Kurz, Ella, Simone King and Claire Delahunty, editors. What We Carry: poetry on childbearing. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2021. RRP: $24.95, pp. 236, ISBN: 9780645009095.
This anthology of poetry features more than sixty contemporary Australian poets and showcases a diversity of experience, voice, physicality and culture. Speaking, as Sharon Olds suggests in ‘The Language of the Brag’ the ‘language of blood’, the poets in this anthology provide insights and illuminations to that essential, gendered experience that is childbearing.
The book has eight sections that meld organically and respond to a transformation of body and mind—a transfiguration, a metamorphosis. Each section focuses on singular notions: origin, conception, pregnancy, loss, birth, postpartum, choice, power and place.
Ancestral yearnings define the line that stretches back to the beginning of time in the poetry of Charmaine Papertalk Green, Ivy Alvarez, Emily Sun and Jeanine Leane, while Rose Lucas and Nadia Rhook respond to the ‘inchoate’ dreams (24) and yearning present in the spaces before life begins. And when wombs remain empty, Nandi Chinna and Suneeta Peres da Costa notice the abundance and rudeness of nature; it is ‘awash,’ ‘overflowing,’ with its ‘rattling pebbles that mimic children’ (31). Pregnancy’s miracles and terrors are explored through anxiety and distrust, as is the fascination for an almost alien emergence; Maria Takolander’s body becomes ‘a theatre for unseen marionettes and for pain’ (45). Worlds of loss are evident in the words that describe losing a baby. This is the language of inadequacies, of lack, of bargains, of premature freedoms, of ‘ghostly unpresence’ (Eleanor Jackson 60). Children who did not live, live on. They have names, souls, spirits. This contrasts painfully with the images of war that resonate after giving birth. Melinda Smith, Dominique Hecq and Jennifer Harrison connect their experiences to those of warriors, resplendent in an ‘omnipotence of pain’ (92). Miriam We Wei Lo likens childbirth to walking into an arena with an intent to fight, while both Takolander and Lucy Dougan reflect on the violence of birth, the grasping needs of a baby and the forgetting of both self and other in the aftermath.
In the later sections of the book, Postpartum, Choice, and Power and Place, poets offer glimpses into lives as new parents, the fragmented self, and the silences between connecting and attempting to forget. The rituals of feeding, bathing and sleeping are juxtaposed with often terrifying fatigue, post-natal depression and love and wonder that is, in the words of Quinn Eades, ‘not enough and too much at the same time’ (155). The experience of motherhood is denied and accepted, miscarried and mourned, adopted and longed for, in the ‘hard place of love’s beginnings’ (Rose Lucas 179).
Immigrant and Aboriginal poets fragment their souls in an immersion of colonising shame, while the migratory traces of other countries sing in the bodies of those whose border crossings bring either ruination or regret. Jeanine Leane’s trio of powerful poems loop around ancestor and womb, sin and harvest, shame and country, while Saba Vasefi wonders which earth she can trust to birth her child, ‘branded with slap fingerprints’ (191).
Every poem in this collection delivers a complex insight, a silent crisis, a shared bond. To speak of women and birth is to speak of, as the editors note in their introduction, ‘the human condition, from the profane to the profound’ (8). These are powerful, subversive, dangerous words, words that break down and build up; words that witness, resist and change. They are hard to read, even harder to experience and impossible to skim over. Inheritance and memory compete for space in the embodied reality of every birth, fulfilled or not. Discomfort looms large over this collection—as it should. Futility and yearning are equal companions on the journey, as are explosions of joy so strident it hurts to listen. The poets here give language and bear testimony to an experience so raw, so potentially terrifying, so wild, that a review such as this can only hold traces of elucidation. To experience its compelling potency, this anthology needs to be read—not in a single sitting, but gradually, over time, perhaps several months. Then, perhaps, this crescendo of transcultural voices might settle from howl to hum; or they might not.
Rashida Murphy is the author of The Historian’s Daughter and The Bonesetter’s Fee & Other Stories. She lives in Boorloo/Perth on the lands of the Whadjuk people. More information can be found here: https://rashidawritenow.com/