133 Hadley Road (1959) John Field
Today when I awoke my body seemed so light,
as if I'd shot myself last night
with a cherry pit.…
What's more, the pit hit its mark,
(despite the dark)—
in the red earth, a blizzard of petals,
it landed on fertile ground.
Not on a footpath it fell,
and not onto rock or thorns
and it waves its white arms
and its snowy blossoms
In fact (hardly worthy of note!)
something white flowered in my heart—
it was a sakura blossoming.
All of me—every tiniest droplet of blood—
growing faint, marveled at this new thing.…
—From The Shot, by Elena Schvarts:
My father painted the view from an upstairs window of the house in a North London suburb where, as a young art student, he lived with my mother, a musician, a few years before I was born: student digs in post-war austerity London, at the end of the fifties. A blossoming pear tree in the center of the back garden towered over weeds and junked appliances, bedsprings, sagging fences and laundry lines.
The surfaces of the world are esthetically uneven.…
—Elaine Scarry, "On Beauty"
In the years the pear tree blossomed, and blossomed again, and again, in the drabbest of surroundings, my two older sisters were born. I can imagine my parents just like the new parents (ahem, guess who) in my poem, Red Wing Blackbird, where a man and woman sit, heads in their arms, stunned into speechlessness, "a carillon of broken bells.…" This overthrow of all you've known, this perfect storm of sleeplessness, hormonal fluctuation, and ontological transformation, you're shaken down by this.
I don't mean to say you're not happy. But happy is such a light-hearted word. They're ecstatic, we say of new parents: meaning happy, meaning sweetly bowled over. We use the word "ecstatic" to describe our mood when we find a good apartment, when a letter of acceptance arrives, when a new Joe's opens on our block. But the true meaning of the word is closer to this: to be spiritually melted down and recast as something new.
In Notes Toward a Philosophy of Ecstasy, Jill Marsden defines the ecstatic as "a strange kind of knowledge…glimpsed at the very moment the reflective powers are eclipsed." The ecstatic is "the body communicating a new knowledge to the self." It requires that the self be broken open, that it disintegrate at a molecular level (if the spirit is made of molecules). It involves a radical restructuring (if only momentary) of everything hitherto understood. Of identity, of belief, of time itself.
It's suggested that artists—of all esthetic and temperamental tendencies—are more naturally attuned to the ecstatic than the general population. But the general population gives birth, and the experience of birth, the experience of motherhood (with or without the experience of birth) and fatherhood, breaks us open. And floods of intermittent pain and beauty keep sweeping time away.
Mine is one of four paintings in a series my father made of the pear tree, the weeds, the bedsprings, the laundry lines, and each of my three sisters owns one of the others. For years, we've talked of reproducing the paintings, so that each of us might own a complete set. The pictures would only have to be temporarily removed from their frames and scanned. But there's some difficult-to-put-your-finger-on resistance. Each of us, without saying so much (even to herself?) protects and conserves her own view through her parents' window. My oldest sister partitions off her only-child years; I keep my beforelife; I don't know how the two middle sisters feel. Middle children often live whole portions of their childhoods sub silentio.
Gouache and India ink on cheap newsprint. The naturally occurring acid in the cheap paper has turned it brittle. The painting badly needs reframing, but I'm afraid to remove the glass and lift it from its corrugated cardboard backing. I can imagine the paper turning to brittle confetti, the pear tree shaken completely bare, the black, empty branches reduced to ashes, dispersed.
Sculptor Anne Truitt, in Daybook, speaks of "events [bodily, and of the psyche] assimilated with such difficulty that they made permanent plastic changes." Her decision to become a mother, she says, was an act of welcoming into her life one of these near-impossible assimilations. Later, after the child who'd first made Truitt a mother had given birth to a child of her own, My body turns under the stars, Truitt wrote, as naturally as the dirt to which it will return.
I think something Truitt wrote early in Daybook, as a middle-years woman looking back on her major first steps toward maturity, bears direct responsibility for the greatest sea-change my own life has ever undergone to this day: I chose to become a mother, the passage goes (as I remember it), because I didn't want to remain unbroken.
If Anne Truitt had never picked up a pen, life would still have happened to me. There's no way to remain unbroken. Life refashions you again and again, regardless of ideas. But I was looking for encouragement—permission even—from a woman artist specifically, and within two years of reading Daybook, I'd arranged for myself to be opened wide. I gave birth to my first child at 34, and any awareness I'd had of the subtle changes up to then involved in simply living and growing were utterly eclipsed. I hardly knew this new self. The strangest stranger in the birth room, of course, was the baby the midwife wiped the blood from and placed, all swaddled, on my breast. I was asleep, but woke up the moment the baby's skin touched mine. I can only describe the sensation as electric, effervescent. Is it ridiculous to suppose this is how it might feel to suddenly just break into blossom? Milk gushed out of me.
Miranda Field is the author of Swallow (Houghton-Mifflin, 2002). Her work appears in numerous journals and several anthologies, including Legitimate Dangers&58; American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande Books), Not for Mothers Only (Fence Books), and Efforts and Affections&58; Women Poets on Mentorship (Iowa). She has received a Katherine Bakeless Nason Literary Publication Award, a Discovery/The Nation Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Her story, "Energy Regime," recently won Washington Square journal's Flash Fiction competition. Born and raised in the UK, she lives in Manhattan, and teaches in the writing program New York University. Visit her non-blog, Hen's Egg, at hens-egg.blogspot.com/.