The first real poet I got to know was my teacher for two weeks at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference, the summer I turned 18. Her name was Diann Blakely, recently returned to her maiden name from the longer Diann Blakely Shoaf, under which her first book had been published. Diann was 40, wore long sleeves in the Tennessee summer, sat with impossibly straight posture at our conference table, and told us what it would take to become writers. She had a few jokes—“there’s no money in it, but at least you get to be called a ‘younger poet’ until about the time Social Security kicks in”—but in general I took her message to be one of gravity: “You have to be willing to lose everything. I would leave everyone I loved, if asked.” Her class, made up mostly of girls, took clearly the message that we might also be wise not to change our names, not to have children, probably not to partner up at all.
Her loyalty to art seemed to require her to run the gymnasium track in the 95 degree heat after workshop daily instead of coming in to the cafeteria for lunch. She must have eaten during our two weeks, but all I ever saw touch her mouth was a glass of grapefruit juice.
She taught us the villanelle, sestina, and sonnet; with her daily assignments I found myself staying up until 2 am counting metrical feet, trying to torque lyrical language into strict verse. That it was restricted was an entirely new concept to me. I held my breath for her responses, which were thoroughly critical but not unkind. I remember being afraid of the bones of her spine, which thrust sharply through her shirts.
I think now that this was my first understanding of what a woman poet is: someone with a singularly severe discipline, someone who rejects comfort for art. Someone, perhaps, who even tries to reject the self for the art. I found the idea attractive in a sad, romantic sort of way, and could believe it about myself in the abstract for many years: I was happier alone, writing, than with anyone. It didn’t cross my mind that this might be a definition of sexism, to make girls think they had to choose family or writing, when no such binary was presented to boys.
Getting pregnant was an accident. Or really: getting married was an accident. I hadn’t been against it, exactly, I just hadn’t thought I was someone that marriage would come to. But since my husband was a writer too, we understood each other’s need for solitude—we didn’t take it personally when one left the other for their art.
Babies, on the other hand, have no boundaries. They explicitly did not respect my need to write. I went into labor with my daughter hours after my final conversation about my first book’s edits with my press. “Scene change!,” she seemed to be saying as she hurtled against my body to be born.
I carted books around to readings all over the country in a diaper bag, and bounced the baby along in a carrier on my chest. For four years, nearly, I was either pregnant or breastfeeding. My body was physically attached to another body, and this other body was using me for food. Worse, I wanted her to eat me alive: or at least my body did, as it told me, throbbingly, every time I tried to stay out at the bar with a friend, or attend a colleague’s talk.
At some point in 2013, with the second baby bound to my chest in the carrier, and the first in a stroller in front of us, I lumbered down my suburban street to find the source of a strange, forlorn sound. It was cold, not quite spring, the sky a sickly white. The few brown leaves that had clung through the winter now rattled on the towering elms. As we approached the neighborhood park, the source revealed itself: a gull, circling the cleared land, calling its sad call. I have no idea why it was in Greensboro, North Carolina, 250 miles from the sea. It had flown a long way, with conviction, to become this lost. To my mind (though I admit there might be a bit of pathetic fallacy imposed here) it was a perfect metaphor for me: moored inland, circling, headed toward nothing. I wasn’t writing, and I had just decided to give up a job teaching in a prestigious university program with an all-male poetry faculty. My husband had gone off to the AWP Conference to talk with dozens of writers about writing, and for those four days I had… nursed. I had also read the new statistics from VIDA, and the numbers were once again dismal.
I was confused, too: my colleagues prided themselves on being open-minded men, and in many ways I agreed, though I couldn’t help noticing the stark weight of their syllabi toward writers in their own image: white, straight, and male. (When I wrote my own syllabi and counted the gender and racial balance on the reading list, I steeled myself to defend my choice to tip the scale in the opposite direction.)
When I had been pregnant with my first child, my first book under contract, they had invited a prominent woman poet as the visiting writer of the semester; she wore rainbow knee socks and read juicy poems full of the body, childbirth, and children. I was delighted to have a younger woman poet there, especially after a long line of older Southern white men. During her visit, we all celebrated her work. But a few weeks afterward, my program director told me “You’re a good poet. You wrote a good book. You’ll be fine as long as you don’t start writing mommy poems.”
I had no idea how to file this conflicting input. I was sure he intended to be kind, helpful even: he was alerting me to the dangers of being pigeonholed. But hadn’t he invited this prominent writer, whom he now seemed to be dismissing as a cautionary tale? And what on earth was a Mommy Poem? Is a poet who is a mother not supposed to admit to that fact in verse? Does a child appearing in a poem diminish it? If the speaker’s body is a vessel, does her brain stop being interesting?
I circled these thoughts, utterly lost as to what it meant and how to avoid whatever dire fate awaited me. Maybe he was right. I had written almost nothing in the two years in which I had had my two kids, and the few poems that had surfaced had awkward images like electric breast pumps in them. Maybe I was done being a writer. And there were no classes for me to teach next term at the University, mysteriously. Despite a fancy title I’d been given, and the upper-level classes I taught, what I did remained contingent labor. Contingent to the male professors and, it had begun to seem, contingent upon my not being too conspicuously that anti-literary creature, a mom.
And now here I was, lost among the trees, silent, with these heavy bodies so bluntly appended to my own. I watched that seagull miles from the sea, imagining it looking down with dismay on a children’s playground in the clearing of trees in a leafy suburb, when it had thought it flew toward the open ocean.
I had written a poem, early in marriage and long before kids, with the lines “I love my husband/ even as I would leave him for the sea.” The poem didn’t work, the poem had no real necessity then, but now the phrase became my refrain. I love them even as I would leave them for the sea, I said to myself after a night with two kids puking neon pink vomit into their hair, pajamas, and sheets at 3 am. (We had fed them raspberries.) I love them even as I would leave them for the sea, when the toddler’s nonstop whining made me consider smashing my head through a window just to move my ears out of range.
The sea swallowed my imagination: in it was the expanse, the depth, the unknown, as one can never find on suburban streets. The suburb is the pinnacle of American city planning, taking every comfort into account and obliterating the unknown with uniformity. My daily radius there was about one square mile. I moved in straight lines and pivoted on 90 degree corners. And my destinations had big, generous, dorky names like the Friendly Center and Food Lion and SciQuarium. Greensboro had imported a dozen African penguins to swim in a tiny tank and climb a gleaming rock in a glass enclosure for the pleasure of all of us, visitors to the SciQuarium on Lawndale Avenue.
I had planned in 2013 to read only women writers, as a cleanse from the overwhelmingly male literary world I’d been working in, and with a second daughter newly born. I wanted to surround myself with the voices of women speaking from every corner of experience—geographically, racially, sexually, socioeconomically—both to expand my own canon but also as a sort of empowerment boot camp: I’d lost my sense of toughness, so I went looking for my sisters. But I found myself returning, between every novel and collection of poems, to Moby-Dick.
In the first chapter, Ishmael comments that “meditation and water are wedded for ever.” Yes, I thought: I would be able to think so much more clearly if I were at sea. No screaming, no constant snack cups spilling in my bag. An expanse of water upon which to look out, rather than small lamp-lit rooms filled with colored toys. There had become so many ways in my life to say I couldn’t write, didn’t have time, didn’t have worthy subjects, didn’t have the distance required for true vision.
But Melville also has Ishmael say, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” Oh. For Ishmael and Ahab and Melville, this bondage was to God, to questions of mortality and purpose and desire. But it could just as easily be applied to anything grand and encompassing, and perhaps parenthood was just that. Rather than a barrier, maybe this relationship could be a source.
Reading this book as a poet, and one grasping for a new way to speak, I was in awe of Melville’s trust: first, that the reader would want to listen to all the gyres and eddies of the speaker’s thoughts, and second, that one metaphor could be made to speak for all of human existence. Ishmael concludes the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale” by saying, “And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?”
No, I don’t wonder at it. Not even I, who have trouble having faith in metaphor at all sometimes—with the inherent artifice of inventing one thing as another thing, and the ways that it always seems to crumble after thorough excavation. With my unquestionably rooted body fixed to the earth—no metaphor in this physicality, no poetry, just weight. And yet I believed it: this rhapsodic, messy, sprawling, soaring book that claims the white whale as the symbol for fear, beauty, savagery, nothingness, death, mortality, belief. For humanity itself.
I also was amused by the fact that I had somehow become obsessed with these salty seafaring men while I nursed and drove children to the pediatrician in the strip mall. I dug Cheerios from the crevices of a Prius while they hung from the sides of a wooden ship to flay blubber from the whale’s sides. I made two right turns and one left to get to a fluorescent-lit Harris Teeter on swept streets while they gnawed the last meat from a tortoise they’d been saving onboard, alive, for a year. I listened to the breast pump wheeze its little repetitive melody while they listened to the ropes whine against the cleat at the onset of a storm.
I identified equally with the sailors, searchers years adrift in their lives, and the whales, deep in their undersea world. What is early motherhood if not living underwater? I had been married in a dress made for my great great grandmother in New Bedford; the stays in the bodice were made of whalebone. I had been forewarned that I would be swallowed. So I claimed this grand symbol—the whale, the sea—as one belonging to women also.
It’s odd that this is a point that’s worth making: that women might claim the whale. But a recent essay called “A Literary History of Whales” cites a dozen books over hundreds of years, not one of which is authored by or even makes much mention of women. Why not? In my family, the women didn’t go to sea, though they were all able sailors. But they were the recorders of the stories, the keepers of the documents, the preservers of the cloth and wool and bone.
My own second book, which I wrote over the last five years while having two children and living in a city surrounded by farms, owes its moments of exultation to Melville. And certainly I owe him also my subject itself—he allowed me to talk back to him across these 160 years and made me think that maybe there was something to be said from the inland cities to the sea, from today back to the day of my ancestors and Ishmael and Ahab, and from a woman into a plotline occupied solely by men.
Melville was open to any subject that expanded his view—his writing gave me a kind of permission that I think of as explicitly feminist. He didn’t seem the type to dismiss anything as an unfit subject for contemplation, or anyone as unfit to be the contemplator. (I’m pretty sure Melville would have been totally okay with a breast pump showing up in a poem, too. Just saying.)
Diann Blakely came back into my life, by the way. She found my poems in a submissions pile in 2003 and sent me a note that began a decade of correspondence between us. I was in graduate school. She had begun eating again, and married a writer, and from her little corner of Georgia she wrote fiery and urgent letters of recommendation for former students, letters to the editor, essays and reviews, and poems. She was determined to be on the record, and to change it. She had persistent health problems that kept her mostly home, but from her desk or bed, from an overheating laptop, she championed me and a few other former students to any who would hear it (and probably plenty who wouldn’t). She died a couple of years ago, much too early—certainly before Social Security kicked in. She had given up much for her art, her setting to sea. But I like to think she sailed back home and claimed her place there too.
Rachel Richardson is the author of two books of poems, Hundred-Year Wave and Copperhead, both in the Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series. Her poetry has appeared in The New York Times, New England Review, PN Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, curates poetry programming for the Bay Area Book Festival, and co-directs Left Margin LIT, a new literary arts center in Berkeley, CA.