Meg Boerema

Meg Boerema: On "Breed, Women, Breed"

Challenging not only men’s authority over poetic discourse, but also dominant narratives of modernism’s break with sentimentalism, Lucia Trent in "More Power to Poets" (see MAPS page "Lucia Trent on Women Poets") argues radically for the sentimental function of poetry and for women’s poetic expertise: "For poetry is essentially the art of sympathy--and sympathy is essentially the province of women." For Trent, women’s claim upon sympathy/poetry, depends upon women’s capacity for motherhood since mothers, as Trent argues, "learn unselfishness--a basic requirement of true poetry as the poet must perceive the unity of all life." Trent’s outward-looking sympathy then is not a personal sympathy of a private domesticity (she despises the "tea-table topics" of many women poets), but a public sympathy of politicized collectivity; it’s the sympathy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not of Hallmark’s greeting cards. Locating women’s poetic authority in an idealization of women’s maternity, Trent in "More Power to Poets" rearticulates sentimental ideals of motherhood to political advantage: to claim women’s poetic expertise. Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" similarly evokes sentimental ideals of motherhood for political purposes. Reducing maternity to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" challenges bourgeois ideals of motherhood to incite readers’ outrage against capitalism and its vulgarized motherhood. Like the politicized sentimentalism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin then, Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed" garners much of its revolutionary political force through its threat to that conservative, middle-class ideal: motherhood.

"Breed, Women, Breed" devastates romantic ideals of motherhood by denying its mothers’ agency and by locating their sexuality in its capitalistic function. Women in "Breed, Women, Breed" have no control over their reproduction (for Trent the "dark side" of pregnancy: "Pregnancy has its dark side when it does not represent voluntary motherhood" (More Power to Poets). Women are compelled to "Breed, breed, breed!" (line 8 and 24) and have no ability to protect their children once born. Moreover, in "Breed, Women, Breed," women’s sexuality is solely (re)productive, imagined as producing "a race of danger-haunted men,/A race of toiling sweating, miserable men," (lines 4-5) "a race of machines" (line 12). Here, women’s sexuality exists not in a romantic relationship with a lover, but in a capitalist relationship with "the owners of mills and the owners of mines" (line 3), "the bankers, the crafty and terrible masters of men" (line 11), "the devouring war lords" (line 23). Reducing women’s sexuality to its economic function, "Breed, Women, Breed" figures maternity as a sort of prostitution, a painful affront to those invested in romanticized ideals of a protective motherhood.

Yet though the poem everywhere denies the existence of a romanticized motherhood, it nowhere denies motherhood as an ideal. Rather, "Breed, Women, Breed" critiques capitalism by appealing to bourgeois ideals of motherhood and by soliciting a sort of maternal sympathy from its readers. Just as Eliza’s son should not be sold to slave owners in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the sons of the mothers in "Breed, Women, Breed" should not be sold to "the terrible masters of men" (line 11 and 22): the owners, bankers, and war lords. "Breed, Women, Breed" then--much like Uncle Tom’s Cabin wherein Eliza appeals, "’Have you ever lost a child?’" (149)--figures the reader as a sort of surrogate mother. The reader, called upon to perform as that agent mother absent from the poem, cannot possibly continue to allow her children to become "a race of toiling, sweating miserable men" (line 5). "Breed, Women, Breed" then does not contest a bourgeois valuation of the maternal relationship, but depends upon it. The problem, as the poem imagines, is not that motherhood is a false ideal (it’s not that mothers don’t care what happens to their children), but that the ideal is denied by capitalism (it’s that mothers don’t control what happens to their children).

Motherhood then, as it was in much of 19th century American sentimentalism, is central to the political performance of sympathy in "Breed, Women, Breed," and even motherhood’s centrality to the poem’s rhetorical appeals can be read through its political performance. As Jane Tompkins argues of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Sensational Designs:

The brilliance of the strategy is that it puts the central affirmations of a culture into the service of a vision that would destroy the present economic and social institutions; by resting her case, absolutely, on the saving power of Christian love and on the sanctity of motherhood and the family, Stowe relocates the center of power in American life, placing it not in the government, nor in the courts of law, nor in the factories, nor in the marketplace, but in the kitchen. (145)

Jane Tompkins’s reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be easily read towards Trent’s "Breed, Women, Breed"; only in "Breed, Women, Breed," I would argue, the center of power rests not in kitchen, but in the bedroom. Power extends even here, and it is here, the poem argues, that women shall exercise their complicity or resistance.

Meg Boerema: On "Elizabeth Umpstead"

Carl Sandburg’s "Nigger" and "Elizabeth Umpstead" insist upon the insufficiency of type. In "Nigger," the self-conscious repetition of the anonymous and singular "I am the nigger" (emphasis added) mocks the presumed applicability and universality of type, challenging the poem’s evocation of broad racial stereotypes. The poem’s final lines demand the speaker’s particularization and bring the insufficiency of type to a crisis: "I am the nigger./Look at me./I am the nigger" (lines 18-20). The particularized voice of Sandburg’s "Elizabeth Umpstead" realizes the particularity "Nigger" calls for. The poem’s voice is powerfully personal. It attends to Elizabeth’s most private experiences in a voice driven by emotion--"Nobody will say my heart is someway wrong when I assert"--and guided by a private logic--what personal logic motivates the likening of a brass cuspidor, a new horse and buggy, and a swivel chair? It is through this particularized narrative performance that "Elizabeth Umpstead" most successfully resists the racial and gendered objectification and typification that dominate the action of the poem. Though within the poem, racist and sexist ideologies effectively deny Elizabeth her individuality, through the performance of her narrative, Elizabeth reasserts her particularity and resists her objectification and typification.

Within the poem, Elizabeth is a body to be negotiated. The undertaker uses "supply straps to let the box down the lean dirt walls" and the clergymen pronounces, "’Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.’" Living, her body is similarly the sole source of men’s attention--"they wanted to take it and crush it and taste it"--and her resistance to her objectification--"she learned what they wanted and traded on it" and "I slashed his face with a horsewhip"--does little to complicate her purely physical performance within the poem. Elizabeth’s narrative performance, however, resists the objectification of her body. Elizabeth won’t let us look at her. Her body is hidden in a "polished and silver-plated box," and persisting in the erasure of her materiality, she alludes to her body either vaguely, in terms of her "beauty," or metonymically, by referencing her "short dresses." Speaking to us from the grave and effacing her physicality, Elizabeth’s narrative voice works to exceed her body and resist its objectification. Moreover, although Elizabeth won’t show us her body, she will show us its effect upon men: "and men wanted my beauty, white men and black men—they wanted to take it and crush it" and "I learned early, away back in short dresses, when a lawyer took me and used me." Looking back at those who look at her, Elizabeth takes their gaze as her object, denaturalizing its authority. Elizabeth’s narrative erasure of her body then disrupts the economy of physical exchange present in the poem by denying the economy its commodity, her physicality, and its authority, the naturalness of her body’s objectification.

Elizabeth Umpstead’s narrative performance also resists her identification as a racial and sexual type. Although Elizabeth’s identification as an overtly sexual black woman accords with racist and sexist stereotypes of black womanhood, the particularity of her narrative voice denies this stereotype its universality. Her erasure of her body also resists her typification by denying us access to that element of a racial and gendered type: a racially and sexually marked body. Though within the poem Elizabeth performs as other--she is other to the men’s desires and other to the community’s sexual proprieties--the intimacy of her narrative voice resists her othering. Elizabeth’s private and emotional voice invites us into her confidences, and her lack of a body compounds the intimacy of the speaker’s relationship with the reader by disabling physical difference. In so doing, Elizabeth positions herself not as the reader’s exotic other, but as the reader’s intimate friend.

The poem’s narrative performance then resists the racial and sexual oppression that dominates the action of the poem. Though Elizabeth’s attack upon the lawyer is a powerful moment of revolt, its political resistance is limited. It does little to disavow the objectification of her physicality, and by figuring racial and sexual oppression as a personal rather than political conflict--i.e., it is a conflict between Elizabeth and the man she whips--it does little to consider the cultural politics of her oppression. The poem’s greatest political resistance then occurs not within the poem, but through the poem, as it is through the poem’s narrative performance that the poem does its more radical work reconceptualizing racial and sexual power structures.

Copyright 2001 by Meg Boerema

 

Meg Boerema: On "Mill Town"

What's first striking about "Mill Town" is its title. Since the poem describes a mother and not a town, why isn't it called "Mill-Mother"? This substitution of the word "Town" for the word "Mother" is significant for several reasons.

First, the title's erasure of motherhood performs the denial of motherhood that the poem describes. Motherhood in the poem cannot be realized. The mother's first child died, and we anticipate a similar fate for the second; the second child is always compared to the first, referred to only and always as "*another* child" (emphasis added). We might think then of the title's denial of the word "Mother" as participating in the poem's imagining of an unfulfilled motherhood.

Second, we might also think about the title's substitution of the collective and public "Town" for the personal and private "Mother" as participating in the poem's public representation of motherhood. The "Town" of "Hill Town," like the poem itself, brings motherhood into the public realm. Motherhood in "Hill Town" is very exposed. The first lines the poem, without any hesitation, announce the most intimate details of the mother's life: her mourning and her pregnancy. We then see the mother move from the public funeral to the public mill and back to her house. But even at home she has no privacy and we watch her, in a very private moment, putting away the clothes of her dead child. The poem's voice is also a very public voice and this compounds her exposure. A public investigator announces the cause of the child's death, and the announcement of the mother's pregnancy reads for me much like a news report:

 

"...the child died, the investigator said, for lack of proper food.

After the funeral the mother went back to the mill. She is

expecting another child..."

 

The collective "we" of the speaker's voice adds to a sense of the mother's exposure by creating an audience for the mother within the poem.

But what's most interesting about the public status of motherhood in this poem is that there seems to be nothing appropriative or accusative in its publicity. The mother's body remains her own--"Your body drugged with work and the repeated bitter/Gall of your morning vomit" (lines 12-13)--and she is the poem's victim, not its villain:

 

And by this act prepare

Your store of pain, your weariness, dull love,

To bear another child with doubled fists

And sucking face. (lines 5-8).

 

The publicizing of motherhood, then, does not seem to be an attempt to make private failures public, but an attempt to contextualize and share these failings. The poem implicates an economic structure, not the mother, for the death of the child. Hard as she works (remember how she goes to the mill right after the funeral!), the mill does not pay her enough to feed her children. The public performance of motherhood in "Hill Town" thus refuses motherhood's insularity and disallows an accusation of the mother than doesn't implicate the public.

Owing, then, to the speaker's sympathy for the mother and disavowal of her insularity, I can hear little accusation in the speaker's final directives "Soap on the yellowed blankets. Rub them pure" (line 15). Instead I read these directives not as telling the mother how to absolve her own guilt, but as begging her to absolve the public speaker of his. The publicizing of motherhood in "Hill Town," finally, is quite interesting because it is neither appropriative nor oppressive, but instead rather generous and sympathetic.