Lies about Mothers

Last week’s discussion in poetry class centered around William Stafford’s “Traveling Through the Dark.

To get the true, spoiler-free experience of reading the poem, go and read it right now before I say any more, because I will need your untainted opinion on it later.



So, the poem contains an event that is impossible, an event that apparently the poet later acknowledged was impossible. A dead deer with rigor mortis has inside her … a live, warm fawn.

Now, when you saw the poem, real and spoiler-free, tell me: did you believe it? Or did it seem obviously, insultingly false and clearly made up by a man who has never worried about a tiny human’s utter dependence on the well-being of his body?

Ahem. I imagine you can guess which was my reaction.

My brilliant (female, childless, did I mention brilliant?) poetry teacher went on about how this is a lie in the service of the truth, how the poem could not work without this untruth, how the world of the poem is so real and persuasive that we gloss right over the impossibility, even (often) if we know there’s something false to look for in it.

I didn’t talk in class about my reaction to the poem, partly because that’s just not how I roll (speaking in class! Bah—it’s for extroverts), and partly because I couldn’t quite explain why the untruth seemed so wrong. I’m usually quite glad to enter a magical, not-quite-real poem world, so what was up with this?

Part of an answer came during my run last night as I listened to an otherwise gorgeous and compelling recent work of fiction whose plot hinges, in part, on the idea that it is possible for two women—identical twins—to switch places, unbeknownst to anyone including the one’s husband and the other’s years-later lover, after one of the women (but not the other) had gestated and given birth to twins.

Let me say that more pointedly: we are supposed to believe that husband Jack, less than a year after Edie gives birth to twins, does not notice when she is suddenly replaced by her childless sister Elspeth. And that ten years later, Edie’s lover Robert will have no clue—no clue— about her childbearing past.

Now, this book contains all kinds of other preposterous things. Ghosts, for one, who operate ouija boards and accidentally rip the souls out of kittens, and for the enjoyment of this awesome book I was willing to believe all of those things.

However, (and I realize I sound like a crone with an ax to grind) I am irritated as can be with this body switch, and here’s why: it’s far too close to a regular old lie that gets told all the time: that women “bounce right back” after childbirth. That afterwards, somehow your body is “normal” again.

Maybe that’s true for some. Maybe a brigade of flat-bellied twin moms will unleash a deluge of au contraire comments here. (I’d welcome the comments, actually. Bring it on!)

But, individual miracles aside, I can say for a fact that my body will never (ever) (ever) be like it was before my pregnancies. I am damn fit, too, and kind of sexy, and I do a lot of crunches, and I’m not saying childbirth was a one-way ticket to physical ruin. But no one (noooo one) would buy any kind of swap between naked me and my naked pre-childbirth identical twin. And it kind of riles me up that even this lovely book expects I’d believe that someone could.

So, back to the deer. It’s less clear, but the lie that poem tells is similar to another familiar one: the mother is a vessel for the growing baby, a vessel that isn’t connected in any complicated way to the little creature. Just a container. I am not anywhere near as cranky-old-crone about this one, but maybe that insinuation is what bugs me so much about Stafford’s fawn. I still don’t know. I don’t care about having been (or not been) an uncomplicated vessel nearly as much as I seem to care about the silly deer.

I want to be able to be more detailed about my criticism than “the experience of gestation tells me this is too untrue to be right,” because that just seems like an oversimple laying down of the mother card, which is a cheap move at best and an especially stupid one in a class with at least two brilliant childless women in it. But where’s the nuance that makes me mad at Stafford? I want to figure it out.


5 thoughts on “Lies about Mothers

  1. It could be in the final three lines, in which the narrator speaks of “our group” and then thinks “for all of us” – as if the narrator could insert him (I assume) self into the relationship between the doe and fawn or in any way be part of what has happened/is happening there. Even overlooking the believability or unbelievability of the fawn still being alive, the narrator is utterly outside of what is happening but pretends perhaps he is not – the “swerving.” What’s he going to do? Cut open the doe and deliver the fawn – to a certain death anyway? The narrator is utterly and completely locked outside the drama of what is happening – the doe died, therefore the fawn died. It’s their experience, their tragedy. He wasn’t even the one, it reads to me, who hit the doe. He’s utterly on the outside, and yet in the end he appropriates an experience he could not possibly understand.

  2. The poem–the belly being warm felt like magic, not truth, so no possibility of untruth.

    As for the book, yeah, you just gotta finish it! What’s interesting is that they thought they could get away with it–that they didn’t think they COULD be different.

    1. Ok, I just now finished the book, violating my rule to only listen while running, because I couldn’t take the suspense. Phew and wow, and in the future I’ll try to remember to hold my rant until I’ve read the whole thing. It turns out I find it quite believable that they thought they could get away with it … I would have thought I could, before seeing how irreversible it is.

      On the poem … interesting about “magic, not truth,” Eva. I didn’t read it that way, for whatever reason, although I know what you mean.

      Jennifer, I don’t quite see it that way, either … the “our group” and “for all of us” feels generous to me, not out of line, more like embracing connectedness.

      Maybe it just annoys me that the populace can be expected to be ignorant about the facts of gestation. (Less annoying to think that the populace can be expected to be taken by magic, Eva … but that’s sure not how the folks in my class talked about it.)

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