Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s collection The Mother/Child Papers was originally released in 1980. Many of the poems include dates, such as “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas,” which is dated 1975–1979. The poems are rooted in the family life of the speaker, who gives birth to her third child, a son, but are also infused with the presence of the Vietnam War, the US war in Cambodia, and violence in the US, such as the shootings of college students at Kent State in 1970. The first section of the book, in fact, is called “Cambodia,” a little surprising at first for a book titled The Mother/Child Papers. But the first line makes clear how intertwined these events are for the speaker: “My son Gabriel was born on May 14, 1970, during the Vietnam War, a few days after the United States invaded Cambodia, and a few days after four students had been shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio during a protest demonstration.” “Cambodia” continues as a prose poem/essay to set the violent political stage into which the speaker gives birth and is raising children while also working and maintaining a marriage.
I came to read The Mother/Child Papers because I was looking for poets who had written honestly about the experience of motherhood. I wanted—needed—to read poems that spoke about both the heart-splitting wonder and also the crushing loneliness and terror and pain of being a parent. Especially a parent in a time of war and emergency, as we are now, and as Ostriker was then.
“Cambodia” ends with a description of the speaker’s harrowing experience of giving birth under Demerol (an opioid given to laboring mothers for pain) and a spinal tap, which made her disoriented and unable to feel below her waist while needing to push. The speaker asks:
Cut off from joy, how many women conceive? Cut off, how many bear? And cut, how many give birth to their children? Now I am one of them. I did not fight. Beginning a day after my son’s birth, and continuing for a week, I have swordlike headaches, which I attribute to the spinal. I am thirty-three. In the fall I will be back at work, back East. My husband and I have two daughters, both all right so far, and now the son for whom we were hoping. There will never be a next time.
What does this have to do with Cambodia?
The continuous background of war is important to keep in mind as the reader reaches “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas.” Propaganda, of course, is a tool of war. Propaganda relentlessly surrounds citizens and is every bit as powerful as the weapons fired. The second section of “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mamas” heavily uses the tool of anaphora. The very first sentence on the Poets.org page about anaphora states, “Often used in political speeches and occasionally in prose and poetry, anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect.”
The first section of “Propaganda Poem” uses delicate language and imagery, “both gently just lightly / separated from each other / swaying, swinging / like a vine, like an oriole nest.” This opening focuses on the pleasures of mothering and birthing, on
the pleasure of touching
and being touched by this most perfect thing
this pear tree blossom
this mouth these leafy hands these genitals
This first section is gentle and seductive in its propaganda–mothering as pleasure and delight, as part of the natural world, with all the appealing imagery of nature used to describe the mother and child. A reader may be curious, after reading just the first section, why it is titled “Propaganda Poem” at all. Section one concludes with “the power of a woman / close to a child, riding our tides / into the sand dunes of the public spaces” (again, note the conflation of woman and child with nature).
In the second section, there is a marked shift in language, most noticeable at first in the use of the anaphoric phrase “that they.” Titled “Postscript to Propaganda,” this section opens:
That they limit your liberty, of course,
entirely. That they limit your cash. That they limit your sleep.
Your sleep is a dirty torn cloth.
That they whine until you want to murder them. That their beauty
The repetition of the phrase “that they” begins each line throughout this section, with only one or two exceptions, until the final line. This repetition, used so effectively in all types of propaganda, is fascinating in a poem that has declared itself so blatantly to be propaganda, and then proceeds to complicate and argue against itself, even while using propaganda’s tools, such as anaphora and also the blatant symbolic imagery. The tender and positive nature imagery of section one also changes noticeably in section two—now the images are of “a dirty torn cloth” and the children’s “eating and excreting exactly resembles / the slime-trails of slugs.” The mother in the poem is no longer powerfully riding the tides with her child, now she is trapped “like a thrashing fish.”
Interestingly, the fact that Ostriker has told us this poem is propaganda does not seem to detract from the power of each section. Section two builds and builds with the powerful pulse of the anaphora driving the reader through the relentlessness of mothering, the violence to the female body and mind, the degradation: “That their sullenness is a damp that rots your wood, their / malice a metal that draws your blood, their disobedience the fire that / burns your sacred book, their sorrows the webbing that entraps you / like a thrashing fish.” The reader follows all that is being inflicted upon the speaker, all that is being taken from her, under the spell of the repeated “that there,” so that the interruption of the final line is all the more jolting: “Come on, you daughters of bitches, do you want to live forever?”
Later in the collection, Ostriker’s poem “This Power” uses anaphora again, with most lines beginning, “Mother.”
Mother, your rooted garden
Mother, I address you as if you had dignity…
Mother, your folders of secret poems
Mother, your boyish energy…
Mother, fish in your giant tank
Mother, scars puckering your skin…
“This Power” builds and builds upon the repeated direct address of “Mother,” moving towards the final image of the speaker’s children, jumping off her shoulders into a swimming pool, “they flew / off me, and made a good splash / and I fell back, into the water / welcoming.” Many of the later poems in the collection describe the long and fraught process of a parent letting go of the children they have spent so much time and energy raising. The poem “In the Dust” describes taking a daughter to get her ears pierced for her birthday, and then watching her run out to her friends.
What is that whirling in the dust?
What is that powerful
movement, everywhere, so rapid she cannot see it?
The fireflies are making their phosphorus, slow circles,
the appletrees ripening, and she
is going willingly. I send her willingly.
Propaganda is inevitably all about power, and Ostriker both describes and questions power dynamics in this collection—from the power of nation states to wage war, to the ever-shifting power that children and parents have over each other. Some of the poems, such as “Propaganda Poem” turn and argue against themselves—yes, it will be wonderful, it will be terrible, it will be beautiful, what did you expect? Come on, says the propaganda, whether it says it with the lure of the beautiful or the honesty of the hard work and the injunction to go ahead and do what is hard. Ultimately, The Mother/Child Papers is about not only the propaganda the world uses against us, but also the propaganda we use against ourselves.