I examine how "Mary Bly" by James Wright and "Summer in the suburbs: 6:00 A.M." by Jane Kenyon interact with the intersection of the male gaze and the maternal.
Madonna del Granduca by Raphael.
I’ve been thinking lately about the male gaze and how it might work when it turns on the maternal—mother and child in particular. We understand the male gaze as erotic— the gaze reduces us (as women) to objects of desire and empowers men as subjects. We may mimic this gaze when we look into the mirror; we see ourselves being seen, and we begin to count our body’s flaws and failures—we objectify ourselves and are often filled with shame and self-contempt. Like many women, I have resented this gaze, tried to hide from it and tried to wish it out of existence, but it remains a staple of culture, both high and low.
As mothers, are we free of this particular gaze or does it simply become more far-reaching? Many years ago, I stomped out of the Uffizi in Florence--fed up with art that focused on mother and child--and fumed that I never wanted to see another blank-faced-but-still-smirking Madonna lost in the miracle of her rosy-cheeked-equally-blank-faced child. No matter if it is Mary and the Christ child; men are directed to worship and women to identify. Sexuality is subsumed in the rescuing eyes of the mother—she and the child are a balm—they provide comfort and reason to live for the male--they are beautiful and static.
I’ve chosen two poems to consider this idea. James Wright and Jane Kenyon both wrote in the fifties and sixties and each of them won multiple and prestigious prizes. I would argue that each of these poems is “beautiful.”
I sit here, doing nothing, alone, worn out by long winter. I feel the light breath of the newborn child. Her face is smooth as the side of an apricot, Eyes quick as her blond mother’s hands. She has full, soft, red hair, and as she lies quiet In her tall mother’s arms, her delicate hands Weave back and forth. I feel the seasons changing beneath me, Under the floor. She is braiding the waters of air into the plaited manes Of happy colts. They canter, without making a sound, along the shores Of melting snow.
The speaker of this poem “is worn out by long winter.” The woman, though, is complete—and we might imagine that the man has made her thus. He is restored, brought back to a joyful present by the “blond” and “tall” mother and the “newborn child.” All is “full,” “soft,” and “quiet.”
But contrast this image of mother and child in these lines from Jane Kenyon’s “Summer in the suburbs: 6:00 A.M.”
An Excerpt from "Summer in the subrubs: 6:00 A.M." by Jane Kenyon
His wife had put the babies
in the shallow plastic wading
pool, and she took snapshots, trying
repeatedly to get both boys to look.
The older one’s wail rose
and matched the pitch of the cicada
in a nearby tree. Why
is the sound of a spoon on a plate
next door a thing so desolate?
I think of the woman pouring a glass of juice
for the three-year-old, and watching him
spill it, knowing he must spill it,
seeing the ineluctable downward course
of the orange-pink liquid, the puddle
swell on the kitchen
floor beside the child’s shoe.
The woman is simply “his wife”; we don’t know whose. There is no comfort, no softness—instead “wails” and the “desolate” and lonely sounds of a spoon on a plate and the sticky spill waiting to be cleaned, certainly not a portrait for the male gaze, but a scene easily imagined by any woman who has ever cared for children.
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