Jackson, Eleanor. Gravidity and Parity. Vagabond Press, 2021. RRP: $25.00, 196pp. ISBN: 9781925735253.
Jackson [no relation]
What happens when a literary intellectual—a poet, editor and critic—lives through a pregnancy during a year like 2020? She writes. In lockdown with a partner and small child, as her belly expands around a new being and screens show COVID-19 case numbers and Black Power demonstrations, she writes. Trying to apprehend what is happening to her body and her world, she writes, searching for the proper words in her head, on her bookshelf, and among her unfinished texts (Jackson and Hogan). She makes a volume of poems.
Gravidity and Parity is Eleanor Jackson’s first full-length collection. Based in eastern Australia, Jackson is well-known for performing poems and for facilitating others’ art through production, editing and criticism, especially with Peril, a magazine focused on Asian-Australian culture.
As a mother and former breastfeeding counsellor, I was attracted to the book because gravidity and parity are obstetric jargon. Gravidity means the number of times someone has been pregnant; parity is her number of live births. Many mothers find such terminology dehumanising.
Parity also means equality, and something can be gravid—pregnant—with meaning. The title is a play on words, as Jackson’s identically-titled essay demonstrates by explicitly linking the culture of childbearing with gender, environmental and ethnic inequities.
For me, the book’s most memorable poems are those that make similar connections implicitly. For example, in ‘Linea Nigra’, whose title references the dark central streak that appears on all but the whitest pregnant bellies, ‘black lines are drawn in Minneapolis’ and someone is ‘handcuffed face down in the street’ as a bathing expectant mother ‘[…] contemplates her navel, / Vitruvian self, which marks her / quadratic […]’ and examines ‘the concave scar’ of a caesarean. When she ‘prays for different this time’, it is not only for herself and her child. (48)
Likewise, ‘Horizon Scanning’ focuses on cultural attitudes to gender. The speaker eloquently describes an ultrasound examination (‘the limbs the lungs the organs / listed and measured / sweetbreads for the weighing’; ‘the head / a rarefied corona / pearly as an eclipse’) but clashes with her Filipina mother because ‘we have neglected once again to obtain / the critical insight into this child / (that is, its future assigned sex)’. The mother-daughter struggle apparently began before birth:
she knows I was always malignant tissue
though not as invasive as my
trophoblastic siblings invading
her Fallopian tubes (53-55)
Although they sometimes use lucid images and homely words to characterise flesh and feeling, these poems predominantly adopt a formal tone, using technical diction and literary references, as they ponder and philosophise. The contrast can be striking:
The search for individuality
masks the mind-boggling
complexity of the whole arrangement.
Two million ecstatic sperm hunting the dominant
egg (earlier tendril-waved along the fallopian
road to El Dorado), each knowing:
Hyt is not al golde that glareth
and swimming still, against gravity, tide,
and the semi-opacity of knowledge,
but think about it all too long, it will
really put you off your fucking. (15)
As the book, and the pregnancy, progress, the images become gutsier:
Today, my breasts ache. Heavy, pendulous, deep
Soul aching. Sometimes when I move
Too fast, or turn too sharp, there’s a knife inside. (72)
The vividness peaks during the birth:
splayed oceans of pain
squat haunches sweating (80)
However, even these images are not left to speak for themselves:
first, effacement the crude self
washing away self
page unwriting (80)
The birth, like the pregnancy, has been theorised.
Non-twee poetry collections focused on pregnancy seem to be rare. In the preface, Natalie Kon-yu asserts that because this one tells ‘different stories’ of ‘pregnancy and motherhood’, it ‘should be read by everyone who was mothered’ or ‘does mothering’ or ‘hopes to’ be a mother. This implies that it would be a thoughtful gift for a friend contemplating a baby. And it would be—if that friend happened to be thoroughly familiar with the intellectual registers of English and, ideally, conversant with literature and critical theory. Despite the book’s titular emphasis on parity, its diction is complex and specialised enough to exclude as readers many of the women whose experiences it inscribes. Stylistically, it is the antithesis of Nobody Told Me, a verse-and-prose memoir of pregnancy and new parenthood by Hollie McNish, a UK poet known, like Jackson, for dynamic performances—but also, unlike Jackson, for pop culture references, earthy diction and slam-style rhyme and assonance. Although Jackson’s book is more skilfully written, it is McNish’s I would give to the majority of prospective parents.
Nevertheless, Gravidity and Parity examines its subject broadly, deeply and maturely. It is likely to reward repeated reading—especially if one makes use of the many scrupulous endnotes—and I hope it will inspire more thinking and writing about how childbearing connects with broader concerns.
Jackson, Eleanor. ‘Gravidity and parity’, Meanjin 79. 4 (2020): 191–99.
Jackson, Eleanor, and Tom Hogan. Rosencrantz and Gildenstern and Collaborethics. February 1 (2020). Sourced at: http://cordite.org.au/chapbooks-features/rgc.
McNish, Hollie. Nobody Told Me. London: Blackfriars, 2016.
Poet and writer Jackson was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Australia and New Zealand. Her four full-length poetry collections include A coat of ashes (Recent Work Press 2019) and The emptied bridge (Mulla Mulla Press 2019). Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, notably the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. Her awards include the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University, winning the University Research Medal and two other awards. She works as an editor and a casual academic. thepoetjackson.com.