Birth is a movement into the world, and, for the mother, a tethering to the world through the body of the infant. However, birthing brings one closer to death (if thought of as the absence of life, rather than life’s cessation) than any other activity, save watching another die, or, of course, dying (while death itself, since we cannot experience it, is forever held at a distance1). Birthing once had, and sometimes still has, a very concrete proximity to death because so many mothers and infants did die in the process. But even when birthing poses vastly fewer risks, in the moment of giving birth one must confront the boundary between here and nowhere. One confronts this boundary not intellectually or metaphorically, but physically, psychically, entirely. The mother’s body is that boundary. Anne Carson writes, “Woman is that creature who puts the inside on the outside,” or, one could say, moves absence into presence, delivers nonbeing into being. (I find it amazing that we have no word for the state of nonliving that precedes life. We can only describe it in negative terms: nonbeing, nowhere, nothing. The three-year-old asks, “where was I before I was born?” and we can only say, “inside your mother,” referring to the time when she was not. So the mother carries a nothing, a nothing that becomes.)
The poem, therefore, is not like the infant, with its clear and absolute demands. Rather, the poem resembles the birthing mother. The poem resembles her not because it “expresses” something that originates from within, not because it makes the private life of the poet into a public document, though some say that poems do both of these things. The poem resembles the woman in the act of birthing because it stands as a border between being and nonbeing, it also straddles that fissure. Of the world, formed out of a language’s responses to the world, the poem nonetheless stands outside of the world; its only responsibilities are to itself.
1And thank you to Andrew Zawacki for his extended meditation on this theme in Blanchot and Dickinson.