Johnson, Mother Tongues

“The Poet’s Mother”

Johnson argues that while her essay “Apostrophe, Animation, Abortion” may be “valid for the poet, [it] does not take into account the mother’s address to the child” (66).

“A child comes into language through the mother’s address. … Might poetry be an attempt not to address the mother but to hear her voice? Is poetry perhaps a way of being addressed?” (66).

“When floods of violence are unleashed toward the mother, there seems to be no taboo against participating in it. And yet what the critics in both cases hold against the mother is her attempt to live up to an idea of responsible maternal behavior—which those same critics would claim they value” (79).

“What the idea of perfect motherhood excludes for the mother, in any case, is—her life. That is, a mother who adapts too well or too long to a child’s needs and doesn’t agree to ‘fail’ at mothering may not be perceived as a separate person, but as part of the self” (84).

“The mother’s limitations cannot be forgiven” (85).

“The perfect fusion of mother and child never existed even in the womb, but the discovery that the mother has a life is called, by Freud and Lacan, castration. The phallic mother is thus the ideal everyone wants the mother to live up to, the ideal of perfect reciprocity, perfect knowledge, total response. It is not that people know that that is what they want, but that they suddenly notice they have lost something, and that if ‘castration’ is the name for that loss, the phallic mother must have once existed” (87).

“We are holding against them [mothers] the wielding of a power that they do not really possess. In the final analysis, we are just as likely to resemble them as to resemble their genius children. We have met the enemy and, whether we like it or not, she is us” (93).


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