"Spelling" Part 3 - Birth
Read the poem - here
And Part 1
and Part 2
Regarding how women can have a voice, Virginia Woolf once said that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” In other words, to write, to have a voice, a woman must not be dependent on anyone or anything. This was a radical statement because it meant women would assume a role other than the traditional one of the woman as the mother/wife. In fact, by Woolf’s definition, being a mother/wife and a writer were mutually exclusive events. Atwood challenges that distinction. As a young woman, she had adhered to Woolf’s ideas, and had tried to prepare herself for the modern writer’s life of wearing black, smoking cigarettes, living alone, and never owning an automatic washer-dryer. She soon questioned the necessity of that existence, got married, had kids, and wrote. Her response to Woolf’s idea was, “as for writing, yes. You can do it at home”. That statement is explored in “Spelling”, as she writes the lines,
“and I wonder how many women
denied themselves daughters,
closed themselves in rooms,
drew the curtains
so they could mainline words.
A child is not a poem,
a poem is not a child
There is no either/or.
Those first lines seem to be a direct reference to Woolf, as the women followed Woolf’s advice to separate themselves from the world. Yet Atwood uses the phrase “to mainline words” to describe what the women were doing in those rooms. To mainline is slang for injecting a narcotic directly into a vein. To be consumed by writing and the need to express what one has inside of herself. I’ve seen the same habits in mothers – complete surrender to mothering their children.
Atwood blames the addiction to words as the reason why women did not have children. She asserts that poetry cannot take the place of a child, but admits that a child does not fulfill a writer who desires to create poems. Her solution is an integration of the two- not having to chose either the child or the poem. To embrace both as expressions of who one is. But it’s never really that simply is it?
Atwood ends that section with the provoking word ‘however’. She then gives the examples of the women who were silenced that I discussed in Part 1. After years of suppression of women, history cannot be so easily brushed aside by her merely making the decision to have kids and write. There must be something beyond that, which she describes as-
“at the point where language falls away
from the hot bones, at the point
where the rock breaks open and darkness
flows out of it like blood, at
the melting point of granite
when the bones know
they are hollow & the word
splits & doubles & speaks
the truth & the body
itself becomes a mouth.
This is a metaphor.”
Birthing- bringing life into this world. The intensity of the sexual body is beyond normal definitions of language, but still creates ‘the word’. Atwood has ‘the word’ splitting and doubling, a description of the first stages of human growth and an image of how a voice can spread its message. This word then “speaks the truth & the body itself becomes a mouth” as the woman’s voice is heard through her creation. Words, that her daughter learned to spell using red, blue and yellow letters made of synthetic plastic, do hold power, but that power pales when compared to the intense, sexual, elemental power which teaches one to spell using the natural reds, blues, and yellows of “blood, sky, & the sun.”
For a woman to have a voice she must accept birth. Birth that is organic and painful and raw. For some, to accept that her body is a mouth and the physical act of childbirth is a valued form of creation. But also that she must be reborn – born again if you will. Born into her full identity as a person. Born into a new way of being where her whole body, her whole self, can speak the truth. To be content in being a woman and in being herself. To use her voice no matter what oppression she faces. To support new life in all of its forms.
Labels: Gender Issues, poetry reflections