Carla Harryman

"Parallel / Play"

by Carla Harryman


This paper was originally given at the Page Mother's conference. It will appear in New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood, ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, forthcoming.


A thorn in the side.

My interests in stock phrases and subgenres is partly related to the baffling concealments I sense within their too-obvious self presentations.  The confusion of possible responses based in the desire to both understand, to change, and to leave “the world” or “the real”, would be and is something that also interests me in writing; thus, the goal of the writing is built on sometimes contradictory or competing claims, which manifest themselves in shifts of style and genre within individual texts.  I want the claims to work themselves out, transformatively.

Mother’s delicate parts.

One could look at this complex of my own interests oddly as a kind of model for family life or imagined society.  Or a person.  I am interested for instance in the competing claims of erotic life, knowledge and imagination with those of being a parent and the cultural conditioning of what I would call “white bread/bred” motherhood that not only de-eroticizes women who are mothers but conditions itself to think of mothers as those whose imaginations are absorbed only in relationship to children.  There is then something dangerous (it feels dangerous in any case) about the exploration of the erotic imagination through and in writing with this “maternal” identity.

Assortment of tongues.

The cultural anxiety about keeping the adult eros separate from the child, is not necessarily as deep or basic as the anxiety over the child’s witnessing the primal scene even if the two might be related.  Indeed, I would say that even this primal fear may very well be patriachally induced fear, a fear about violation that codes potential witnessing of the primal scene with a powerful negativity.  The fear that a mother’s sexuality will dominate or control a child, may be in part a projection of masculinist fancies of aggressivity. 

A queen bee in a log jam.

A friend of mine recently taught one of my anthologized poems1 to high school students in her course on poetics.  The poem, a satire of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, probably could not have been taught in a public school.  “The ventriloquist plunges his hand into her ass and pulls it out screaming, minus a finger,” is one of the lines in the poem.   When I was asked to visit the class (members of which are friends of my son who attends the same school) and discuss my writings, I decided to read from and discuss a prose section of the same piece in which I make use of Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.  I very much appreciated my friend’s ability to sanction writing with sexual content created by a woman in her classroom.  It is important I think to allow young people access to sophisticated literature by women, including literature with sexual content.  Of course, the sophistication of the teacher, her ability to speak to the students as individual readers of such a text is equally important in this case.  This is not simply about some superficial notion of “health,” as if teaching poetry were a nutrition class.  It is about “honesty” and human sexuality and children’s—and particularly teenager’s— concern with honesty.  One aspect of honesty withheld from children is that concerning adult—and particularly “any woman’s”—erotic imagination.  The withholding of this kind of information from teenagers, contributes to their feelings of being outcasts.

Grazing on mystification tables and log’s rhythms.

In my other two essays on the subject of “motherhood” I have focused on how I learned to write while being a mother in respect to the manipulation of time in writing as conditioned by the lived time with a child and the world experiences that entered the lived time.  Now that my child is a teenager, those startling moments, when the child’s voice scissors through the enveloped time of the writing-mother with a terse report or demand from his vivid world, is no longer a defining event of the writing.  His time is much closer to adult time, and so another time has returned to me.  In this time, I am interested in thinking about the way my own intellectual interests condition me as a artist, as they do and don’t influence the child, who now in may respects has his own life.

Writing is about time:  fable, mannerism, shovel.

In addition I want to insert something into the world as an object, or thing, a communication and complex fact or act/ something that can not easily be taken back.  Writing is an intervention of which the full consequences can not be anticipated.  The full consequences of my life as a writer on my child also can not be anticipated. 

Never fully namable or objective.

Language creates things says Jacques Lacan.  In the realm of the child separating from the mother, the acquisition of language on the part of the child makes the mother into an object.

She is a thick truck in heavy snow.

Of course the construction of women as objects in other social discourses surrounds us familiarly and continuously.  In the classic noire detective novel, the femme fatale is the object of desire of the detective and other men whom she manipulates to such a degree that mayhem is created.

Renegade pink geraniums in a flower box.

Abigail Child’s film Mayhem is a brilliant deconstruction of this genre.  Focusing both on the noire heroines anxiety as it is produced by male violence and the heroines unrepressed sexuality, Child no only critiques but subverts the noire conventions.  Her subversion would not however be complete without the films pasted-on happy ending:  found footage of a playfully pornographic narrative of two women making love with a goofy looking “robber” masturbating at the fringes of their pleasure-making scene.  Child’s film explores specific generic fantasies related to the questions of sexual repression and the nature of violence that exist not only in art but in the “real” world. 

Gossip and die in a bed of money.

At this very moment, there is “mayhem” in the U.S. government played out in the cartoon of the U.S. Congress’s attempt at a coup d’état over the President’s sexual misconduct and the politically condoned murders of the people of Baghdad.  There is no Congress who has yet considered impeaching a president for illegally conducting war.

Sometimes one wishes to stay in bed.

My interest in Child, my condemnation of the attack on Baghdad, that I read the book title Psychoanalysis and the Family and my faithful love of Go Dog Go, my disdain and fury at the “moral” rights attempted coup using a young woman for bait which they hook into each citizens mouth with neither approbation or consent, certainly is to my child as present and powerful as the events in and of themselves.  I am a camera (object) that casts a lens onto the world separate form the child but close to him.  He knows how to use a camera.

Groaning sheets turn to flags.

Because I am interested in questions of power, I cannot ignore that my child is growing up in this world.  I describe the world through the demonstration of my interests.  He knows also that I spend much of my life working: that I am at this time in his life, at least, “a producer.”  He and I have a relationship that as he gets older is increasingly decided by work.  Up until recently, he was less aware of my relationship to him through my relationship to work.  In my other two essays on the subject of art and motherhood, I intercut his interruptions verbatim as I worked on the essays.  My approach to art making changed at his birth, and the interruptions in the text performed and designated a relationship to time I enacted as writer and mother in my work.  Now we are much more engaged in a body of overlapping work.  Right now he is practicing the piano with great attention.

Clicking with civil disobedience.

But I was talking about questions of power.  My power would only diminish if he did not have in a very real sense “his own life.”  The life that he and I live is along side, with, and between each other as it has been for a long time.

Nipples in a vortex.

These questions of power get interesting when they come to issues of female sexuality, to female aggression, to female ambition, to the relationship of women to their own motherhood in respect to the way “motherhood” in bourgeois society has been represented historically by men and the way the artist confronts them in her work when she is also a mother.  For what she always experiences is a discrepancy between the representation, her own experience, and her art practice—all three.  The event of motherhood only magnifies the discrepancies which have always been present.

Love to present themselves as first blood.



1 from “There never Was a Rose Without a Thorn,” anthologized in Poems for the millennium, Vol. II, ed., Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. [back to text]


Scene 1:  A charming and not so charming story

Jacques Lacan:
The little girl I mentioned earlier, who wasn’t particularly awful, found refuge in a country garden, where she became very peaceably absorbed, at an age when she was scarcely walking on her feet, in the application of a good-sized stone to the skull of a little playmate from next door, who was the person around whom she constructed her first identifications.  The deed of Cain does not require very great motor sophistication to come to pass I the most spontaneous, I must even say in the most triumphant, of fashions.    She had no sense of guilt – Me break Francis head.  She spoke that with assurance and peace of mind.  Nonetheless, I still don’t predict a criminal future for her.  She simply displayed the most fundamental structure of the human being on the imaginary plane – to destroy the person who is the site of alienation.1

Natalie Sarraute:

It is not only my mother who is absent from that house.2

Carla Harryman:

My then seven year old son found himself flat on the sidewalk in the school yard one day, as a friend seated on the small of his back held his head between his hand and with a melancholy repetitiveness pounded it into the cement sidewalk.  I was the only adult witness to this act, and I might not have been there at all had I not arrived at school early that day for a meeting.  As I pulled the child away, my son declared in a rather affectless tone that they were no longer friends.  This event did indeed mark the end of a nearly three-year-old friendship between them.  It is not one that I had the heart to encourage after my insistence that the school and the parents speak to the attacking child purposefully about his actions resulted in the suggestion that I had exaggerated the event.  This is not a charming story.

Above and beyond the psychological fact of aggression, is the way that it is understood and addressed.  Clearly humiliation—the children’s, the schools, the parents, controlled the event.  It was an humiliation (underscored by fear of repercussions) born of a lack of adult presence in combination with the mother’s presence, who, in this case, does not fit into the correct category of adult.  But I am quite confident that the humiliation—the humiliation of language, the suggestion of “exaggeration,” would have not been passed on to me had I been the child’s father.  Why?  The father would have been assumed to be already suffering the humiliation of his son’s inability to defend himself.  In other words, the underlying question involves a subliminal cultural narrative about boys fighting, and it goes something like:  had our son picked a fight without being able to defend himself?  It is the father who is responsible to the son for the narrative of attack and defense.  Thus, the father would have already been punished for his child being attacked and his child’s potential culpability, for in not preparing his child for the fight, he shares in the child’s shortcomings.  Over and over again it is their culpability in relationship to gendered narratives that grant men “objectivity” as witnesses.  It is a ubiquitous cultural belief that women can not be objective in matters concerning their children and that men can.  And yet in some respect, the most fundamental problem here was economic; the school was poor, and there was no one being paid to supervise the children playing outdoors at that time.  The effects of lack of money, however, yield an emotionally symbolic world of humiliation catalyzed by the presence of the mother.  Does not his power to humiliate touch on the domain of the femme fatale?

Scene II:  Book jacket summary of a detective novel in which the femme fatale is assigned the role of detective.

Book jacket summary:

There is a gathering of women poets who write poems primarily abut the betrayals of men.3  One evening, someone in the group declares that we “all are writing about the same man.”  Everyone agrees.  Now the question is, who is the man?  What does it mean that we are all writing about the same man?  Is it Don Juan?  It becomes apparent that there are two male deities:  one of them is Papa, who is present everywhere and the other is Don Juan whose presence is not panoptic and metaphoric but fragmentary, corporeal, and metonymic.  If we have been betrayed?  We have known for a long time that Don Juan and Papa are at odds, even if we just now realize that our feelings of betrayal occur in respect to each of these characters:  the protector and the violator.  Each keeps us in a savage state of sexual need.  Each of us sees the other as a femme fatale in a detective novel.  But we have an organization!  We are all present at once.  The woman whose father’s wrath falls on her as her lover betrays her for one of her friends.  The woman, who loyal to her father’s wrath, refuses the betrayer of her friend.  She who has a family and she who no longer has one.  The femme fatale becomes the detective.  The object has become the agent who is to investigate these feelings of “betrayal,” which are the invisible scars of endured sexual need.  The sign on our agency door reads “Mothers of Invention.”  We are accused of copyright or patent infringement—finally we have entered the real world of law suits.  Our business is solidified, even if this side issue distracts us from our more noble cause.  Our suspicion is this:  Don Juan and Pap are secretly in cahoots:  they may even be The Same Man.  The worst of it is that all of our children have been born under the sign of the same man…What is a poet to do? 

Natalie Sarraute:

My father is the only one who remains present everywhere.4

Scene II:  To speak to a child as if one lives in a matriarchal society is probably impossible, for example5

Plain Jane:

The mother becomes very nervous about what she is saying because she has formed herself as a sociological entity and is in conflict then with the aesthetic.  When her writing is not aesthetic, it seems rather distracted, and emanation from the queen with no country or a woman senator in an all-male assembly, or a revolutionary without a purpose.  It begs questions and opens itself to attacks.  The language of poetry falls away.  She is left with a few questions about those things one lives in and out of books.  She is told she ought not to have a picture on her book jacket with her child because it would define her negatively as an author.  She is told great women poets do not have children.  She says fuck you and wishes later that she made a more comical response, borrowing from Chandler’s detective Marlowe’s edgy ruminations and quips.  She possesses a radical sense of freedom even if she does feel a little hurt.  Like Marlowe, she closes herself in her office and contemplates whether or not she should answer the phone.  Your son is missing seven homework assignments.  He is resistant to grammar.  Even though she is not particularly resistant to grammar, she is certain that he acquired the resistance from her.  For she is resistant to placement.  Sometimes she is accused of obduracy.  And closes the blinds to her office.  Sleeps on the couch.  Doesn’t dust.  The only aesthetic objects in her office are the bottle of Makers Mark and a decanter as sleek as modernity itself.  Everything else from keyboard to whisky glass, which she mostly uses for water, fills her room with plain jane functionality that signals the presence of a proprietor mostly stuck in her head.

Scene II: Book jacket detective novel summary: in which the femme fatale and the mother turn out to be the same woman

How does the mother become the mother? She is a mess. Not because of anything she has done or even said. But because mothers are the shadows of children in novels and in theories about the family and in theories about children and because they are simultaneously the corporeal, ethical, and intellectual subjects of their own universes. What's odd then about living in fact and fiction or the real and poetry as if these categories were truly separate? Right now the mother's son is driving around with two professors: one is a philosopher of history and the other is his father, a scholar and a poet. Are they talking about Kant and Habermas? And categories of value that must be kept separate? What happens if there has never been a positive category of value assigned to the mother that can be aligned with rationality /economics/aesthetics or pleasure/doing good /disinterest. The mother is a mess in the universe of classifications because she is not assigned a role that can represent a category of value that can be kept separate. Aesthetics and ethics are not that far apart. Childbirth and sexuality are not that far apart. The fatal attraction of the man to her is not that far away. It is separated from the child who separates from her. Thus, the mother shadows the child, catalogs his activities, keeps track of his arrangements. She is dressed to kill and calls him on the phone to get an account of his plans for making dinner and to suggest he try the onion soup with the vadallia onions. So this is the life of our dear detective. When the mother and the femme fatale become the detective, what is she trying to find? Who is the murderer? And when the mother and the femme fatale become the detective isn't she rather like all the great male noire detectives that precede her? She is a mess because she is alone, responsible for something outside of herself which is intimately connected to her own private nature, a small fish in a big pond. But no matter how small she makes herself, her shadow is too large.


1 Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan:  Book I:  Freud’s papers on Technique [back to text]

2 Natalie Saurraute, Childhood (page 36) [back to text]

3 Thnks to my student Jesse Deneaux for this concept based on his experience of a poetry reading he attended. [back to text]

4 Ibid. (page 38) [back to text]

5 Mark Poster, Critical Theory of the Family [back to text]

BIO: Carla Harryman’s novel, Gardener of Stars, is forthcoming from Atelos Press. Other recent books include The Words: after Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and Jean-Paul Sartre (1999), There Never was a Rose without a Thorn (1995), and Memory Play (1994). A native Californian, she is now living in the Detroit area, where she is on the faculty of hte Department of English as Wayne State University and co-organizer (with poet and playwright Ron Allen) of Black Mouth Reader's Theater.


back to readings

go to this issue's table of contents