Pit Lullabies, by Jessica Traynor, Bloodaxe Books, 96 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-1780376066
Pit Lullabies, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, follows Traynor’s acclaimed earlier collections: The Quick, an Irish Times poetry choice of 2019, and Liffey Swim (Dedalus Press, 2014), which was shortlisted for the Strong/Shine Award, translated into Portuguese and published in Brazil.
F Scott Fitzgerald once said that we probably have two or three momentous experiences in our lives: “events so overwhelming and moving that we feel we’ve been pounded and broken, dazzled and astonished, rescued and illuminated”. One of those experiences, for many women, is the act of giving birth. There are numerous ways of responding to such an event. As Anaïs Nin says, “we experience things not as they are but as we are”. In recent years, a number of poets have begun writing about birth and motherhood from an alternative or historic perspective. Among these are Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Kimberley Campanello, Liz Berry and Doireann Ní Ghríofa, to name a few. Traynor’s contribution is a distinctive and worthy addition to this canon.
Her own birth-giving event triggers a powerful consciousness of life and death forces, and a keen sense of her own mortality, after becoming aware that both she and her baby might have died if it weren’t for medical intervention. Her response is a series of eerie, visceral, ferocious poems that dramatically open the aperture of the lens on birth and motherhood.
The title of the collection is arresting. Juxtaposed with a word more usually associated with new birth – “Lullabies” – is the blunt, unexpected “Pit”. The word “pit” evokes both emotional and physical spaces: the pit of the stomach (anxiety), quarries and tombs, and other places where things might be buried, disposed of, or kept sacred. The womb – and its entryway – might also be considered a kind of pit.
The cover image is somewhat gothic, showing a naked woman emerging from a well – another pit. The woman’s expression is one of shock or outrage. The painting is by Jean-Léon Gérôme, and the title is: La Vérité sortant du puits (1896) (“The Truth emerging from the well”.) With this title and this image, Traynor is preparing the reader for anything but a sentimental perception of birth and motherhood.
The collection moves through lyrics that describe both a lack of female agency – where women in labour must submit to external processes, to the conveyor belt of delivery rooms and perhaps operating theatres – and a primal reclamation of power. Sometimes, anger must be brought forth for a woman to retain a sense of control. The first of the “Pit Lullabies” opens with an image as stark as the title and the cover image: “When I was carrying you … a clump of eels behind the gut, / I cursed a man.”
In “Megalodon”, Traynor alludes to Larkin’s line from “The Whitsun Weddings”: “What will survive of us is love”, but then subverts our expectations. “What will be left of us,” she writes, “is these spaces, thresholds …”, including:
the dish of my pelvis
I’ve served to lovers
opened for my child –
these pre-historic jaws
& all that thrashes
in its teeth
A magnanimity is implied in the verbs “served” and “opened” – hostess rather than servant – but swiftly that tone evaporates as, in the next line, Traynor introduces the jaws of “this entry/exit” where the lover or infant being born “thrashes / in its teeth”. The hostess has become a shark-like predator. (“Megalodon” literally means “Big Tooth”, which refers to an extinct species of mackerel shark.)
But this portrayal of power is rapidly dissipated when it comes to having to submit to hospital procedures. In the poem “In The Birthing Room” the speaker is doped with morphine and has become so detached from the emergency intervention that she perceives the drama as “very post-modern … post-dramatic”.
At the end, she asks:
I’m sorry, but do you know if I’ve been cut?
Of course you have, they say.
One aspect of motherhood that is rarely mentioned by our own mothers is the level of shock, to the body and to the mind, at the trauma of birth. Earlier in the poem, we could be at the scene of a murder:
When the clean up team arrives
there is so much blood
Quite late into the collection, in “Holidaying with Dad During the Divorce”, the speaker’s father “presses into my hands / some Günter Grass, and Sylvia Plath”. So we can guess that Plath – who braved writing about the darker experiences of motherhood – has been a guiding light for Traynor as she navigates and negotiates those darker feelings herself.
One of the most dazzling images in Plath’s Ariel comes from “Morning Song”:
I’m no more your mother
than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow
effacement at the wind’s hand.
In “Pit Lullabye lll”, Traynor alludes obliquely to this image:
to catch the sky in a mirror; its bright
pennants of cloud. I’m hoping not
to fall into the dark.
Both images evoke a perspective of the mother/child connection, as well as the speaker’s sense that motherhood has activated her own impending mortality, a risk of post-partum depression, and perhaps an erasure of her identity.
If the collection is an attempt to reclaim agency after her traumatic birth experience, Traynor is also adept at using form to bow to her will. Her forms are variously interesting, and include a trifecta, while one poem, “Forecast”, takes lines from the Annals of the Four Masters, chronicles of medieval Irish history. She also includes two sequences: “An Island Sings”, and the eponymous “Pit Lullabies” which are interspersed throughout the collection.
The lullabies, of course, are not the kind you’d sing to your baby. “Pit Lullaby IX” is inspired by Judith Kerr’s “Mog in the Dark”. The opening line also calls to mind Eavan Boland’s apples in “This Moment”. But there the similarity ends, as the image becomes more visceral, evoking a devouring body: teeth, fists, eyes.
Apples are here in the dark
waiting for teeth to shred flesh,
eat them to the core,
ink-black pips turned over
in small tight fists as hours drag by –
The poem creates a kind of mantra with all but one of the stanzas beginning with variations on the first line: “Apples are here in the dark …”; “Worms are here in the dark …” etc. Here we also find more of the collection’s motifs: “flesh”, “planets”, “orbit”. There’s an implied sigh in the tone: “as hours drag by”, and there are other hints too that the speaker is struggling with depression: “dancing sometimes to prove I’m not dead”.
Birth-giving arouses in the speaker her most animal self, while the infant is perceived as fish-like, emerging from the placental ocean. Echoing Elizabeth Bishop’s “tremendous fish”, Traynor conveys both the wonder and the alien experience of new motherhood: “I hold her like some marvellous fish” (“Ophelia in Ballybough”).
Traynor’s background is theatrical, and there is often a Shakespearean quality to the birth-and-death drama: “a wreath of womb-blood” (“Metaphysical Breast-Milk Poem”). She also calls up Shakespearean characters: “in sunlight, I’m spectral, / Ophelia haunting an orbit” (“Ophelia in Ballybough”). In another poem, “Turbulence”, “I am Caliban, spirit-stoked.”
The movement through time, from schoolgirlhood to motherhood, is effectively achieved via the metaphor of an onion being peeled in the poignant “Onion Poem”, where the speaker echoes the title of Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, “I am I am I am”. But instead of the declarative ebullience of O’Farrell, here the tone is of crushing despair:
… another night of constant feeding,
my baby satisfied, but I am I am I am
Death is a constant, if opaque, presence. “Anatomy Scan” begins with the image of “a shroud, darkened by time, pushed aside to show your bones’ filigree”. We are directed to the “eyeball’s orbit”, “the hole of your stomach”, “your twig arms”. The tone is both intimate and detached: “Little lizard. You know something I’ve forgotten.”
The brooding atmospherics are heightened by Traynor’s clever method of pairing ambivalences. For example, trees are seen to be both fecund and poisonous. There are nine poems in the sequence “On Poisons”. One of the trees is in the voice of a yew, where “my children hang from my branches / in red jackets” – the very berries that later kill a blackbird.
The tree sequence recalls Adam Wyeth’s “Talking Tree Alphabet” in his poetry collection “The Art of Dying”. Like Wyeth, she has a poem about driving in a car with her recently divorced father: “His car is a nervous breakdown …”. Her father, who loved to collect cars, would also dispose of them by dumping them into a mine shaft. Another pit.
There is no cocooning of children here. The advice in “Cuckoo Pint” (the word rhymes with “flint”) closely follows a reference to poisonous yew berries:
Find a wood and set your child loose
to forage flowers and berries.
Even more chillingly:
When you have taught them all the ways
the world will break their fingers,
close the car door, check your weather App.
Riddles, too, add a gothic spookiness. In “Pit Lullabye V”, the speaker teaches her child about darkness via a series of negative images:
It’s not …
a knuckle of gall
built around us by wasps
It’s not only childbirth that is fraught with danger; motherhood itself seems to be weighted with threat, particularly when anxieties induce chronic insomnia. In the beautiful six-poem sequence titled “An Island Sings”, the images are both tender and anxiety-inducing, both intimate and arcing over the entirety of the island, and on farther, as far as the snowy, wintry “Sainte Foy … Dolomites, Ruka and Oppdal”.
The diminutive mother-child micro-climate drifts into traces of a bitter winter:
The child recognises you
as a fox on a winter’s night …
You are both feral,
a night of cutthroat stars.
Touch your nose
to the frozen earth …
All mirrors are Antarctic wastes.”
(‘If You Can Tame a Wildcat, You Can Raise a Baby”)
Sleep, child, in your new room …
Sleep as the sun rises and ice melts
These days, for any new mother, as well as the usual misgivings there is an overarching concern about the kind of world they are bringing their baby into. The core themes adroitly open out to summon the spectre of human leavings across the planet. In ‘The Wrong Place’:
You’ll find them hanging in the kelp forest
clogging up the plastic ocean
tangling with eels in the Sargasso
keratin forests of hair ballooning
about their bloated faces
Some of the poems conflate domesticity with our complicity in the devastations to the planet.
Sleep child as I browse washing machines,
and the ball of tears at my throat dribbles
with detergents down the drain.
Similar confluences are plaited throughout this deftly collated collection: “Storm Ophelia” connects the present moment with Shakespeare’s Ophelia, whose “fennel, columbine, pansy and rue” from the hedgerows correlate with “Ditch”, a poem for mothers of lost infants, and with the poisonous tree sequence, as well as the “witch”, who dies soon after the birth of the speaker’s baby, only to reappear later as a ghost.
Sometimes a single word is used to link poems throughout the collection. One such word is “kink”, and although occasionally it may seem self-consciously forced, there is a frisson to the images themselves:
will kink into place with a click,
as neat as a car boot’s closing
(“A Plea for the Sanctification of the Ditches in Ireland”)
I flex my haunches –
kinked a little closer to the feral
(“Ophelia in Ballybough”)
Other motif words honour Traynor’s indebtedness to Plath: “yew”, “moon”, “mirror”, “frost”, “cauldron”. The poets share a colour palette too, with white and red being predominant, but also black, and pink. In Pit Lullabies, these colours are often conveyed suggestively via objects: strawberries, a robin, a blackbird.
Men are scarce in the collection, and (aside from the poems where her father appears) seem “other”. This is predominantly, to use Ní Ghríofa’s expression, “a female text”. Traynor imbues the realm of motherhood with a new energy and poetic force, summoning riddles and fairytales for the empowerment of women, so that “the men who would hack through your door” will “meet your teeth” (“Wolf’s Bane”, the eighth in the sequence “On Poisons”).
While preparing this review I went to the author’s website, and there found a quote from the poet Alice Oswald: “people often tell me they turn to poetry for comfort, but I turn to it for discomfort”. Pit Lullabies offers that kind of poetry. But while it may be dark stuff, the kind to chill your bones, the language is also wonderful: gothic, Anglo-Saxon, visceral, and well, exhilarating. It’s also attentive to both the tender and the subterranean emotions that arise with the experience of motherhood. More than that, Pit Lullabies harks back to knowledge from ancient times, reminding us of our innate powers as women and as life-givers.
Afric McGlinchey’s most recent publication is Tied to the Wind, a memoir-in-flash published by Broken Sleep Books: https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/product-page/afric-mcglinchey-tied-to-the-wind