The Mad & Beautiful Mothers
Winner of the Pat Lowther Memorial Award
REVIEW: Boulevard Magazine, Spring, 1990
Patricia Young introduces her mother in the poem that inaugurates The Mad and Beautiful Mothers, recently awarded the Pat Lowther Award for the best book of poems by a Canadian woman. This mother, who already knows the hellish burden of her sex, is the disturbance in the ocean’s rhythm, a volcano smoking under the sea. “My mother holds a cigarette under the table, exhales smoke discreetly out the corner of her mouth.” Young, who read these poems at an international poetry festival in Yugoslavia this August, as the guest of the Canadian government, mentions the unmentionable.
In “As Sure As They Were Born,” Young sets the tone of the book. She is the sister who has robbed the windows of their curtains, so “anyone can see in.” Wearing the curtains as a dress, she finds that her discreet siblings are outraged that she “walks about town in all kinds of weather, our well-kept family secrets draped over my body”
These are the consequences that must be faced by a writer who obviously uses the compost of her own life – the rose petals and garden clippings, afterbirth and ashtrays – to build the texture of her work. Her imagination functions as a catalyst in presenting these fundamentally unchanged elements in a construct that will enlighten or entertain. This is a risky business, and it takes courage. She has to be an anarchist, challenging family, language, and social order in the hope that they will be improved by the process.. . .
As we read through the book, a liturgy of domestic life, we experience the warmth of men and women and of plants and cats in the hedge, but also the autumn chill that comes through cracks in the basement, when “not even poetry can hold back the flu or a nervous breakdown.”
This discord is the leaven that makes her bread rise. There is madness in this family, and in this world. It is infectious, passing from mother to daughter with the milk. The craziness is exotic; it provides tension in the potentially banal description of a woman’s life. These poems are House and Garden growing rampant in the special chemistry of her brain.
In a poem called “National Enquirer: Baby Obsession,” we see Young standing at the edge of the sea, watching for an invasion of Russian water babies waving ten thousand rattles. This poem is funny as are others. The humour comes less from language play than from imaginative lunacy, the disturbance of reality by dreams and phobias. You laugh much the way you laugh at Woody Allen, when he is inflating a wart to a deadly tumour.
In Victoria, madness illuminates correct behaviour. It is the oppression of culture that makes the pavement cracks where wild things grow. You can see it in the eyes that dance over lace collars and dresses buttoned to the neck, and in these poems
Not an ivory-tower poet, Patricia Young sees herself as a tuning fork, picking up the family vibes and city noises and finding their essential forms, which are often beautiful in their juxtaposition of pain and joy. She is the one chasing the ephemeral bubbles as they drift from a child’s plastic hoop or soapy hair.
In the poem, “Sculpture,” written about her daughter . . . Young finds a perfect archetype in the washing of hair: “helmets and crowns whip like cream on top of their heads all over the world mothers are seeing their daughters as never before perhaps its the last time these girls will be perfect as long-stemmed lilies.” This piece pours out without punctuation and ends with a question mark, the way it should, the way it happens as real life enters and leaves the bathtub like water.
Beauty comes from the moment of innocence and from its recreation in verse. The pain is knowing the child will grow up and suffer in the process, as we all do. Already mother and daughter are experiencing the death of their father and grandfather who will be buried down the street in the cemetery near a sea full of mysterious passion. . .
There are no complex illusions to follow [in these poems] except to the dream territory where all mothers and daughters go when the world presses down on them. That world is always present, as weather or as disturbances experienced over the phone or in newspapers. revThe house and the universe are connected by biology and history. There is no avoiding it. It simply has to be celebrated by someone who is experiencing it as music: “Darling, the ceiling is low as thunder but I am listening, listening, what else can I do? Hold the savage inside me, you might hear its little heart play like a jukebox.”