Fraught Woods: Chelsea Rathburn’s Still Life with Mother and Knife

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As I write this, it is autumn, or what I’ve come to think of as the season of re-traumatization of women and girls.

Three years ago this autumn we learned of the Access Hollywood tape, in which the sitting president boasts about having sexually assaulted women: “Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Two years ago this autumn the phrase, “Me too,” having been coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke, re-emerged, as women shared their stories of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and elsewhere on social media. One year ago this autumn, Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual assault at the hands of Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” Dr. Ford said—the laughter of her attacker and his friend during the assault.

With each autumn’s revelation, women and girls everywhere revisited traumatic memories of being sexually harassed and assaulted. Alexandra Petri spoke for so many of us when she wrote of the metaphorical train of a man’s career, and of women jumping in front of that train with reports of sexual harassment or assault. When she wrote, “I am so tired of the moment when you discover how little your weight counts against the train’s.” When she wrote “I am so tired of watching us jump. I am so tired of watching the trains keep going.” Which is, of course, what the trains do vastly more often than not: I don’t need to remind you that Brett Kavanaugh now has a lifetime appointment to the highest court of the land.

As I write this, it is autumn, and my daughter is turning fourteen. Her body is taking on the shape of a woman’s body: widening here, filling and softening there. And I have a knot in my stomach, knowing I need to have another talk, each one more specific, with her about what boys and men will do, or try to do, to her body and her spirit; about how it is never okay and not her fault; about its inevitability. About how necessary it is to jump in front of the train, regardless of the fact that it likely will keep going.

And as I write this, I have been reading Chelsea Rathburn’s latest poetry collection, Still Life with Mother and Knife (LSU Press)—a collection that, among other things, engages with what it’s like to move through this world in a female body. What it’s like to live an entire life held in someone’s gaze—the gaze of, in some of Rathburn’s poems, the artist; in some, of the lover; in some, of the culture; and in others, of the sexual predator. The book also engages with the complicated emotions of motherhood, which, naturally, are intensified by this gaze.

 

The collection begins with a prologue, “Postpartum: A Fairy Tale,” in which mothers do the unthinkable: tell their children “how much they loved and loathed us.” And perhaps worse, “[t]hat they could not, or would not, save us. / That we had to learn to walk the woods alone.”

These woods, of course, are fraught. Rathburn leads us along their twisting paths, past creaking trees, and through the underbrush with a series of primers, the second of which is “Introduction to Statistics.” Already the girls of Still Life with Mother and Knife are gazed at and preyed upon as they walk through the woods: “a flash of skin, / a man in yellow shorts with dark brown curls, a shout…” and “his pale face flushed with—what? Desire? Wrath?”

In this book, as in the world, it’s both—and girls learn it early and often: “Impose / an innocent narrative and still the math / will come out wrong.” A recent study found that eight out of ten women report being sexually harassed in some way, and one in three have experienced unwanted genital flashing, as Rathburn’s speaker does here, and again in “Introduction to Vigilance”: “And if a man followed you—your younger self— / into a bathroom and unzipped his pants, whom would you tell?” These are the woods through which we walk from an early age.

And so, we learn vigilance and caution. Like Rathburn’s speaker in “Introduction to Vigilance,” at a certain point, hoping to protect ourselves, perhaps, hoping to preempt, we “[look] for ways to slip from notice.” We keep ourselves small. When it happens, we shake it off, tell ourselves—as the culture has told us—it’s not that bad. And we grow up, have children of our own, daughters, and teach them vigilance and caution—that talk I need to have— to be always, as Rathburn puts it, “poised to cut or run.”

By the end of the book’s first section, Rathburn begins an important pivot toward art, but not without reminding us of, and unsettling us with, how the world looks upon us, women, in “Introduction to Art History,” the second section of which reads:

This woman artist, who was classically trained,
posed for great men. Her face is in your book.
This woman artist quit when her husband complained.
This one was famous for the lovers she took.
This woman artist married a painter, a genius,
and put aside her work for his career.
This woman artist did not paint with her penis.
This one, if her work had left the domestic sphere,
could have been good. This one married and had
three children and loved them. This woman artist went mad.

 

“Where is the I I was a day ago?”

This is the crucial question of the brief second section of the book, in which Rathburn turns to formalism—blank verse in some poems, rhymed iambic pentameter in others; a metrical scheme she stays with for much of the rest of the collection—as her speaker becomes a mother. Here the speaker-mother turns her gaze upon herself and engages with the contradictions of motherhood, at one point calling herself “a stranger to myself, a monster-mother” who the baby nonetheless wants “because she knows no other.” At another, after the sleep-deprived blur of night feedings, the speaker admits, “I want to blow my brains out now.” Most mothers who are honest with ourselves have been this monster-mother, warped and transformed by the demands an infant makes on a mother’s body and the expectations of motherhood in our culture.

To explore this further, Rathburn’s third section engages with Euripides’s Medea (Medea, you may recall, killed her own children). By using literature and art as a lens through which to examine motherhood, these poems consider, more explicitly than earlier poems, the idea and experience of the gaze—the way women and mothers are objectified, viewed, and judged in our culture (usually from a male heterosexual perspective, but sometimes by other women or ourselves). These poems also continue to engage with the roaring contradictions of motherhood: how deeply we love our children; how hard we try to meet (and yet strain against) motherhood’s demands; how deeply we love; how strange we become to ourselves; how grim our options sometimes seem; how deeply we love; how we live to protect our children; how we can’t protect them.

We first see Medea through the gaze of the Corinthian women in the chorus of Euripides’s play, who admit “that monstrous guilt as much as hers was ours / because we knew and knowing did not speak.” Here we are reminded of all the ugly truths mothers keep to ourselves (I think of my friend who, after her second child was born, called me, wild with exhaustion and in tears: Why didn’t you tell me? she demanded to know—I already had three and knew too much), and all the times we stay silent as another mother comes under harsh judgment, or judge her harshly ourselves, as the culture has taught us to do: “Say we’d gone in,” the chorus chimes,

                                       say we had stopped the knife
(don’t you think that we were desperate for that choice?),
she’d still have had her potions and her fury;
she’d still have found the means to wreck her life.
Our role was fixed: to flank the gates and worry,
to speak be hind our masks in a single voice.

In “Variations on a Theme,” a multi-section poem, we see Medea through the eyes of Delacroix, who sketched and painted her obsessively, and through the speaker viewing Delacroix’s work. In one of Delacroix’s studies, he paints

her and the boys alone, pursuers gone.
He captures her in flight, his brushstrokes wild,

all reds and golds but for a shadowy cape
flown off the mother’s shoulders and hanging

there in an inky cloud behind her head.
It looks as thought she is chased by herself.

If there’s a cultural message mothers receive more often than “you did it to yourself,” I’m not sure what it is. And next, in the poem “Médée Furieuse, 1838,” Rathburn explores the harshest gaze of all: a mother who turns a critical eye on herself. Considering the gaze of one of Medea’s sons just before he is killed, a gaze looks straight out of the painting at the observer, Rathburn’s mother-speaker asks herself,

                                                       How many times
have I seen that look, the flash of fear
on my young daughter’s face when I have raged
at her or some small thing? It passes, the fury
and the terror—my daughter puts on socks;
the driver yields—but I’m left shaken, a stranger.

 

In the final section of the book, Rathburn’s speaker settles, albeit uneasily, into the role and body of woman, wife, and mother. The section opens with “Still Life with Long-Range View,” a meditation on return. In it, the speaker goes back to a cabin rented two years before and finds it diminished:

[N]ot the way going back to some childhood landmark
          will shrink it to life-size, but an actual lessening:
the wooden bear you posed beside for photographs
         replaced by a smaller bear. Empty hooks where the hammock hung.

And in this section, the idea of the gaze persists, but the gazer shifts, becoming less malevolent—the gaze no longer only the province of men for reasons of their own gratification, or of the judgment of others or ourselves, but an attentive stance in the world. Sometimes the speaker herself is gazing, as in “Praise Song,” which recounts a trip to a petting zoo in which she sees both the rough and the tender in a microcosm of the world, and in herself:

                                       It’s not
the filth that holds me back,
although it stinks in summer,
but the animals’ ruthlessness,
the way they thrust their heads through the gaps
in the fencing, fighting for space.
I reach for and fail the shy ones.

Later in the section, in “In the Shower, My Daughter Studies My Naked Form,” the speaker-mother is once again the object of the gaze, but the gazer is her own child (and later the speaker herself). This time the gaze is loving and curious:

My daughter looks more closely than a painter.
She rubs my ruined belly, pokes my hips.
Soaping my knees with her small hands, she studies me
the way I’ve stood before a work of art,

examining those diaphanous bathers
or some Dutch still life, lemons and fish
on a platter, the ordinary gleaming,
or the way I stand and watch her as she sleeps.

These poems, by putting the gaze in loving eyes, make the gaze benevolent and forgiving.

 

As I write this, it is autumn, and today I read that just over four thousand, or twenty-seven percent, of undergraduate women at the state university my daughter hopes someday to attend, reported being sexually assaulted during the 2018-2019 academic year. The percentage at the state’s flagship research university, where I teach—twenty-six percent—is similar, as it is at colleges and universities nationwide. Four thousand. The weight of that. It pulls me back to that line early in the book: “they could not, or would not, save us. / … [W]e had to learn to walk the woods alone.”

I’m not going to end this review in a moment of hope—the woods don’t allow for it—but I want to suggest that, with these poems and their examination of moving through the world, and a life, in a female body, almost always held in someone’s gaze, we are a little less alone in the woods. The knife is a little less lethal. Still Life with Mother and Knife ends on a note of complicated survival, as the speaker recalls posing for an artist when still young (twenty, to be exact) and childless. She recalls the sketches of herself, wondering if the artist ever made anything of them: “… somewhere // I may be carved in wood or wax / or case in bronze or chiseled out // of stone… .” In this poem, by volunteering to be gazed upon, this speaker claims her body, along with some agency; both, of course, are gestures of empowerment:

                           —What would console

the girl I was or would become?
Not the tributes to the dead

but my own insistence that I did
not land, all knees, in some lost drawer,

but am here and there, in fact, in form.


Molly Spencer's recent poetry has appeared in Blackbird, FIELD, New England Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. Her critical writing has appeared in Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review online, and The Rumpus. Her debut poetry collection, If the House, won the 2019 Brittingham Prize judged by Carl Phillips. A second collection, Hinge, was co-winner of the 2019 Crab Orchard Open Competition judged by Allison Joseph, and is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in fall 2020. She is a senior poetry editor at The Rumpus and teaches at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. More from this author →