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Women and the Global Imagination: The Global Suburb

by Jee Leong Koh

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on Women and the Global Imagination, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. In his essay, Jee Leong Koh relates the challenges of motherhood in a new environment to the poetry of Eavan Boland. We hope you enjoy reading. If you like what you see, please become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

The Global Suburb

Taking care of a baby all by yourself is brutal. I saw this when I stayed with my sister during one Memorial Day weekend to help her with her two little ones—three-year-old Hannah and one-month-old Liesel—while her husband went away on a business trip. Having moved recently from Singapore to the States, they were raising their daughters in a Virginian suburb, without the traditional support of the extended family, in a house about four times the size of their old apartment. Stairs, back home, belonged to outside the home; here, they had come indoors. So, if you don’t want to trek down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to make a milk bottle for the screaming baby, you plan and remember to carry up with you, before going to bed, the red bag with the bottles of milk formula.

To make things easier around the house, you create routines, routines which in turn make your life feel smaller. There must have been times when, woken up by Liesel’s cry for milk, my sister felt what the Irish poet Eavan Boland describes in her poem “Monotony”:

The stilled hub
and polar drab
of the suburb
closes in.

After her marriage, Boland herself migrated to a new home to raise her own two daughters, though in her case, the migration was internal, from the city of Dublin to a suburb called Dundrum. (Later, as poet and professor, she would divide her time between Ireland and the USA.) The lines quoted above register, I think, the loss of city noise. The letter "b" is powerfully plosive when it begins a word, such as “baby.” At the end of a word, however, it kills off any sound. Boland’s lines end with little deaths, caught in the small trap of the double b’s in “suburb.”

The feeling of entrapment comes upon the poet, standing “in the round” of a staircase, arms “sheafing nappies” like some unnatural Demeter. Instead of growing to the sun, the poet grows “in and down // to an old spiral, a well of questions, / an oracle.” Her question for the oracle: at the “altars” of washing machines and dryers, is she priestess or sacrifice? Then she observes how

Cold air
clouds the rinsed,
milky glass,
blowing clear

with a hint
of winter constellations

In a moment of poetic vision, she sees stars not in the Milky Way but in the milky glass. In the “old spiral” and “well” of the glass, she is answered by Virgo, whose arms sheaf the hemisphere. “Married to force,” the virgin stars of the constellation “harry” the poet by their example

to wed our gleams
to brute routines:
small families.

Even stars have routines they must follow, forces they must obey. Though the poet accepts “brute routines” grudgingly (how else could one accept them?), by the end of the poem she has imaginatively transformed the stilled hub of the suburb into the rotating earth of the solstices.

My sister must have done something similar in Virginia, for she survived four years of suburban motherhood. During that time, my niece Hannah started learning to play the violin. I like to imagine that in the routine of classes and practices, between coaxing and threats, my sister wedded the screechy bow to the spheres, and heard a little music.

Jee Leong Koh is the author of four books of poems, including The Pillow Book, which was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. A new book of poems Steep Tea, forthcoming from Carcanet Press in July 2015, is inspired by the poetry of Eavan Boland and other women poets.