The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2013

All Issues
OCT 2013 Issue

Maternity Mythos

Joyelle McSweeney
(Tarpaulin Press, 2013)

In the past few years, many women writers, myself included, have written books about the ambivalence or the disjuncture of becoming a mother—perhaps a literary tradition hearkening back to Sappho’s ministrations to her students. Regardless, this self-examination has emerged in many forms to reveal complex disenchantments and skepticisms. Joyelle McSweeney’s new fiction-miscellany, Salamadrine, published by Tarpaulin Sky this year, offers the reader strange and incongruous stories about becoming mother. Biological, morbid, fanatic, surreal, McSweeney’s impulses are to go to the rhetoric of the maternity mythos by evoking the spooky, sinuous syntaxes of the gothic and the cleverly constructed political allegory. Salamandrine can be earnest and apocalyptic, playful and arch, but at its core is the proposition that writing the mother-body is a viscid cage match with language and politics in a declining age.

The maternal lens in many of the book’s fictions acts as a distortion, the hangover after a surge of oxytocin. The book begins with a familiar subjectivity; “Welcome a Revolution,” is told from the perspective of a shambling mother in an unspoken rivalry with the flawless and unassailable mother (“so glamorous here, again dressed in black, with your mascara and lip gloss”) both volunteers at some unnamed revolution suggestive of a political campaign. The speaker is familiar and vulnerable and relateable, but beneath the story’s surface is the performativity of the piece, an admission into the tradition of the motherhood work, which the book undermines in provocative and unsettling ways.

The story, “Mothers Over Lambs” begins with the incantation “mothers over lambs, mothers over lambs,” then eases into the discourse of scripture to gild and complicate the banality of dystopia: “Mothers over lambs, mothers before lambs,” she writes, “for Lo, I continued south where the employment office sat like an empty box in the middle of an asphalt lake.” The whole collection is masterful in its portrayal of motherhood as sub-class, and in this story, the struggles of the speaker, metaphorical or literal, are concerned with navigating the blank and sexless (mothering) institution with a revolution in the backdrop. Labor is anonymous and slipshod and there are many corridors to traverse on the way to holiness, many compromises—to be “no longer sexed,” to be mother. The story’s intersection is exquisite and exuberant.

Then, a different world. “The Bottle” seems at first that it might be a child’s first person account of poverty. A small girl lives in a ramshackle apartment with her mother and sister, Tasmin, who is mean, “which is lucky for her.” The family’s been left with a jar containing mysterious and changing sludge that acts in Kafkaesque symbiosis with the girl and her exchanges with the creepy guy from her church. This story’s dazzling finish, like some other moments in the book, make me wonder if I’m not in on some aesthetic rule, but despite the book’s wild stylistic shifts, the political impulse—to create macabre allegories about radicalizing motherhood—must emerge in varied forms. There are many ways to change the world; we’ve forgotten that artists can do it. In these moments, McSweeney evokes Herta Muller’s sinister magic: the unyielding yet prescient telling and unfolding of a culture’s demise.

The book’s most common form is found in stories like “Salamandrine, My Kid,” stories that shift in and out of realism, space, and time. Sometimes the child is the mother’s echo and other times, the mother is chasing a lover in trains and abandoning the child’s thin body. “This is how the occupation has sharpened both myself and my daughter,” she writes in “Charisma.” “Sharpened our little claws.” The speaker in “Welcome A Revolution” seems to be back, but we inhabit her hodgepodge interior world that acts in resistance to and in congress with motherhood. Populated by the popular culture of every Western culture of the last few centuries, these stories reveal the perverse arcana that lace this motherhood. McSweeney cannily weaves powerful political tropes in the fantastical “day-in-the-lifeness” of these stories, and even in the occasionally obscure moment, I find identification.

Because a mother sees the initiation of life, she also sees the initiation of death, the perpetual turning towards decay made all the more poignant by the cultural attribution of purity to the child. Salamandrine sometimes distantly reminds me of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, maybe because both books are political and satirical, yet embedded in some other form, Fox’s in a domestic realist novel, and McSweeney’s, a compendium that could be the love child of Poe, the film Revulsion, and the cant of a 16th-century criminal. Occasionally obscure, this collection is the sexy teleological apocrypha of motherhood literature, a siren song for those mothers “with no soul to photograph.” 


Carmen Giménez Smith

CARMEN GIMÈNEZ SMITH is the author of a memoir, Bring Down the Little Birds (University of Arizona, 2010), three poetry collections-Goodbye, Flicker (University of Massachusetts, 2012), The City She Was (Center for Literary Publishing, 2011), and Odalisque in Pieces (University of Arizona, 2009, and has also co-edited a fiction anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin, 2010). She teaches in the creative writing programs at New Mexico State University and Ashland University. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2013

All Issues