It is not easy for me to review Hide and Seek, because I have so much personal sympathy for Susan Glickman's motives in writing it. The book-a series of long poems detailing her much-wanted and difficult-to-achieve pregnancy, and the birth and infancy of her son-arrived on my desk when I was eight months pregnant myself, and my own baby girl is three months old as I write this review. So I realize the magnitude of the emotions involved; and I am not fully comfortable criticizing anything that a woman wants to write or say about her own experiences of early motherhood. But the fact remains that this is also a book of poetry written for publication, and as a book of poetry it did not impress me very much.
Perhaps part of my negative response is due to the fact that I recognized so little of my own experience. Hide and Seek is, for the most part, a very safe book. Perhaps Glickman really is as uncomplicated in her emotional responses as she appears to be from these poems-although I doubt that-but I did not find reflected here the confusion, the fear, the ambiguity that attends even the most wanted pregnancy. Nor did I find the devastating intensity of parental love, this love so powerful it sometimes seems it will crush you, a love that can reduce you to tears over and over for no reason at all; nor the way your world can be thrown into what feels like irrepar-
able desolation by a baby's crying.
Instead, I found mostly sentiment. At its worst, in particular in "The Lost Child", the conceits and feelings of these poems can be almost Victorian, as the author pictures herself calling her child "through the appleblossom, the mist, the warm spring rain.but you didn't hear us you didn't come-/ where had you wandered to, Darling, where?" and finding him
happy, waiting for us, in your own patch of sunlight
in your own private meadow, no sun warmer
no flower sweeter than you
One poem actually includes a footnote instructing us that Glickman's two-year-old son pronounces "lawnmower" as "yawnmower", while another footnote solemnly tells us that "we lullabied him prenatally with the Gershwin ballad `Summertime'. When he took his first breath and started to cry, his father began to sing the song to him. He instantly hushed." It is right and proper that Glickman and her partner should find these details compelling and fascinating, and there is a place for this kind of thing. But that place is Mother and Baby magazine, not a book of serious poetry.
Most of the book is better than this. "Hunger", in particular, has fine and powerful passages; although it also suffers from an excessive tendency to spell everything out, and might have been better if it were half the length and a bit less devoted to making points so clear that no-one could miss them. A particularly strong passage, for instance-
that this needs no translation
this most authentic hunger
for which milk is metaphor
is why no one speaks of it, it being
is partly spoiled by the too clever continuation,
a void we avoid by buying
consumed by loneliness
During my own, emotionally rather difficult, pregnancy-a time, by the way, when I could not write a single thing-it often seemed to me that there was something close to a taboo about admitting to the complexity of the way women feel about childbearing and childrearing. I looked hard then, and have looked since, for books that would talk to me about the way I really felt, and I have found them rare.
One that did, and one of the books that sustained me, was Anne Walker's Pregnant Poems (Black Moss, 1994). Walker's spare, minimal poems-though dealing with only one of the stages Glickman writes about in Hide and Seek-have the courage to confront the difficulties and ambiguities of becoming a mother, of this complicated love that is like nothing else, and the fear that can accompany it:
or cold breaks something;
molecules dance quicker, different, in forever
The change in temperature creaks.
Speech is like a foreign land.
I have been occupied.
One can compare Glickman's best poem here, "Hunger"-intelligent, often poignant, but in the end undisturbing, easily congruent with what we say we believe about motherhood-with Walker's "Pregnant Poem #27":
The gramma keeps boxes
in her cement garage filled with handwashed silk,
thick acrylic furs, slippery lamé that feels
like fish scales brushed backward
while the baby readies its time of
but blind suckling hunger and need
(that scorches us all underneath).
It seems to me that Walker's is far the stronger and more challenging poem, and is about much more, though a fraction of the length of "Hunger".
I do not insist that books about pregnancy have to be ridden with angst. But I do believe that women suffer because of the too simple stories we are given, that we try to force ourselves to be perfectly at ease with what is one of the deepest and most confusing experiences possible for anyone. And if anyone is responsible for breaking taboos and demanding more difficult stories, it is the poets.
Glickman does allude to these more difficult stories-even if she really was very lucky and did have a pregnancy of unbroken content and a challenging but not overwhelming birth, but she was clearly knocked as flat by early motherhood as any of the rest of us, and at moments this does find its way into the poems- "Your baby book's the only thing I wrote/ those early months.For now we clung to each other: both lost." And sometimes her evocations of love are not silly or quasi-Victorian but very simple and beautiful and true-
Oh little one
imagine the world and have it come
at your least whimper
But too much of the book draws back into easily available clichés of motherhood.
Hide and Seek is a skilful book, it can be a moving book. But it does not dare to be a dangerous book; and women need dangerous books, I think, for these most strange and wonderful times.