Fothermather, Gail McConnell
Ink Sweat & Tears Press, 2019 £7.50
Mapping parenting through marine imagery
I found these poems a complex, fascinating and enlightening insight into a gay woman’s experience of becoming a non-biological parent.
The poems explore the journey towards a relationship with the prospective offspring through the IVF process, pregnancy and birth. His name, Finn, extends the marine theme.
Marine animal imagery generated by the biological reproductive systems of the seahorse, cuttlefish and octopus is put to effective use by the narrator to navigate the concept of non-gendered parenthood.
In ‘light the seahorse’ the narrator grapples with her claim to this identity. This is accompanied by a sense of estrangement in response to the scanned images of her son’s embryo in concrete form — the head of horse, belly of kangaroo and tail of monkey — concluding that:
I am neither the female Seahorse who lays the eggs,
nor the male Seahorse who carries them.
I am not quite either and a little of both.
As the poem develops, the narrator engages emotionally with the ‘creature with a spine’. She celebrates the seahorse ‘bobbing / darkling / deep’. The poem then pursues the growing delight in the potential of unchartered parenthood:
O fish! O fish
with spine and neck. Born of choice and chance,
born of the male […]
You’re a question mark reversed and beautifully embellished.
‘Cuttlefish’ energetically explores the image of the ‘not a fish’ and the sexual relationship between the male and female of that species:
The queen of -ish
of blending in / The king
of bending rules
colour, shape and partnership.
The poem ‘Now’ centres on the birth: ‘the room was suddenly you’ and the marine imagery recurs in these lines. A child ‘came whippling back / beyond the spawning factory you started in / your mother plump with eggs that counted out’.
‘Paper gowns and paper hats and silver shining scales’ describe the sensations in the birth room while the new-born’s heart is charted ‘inside the shell’. And the sound ‘whawha whawha whawha’ plays on the cry of a marine creature — as this new human life is celebrated.
The poetry of parental love
This pamphlet contains some arresting use of concrete forms and erasure as well as a more general, highly inventive wordplay, but particularly noticeable is the way these techniques are harnessed to express the power of the poet’s parental love, which is what in turn unifies and strengthens the work as a whole.
The pamphlet addresses non-biological parenthood in a queer partnership, specifically the poet’s parenthood of Finn, to whom her partner gave birth. The poems chart the ‘unanticipated’ IVF experience of considering sperm as a gift, and also the development of the poet’s parental feelings as she carries the child in ‘the texture of [her] notes’ (‘In The Argonautica’) and in her ‘imagination and in the bodies of poems’ (‘Introduction’). She chats and recites rhymes ‘through the wall’ of her partner’s womb (‘Talk Through the Wall’), and she uses the imagery of seahorses and cephalopods like cuttlefish, with their particular, external fertilization processes, to illuminate and claim her own parental role — she is not the female seahorse who lays the eggs, nor the male who carries them: rather she is ‘not quite either and a little of both’ (in the poem ‘light the seahorse’).
After Finn’s difficult birth, the room is ‘suddenly [him]’ (‘Now’), and holding her child is ‘the best feeling’ the poet has ever known (‘In The Argonautica’).
what is the and between you and I?
and is the what between you and I
Words and letters allow parenthood to be reimagined in an ungendered way — ‘mother father fother mather matherfother fothermather’ (‘Untitled / Villanelle’) — with ‘fothermather’ being both ‘a nonsense word that tells the truth’ (‘Introduction’), and an alphabet that emphasizes sound and the reciprocity of language (‘ha ha ma ma / hee hee fo fo’, for example, in ‘me : : he’).
The poet deploys her craft to confirm how the power of loving parenthood is not context-dependent, and that its diverse types undermine (as is done explicitly in ‘I cannot think’ and ‘I cannot think’) the Freudian adage that the strongest childhood need is for a father’s protection. What children need is love, and this poetry expresses movingly how the author’s ‘brilliantist’ son, Finn,is ‘twice loved’.