Daring The Bad-Mother Narrative: Brecken Hancock’s Broom Broom and Marianne Apostolides’s Sophrosyne

It pleases me to bump into deeply humanized Bad Mother characters, for I am always interested in contemporary women writers writing about the complicated accordion of the mother-self dyad. A culture that truly cares about women must care about our full range of selfhood, bad and good, errant and recuperating.


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It pleases me to bump into deeply humanized Bad Mother characters, for I am always interested in contemporary women writers writing about the complicated accordion of the mother-self dyad. A culture that truly cares about women must care about our full range of selfhood, bad and good, errant and recuperating. Tonight, I am reminded of this while watching a Nurse Jackie rerun, the Showtime harrowing late-night comedy about a working mother whose painkiller addiction has ground itself so brazenly in her older daughter Grace’s face that Jackie’s actions have taught the girl never to believe her, no matter how sweetly Jackie explains or apologizes. Mother’s disastrousness becomes a role model, though, when teenaged Grace rebels by using pills and lying in bold face right back. This contemporary feminist script allows us to look deep into a dysfunctional mother-child dyad, and see the pained humanity and ugliness of its complicated hall of mirrors. The treacherous bond between the two generations yanks and torques, but never breaks, and as a woman viewer I am spellbound.This outright Bad Mother flips the formula we have so often seen in popular culture, where an uptight, convention-locked normative mother strains at the rebellious antics of a rule-breaking, sensation-seeking daughter or son, shoring up a mythology of the artistic personality: Repressed middle-class mother gives rise to explosive boho-artist intellectual. I thought about this the other night while watching (yes, more winter TV) the movie adaptation of Susannah Kaysen’s teenage psych-ward memoir Girl, Interrupted, with its crisp, detached, proper 1960s mother wobbling with embarrassment at her bright, disaffected daughter’s suicide attempt. Individuating in the shadow of a creepy-upright-remote mom offers a child a vacuum in which to flail about for feeling, meaning, and unique point of view. It’s comforting to deal with the Absent Mom, for we never get to know her – she remains a powerless cipher who runs through a very short list of scoffs and whinges, eeks and scowls. But what about the Bad Mother who seriously misconstrues boundaries, and overwhelms her offspring with an omnipresent stream of interfering intrusion, erotic effusiveness, endless commentary, and overstepping physicality? How does that offspring fare as the artist or writer, the self-defined thinker, generating a script of self? Recently I have found two astonishingly skilled books by innovative Canadian writers that contemplate the two-way mirror, in each case, of a protagonist overexposed to a uniquely troubling, overwhelmingly present Bad Mother.
The first is a debut poetry collection by Ottawa-based writer Brecken Hancock, published by Coach House Books in 2014, whose title Broom Broom immediately conjures an echo chamber of “like mother, like daughter” inevitability. The book’s front cover imagery pulls us into a cropped and shrinking vortex of Shirley Temple-esque doll faces. The dreamlike dark magic of such an image evokes Alice cascading through her own looking glass into a disjunctive inner landscape where feminine identity is merely a repetition of garish prescriptions. The trope of repetition in both title and image also brings up, pretty fast, the idea of transgenerationality – how any girl comes from another girl who comes from a girl before that. Whether easily or uneasily, our mother feeds the stream of our self-concept. Any act of self-portraiture is flecked by the face of one’s mother glinting behind, reminding us we have been formed, by hook or by crook, by splinters of her self-image as much as by the vastly diverse models of agency all around us. “We women now bathing. / …We rise. / …Five and five mirrors now, / twenty women facing ourselves. / …And through the walls / our backs to each other. / Aha. And in the mirror / twenty women. Me?” (21, “Mom’s Sisters’ Daughters”)Leaping from lyric poetry to memoir, Hancock’s book immediately refers to authorial identity. The first poem, “Brecken,” startles us with a female narrator’s degraded self-portrait: “Booze tides me. TV abides me. // My tits slung / astride me, I noose quiet / to lie with me” (13). Very quickly, with the lullaby voice in the poem “Husha” on page 14, Broom Broom evokes shards of not the nurturant good mother but the toxifying mother-witch. “Some animals eat their young. / Animals sweet on their young. / Sh shh, sleep, little ones.” Like a bad dream revealing itself to be real, this daughter-narrator must come to grips with an inverted bargain: “Mockingbird brought me a mama. By its waggish voodoo, her head’s on backwards” (40, “Her Quiet Not Quite Not Her”). Using both singsong nursery rhyme and ring-around forms like the villanelle, Hancock proceeds to show us a calamitously “nuts” mother, now personalized as “Sandy,” whose presence begins to grind her daughter’s mind to “an organ of slush” (17, “Winter, Frontal Lobe”). Various poems draw on the meticulously smart confessional poetics of Sexton and Plath, brilliant mother-poets notoriously tornadoed by clinical depression that led to suicide, as Hancock designs poetry that can hold, and hold against, the extreme violence wrought by ill mothering on one’s survivalist inner girl-voice.One of the aspects of Hancock’s book that I love is its authorial trust in a complex reader. Through most of the collection’s poems, we don’t know what’s happening. We don’t know why this mother-daughter tableau is raking into tragic surreality. We don’t have any handle on how to lessen the blow of a haiku called “Symptoms Include Disinhibition” which seems to confess the nuclear family treason of incest-desire: “In lusting after / their son, Sandy remembers / her husband, young.” (18, poem in entirety). A stomach-pit sick feeling enters as the poems tumble, and I notice in my reading mind an active disentanglement taking place, of the artful skill of Hancock’s toned lyric style from her horrifying, funhouse portrait of a deranged mother I have never met before in a book of poetry, and a desire in me that this daughter will survive.She does it, is the thing. Hancock flips the psychological suction that for generations of women writers has stippled confessional poetry with a self-harm nihilism. Because “[t]he hydra’s violence regrows in twos” (35, “Duos”), she refuses to lie and scale back the damage to hopefully pretty imagery. Willfully ankled in infantile bodily effluvia, blatant about the mother’s “vomitous stench of permanent hospitalization” and “shit smeared on the walls,” these poems also give us a wry history of the bathtub, running the hot waters of human engineering against the unmitigatable devastations of what becomes identified as Sandy’s terminal brain illness. Of the idea of progress, Hancock writes, “I don’t give a fuck if time is sinuous, simultaneous, infinite” (63); Nothing can clean up the painful seeding and reseeding of living as the child of an insane parent – “I tried to tidy you up, but I’ll never be done” (64, both “Once More”). There is no release but to understand, to re-interpret through the lens of adult retrospect, how one’s own private domestic hell can be borne forward and survived. Exuberantly artful through the book’s intense lyric compositions Hancock’s voice also rises up with delicious non-fictional directness. She writes about a specific mother who, though monstrous and morosely epic, is also just an ill woman, small, eaten up by life itself, and intricately grievable by a brilliant daughter who has decided to live. As an act of feminist self-portraiture, Hancock’s work gives rise to an honest, exacting conversation that dismembers cultural clichés of “crazy everymom” and “bitch-goddess,” tendering instead a resurgent, capable poetry that operates as a potent hex on normative narratives of failed maternality. Broom Broom is a mature book that opens the Pandora’s box of mental illness as one of the unnamed shadow narratives of the private and domestic nuclear family, and portrays a lucid daughter writing through the suffocating tragic to exist as a public artist, thinker, and woman.   
The deeply absorbed stomach-pit empathy that I felt reading Broom Broom was also stimulated during my reading of Marianne Apostolides’s amazing new novel from BookThug, 2014, called Sophrosyne. This fictional Bad Mother narrative dares to portray a single mother’s complicated intimacy with and power over her son Aleksandros, transgressing psychological erotic boundaries, infiltrating his intellect, and saddling him with the adult task of self-recovery. Apostolides spins a compelling fictional world that draws us into its pulsive rhythms and sensual imagery, and opens up brave and involving ambiguities – insisting we use fiction as a place of touching the dangerous. Like Hancock, there is no postmodernist punchpull. You have to wade right into the intimate moral morass and begin to determine if the scenes you are reading are nurturant-erotic or ghastly-abusive. You have to fight to discover your own voice in relation to a sinuously arousing mother who is disarmingly exhibitionist and sensationally demanding of her young son. Most of the novel is written in the first person, from Alex’s point of view as he struggles to locate his libidinal independence in relation to his first adult woman lover, a Japanese artist named Meiko. Unable to sustain sex with her, fraught by fantasies of his own mother’s body and voice pervading his sexual selfscape, he strobes through the indelible somatic memories, from boyhood through puberty, of his mother “topping” him in Socratic dialogues about the absolute requirement that his masculinity will ensue from his capacity to restrain and discipline himself by gaining the enigmatic Greek virtue of sophrosyne. We see Alex as a very young boy mesmerized by his mother in belly dancing costume practicing hip swirls in front of a mirror while insisting he rise to his responsibility to excel in self-control. She wraps herself around him while they read, and incants her thrall at the wet warmth of his infantile body emerging from hers in birth, as phallic a confusion of object relations as one can imagine.Throughout, Alex probes stages of his past – as a boy being left at home alone while she works at night, as a runner whose body becomes the firm performative container his mother has taught him to heroicize, as an undergraduate writing a labyrinthine philosophy thesis for a clear-sighted professor – trying to recalibrate his mother’s touch and ministrations of care, to disentangle her love from the sordid mindfuck she performed over and over. Gradually we hear his meek and self-defining common sense identifying the helplessness of his child-self to her camouflaged violences, redressing her as “you”: “And I was dreaming, me, your little boy breathing on top of your body.” (19) Apostolides complicates our sense of this mother, though, as well, allowing that the young woman was herself overhandled and invaded by her own controlling philosopher-father, and that shades of psychological abuse and perhaps physical incest may have scraped away any sophrosyne she herself might have grown to wield in her mothering.For every contemporary mother the question of how to restrain appropriately our intense physical and emotional attachment to the beauty of our children rises. We love them intensely, want to touch and accompany them, recognizing our own power to become the centre of their libidinal world. In the hands of a damaged psyche, however, such maternal boundaries are wiggly and carnivalesque, unhinged and unquestioned. Abuse crosses generations, insinuating its repetitions in the secret belljar of the domestic stage. Children have to define their identity and sexuality within the arena conjured by their parent; it takes decades to inquire and invert the damagedness exerted upon us. This brazen novel slides its hands all over me as a reader, and I am fixated on its wending aesthetic pressures. Poetic language, and in particular, fantastically intense dialogue between mother and son in childhood and pubescent scenes the adult Alex recapitulates, slides into my inner ear, manipulating my allegiance. Apostolides brings to bear in this fiction an almost intolerable charm, exacting the same seduction of my readerly identity as her mother character has performed on her own son.Broom Broom and Sophrosyne are intense and brave books, sliding excellently controlled poetry into the spheres of self-exposing memoir and of philosophical fiction, and allowing my readerly confusion and awakeness. I have to find my own voice in relation to these colossally Bad Mothers, to question the boundaries between control and malice, to consider my own position in the always-cascading repetitions of mother and child, child and mother, dependence and independence, love and damage. And yes, I may well return to late night TV as a breather before picking up both Hancock and Apostolides for multiple, fruitful re-readings.*****
Margaret Christakos is the Toronto-based author of nine collections of poetry including Multitudes (Coach House, 2013) and Welling (Scrivener, 2010), and the Trillium-shortlisted novel Charisma (Pedlar, 2000). She has contributed recent poetry criticism on Lemon Hound, ARC Online, and Canadian Poetries as well as an introductory essay for Brick Books’s new edition of Anne Carson’s Short Talks.