by LK Holt
Labour and Other Poems
by Astrid Lorange
Published January 2020
I remember sitting in a restaurant, out to dinner with a friend, before I had kids. At the next table a group of mature women were enjoying their meal and a few glasses of wine. They were telling their birth stories, screaming with laughter. The stories and the way they were told were a revelation. Birth was full of things, not just life, death and pain, but jokes, suspense, faces and hands, gas, water, pillows, floors, food, shoes, music, other people, words and sounds, joy, frustration, bitterness, fury and love.
My first baby was born on my thirty-seventh birthday. That memory is a very concentrated fog with moments coming into view then disappearing. I remember that nothing happened for a while and we listened to the radio. I remember looking at the numbers that measured the intensity of my contractions going up, up, up. I remember lying blissed out from the absence of pain after the epidural thinking, ‘soon I will see my baby’. At prenatal classes, the most frequently asked question was, ‘where do we park’. It was the only question with a straightforward answer. Both of the collections I’m reviewing, LK Holt’s Birth Plan and Astrid Lorange’s Labour make reference to birth in their titles and include poems about having a baby. It’s a happy task to be reviewing these books together, so different, but with this one thing in common, this thing that has happened to all of us in one way, and some of us in another.
Astrid Lorange introduces her poem ‘Labour’ herself,
This poem began as a joke, or at least as the response to a joke: people asked ‘Will you write a birth poem?’ or else said ‘Please tell me you will not write a birth poem!’. They asked the former while assuming that, as a poet, the birth of my baby would be prime material; they said the latter while assuming that, as a poet, I would agree that birth poems are always indulgent, or boring, or abject, or sentimental.
The discouraging of potential birth poems must be widespread, and effective. I think I’ve read more poems about deer than I’ve read about birth. More poems about battles, car accidents, high school friends, drinking, poems about trees, birds and flowers. We don’t really need to ask why a poem about birth is considered a joke and a poem about sex or death is considered part of a great tradition, do we? Birth poems, I almost don’t care if they’re any good. Indulgent, abject, sentimental, whatever, I just want them written, and read.
‘I won’t write a birth poem… but a poem about labour,’ Lorange decides. The poem ‘Labour’ begins with a description of the intensely mental, intensely embodied, entirely un-Cartesian experience of labouring and birthing a baby, not as an innate, instinctive process, but as work, the work of the reproduction of life and the social world. But there’s more, because Lorange also sees having a baby as one event in a continuum of the work of reproduction and the work of care that extends before and after the drama and intensity of birth.
Lorange’s poem isn’t boring, or indulgent. It’s so emotionally restrained it’s almost tannic. The baby is mentioned briefly, but this unimpeachable poem is not about the baby. It includes reflections on theories of work and enslavement, production and social reproduction, other texts, words exchanged with the midwife, and moments on the labour ward and the maternity ward, the everyday world of hospitals, dullness and drama mixed. The poem brings together the language of theory and the language of the everyday, creating a kind of estrangement that is heightened by enjambment and layers and layers of clauses, sheafs of phrases,
… it is not just the category of work, the figure
of the worker, and the power of the strike that must expand
to include the raced and sexed labour easily obscured by
economic theory; the history of labour itself – a history of
the colony, the factory, the nation-state, the city, the family,
the possession; a history of agitation, rebellion, revenge, survival,
hope, collectivity; a history of birth, death and trade; a history
of kinship, maternity and lost relations – must also be recognised
in its fullness.
As we read the poem ‘Labour’, we are witnessing the act of theorising informed by new experience, the result of a second labour that makes the poem. The social world must be better understood even as it is re-made, every day. The baby has been born but there’s still so much to do.
LK Holt’s birth poem is called ‘She was told to have a birth plan’. It opens with a surprising literary reference,
Unlike des Esseintes’ tortoise, gold-plated
alive and inlaid with jewels, and too heavy to move,
she had a plan.
Jean des Esseintes is the protagonist in Joris-Karl Huysman’s novel Against Nature. The fictional des Esseintes lives an isolated life obsessed with creating surroundings that express his exquisite aesthetic taste. The poor old tortoise is intended to set off a Chinese carpet. For des Esseintes, the shell of the tortoise against carpet is too dull, so he gilds and bejewels the tortoise until it can’t move. I suppose it dies.
I’ve been thinking about this tortoise, weighed down as more and more precious things are added to its shell. The slow, heavy tortoise gait is reminiscent of the gait of a person in late pregnancy. But a way of walking doesn’t seem a sufficiently meaningful resemblance – what else might Holt be thinking about? Does the protagonist experience the slow-down of the third trimester as an imposition? Or is the reference to the bejewelled tortoise about the contrast in objectified bodies and bodies in the powerful act of birthing. I don’t know. It’s one of the features of poetry, the way the imagination can be occupied by the conjunction of a sad, glittering tortoise and a person labouring. It’s why I like poems better than novels, there’s less pressure to smooth the text into consumable meaning.
Des Esseintes’ tortoise is acted upon, whereas the protagonist in Holt’s poem asserts her agency, making a birth plan of her own. It’s not the conventional birth plan that optimistically sets out practical matters such as what interventions are to be made in what circumstances, but a plan to avoid objectification by thinking. The protagonist’s plan is to have things to think about ‘between each pang’, knowing that, during labour, time no longer flows or passes, but is drawn into two states, the time during contractions and the time between contractions, an unpredictable and shifting arrangement. The plan takes full advantage of thought’s spatial and temporal superpowers, shrinking down to the scale of biota, visiting the microbes on human skin, scaling up to think on the ‘hole in the dome of the Pantheon’, and then the
genetic bottleneck, late Middle Stone Age,
when humans dwindled to thousands
and made it through.
The thoughts don’t take us away from the labouring body, they are images of the body in labour, the Pantheon’s dome and oculus like a cervix, the bottleneck a bit like a birth canal. In the next stanza, the images are of
a fallen horse across her lower half, a peace imposed
like rain upon her face.
I guess that’s an epidural – a spine block, creating a self that is part sensationless, part blissed-out. I think of des Esseintes looking down on the tortoise as it struggles to walk over the beautiful carpet. And I begin to see the protagonist’s plan to think as an act of resistance. Midwives, feminists and LGBTQIA and Indigenous people are changing the way that pregnant people and babies receive care, but there are still many settings where people giving birth are less than empowered. The labouring body is still objectified and acted upon. The title of the poem, ‘She was told to have a birth plan’ is a bit of a giveaway, come to think of it. What might it take for someone labouring to make a birth plan that wasn’t either compliance or resistance? Perhaps rich, varied and open cultural representations and imaginings of birth would help give those labouring and midwives and health workers the common ground that would make a birth plan feel less like a heavy carapace. A social world in which birth exists in our imaginations as a varied and eventful practice, interconnected with other practices, would be different, to a revolutionary extent, to a social world where birth is treated as a natural event that simply happens behind closed doors. Writing and attentively reading Holt’s poem of resistance and Lorange’s poem actively theorising labour is difficult and important work, like having babies.
But these two books are not all pangs and placenta. Holt’s is full of relationships: with people, and with texts as well, lingering on joy and wrestling with the hard parts of loving others. Holt likes complex lines, mouthfuls of words that ric-rac rather than flow. There are times I’m zigzagging along with her, and times things get a bit flat. The poems are often lush, enjoyably lush, but at times I wish for less. Some work seems to have been included to provide variety. There’s a prose piece titled ‘The Island’ that runs for more than three pages. I’m not sure what it’s doing here – described in the Notes as ‘a homage of sorts to Gerald Murnane’s The Plains,’ it reads more like an interruption than a contribution to the collection as a whole. If I didn’t feel obliged to read every word I’d skip it and spend my time enjoying poems like ‘The morning after my younger son’s party’ with moments like this,
There in the garden
in your all-round crouch,
you dwell with ferocity
as if in a moonpock.
Or the long series ‘You’re going through something’, poems that are mysterious, hinting, jotted and dashed in places, slow and meandering in others, ready to mash some things together and bust other things up. In the best work there’s plenty of interest and variety, and the poems I returned too had nothing to prove, just confidence, playfulness.
Lorange’s work couldn’t be more different to Holt’s loose and flowing style. I’m guessing Lorange edits and edits. And edits. Every word that’s placed and considered is evidence of hours of reading, discussion and thought. While the long poem ‘Labour’ retains a sense of thinking as it happens, the poems in ‘Toast for Friendship’ and the second section of the book ‘Ex’ are much more decided. Their tone of assertion rather than persuasion or seduction means the reader is required to be attentive, thinking through rather than going with, sometimes talking back.
As a collection, Loranges’ Labour and Other Poems is interested in living with others, in terms of relations of power and relationships of care, love, and intimacy. Relationships that ‘both constrain and make life possible’, as she says in the preface. Lorange’s collection begins with a series of poems called ‘Toast for Friendship’, and there’s an epigraph, ‘Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded. Gertrude Stein’. It was a surprise, then, to turn the page and discover that these friendship poems are about the CIA.
Or they might be about the CIA. They might also be about being alienated from others, through hierarchy, secrecy and paranoia, but also systemically, through ways of being, ways of performing the self, described like a complex, endless, exhausting dance. This is Cold War-era CIA, where the Agency defines itself against Communism, Soviets, Russians, not the CIA of the ever-shifting War on Terror or the whatever it is they think are doing now. Nothing can be grasped or known, or rather, the only knowing is that things might always be an inversion of themselves.
A persistent doubleness is described; friend and enemy, colleague and friend, friend and communist, enemy and communist, wife and friend, wife and enemy, wife and colleague: connected by handwriting, gesture, kisses, blows, touch, restraint, a barbecue, work, trust, suspicion. Words mean what they mean, unless they mean their opposite, or nothing at all. Such a tight scene, but so empty:
Spread out, my fingers are linked but never
find their objects.
When my kids were born I entered into a new world, a world of care that I realised had always been there. Mothers’ group, Playgroup, families from school, acquaintances, relatives, old friends, strangers on the bus, neighbours, people in shops and cafes, all these reciprocal, caring, loving relationships suddenly stood out in bold, because I needed them so badly. Not perfect, not selfless, not utopian, but real, and all around me. Paying attention to the way people cared for each other changed everything. In her analysis of birthing as labour, Lorange refers in passing to
the almost unbelievable process through which a body becomes, if not from nowhere, then also not quite from anywhere in particular.
A body becomes, through microscopic addition and division, through the oxygen, food, excreta and chemical signals that pass back and forth via the placenta. When a baby arrives, surviving, they will need to be fed, touched, gazed at, sung and spoken with. Bodies come from bodies, and language comes from bodies too, from the shared gaze, the muscles developing in the hungry tongue and lips, the neurones growing from being touched and held, the gut bacteria that arrive with the milk, and the talk and murmurings that go back and forth even before the first feed. Bodies come from bodies, and language comes from bodies too, or perhaps comes with bodies. It’s all mixed up, like a cake.
Bodies get hungry, and I’m at the table, telling birth stories, and so is LK Holt, and so is Astrid Lorange. We don’t always agree, but at last we’re talking loud enough for everyone to hear, and join in the conversation. We’re talking about the birth, and everything that happened before and after. We’ve all brought something to the table. It’s revolutionary, sitting here. There’s a spare seat for everyone who’s laboured, and that’s all of us, one way or another.