Family History by Johanna Emeney (Mākaro Press: Hoopla Series, 2017), 70 pp., $25; Night Horse by Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press, 2017), 80 pp., $25
When I was first published in journals in England in the early 1990s, I used to think work was judged by editors, critics and readers in a simple way – the viewer’s subjective analysis of whether, in terms of skill and story, it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
More recently when I wrote the 2014 collection Cloudboy, a story inspired by my family’s journey with autism, different layers of judgement were opened up to me. Suddenly, in some spectators’ eyes, I was no longer simply an author but a mother, a mother voicing a narrative connected, in part, to her son. Reaction was overwhelmingly supportive. There were tears. There was clapping. There were always – always – people who thanked me for voicing a story that was, in the capacity of mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and/or sufferers, theirs also. But equally surprising to me was the undercurrent of opinion, small but evident, which pushed against my right to tell a disability story, which scorned me for using my son’s experiences as my own creative vehicle.
Recently I came across an article in The Atlantic written by Phoebe Maltz Bovy, which captured the essence of this dissent:
The ubiquity of confessional writing has spilled over into confessions that implicate not so much the author as the author’s still-underage offspring. Readers are meant to celebrate confessional parenting-writing for its courage, perhaps also because it is a rare creative (sometimes lucrative) outlet for women who identify primarily as mothers. Yet these parents’ ‘courage’ involves telling stories not theirs to tell. Confessional writing is about risk. An author telling of her own troubles risks her own reputation and relationships. But an author doing the same about her kid risks primarily his, not hers … (1)
I find the gendered slant to this analysis distressing and disenfranchising. Beyond reducing women writers to the status of someone who uses creativity simply as an ‘outlet’, it also admonishes such women as selfish pariahs of their own offspring’s ‘troubles’.
It causes me to recall how F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote wonderful confessional pieces about illness, like ‘On Booze’ and ‘Sleeping and Waking’, and how Hermann Hesse wrote with sparkling precision of his son’s illness in the novel Rasshalde. More recently, authors Jem Lester (in the heart-wrenching Shtum) and David Mitchell wrote of their children’s experiences of autism and received (through interviews and reviews in the Guardian, New Statesman, Financial Times …) rapturous applause.
The question of a woman’s right to write about matters of her choosing, such as illness, surfaces strongly in two recent New Zealand collections: Johanna Emeney’s second book, Family History, and Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse. In both, the female author is writer and so much more – mother-poet, daughter-poet, patient-poet, friend-poet – the list is richly exhaustive. Illness is at the core of these books, and in navigating this literary terrain the verse-makers astutely play the roles of confessor, analyser and lyricist. Ultimately then, they defy the overt gendered categorisation offered by Maltz Bovy as merely ‘confessional’, as merely willing to ‘risk’ others in the drive to place themselves in the spotlight.
Having written her PhD examining the topic of medical humanities and analysing the work of doctor-writers, patient-writers and parent-writers, Johanna Emeney is well versed in the personal and poetic dynamics at the heart of the issue of women writers telling stories about illness that aren’t directly their own. Placed third and also commended for the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine, Emeney’s collection Family History intersects with and implodes the traditional boundaries of confession, suffering and verse.
The structure, a four-part affair, frames the inventive work within. The first section, ‘Captions’, opens early with the titular poem. This is used to break familial ground in its exploration of ancestry and adoption, as its beginning illustrates:
The way she told it to me,
there was a visiting aunt called Nora
who came to the dull house
and took her on the bus into town,
who sat close, who held hands,
who gave her a picture of her face to keep,
and then, one day, a secret sentence:
I am your real mother (p. 14)
Here the uncertainty of parentage becomes the uncertainty of health. This poem comes surrounded by others like ‘Portrait of a girl sitting backwards on her pony’ and ‘Maureen in a row of lettuces, 1972’, which are inspired by photographs: people captured in moments of time. The frailty of the image gives way to the shortcomings of a body whose hereditary illness and disease, because of closed adoption, can never be known.
In the second section, ‘First Degree Relatives …’, this personalised story full of uncertainties becomes more personalised and imprecise. ‘Medical miracles’, ‘How you guess she doesn’t have the best breast surgeon’ and ‘The surgeon’s secretary is also his wife’ form part of a suite of poems that takes the reader, sometimes quite literally, to the heart of medical haziness around unknown inherited disease, while also making a fallacy of the argument that (male) practitioners have a clinical capacity to distance themselves from stories about illness. The personal, Emeney forcefully infers, is always personal, irrespective of whether you are parent or professional.
In the third and fourth sections, ‘Only Recently has Cancer …’ and ‘Once Death has Occurred …’, biography is laced with malady and poetry to provocative, honest effect. Poems like ‘My mother wasn’t supposed to die’, ‘Undertaking’ and ‘How large was your heart’ chart the afflictive and private loss of a child when a parent passes. Verses such as ‘Ka mate’, ‘Chardin rabbits’ and ‘Blue horse, black dog, amber pig’ are part of a complimentary simultaneous narrative investing relationships, infirmity, love and demise into the everyday comforts of creatures, books and surroundings. The following lines from ‘Ka mate’ are illustrative of this:
A tan boy with seaweed hair
is playing drowned on the beach …
He is composing a poem on the tide,
its old rhythms threatening:
Watch me live. Watch me die. (p. 46)
A moving, impressive and, hearteningly, personal collection results.
In Elizabeth Smither’s eighteenth collection, Night Horse, illness also has an integral role to play in the intimate and responsive nature of the narrative. Everywhere, life – through the lens of domesticity, relationships and motherhood – prevails. Opening poems such as ‘My mother’s house’ and ‘Miss Bowerman and the hot water bottles’ set the tone. The joy and richness of life is found in seemingly sundry affairs and acts of intimacy: for instance, to think of hot water bottles as small and insignificant props to living is to miss the significant role they play in microscoping character, connection and everyday survival.
So slippers become:
like a dinosaur trying to enter a building
the ceiling too low for the neck, the tail knocking
over the walls, the head like your pointing big toe … (p. 7)
A visit to the ballet is set to the beat of life:
Fast the pulse of the music, every beat
clear as a little stream running over stones. (p. 29)
Needless to say, this world isn’t exclusively female. In ‘Swimming with our fathers’, ‘Meeting the Pope’, ‘Picasso’s tenderness’ and elsewhere, men are active figures in the collection. But be it as girls, women, friends, sportscar drivers, authors, maids or mothers, women and womanly concerns proliferate. The poem ‘Re-reading Emma’ seems both emblematically Smither and instructive of how she explores life from its interior aspects out:
Now I’m not reading Emma at all,
but Jane Austen straight from the horse’s mouth.
The ones she loves seize the hand of the loved one
and place it over their heart as they walk
or lift a hand towards their lips in the drawing room
then lower it, as not quite proper. (p. 31)
It is natural – inevitable then – that this book should also examine literary themes of illness and loss. That Night Horse is about life – daily life, its joys and sufferings – means it must also be about infirmity and death. In this, cleverly, poems connected to medical and funereal matters come towards the end of the book. But this latter placing shouldn’t be read as authorial dismissiveness of the topics. Rather, whether it’s ‘After a gastroscopy’, ‘Ukelele for a dying child’ or ‘My mother visits me in hospital’, these matters are explored as necessary parts of existence, sometimes contrasting it but complimenting it too. ‘My mother visits me in hospital’ examines the place of ailment and demise particularly astutely:
My mother appears at the end of the bed
making a fine contrast to the nurses.
She is beautifully and elaborately dressed …
Nothing matches the Marcel wave of her hair
or the gloves she takes from her fingers
in mockery of the surgeon putting his on … (p. 68)
As with her investigation of life, Smither’s examination of affliction – her personalising of it, her proffering symbol and significance to it – is as lyrical and thorough as Emeney’s or any medic-poet’s.
The dubiousness with which narratives offered by parent-poets – particularly mother-poets, grandmother-poets or patient-poets – are regarded: it’s as if emotion – supposedly that most feminine of virtues, that most poetic of virtues – is at fault. Women who write about illness – Jenny Diski, Joan Didion, Emma Forrest … – should not be sidelined simply because they are not clinicians and are women; if only because no such marginalisation appeared in reactions to recent works about suffering by male authors such as David Adam and Scott Stossel. I welcome Johanna Emeney’s Family History and Elizabeth Smither’s Night Horse for their abilities to restore – thankfully, gloriously – emotion to the discourse of the medical narrative; and the right of the daughter-poet, the mother-poet and the patient-poet to discuss their experiences of sickness.
- Phoebe Maltz Bovy, ‘The ethical implications of parents writing about their kids’, The Atlantic, 15 January 2013: www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/01/the-ethical-implications-of-parents-writing-about-their-kids/267170/
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and co-editor of Essential New Zealand Poems (Penguin Random House, 2014). She is a lecturer at the Centre for Creative Writing at Auckland University of Technology. Her work has appeared in Griffith Review (Aus), Segue (US), Sobotka (US), Stand (UK) and Structo (UK), and has been widely anthologised. The Poetry Archive (UK) holds a Poet’s Page devoted to her work.