Reading the other side of the wor(l)d
From Writing Home to Her Mother and Father: Fabrizia Ramondino's Althénopis and Clara Sereni's Casalinghitudine.’ PhD thesis. University of Auckland, 2004. (Tracing Paper 34-49)
Teresa . Neera
Teresina, the little mother, the second mother, waits on the cusp of womanhood as her mother, the grey shadowed woman, the obedient, silent wife bears another child, the father away and beyond in the storm threatened dark. Teresina, the mother-in-waiting, as a mother before her time, is tied to her mother’s apron strings, to her mother’s duty. There it is on the page, the father lecturing the women about modesty, humility, daily silence, and so the lessons, handed down from one father to one wife, from one wife to one daughter, seep into the women’s bone marrow. They will consume the lesson of obedience until they feel, and this we read, small and demeaned. Yet the father’s lesson takes an unexpected turn, without his guidance I warrant, as it becomes a key to the mother’s half-shaded melancholy. It is at this point in the story that all else falls away, the mysteries and the pull of love lead us through the garden liaisons to the falling snow in the final sentence. In this heart of the story, I am drawn to the dull eyes of the mother, eyes exhausted by duty, eyes bound to her daughter. Mother and daughter are held together by a compliant silence but that silence is the richest poem one could hope for. This is what I read: Their silence had a voice. Out of that silence, out of the lessons that fed the bone marrow and the air they breathed, comes a woman writing, a woman fattened by the withheld confessions (And at this point I am thinking of Neera.) The daughter hungers for love, for her wayward Egidio, he fleeing to Milan, she returning to her mother’s trust, the mother at home where the chains of existence clamp her wrists in iron, the daughter’s, the mother’s, held together by blood. The two women sit next to an eternal window so that we may see in, we will see for ourselves the resignation, the sad affections, the drooping sympathy. If we look through this window that has been held open for us, we will see the mother’s suffering everywhere, slave to meet the expectations of the father. Yes, she subordinated her self to his need and yes, her daughter followed suit, following the will of her father, not tying herself in marriage to Egidio but tying herself to the father’s apoplexy, love a slow movement in her limbs, almost beyond reach. Is the daughter an anti-heroine? She will undress the old man, shackled to his wheelchair, another silence, he weakened, she obedient, for in this new silence, the mother departed, now dead, bequeaths her daughter the legacy of servitude. The daughter inherits the fatigue of the day, servant to her duty. But I am reading between the lines as I look beyond the window and see her watering the night geranium, this new-found passion, the daughter gratified by the faded colour’s release of exhilarating scent. She is, we think, the flower in lacklustre colour but then we ask, who will release her intoxicating scent? This moment of resistance where she stands alone, abandoned in a moment completely and utterly for her self, this moment of selfishness, leads her to the falling snow. In her duty the daughter waited, the mother-in-waiting, while the mother waited to die, waiting behind the domestic walls, the men moving past on a run. When the father died, she was mother to the empty house until the letter, the letter from the wretched lover. Now the daughter, having paid the dues, will take up the new freedom, away from the echoey house to be the mother to her lover because in this choice, her choice to tie herself to him, she is immune to the dull colour of the flower’s petals. She is, it must be said, drawn to freedom’s intoxicating scent. Now the judge’s wife, her friend and confidante, embraces her at the door, the words suspended between them like a bridge, as they were between mother and daughter. And it is in this suspension that I am caught, like some new-millennium moth, drawn to the brave silence knowing it to be as rich as a poem for it is this silence that all those women who followed Neera have taken up. If the silence has a voice, if those words, caught and held in the back of the mother’s throat, had a silent life now, over the intervening years, they have had a chance to augment the movement of hands and eyes.
Una donna. Sibilla Aleramo.
When I first read Sibilla Aleramo’s Una donna, nearly fifteen years ago, I was drawn to the feeble mother as much as the narrator was drawn to her charismatic father. The father could do no wrong, his shouting fits washed over her; to the narrator, his world, the world of ideas and words, was a world to be coveted. The mother could do no good, her body a container for swelling grief to leak out and be ignored; her world was not worth a second glance. To me, and at that point I was mother only in blood to the daughter I had given away, I felt such compassion for that thinning figure on the point of annulment. This mother, separated from me by centuries and continents, was like a Russian doll, inside another, this time smaller, inside another, this time smaller, until inside the tiniest doll, nothing. This tiny doll, how hard we have to look to see her, like the mother of Teresa, the servant of patriarchy, this tiny doll’s function was to perform her duty to her family yet in performing that duty she made herself less desirable. In the beginning, as the narrator defines herself in relation to her father, he who may come and go as he pleases, the mother is, we will read, weak, resigned, exhausted, to be disobeyed, not to be feared, usually gentle, regretful of any outbursts of anger; the mother has, we will read, less interesting memories, her opinions are different from his, and in that difference, are of less interest. The daughter sets herself apart from the mother, this lost soul, shaped by his ideology, her story not yet told.
When the family moves south at the father’s command, the neglected mother’s world shrinks until the point of madness; the madness thus named when she faces his unfaithfulness and utters it out loud. Thus, the woman under erasure whose opinion does not count speaks in a mad babble. At this point death evades her, she fails to kill herself, and instead lies in bed for two months, a further reduced space into which she will withdraw, inside another, this time smaller. How hard it is to hold onto this woman, now at this point, reaching out, wanting to give licence to her daughter’s happiness, because having lost all chance herself, she will live through her daughter. The daughter, appalled by her father’s behaviour with another woman, now contemplates her mother, this woman that she has not loved enough, that she has never understood.
And so the mother becomes a lesson: is this the daughter’s destiny? Is this the reader’s destiny? The parable suggests that love, sacrifice, and submission warrant the death or annulment of the mother. As we move into its second section, the parable advises us that before we are mothers, we must become women. When I first read Una donna, I was returned to my own mother, and her various deaths or annulments, her babble and her sacrifices, and yet I realised I knew more of her; she wasn’t thinned out, inside another, this time smaller. In her movement, I recognised that she had found ways of being in the world, just for herself, outside her family, but that she had also annulled parts of herself, made sacrifices, had spoken and that I had not heard.
The second time I read Aleramo’s masterpiece, I was the mother of two daughters, and my adult-returned daughter, I had written my master’s thesis, and had had two books of poetry published. Now, although I still feel that I want to take the Russian doll in my hands and say, “who are you?” I am besieged with the author’s decision to walk away from her son, and in walking away to walk towards living. What is that “living”? I am haunted by this question and the difficulty of that movement away. How does the parable of the mother now work for the reader, for the narrator? The daughter struggled in her separations and attachments (yes, we will begin to see the latter, the unfinished letter, the call for her mother, in despair) to her mother. Yet these movements are overshadowed by the struggle between herself as mother and herself as woman. The woman living is the woman who writes, who has intelligent conversations, controversial opinions, who speaks out and is published, who has lovers, and who wants to re-present woman’s destiny not simply in what she writes but in what she lives.
I, who gave my daughter away, the swaddled bundle without a name, cannot begin to judge the woman who left her son to whom she wanted to be the best mother in the world. When I read Una donna, I cannot help laying missing details over Aleramo’s intensely autobiographical book as though, more than in the case of other novels and memoirs, the line between the textual account and the life lived is a complete blur. Into this foggy mess, I sink because from where I stand the relationships between mother and woman and writer are still under negotiation. Aleramo (and her narrator) separated herself away in order to live and not die; in order to write, in order to be with someone else, in order to not go mad because the mother and the woman in her could not live together. In a sense, just as her mother was annulled, she too, became annulled-mother, and in that state of maternal erasure, placed upon herself in order to save herself, she suffered a form of death. In order to live and not die, reading behind and between, in the way she mourned for her lost son, stranger to her as adult, in the way she kept rewriting the script of her life trying to get it right, to make it authentic and true, in order to live and not die, she did, in a partial, particular and heartbreaking sense, live a death.
And now, as we pause in our reading, reading her silence, not in vain, we are searching for ways to be mother and woman, to be writer and mother and woman, with separation and attachment, with emotion and intelligence, with noise and with silence, with dignity and with calm.
“La figlia buona” from Eppure. Clara Sereni.
After the absent mother in Casalinghitudine, the mother whose tender embrace is held in quotation marks, lost and found and frozen, after that mother with her body missing, her skin to be stretched to a translucent veil, after that mother who we barely see, there is this mother, the mother of the good daughter, imprisoned in her good daughter’s good walls, at the mercy of her good daughter’s will. For now the mother, strained through the daughter’s control, through her version, is once again annulled. We must lean forward still to hear her plaintive cry, the young voice, the old voice, the woman admonished by her daughter, wants to live in her own early mornings, in the strength of her coffee, not the coffee that her daughter makes, in the pages of her old newspaper, not the one her daughter picks out for her, in the words of a new language that she secretly listens to as though the foreign words will build a new world. Still the annulled mother, how we must hold her for this moment and admire her little resistances, for the daughter, the good daughter has taken hold of the mother as though she knows what is good for her, as though she knows best and in that knowledge she exercises her newly-won power. This will be the mother’s routine because the good daughter will redesign the mother’s life, out of love, yes, and out of goodness. But then when the daughter’s lips draw close to the powdered cheek, dusty with age, there is the shock to the heart. A falter, perhaps, even when the mother is tied to the daughter forever, until the end, to be protected, assisted, defended.
In this story we can read behind and between because behind every light switched out, behind every television switched on, every lunch prepared, every bed smoothed down, behind every novel selected from the library, every drink made senza zucchero, and behind every cheek kissed there is another story. Behind this daughter is another story, and behind that another. Behind this daughter is a mother and behind her another. The good daughter has assumed her mantle of duty but in undertaking that duty falls victim to the vicariousness of good. Once again, we witness a manipulation of how the mother “ought” to be, how she ought to be now that she is old, and in the daughter’s view, ill and prone to inappropriate behaviour.
Yet this daughter, we can see her again and differently through the eyes of her friend, because from her friend’s point of view, the daughter gives all for her mother and keeps nothing for herself, the mother who only has her daughter in all of the world. What kinds of bridges are there, between mother and daughter or daughter and mother whereby the bridges are born out of history and experience? Will they emerge from the pleasure of contemplation, comprehension, or communication? The bridge, a conduit of all that has passed; each gesture, word, gift, curse, and milestone, a movement between. Time and again, we read differently. This story, where we sway between control and resistance, between love and loathing, makes us look a little harder to read between.
La figlia prodiga. Alice Ceresa
The prodigal daughter is an exercise in abstraction; she herself emerging in bits, piecemeal, from the broken sentences, the phrases floating on the white page, not in the spirit of the poet where the poet is attached to the silence that wraps the word, and in that pause, brings a concatenation of delicious sound to the ear; no, the broken sentences are a kind of resistance to his authority whereby he governs how we ought to tell a story and indeed, how we ought to break a story (think of the avant-garde men). The author, in her movement to break away from his literary chains, exposes the seams and rivets of a narrative allowing the reader to suspend her critical judgement and her disbelief as out of the insistent ideas and self-reflexivity, the skeletal frame of the prodigal daughter makes itself visible. The title, nudging out the biblical son, draws us to the story of a wasteful, extravagant daughter who returns, returning home. But this bony frame, frugal in its detail, is simply a stuttering specimen that we must observe without flesh or blood or heart. The repetitive phrasing draws us to the negative figure, figured out through deception, dissimulation, the counterfeit, and the artificial. She is a human being, the label a refrain that intercuts her life as an idea, as the reproduction of an idea, but any attachment to what is real, on her part, through our reading, dissipates in the passing of pages. So she becomes and is not born this prodigal daughter but, even if we view her as the outsider, outside family, outside the establishment that will, in 1968, suffer an onslaught of revolutions, even if we view her in this way, there are questions to be asked. Why call her a daughter, apart from her fraudulent appearance in the biblical set-up? A daughter is the offspring of her parents, yet she herself is the broken phrase left floating with the scarcest lines linking her to her forbears. The parents, i genitori, mother and father subsumed as a disembodied, homogenous unit, cannot see the prodigal daughter, this invisible child. She is to be seen in relation to the author, daughter to the author, concealing her prodigal-ness in her skinny bones. I cannot help overlaying the biblical motif of return but then, the nagging question, barely resolved, where does she return to? I am turning through the pages to a parenthetical end that, with its trickery and self-consciousness, leaves me famished for the transformation of an idea into more than idea, into what is real, knowing with all certainty that the real is hot cold lovable distasteful artificial logical superficial true visible dense intuitive valuable illusory accountable. Yet the prodigal daughter, I must tell you, is returning to haunt me, yes she is the daughter of return as she occupies the page bereft of flesh, the word made flesh, to point me in the direction of a tide of daughters, disembodied, at the service of his story. Can we call her a character, the prodigal daughter? Ceresa has liberated the idea of a daughter and planted the seeds of doubt as to the ability of any story to nourish her. We are used to this scepticism, raised as we have been on the fallible word, the mortal context, the amorphous intention. After a history of fraudulent performances, daughter to his reckoning, the author now depletes her to the hilt, an extreme cipher for us to manage, and indeed from the very start, we are implicated in the passing page. Yet, despite the exercise in liberation, I mourn the missing flesh, the missing blood, the missing heart and I wonder at the faith the women who follow have invested in their perilous writing processes. Yes, we meet the daughter, indeterminate, transient, unsteady, but, bearing the unreliability of any narrative in mind, and the characters that sustain that narrative, I welcome the daughter, and with her the mother, there on our horizons, returning like the tide, for we will never have enough of them, feet on the ground and heads in the clouds.
Madre e figlia . Francesca Santivale.
Out of the thickness of shadow, out of the heaviness of heart, the mother emerges, at the threshold of sighs, for the daughter, advancing towards her through a fog of history and dream, slowly relinquishes the words, tenderly bitterly lovingly, to build a lyrical entranceway, and inside that entranceway, the daughter is finding the mother, the daughter, returning through a crest of crystallisation and blindness, unveils the sentence that will denote closure, apprehension, and devotion. The words are her beacons, shining out from the dark past because this daughter, ambivalent in her love, ambivalent in her loathing, writes her mother to give her life, writes her mother to give her death. There she is, the sacrificial daughter, laying across her mother’s breast, stuck to her skin, a bandage that wants to heal but in the next sigh, is the murderous binding that will squeeze the living daylights out until they run dry. This mother, the sacrificial mother, appendage to poverty and woe, vagabond feet, vagabond eyes, moves elsewhere and away with her cancerous body, the tidal wound for all to see and more than the surgeon’s hole, for in this wound abhorrent to the eye (my eye racing over it to find the warmth of her hand) we will unearth the vase filled with the most precious word, the most beloved image. Hold onto the vase that is the mother; but the daughter, the sworling storm that cracks apart the fragile porcelain, that cracks apart and splinters the skin to release a flood of memory, is the wound. The mother, collected together in this voice and that voice is made up and dragged home because the daughter, the war that would arm herself against the mother like a mad crowd in the street, can’t live with her, can’t live without her. The mother born on her shoulders like the dead weight the father said she was, cannot stand up for herself so the daughter must find her own feet, feet for the two of them, before she can find the words to open out the shadow. At the same time, in the midst of the confusion of flesh and blood, the mother is the wound, and the world about the wound is the skin, the skin the public wars the public madness, but then again, the skin the private wars the private madness. I am drawn to the metaphor of skin, haunted as I am by the collision between viciousness and tender tribute, because the mother is skin. This is one way of reading the mother. Look how she is stretched tight from beginning to end, translucent the scars and tragedies, not hidden the pus and blood; if we move closer to this skin, the skin that is mother the skin that is story then our very eyes will pierce the fragility and out she comes, her brokenness and pieces, a flood on our lap. How else to put it? The skin, an illusory gauze to hold the mother together, spread thus so by the protective daughter, spread just so by the dutiful daughter, the daughter writing out of compassion, writing out of loss, writing out of herself as mother to make the mother whole. In the end, in the fiction that is myth and fantasy and desire and longing, the mother’s skin envelops the daughter, becomes the daughter, to remain close and to continue. The skin, like the novel, stretches to form a shell for the mother, and inside, the daughter, who is also mother, invents a skin of her own. We do ask where does the daughter begin and the mother end, the mother begin and the daughter end? But the confusion, as the writer-daughter hauls the dead mother from the dead shadows, is attached to her tacit question: who am I? Part of her, she exposes, cannot be detached from the mother, but she detaches the mother from the vagabond life, from the debt and regret, from the failures and weaknesses, to plant, in a celestial palace, a mother queen, dreamed and separate, because in this way, the mother is no longer responsible for the real world, and the writer-daughter is no longer responsible for the real mother. In this story, the writer has made a skin of words, a poem in fact that is translucent in parts but not always, and if the words are shining beacons they are there, gleaming from the dark past, so that she might find her way home, and the path home, in part a backward movement, in part a haywire movement about the mother, is most tellingly a way forward.