Switch over from this window to Facebook and chances are good you’ll see a photo of someone’s baby, smeared with birthday cake or toddling around a playground. There are millions of these babies all over the internet, heaping up likes from their parents’ polite friends; the last thing we need is more meticulous cataloging of some stranger’s first years. Such is the attitude a writer is up against when she chooses to use her children as subject matter. In the age of Instagram and the status update, how can a writer make use of the minutiae of the domestic without devolving into banality? The solution is to write a book that isn’t really about parenting, but rather the ethics of witnessing. The dislocating effect of devotion. This is the approach Andrea Brady has taken in her recent, genre-defying book, Mutability: Scripts for Infancy. There are, Brady asserts, “too many poems that mourn and celebrate the birth of the self. Too few love lyrics for the babies as the babies are.” Mutability is an extended love lyric to her firstborn, but this love song is complicated, more Magnetic Fields than Celine Dion. Many parents will find echoes of their experiences here; many non-parents will, too.
Brady describes the baby’s gaze as “a kind of regard which honours.” Couldn’t the same be said for a great poet’s vision? Brady reads her situation—the baby and the bathwater—with accuracy and compassion. She situates her observations within a framework of research and probing thought. The occasion of pumping milk prompts the warning, “You are on notice: you have been born into a world of machines.” As the baby takes her first steps, Brady observes, “You shook your destiny, upright species, sprezzatura. You were proud, and we billowed round you like topless nets.” Brady demonstrates that the baby’s process of becoming human, and the parent’s process of integrating her new role into her schema of self, are intensely physical. She makes alien the actions and interactions that comprise so-called “normal days.”
Much of Mutability is taken up with chronicling the unbearable, ecstatic intimacy between parent and child. It is a “total intimacy” that “can’t last, must embarrass you into exploration.” There is a loneliness to this intimacy between mother and baby, because it is an intimacy one party will immediately forget; it is like falling in love with someone whose memory is impaired. The romantic narratives of mutual adoration that sustain the mother through those grueling early days are, in fact, one-sided. Even as the mother turns her gaze to her newborn, the newborn turns her gaze inward: “Your angry eyes look through the dark haze of sleep into a shuttered room, heavy lid, red lid, then disappear again into the privacy of yourself.”
If Brady writes lucidly about the materiality of babyhood, she is even better when addressing “the chitchat, the blather” of infancy: if it’s good enough stuff to build a language on, why not use it as material for poems? After all, babies and poets “can say so many things by improvising on the roots.” Relating the early sentences spoken by her child (“Mama close window, bit quiet. Ayla close eyes.”), Brady revels in the complex beauty of these simple sentences: ”And then you’re silent and we are suspended all night in the tenderness of what you’ve told us.” Can any language please like the nascent language of your own child? In the prose blocks that make up the bulk of the book, she recognizes the importance of dialogue in an infant’s early days, even though (or because?) that dialogue consists of messages of unknown reception. “Is anybody out there?” parent and baby ask each other again and again, through word and deed. So, too, do these poems and notes. Brady also considers what is gained—and what is lost—when we begin using language in a mature way. Once the child can name, “you will never again have that spontaneous ability to reflect the immediacy of things through sound. Naming yourself, you give up the originality of your consonance with all your ecstasies.” Naming is taming; language, simultaneously “our purpose for you and your end.“ Through her interrogations of language, Brady uncovers the poignant condition of infancy: it is where we learn, by mimicking, where we fit in the world, but “why should you trust the bizarre categories we are establishing for you: dog, toad, house?”
Development, intimacy, language: they all take time. Brady is acutely aware of the way having a child requires contending with the passage of time, and with its valuation. On the one hand, there is the litany of moments:
Estranged by repetition which becomes constancy
in the way disease does, its terrible fecundity.
On the other hand, there is the sudden summation of all those moments:
[…] to notice time
is a challenge not to grieve:
for something is coming of it,
something other than the terminus
The choices a parent makes about how to use her limited time call into relief the difference between work and labor. Brady must learn to cede time and control, an instructive exercise for a writer: “I don’t have much time, of course; and no retreat. I can’t occupy the poem in process of building it.” Parenthood offers an opportunity to rethink our ways of being in capitalist society. “Having a child,” Brady notes, “permits us to count the cost in a different currency, exposes the dull useless orientation of production towards this self-perpetuating-self, turns time into distance and the gift of presence into a big remorseless no.” She writes hopefully of “relieving myself of the mania of progress, for her sake,” and yet proceeds in her explorations, unable to deny herself the pleasure of linguistic play: “Low, the moaning, mooing noise of relief and comfort, of milk-making.”
Whereas other contemporary mother-poets, most notably Rachel Zucker, have used meandering lines and fragmented syntax to convey the scattering of their energy, Brady, perhaps drawing on Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day, writes largely in blocks of prose, a decision she interrogates: “Is this the work? Is this notes for the work, towards the work; or about the work; or is it the work?” Later, she asks, “Does that make these notes prophylactics against the real valourous difficulties, the honour of the poem?” Does difficulty equal valour? It is tempting for the weary parent to believe so. The dated prose entries are presented out of order, so that the events of each entry come as a surprise. In the poems scattered among the prose, words accumulate, glide through grammar, mimicking the way the infant experiences language as a stream of sound. In “The Eel Station,” “I’m trying to get cleaned up here/ but the water overflows the edges/and the edges are overflowed with claret.” That doubled “overflow” says so much: where boundaries are drawn, they invite crossing. Brady frets at language in the same thoughtful way she frets over her daughter. Always the delicate balance to maintain, in writing and in mothering: to mold and to be molded, to know when to meddle and when to retreat.
Each new baby creates its own template for adoration. Parental love expands to meet each successive child. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of poetry. For all its insight and accuracy, Brady’s book suffers for arriving so late in the era of the “mommy poem.” Just as our news feeds are now cluttered with baby photos, so to are our poetry magazines littered with poems about ambivalent motherhood, expressed in forms that resist closure and prioritize immediacy. What makes Mutability stand out is its comprehensiveness; Brady explodes the mommy poem to examine it from multiple angles. Hers is a “humane account of the household” that offers incisive analysis of the “inscrutable, incipient” infant.