demands—to fall into the void between mind and body. I was determined to write again. But unlike Plath and Sexton, I had not considered the business of words to be a “lay-away-plan” and death the only true way to be free of mental illness. This was not an option for me—I didn’t want to live in a world where writing was not enough. I was different now—my woman consciousness, my mother consciousness, my mentally ill consciousness—I knew it had to enter my writing, and if I was going to take command of the darkest recesses of my new self, I was going to have to craft poems with the same precision and strength of a rock wall built around dirt.
I know that I am lucky, because I have found healing in my postpartum writing. I am nearing the end of my second manuscript that is unapologetically candid with themes of motherhood, depression and anxiety. In the fall, I filled my new garden bed with hundreds of bulbs. I just kept putting them in, like I was feeding a hollow mouth—planting as many kinds of bulbs as I could fit. The division of body and mind had to end—eventually my physical feelings had to be met with intellectual reason.
It is April now, and pale green blades are just starting to peak through. They are so naively green and raw—they don’t know they won’t last through a single growing season, but nevertheless they persist. Bits of ivy are coming in again too, and I tear them away sporadically like gray hairs. With the promise of all these flowers poking through the frozen earth, how can I not make music with such fierce determination? How can I not think of the first line in Louise Glück’s poem, “The Wild Iris?”
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
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Kate Hanson Foster‘s first book of poems, Mid Drift, was published by Loom Press and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Center for the Book Award in 2011. Her poetry has appeared in Comstock Review, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Tupelo Quarterly and elsewhere. She lives and writes in Groton, Massachusetts.
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