by Corey Wakeling
It’s no surprise that the first approach to writing about the birth of a child is usually sentiment. Sentiment tries to respond to, though not exhaust or compare with, the gravity of the inception of new life. When the child is yours, that is, belonging to a category you can call “family”, one proposes to do justice to that gravity, to build a structure Atlas-like enough to sit the infant on, perched like a parrot, to talk back to the impending future. The inherent power of words like brotherhood, sisterhood, family, ancestor, care, even love, are predicated upon the existence of the infant. The infant also means the first relation, the first reliance, the first contact, the first appearance. In Latin, īnfāns means speechlessness, as well as new born. The infant not only what has not been named, but also what does not yet name. I’ve been thinking about this question because recently my Mum asked, “so when are you going to write a poem about N?” – N being my newborn daughter. N is nearly two months old now and, honestly, I hadn’t thought for a moment about writing a poem about her.
Mum’s question is a good one, and was the catalyst for another. If I had easy answers to Mum’s question of when I would write a poem about N – when there’s time, between marking, blog writing, entrance examination duties, feeding N, bathing N, entertaining N, and household chores – I didn’t have an easy answer for this other question Mum had sparked: why hadn’t I thought to write a poem about N?
The infancy of my daughter isn’t only the reality of the recent past, but also a key philosophical concept for me. The concept of infancy has been a significant, even aporetic concern for me ever since I proposed to write about Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing (written 1950-51) in the doctoral thesis I completed in 2013. Though supposedly based on Beckett’s prenatal memories (see Knowlson and Knowlson 2006: 151), these thirteen texts for nothing are largely imaginings of iteration outside birth and without chronological reference. I say “outside”, because in these stories a subject commonly speculated on is whether to think this outside is to think a province before or after death. This interstitial and speculative existence rests on the thinkability of categories which themselves lie outside of appearance, and Beckett’s texts of Texts for Nothing don’t so much speculate on appearance as write out of the condition of non-appearance.
Maurice Blanchot has written articulately about writing as what emerges from the impossibility of knowing the predicates of our existence, birth and death, in his famous accounts of Rainer Maria Rilke. He writes that “what [Rilke] calls point of departure is the approach toward the point where nothing begins. It is ‘the tension of an infinite beginning,’ art itself as origin” (Blanchot 1982: 53). To write about birth at its most elemental would be to write not only about but from where nothing begins, that is, where the category of nothing, what Blanchot calls the “Open”, begins (53).
In my doctoral thesis on Beckett, I observed how Beckett, with texts for nothing, tried to “dupe” this beginning with dis-figures of a realm of the not-appearing, voices who cannot or refuse to appear. Beckett’s difference to Rilke is his exacerbation of text emerging from nothingness. By contrast, Rilke sublimates language as an Orphic portal. Beckett instead says “let us be dupes, dupes of every time and tense” (Beckett 1995: 109). Naturally, it’s a source of comedy throughout.
But as Beckett shows in these texts, to imagine consciousness for the infant is actually terrifying and grotesque. To make the infant not a relation to others but to itself, giving speech to the speechless, creates something like a nightmare:
But that other who is me, blind and deaf and mute, because of whom I’m here, in this black silence, helpless to move or accept this voice as mine
Importantly, for our reliance on the concept of the infant to be pure inception, to be the basis of the open, relies on the sovereign blindness, deafness, and muteness of a helpless embryo to later acquire the name and become one who names. My N is less infant each day that passes. Her emergence into appearance, however, was not only marked by a partition from prenatal to natal event, but prior also. At first, she was a seahorse-looking entity in a pixellated womb created by 3D ultrasound imaging. The next few visits she acquired a chin, arms and legs. Later on she became something which resembles how she looks in K’s arms, who replies with grunts and murmurs as K speaks to her, who blinks and glances outside as I type. So infancy feels less to me like a clear partition between embryo and child, and more like the long emergence into relation and representation that we undergo as we develop, what is “[t]o begin with an incident outside / language,” says poet Andrea Brady in the opening lines to her long poem or journal about infancy (Brady 2012: 3).
Of course at this early stage shy of two months old, N’s voice has no language in it in the ordinary sense of signs, but is already maturing at the level of gesture and articulation. If you pay close attention to cadence, tone, interval, and pitch, you can hear the mimesis of environment already taking place. Her crying now sounds more like my voice or K’s than an animal’s screech. It only took N three weeks before she started saying “Oh!” like her Mum. N’s especially cheerful on waking. When K or I say hello to her in the morning, N will often reply “Oh!” or “Ah!”, with the palatal fricative of the “h” extending to express something like gladness. N kind of laughs sometimes. She recognizes me as distinct from Mama, distinct from the cat, distinct from the window and distinct from the ceiling.
When I think about these emergent colours in her voice strangely enough I also think of the colours of the umbilical cord that N entered “on”, I want to say, since that umbilical cord seems to me more a vehicle now than some necessary organ of her prenatal development. No one ever told me how psychedelic the umbilical cord would be, coloured like some kind of kaleidoscope refraction or unearthly crystal, of purples, greens, blues, reds, silvers. A magic rope!
N appeared flying through air as if propelled by this bungee cord, glowing and glistening like a syrupy astronaut. The placenta, a disc, and the umbilical cord, some ethereal cable – the source of the popular image of the UFO? The event was going to be ugly, people warned me, and I guess it sounds like I’m occupying the cliché role of the ecstatic father by remembering it differently than ugly. But I don’t know, I’m not saying it was beautiful either. It was wholly unearthly to me, like some kind of impossible phenomenology which might be held within us too, blindly, deafly, mutely within each of us, a beginning where the gravity is zero and sensation is limit-point and inarticulable except as infant’s cry.
So I can use words to write about N’s birth, and from now on I’ll be writing from a state after her birth. But in commemoration, it’s very hard for me to write about her birth, because every day so far since I’ve shared with her, and being so continuous with her it is hard to arrest that instant of birth. To try to grapple with its gravity is as posturing and preposterous as Atlas, and the event doesn’t even belong to me. K and N have a special relationship to it that I can’t belong to, and that leaves me as some kind of special witness, I guess.
Andrea Brady’s Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (2012) is a guide for me on the temporal issues here in writing about infancy as it finds a new way to write about the subject. Brady renounces sentiment and memorial and instead pursues a record of the journey out of infancy into childhood experienced by mother and child mutually. Much of what it considers is of realities off-limits to my biological capacities for verification. I don’t know my daughter the way K does, as what Brady calls “life reduced to a brute composition” (Brady 2012: 5), nor would I pretend I know as well as K does how motherhood entails becoming “a slave to succession” (27). But the approach here develops a form of poetic witnessing compelling to any reader interested in infancy. Brady’s intelligence as a writer lies in her ability to deal with infancy as a state of mutual transformation between mother and child, a symbiosis which transmutates the mother as well as constituting the development of the infant. Brady concentrates not on a being of mother or child, but the emergent, symbiotic mutability of mother with child, of the relation of reliance, and the two as a kind of ecology unto itself.
So, if I’m to write of the infancy to which I am witness, if there is to be a lifting up, to be a holding, to be a remembering of this infant thing in writing, then let it be:
in the arc of a cry, swung this
is our promise of mutuality
no losing no contest to claim the fold the flattened
premise of the world as your very own.
(Brady 2012: 47)
The “premise of the world as your very own”, N, something written of infancy, “the arc of a cry”, something unnamed and yet to name.
Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Short Prose. New York: Grove Press, 1995.
Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
Brady, Andrea. Mutability: Scripts for Intimacy. London/New York/ Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2012.
Knowlson, Elizabeth and James Knowlson. Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.