How can I make the experience of my labor speak?
This is how artist Carmen Winant begins her brief text To Whom Is It Given?, published in the first volume of Mother Mother, an artist book conceived and edited by Sheilah Restack (Wilson), written seven weeks after giving birth and addressed to her new born child.
She continues by quoting Elaine Scarry:
Physical pain has no voice, she writes. It shatters all language. Is this the reason there is so little art about motherhood and even less about the physical experience of laboring out our babies? I thought, in the moments after delivery: this is what my work will be about from here on out: not the experience of birth exactly, but the impossibility to account for bodily sensation and trauma and entropy in words and pictures.
Winant’s text is accompanied on the opposing page by a series of photographic clippings of women in labor, one of which is partially hidden by a red dot. The cover and back cover of Mother Mother also show Winant’s collection of images, this time crudely circled by a black marker pen.
Are the presence of the red dot and the black pen somehow the visual equivalents of marking the limits of language in retroactively describing the experience of labor? Images of the experience can be found, they can be assembled and highlighted, but these images cannot be anything other than the allegories for the “bodily sensation and trauma and entropy” of labor.
In book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hercules’ mother, Alcmena, after her son’s mortal death and deification, tells his pregnant widow, Iole:
cui referat nati testatos orbe labores,
cuive suos casus
about the labours her son had performed all over the world, as well as her own misfortunes.
What she then narrates is the story of her prolonged labor with Hercules, on account of the goddess of childbirth, Lucina, being bribed by Juno to not allow the hero to be born. As well as recounting the pain of the birth, Alcmena describes how even its memory brings back the trauma:
nec iam tolerare labores
ulterius poteram. quin nunc quoque frigidus artus,
dum loquor, horror habet, parsque est meminisse doloris.
When I went into labor, the strain was too great to endure for very long. Even now, as I tell you, an icy shiver runs down my spine and some of the pangs return with the memory.
For Winant, even if writing about and creating a work of visual art about her labor, cannot recreate the experience itself, can theses retellings still generate a bodily memory, a return of pangs (the pain, dolor) of labor?
Thinking about Winant and Alcmena, I am reminded of Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving, filmed in 1958 and which I first saw in my early twenties or perhaps earlier, thanks to my sister, filmmaker Abbe Leigh Fletcher.
She prefaced her introduction to this 12 minute film by telling me that the ending, when the camera is turned onto his stunned, joyous face, and not the visceral investigation of his wife’s birthing body, was the reason that the film was used to prepare fathers who wanted to attend to their wives’ births. This is how she Jane Brakhage later described the experience:
He [Brakhage] calls the hospital and gets the nurse who says she’ll be right there… Stan starts worrying. I continue roaring and panting. Stan stops filming he’s so upset. He gets nervous. He tells me to relax and pant. He needs to relax; I’m doing fine. I tell him how much I love him and ask him if he’s got my face while I’m roaring and this sets him off again and reassures him, and he clickety-clackety-buzzes while I roar and pant.
When Winant ends her piece by referring to how the photos her partner, artist Luke Stettner took of the birth “looked nothing like my feelings”, are we not caught in the same bind of the futility of the “clickety-clackety-buzzes” of the artist/filmmaker/photographer when confronted by the “roar and pant” of the laboring mother?
What I didn’t know until later, however, was that Stan didn’t turn the camera on himself – it was Jane who took the camera to film Stan’s face. In a way, could Jane Brakhage’s part of the film be what Winant was searching for in her own series of verbal and visual “clickety-clackety-buzzes” from her “roar and pant” in To Whom Is It Given??