Julia Guernsey-Shaw

"Ringing Aloud With Newer Sounds":
Prosodic Subjectivity and the Mother-Infant Matrix in the Poetry of George Herbert and Annie Finch

ontemporary American poet Annie Finch has said that her poetry may be “among the most consciously `postmodern’ formalist work out there.” [1]  Finch’s poems raise questions about the possibility of capturing postmodernist subjectivity in prosodic terms, linking two aesthetic goals often considered to be at cross-purposes.  Surprisingly, comparison with a poet who wrote hundreds of years earlier can help illuminate the paradoxical practice of this postmodern poet. 
What is the correlation between Renaissance interests in “re-forming” the subject and postmodernist de-formations?
In my book on George Herbert, The Pulse of Praise, I used the theory of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott to show that in The Temple,  prosody stands for the body and for a second consciousness at work in the poems; form becomes a second persona, whom I call the prosodic subject.   In the essay that follows, I will argue that Finch, like Herbert, can be read as using prosody to represent, in Winnicott’s terms,  an infantile “true” self (a core, potential subjectivity based in the body) conjoined with, yet emerging in a new relation to, a false self (an environmentally determined subjectivity based in the mind).  Such a reading raises useful corollary questions:  how “true” is a true self anyway, and in what sense is it true? Does the subjectivity represented by form vary according to historical changes in selfhood as defined by societal norms for subjectivity?  What is the correlation between Renaissance interests in “re-forming” the subject and postmodernist de-formations?

     I should clarify from the start that while I am open to those strands in postmodernism that catalyze creativity, the proliferation of possible meanings, the flowering of intersubjective possibilities, I choose to depart from poststructuralist ideas to keep possibilities for meaning open where contemporary thinkers have erected barriers—against the very notion that the self may be, in part, a product of biological nature and unpreconceptualized bodily vitality as well as culture and its ideological appropriations of the body as sign, for example.  As I hope to demonstrate, no matter how slippery and inarticulable the world outside language or the self before language may be, re-positing the signified opens up new possibilities not only for poetic meaning but for the meaningfulness of poetry in the postmodern world.

     What is at stake here is the possibility for personal agency in a social context—a problematic notion for both early modern and postmodern thinkers, as I will discuss further in the pages that follow.  From a Winnicottian standpoint, it is impossible to be supporters of, or opponents to, any agenda if we cannot believe in potential personal and interpersonal energies that give us motive and capacity to change. The paradox in Winnicott is that no potential true self can come fully into being as pure true self; socialization, which creates the outward (false) self, allows the inward (true) self to flourish. From a Winnicottian standpoint, a false self becomes problematic only when it is a mismatch for the true self and becomes so dominant in the personality as to make the person overly compliant, reactive, and detached from a sense of agency and from feelings and impulses that make the person feel real.[2

     Like Herbert’s, Finch’s poems grapple with a too dominant false self and use form as a matrix out of which a true self may emerge.  This prosodic subject is a true self who appears to be more potential than actual, realized more in the motions of self-representing than in a fixed self-representation.  The emergence of the true self works  to the end of a positive transformation—in Finch’s case, not only for herself but for her child and for the future.  Thus, I have fixed on a feminist inquiry that seems to be one thrust of Finch’s postmodern verse practice: who will mother the mother in order to birth the future — freed not from our generational and historical link to past human beings but from our ideological enslavement to structures and authorities we no longer believe in or respect? I will argue that Finch’s poems prosodically and discursively expose how traditional expectations about women limit female subjectivity; the poems go on to explore new ways of being, and giving birth to, selves in relation to others.

     W.H. Auden writes that “poetry makes nothing happen” (“In Memory of W. B. Yeats,”  2.5). [3]  Still, in the wake of modernism, new generations of poets play with words and forms, and in so doing, I believe, they make new possibilities visible.  If modern poetry is “the poem of the mind in the act of finding  / What will suffice,” — an act of the imagination spinning in the wake of objects no longer as knowable as they seemed when first glimpsed by Bacon, Descartes and others in the early modern world—then the postmodern poems of Annie Finch are poems of the heart in the act of making what will suffice--for a time (Wallace Stevens, “Of Modern Poetry,” 1-2). [4


     I might start by addressing a key question.  What does George Herbert, culturally embedded in early modern England, have in common with Annie Finch in her postmodern American milieu? 

     Finch lives, as Herbert lived, in an age when the concept of subjectivity is undergoing major revision.  During the Renaissance, ideas of self as potentially separable from others and definable with reference to individual predisposition and aptitude were emerging historically against the grain of an authoritarian society, in part due to Protestant notions of the primacy of the individual soul in relation to God.[5] At the same time some Protestants (especially Calvinists) felt that the “self” as a potential agent was simultaneously absurd, since only God’s agency was ontologically efficacious, and sinful, since only acts initiated by God were morally grounded.[6] The self thus came into a new way of knowing itself at a time when its right to be was ideologically scripted as assailable from on high—an existential double bind if ever there was one.  My study in The Pulse of Praise  shows that Herbert finds a prosodic solution to this dilemma; in Herbert’s poems, as the speaking self undoes himself in what Stanley Fish has referred to as “self-consuming artifacts,” the prosodic subject becomes whole and alive in relation to God.[8]  Thus a new self, emerging through Herbert’s engagement with form (and as Herbert would understand it through the grace of God) comes fully into being and goes on being after the speaker’s voice dies.

     In contrast, questions about self these days rest less on theology than on theory, which challenges the unity and continuity of a determinate self.  Since Derrida, not only has the felt agency of the autonomous self scripted over generations of Western ideology come into question; but the idea that the word ‘self’ refers to any teleologically unified unfolding of subjectivity during development, that our identities cohere over time, is also under siege.[9] For some theorists, what stands to replace a self lived continuously over time, an “I” that unifies past with present experience, is a self constructed in a narrative about the past (as represented in memory) to the end of getting on with a viable future. [10]  The hermeneutics of subjectivity thus shifts from the way our pasts create us in the present and  determine our futures, to the way that present opportunities to talk about ourselves may facilitate constructions of the past that lead us into the futures we are fishing for, so to speak.

     Finch claims that Herbert was an early influence on her work, and Finch's poems, like Herbert's, use prosody in sophisticated ways to represent--even constitute--subjective and relational states in response to the problems of being. [11]  In Finch’s poems involving motherhood, the mother’s true self must provide grounding for the mother if she is to rear a child whose true self is to emerge.  The child’s true self may then provide him grounding for creative living, the capacity to participate fully in culture rather than be rendered partial by it.  As Jane Flax points out, “From the perspective of Winnicott’s theories, almost all postmodernist critiques of the self would in fact describe and target a false one"; it is the false self that feels fragmented and contingent and comes into being as a cultural construct, and it is the true self whose desires undo the too “brittle” identity of the false self.  In Finch's poetry, form (embodying the true self) mothers the mother, grounding her in a subjectivity not contingent on the ideological mis-scriptings her culture has handed over to her false self.


     Finch explores the self-alienation produced by the gaze of others in her villanelle "Pearl" from her first book, Eve.  As in Herbert's poem "The Altar," the self in Finch's poem is rendered a thing—though beautiful rather than broken—in others’ eyes.  In “The Altar,” an altar shape conveys a sense of self as thing before God.  The altar, like the speaker’s heart, is broken—an unwieldy thing undergoing the process of construction, a stone “no workman’s tool has touched” (4). At the same time, an “I” shape represents self as emerging subject, empowered by God’s mirroring of the speaker in response to the speaker’s prayer for sanctification.  As the discursive speaker of the poem ends in silence, “chanc[ing] to hold [his] peace” the prosodic subject attains perfection as the altar / I who “may not cease” in the speaker’s project, “to praise [God]” (13-14). [12]   The Herbertian true self emerges as the false self surrenders to God.  In Finch's villanelle, the pearl symbolizes a false self in that it represents a self invented in compliance with the desires of others, one whose purpose is to protect and hide the true self from exploitation:

/   ~       ~     /       ~    /    ~   `    ~  ~   /
Reaching with eyes, they covered her as a girl,

/    ~   ~   /    ~   /      ~   /  ~  ~     /
leaving a grain of gaze, the irritant stare

/   ~     ~     /   ~  /    ~     /     ~      /
women must cover everywhere, with pearl.

/  ~  ~   /     ~     /    ~  /    ~    /
Even in her own room alone, she curled

/       ~    ~    /    ~      /    ~      \     ~      /
back from the windows steaming with their glare.  

/     ~      ~    /       ~     /     ~     /   ~ ~    /
Reaching with eyes, they covered her, as a girl,

/     ~     ~     /     ~   ~   /    /     ~   /
stopping her gaze with a long look, unfurled

/   ~   ~   \  ~ ~   /   ~    /         /
taking her in as if she belonged there,  

~  /   ~    /   ~     /   ~    /      ~       /
a woman covered everywhere, with pearls

/     ~   ~      /      ~   /    ~     /      ~     /
draping her throat, before she learned to whirl

~   /    ~   /   ~     /      ~    /     ~     /    ~     /
beside the mirror, pierce her ears, or twine her hair.

/      ~    ~     /       ~     /   ~     /    ~  ~   /
Reaching with eyes, they covered her, as a girl

/     ~  ~     /    ~   ~    /  \   ~   /
covers and hunches herself in, to coil  

/      ~  ~      \      ~   ~    /        /    ~   /
less of her toward the voyeur.     But beware.

/    ~     ~    /  ~   /   ~    /   ~       /
Women can cover everything, like pearls 

/        ~   ~  /    ~  / ~   /  ~      /
orbed and alive.  A living ocean swirls;

~    ~   /   ~    /   ~  /  ~   /   ~    /
we encompass it and spiral everywhere.

/     ~      ~      /     ~     /    ~    \   ~     /
Reaching with eyes, they covered, in the girl,

 ~     ~    /   ~    /   ~      /  ~    /    ~      /
what the woman covers: everything, like pearl. [13]


A tactile image of the invasive look of others—a “grain of gaze”—catalyzes the creation of the false self figured as pearl, a feminine object both beautiful and unfeeling, centering as it does not around the true self but around the “irritant stare.” This stare invades the speaking self’s boundaries to such an extent that it is figured as touch, which crosses and closes interpersonal space to shape the girl  (or even more invasively to cause her to create herself) in the image of the beautiful woman, covered with pearls. The gaze, like the internalized voice of patriarchy, becomes psychically present, even in the girl’s isolation. [14]  Thus she “curl[s] back” in an almost fetal movement, suggesting her desire to withdraw to a place of unaccosted innocence  from the “steaming” window symbolizing a gaze  tinged with eroticism. 

      To further complicate boundary confusion, the gaze not only invades the girl’s inner space but seems to “tak[e] her in” as if her very  place were in the psychic economy of others, as their object.  To use Heinz Kohut’s term, she becomes their self-object, an extension for narcissistic uses rather than a being human (and therefore complete) in her own right. [15] The girl’s own gaze is arrested as she ceases to experience herself as a subject.

     A degree of self-possession comes as the girl “learn[s] to whirl / beside the mirror, pierce her ears or twine her hair”; yet this form of self-possession, though a step in the right direction, is not complete, since the girl gazing in the mirror only appropriates herself as object, taking  imaginary control of the object self (the Lacanian “moi”).  To the extent the self remains object, she remains false, capable of defending the true self as she “covers and hunches herself in to coil / less of her toward the voyeur” but not yet fully identified with the true self.

     The true self, according to Winnicott, originates as “a spontaneous impulse” expressed in “the infant’s gesture.” [16]   Here the true self is represented as the “living ocean” that “swirls” and becomes encompassed by the bodily “spiral” of the girl. While the object self, the pearl, is false, the movement which creates the object indicates the existence of a true self who is “alive” though “orbed” in the defensive cover of pearl. The true self is the aliveness, not the orb, symbolized not as a material thing like the pearl or the irritant stare that produces it but as bodily motion—a process of being and doing rather than a product of being seen or done to.

     The true self, unlike the false, is not an object we may fix visually or know as a fixed entity.  To encompass the “living ocean” we must “spiral everywhere”—empathically moving along with it and realizing that its potential visual expression varies with the imposed confines of the false self; in a natural state it exists as “living ocean”--not a shape but a flow.  Thus in her epigraph to Calendars Finch quotes Thich Nhat Hanh: “Form is the wave, emptiness the water.”  The true self of Finch’s poetry differs from that of Herbert’s altar in being represented not as an icon (the “I” shape of the altar”) but in the motion of the form. 

     To get a sense of how that motion works, we may examine Finch’s metrics.  Finch’s meter, much like the free verse of Walt Whitman which she discusses in her book, The Ghost of Meter, vacillates between disyllabic and trisyllabic feet. [17]  It also vacillates between rising and falling feet to create a movement that seemingly resists “the eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase” (Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” 56). [18]  Yet unlike Whitman’s poetry Finch’s villanelle may be read as operating from a “base” iambic pentameter meter. English villanelles are conventionally written in iambic pentameter, and Finch stays close enough to the norm to be considered a poet who stretches, rather than breaks, tradition in this regard.  First, a majority, eleven, of Finch’s nineteen lines, may be scanned into a duple meter; second, most of her lines, though they may have a falling motion in  the beginning, have a rising meter by the end of the line, and third, except for line eleven, it is possible to find five feet in each line.

     Finch’s use of the trochees in the first foot of quite a few lines seems to set her poem in a rocking motion, suggesting action and reaction (eyes reaching and girl recoiling) from the start; trochaic followed by iambic feet  exist in lines one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, ten, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and eighteen. [19]  The only purely iambic pentameter line in the poem (if “everywhere” is elided into a three-syllable word) is line nine, in which the girl (or the image she conceives herself to be) exists “in” those who see her; this fact seems significant, given Finch’s own interpretation of iambic pentameter in Dickinson and Whitman as metrically encoding orthodox patriarchal values and literary practice and upholding male ego states. [20]  Regular iambic pentameter here represents the complete appropriation of the girl by male voyeurs (who, like the writers of patriarchal literature, assume the girl is only as they see her and who see her only as they wish to see her).  In a sense, the real girl vanishes in the iambic pentameter representation of her. 

     Line eleven is one of the more unusual in the poem, appearing to be an alexandrine, though the first foot “whirls” by much more quickly than traditional uses of alexandrines might anticipate, especially contrasting Pope’s parody of an alexandrine which “like a wounded Snake, drag[s] its slow Length along” (“An Essay on Criticism,” 357). [21]  The association may not be entirely coincidental here.  As the girl, “covers and hunches herself in, to coil / less of her toward the voyeur” in lines thirteen and fourteen, the meter draws in, like a wounded snake, covering and hunching itself in a near spondaic substitution in the fourth foot of line thirteen (where in must receive at least secondary stress, being an adverb rather than a preposition, and may thus balance the pyrrhic substitution in the third foot by completing a near spondee in the fourth).  The line hunches prior to a caesura, only to coil-- and perhaps strike at the voyeur in the next line (Beware, indeed).

     In line thirteen metric stress falls as in speech stress on the second syllable of  herself.  If  in has at least secondary stress in a three-level system of scansion, the emphasis on the syllable self sounds  stronger because it is adjacent to a fainter but still stressed syllable; we become aware of the girl as a subject, though she is  treated as an object by the voyeur.  As self she is properly her own possessor (as in “her self”).   The idea of the reflexive pronoun as a subject made object to the subject (“herself” indicating a Lacanian grammar of imaginary-self-possession, of owning the self in the mirror) becomes clear.  At the discursive level of the poem, the girl’s only recourse from the appropriating gaze of the voyeur is her own narcissistic gaze, which itself bespeaks self-alienation from a Lacanian point of view. 

     Lines seventeen and nineteen begin with anapestic substitutions, which exist elsewhere in the poem in the fifth feet of lines one, two, six and twelve .These substitutions, falling three times on the phrase “as a girl” and once at the beginning of the clause “what the woman covers,” have essentially feminine associations; the anapest represents  the movement “we encompass,” the swirl of living ocean as embodied by the woman who controls her own image and identifies herself not with the image made as she moves but with the moving itself.    

     The choice of villanelle seems appropriate in that the elaborate French form seems as delicate and intricate as a string of pearls.  Furthermore the villanelle captures not only the shape of the false self but also the motion of the true self. Indeed the refrain lines representing the false self (a pearl girl) rhyme with lines signifying, and at the same time constituting, the true self (who curls, unfurls, whirls, coils and swirls).  While the pearl-girl as false self is perfectly fixed in a “true rhyme” that reifies her, the one who curls, unfurls, whirls, and swirls but also coils is freed from arbitrary structuring effects of uncompromising rhyme.

     Here I think is the crux of Finch’s postmodern sense of what I have referred to in Herbert as prosodic subjectivity.  In Finch, form is not a shape into which subjectivity is poured, however well-fitted.  Rather, prosody becomes a living ocean, a motion that unwinds, a process in which an agent self expresses agency itself as what the true self is.  Though the “body” is “swayed to music,” form represents neither body nor music but the sway, which evidences the aliveness of the body; thus, Yeats’ question arises: “How can we know the dancer from the dance” (“Among School Children,” 63-64).[22]

     A similar sense of the true self as self-in-motion, opposed to the false self fixed by the patriarchal gaze occurs in Finch’s “Running in Church.”  The poem represents not the speaker but a child she knew at some point in the past—perhaps a sister.  The poem may also be read as an objectified presentation of the speaker’s subjectivity, that is as psychomachia:

Then you were a hot-thinking, thin-lidded tinderbox.    
Losing your balance meant nothing at all.  You would
pour down the aisles in the highest cathedrals
careening deftly as patriarchs brooded.

You made the long corridors ring, tintinnabular
echoes exploring the pounded cold floor,
forcing the walls to the truth of your progress:
there was a person in this church’s core.

Past thick stained-glass colors wafted and swirling
in pooled interludes that swung down from the rafters   
cinnabar wounds threw light on your face, where the
pliant young bones were dissolving in laughter.


The conflation of church building and church member exists in Herbert’s poems like “The Altar,”  “Church-monuments,”  “The Church-floore,” and “The Windows” in which various objects in the church represent the speaker’s subjective states. The equation between person and church is also spelled out in the New Testament: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God?” (1 Corinthians 3:16,  AV).  In Finch’s poem the little girl, her movements conveyed in “careening” and “swirling” dactylic feet, is the “person” fully alive at the church’s very “core.” The “patriarchs brood[ing]” seem no more resilient than walls that can be “forc[ed]” to the “truth of [her] progress.” Although the patriarchs may be forced into awareness of the child’s movements, their expression suggests that they disapprove of her freedom; thus, these men seem to miss the “truth”-- that the child’s liveliness represents “progress” toward the humanity which is at the “core” of their religion—toward personhood-- and toward the “person at this church’s core,” Jesus, who said  “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, AV).  His “cinnabar wounds” give light, pliancy, and laughter to the child.  At the same time, the girl’s “pliant young bones [are] dissolving in laughter”; she is living and dying simultaneously in the shadow of the crucified Christ’s image.

      Finch’s form, like Herbert’s, gestures toward a subjectivity that to some degree contrasts with that of the speaking self.  In both poets, form signifies the movement of a true self who appears to be more potential than actual, realized more in the motions of self-representing than in any specific representation of self.   "Running in Church" may be read as the picture of an individual psyche observing herself divided between brooding patriarchs and the girl who “pour[s]” down the aisle, an unshaped flow of humanity “careening deftly.”  As childlike vitality faces off with the shaping gaze of those in power, the dactylic movement again means a lack of self-consciousness in the young girl who, “dissolving in laughter,” exists only at the vanishing point of the  speaker’s own patriarchally-scripted self.

     The fully realized self, as Winnicott himself theorized, always has elements of the false self as a component, since individuals in any society need parts of themselves which function to meet the demands of the social world, exhibiting appropriate manners, enacting cultural mores and so on.  The problem with the false self that the patriarchy attempts to promulgate in “Pearl” and “Running in Church” is that she does not extend from the true self (“a person at [the] core”) but from the patriarchy, functioning as an object for men.  She is depersonalized and thus loses touch with her own interior, where the feeling person resides.


     One of the deep ironies of our culture (at least until the mid-sixties when gender roles began a slow transformation) is that women who were never allowed to experience themselves fully as subjects became mothers responsible for facilitating the subjectivity of others.  As Nancy Mairs puts it, “We live in a culture of object-mothers.  The subject-mothers, culturally silenced for millennia, are only just beginning to speak.”[23] This problem might be traced back in Western ideology to the myth of Eden.  Since re-scripting the self seems to involve a moment of return to a symbolic starting place, we might compare the Paradise/Eden poems of Herbert to those of Finch, noting the poets’ differing approaches to the task of undoing the false-self-mother’s influence in order to put the true self in the hands of a good-enough mother.[24

     In general, for Herbert, the false self (the “old Adam” within each individual) is a spiritual error and must be undone in order to get back to the starting point. For Finch, on the other hand, the false self (the myth of Eve and its influence on women in Western culture) is a historical reality (however “imaginary” in a Lacanian sense) and must herself be rewritten in order for selves to progress historically.

     In Herbert’s “Paradise,” for example, the speaking subject, addressing his Lord, claims to “GROW / among the trees which in a ROW / To thee both fruit and order OW” (1-3).  The prosody illustrates, through the clipping away of superfluous letters as the rhymes of the line evolve, that God is the garden’s pruner. As Michael Schoenfeldt has observed, the form insinuates the speaker’s castration anxiety, but as I argue in Pulse of Praise, God is also the “ARM” which encloses the human subject, and who protects him from hidden “CHARM” and “HARM” (4-6).[25]  In being the speaker’s bodily “inclosure,” God plays the part of holding mother, thus constituting paradise (6).  Prosody, understood as a second persona, may be said to enjoy God’s holding more directly than the speaker, but in any case, Herbert’s image of paradise as built on the pruning away of extraneous parts of self is clear.  We might even take the image in relatively positive terms, not so much as a sign of castration image but as a picture of God’s paring away the false self—the exterior built to protect the subject from the world—in order to hold the true self more directly.  We may look to Herbert’s “The Flower” for further glossing.  “Thy word is all, if we could spell,” Herbert’s speaker claims—that is, the true self that God spoke into being (Adam/Christ) is the essence, whereas humanity adds to God’s alphabet “My sinnes and I joining together” (21, 28).   The “swelling” occurs through “pride,” according to the speaker of “The Flower” (48-49).   

     The false self in Finch is less an actual spiritual entity--at least in its genesis--than a misconstrual of female intentions from a patriarchal perspective; thus, the undoing of the bad mother necessitates not the re-parenting  of the human subject  by Christ but rather the rewriting of Judeo-Christian images of Eve as bad mother.  In her Petrarchan sonnet “Eve,” Finch returns to the primal holding environment of Judeo-Christian tradition, hoping to make new sense of an old story.  Finch explains her thoughts about Eve in a note on the poem:
Though Eve may be seen as a symbol of the demonization of women, she shares many characteristics with the ancient mother-goddesses worldwide from whom her story derives.  Like her predecessors, Eve brought both death and life to humanity.  In some Judeo-Christian legends, she also persuaded God to allow humans to be resurrected. [26]
Whereas for Herbert God the Father must prune (i.e. punish) the fallen self in order for God as mother to hold the redeemed self, for Finch, Eve as mother, though fallen, must make amends and herself become the “good enough” mother when she can no longer be the perfect one.  Furthermore, in the poem, Eve’s sinful pride—her reach for the forbidden fruit-- is re-figured as branching arms, reminiscent of the tree of life.[27]  Rather than split the good mother lost from the bad mother who lives and breeds unhappily ever after, Finch synthesizes the two into the figure of a woman imperfect, but with good intentions:

~       /   ~     /      /    ~    /     / ~     /
When mother Eve took the first apple down

~     ~     /     ~    /      ~      /   ~        /     ~     /
from the tree that grew where nature’s heart had been

~    \        /     ~    /   ~    /  ~   / ~   /
and came tumbling, circling, rosy, into sin,

~        /    ~   /    ~    /    ~       /      ~      /
which goddesses were lost and which were found?

~        /  ~     /     ~  / ~  \    ~    /
What spirals moved in pity and unwound

 ~  /     ~   /   ~    /  ~    \     ~    /
across our mother’s body with the spin

~   /   ~    /    ~   /   ~   /   ~    /
of planets lost for us and all her kin?

~        /   ~         /      ~     /       ~ \  ~  /
What serpents curved their mouths into a frown

~    /      ~    /  ~     /      ~  /  ~        /
but left their bodies twined in us like threads

~     /    ~    /    ~   /       ~    /    ~       /
that lead us back to her?    Her presence warms, 

~    / ~ /  ~    /  ~     /         ~     /
and if I follow closely through the maze,

~ /  ~    /      ~    ~   /    ~      /  ~      /
it is to where her remembered reaching spreads

~    /   ~      /     ~ ~  \  ~     /   ~    /
in branching gifts, it is to her reaching arms

~    ~  /    ~   /  ~   /  ~         /    ~     /
that I look, as if for something near to praise.


     Downward movement viscerally symbolizing the fall begins with a trochaic ictus on the verb “took” in the third foot and the gravity of a spondee in the fourth foot of line one (first apple).  A falling motion is emphasized further by the word “down” at the end of the line and enjambment, which brings the first line spiraling into the second. Besides downward tumbling, circling (representing the twining of the serpent, perhaps a memory of Milton’s Eve with her “wanton ringlets” [P L 4.306] and maybe even a Herbertian association of “crooked winding ways”  [“The Wreathe,” 4]) comes across through the winding lines.  The spirals also represent, as do Yeats’ gyres, the movement of history after the fall.  Lost planets—the possibilities of other worlds—“moved in pity and unwound / across our mother’s body.”   The return to the mythic maternal body here means bondage in the chains of unrealizable possibilities.  But in Finch, the serpents are also positive figures. As Finch notes, “the snake was originally sacred to the goddess in Western culture—as it still is worldwide.”[28]  Archetypal symbols of feminine power, the serpents keep us connected to the first mother “like threads that lead us back to her.”  And the mother’s body is also life—a presence that “warms,” a “remembered reaching” that “spreads / in branching gifts.”  Her “reaching arms” become “something near” for us  “to praise” just as her arms reach in an attitude that is “something near to praise” and reach, not to an untouchable elsewhere, but to something near.  Like a temporary lull in the downward movement of an elevator, anapestic substitutions in the first feet of lines two and three and in the third feet of lines twelve and thirteen compound the rising effect of iambs with the dip and swirl of extra unstressed syllables, raising us to the height of Eve’s reach.  Fear of falling yields to the exultation of a flight back to our first mother and the aspiration she represents.  Eve’s reaching is “re-membered” as prosody makes tangible the “branching gifts” of her arms and the upward beat of the bottom line, ending not with damnation but with praise.

     A similar motion occurs in another sonnet on Eden, "No Snake," which like "Eve" offers a feminist perspective on the myth of the fall:

~   /   ~   /  ~  / ~    /   \     /
Inside my Eden I can find no snake.                 

~          /    ~   /   ~    /    ~   /    ~  /
There’s not one I could look to and believe,

~  /    ~     /    ~  /  ~    /  ~     /
obey and then be ruined by and leave

~    /     ~    /  ~     /   ~     /    ~    / 
because of, bearing children and an ache.

~ /  ~    /    ~   /  ~    /   ~  /
I circle down on Eden from above                       

/        ~   ~    /    ~   / ~ /    ~     /
searching the fields in solitude and love

~   ~   /     /      ~     \       /  ~   ~   /
like a high hawk. She would never forsake

~     /       ~       /      ~  /  ~  /  ~   /
this place that’s made again of memory;

 ~       /   ~   ~    /     ~  /   ~     /
she’d wait in that tree below me, spring

/        ~      ~    /   ~     /   ~     /  ~   /
out towards my growing shadow, let it bring       

~  /  ~     /      ~     /    ~      /     /
a sudden hope that she could coil free;

~     /      ~     /     / ~    /     ~     ~     /
but she’s not here.  Only mountains that curve

~     /   ~    /   ~    /  ~    /    ~    /
and dip around the valley when I swerve,

/  ~    ~      /       /       ~ ~  /     ~    /
settle with dark heights, as I near the tree.


Here Eden becomes personal, a “place that’s made again of memory” for a speaker who claims it as “my Eden.”  With the possible exception of spondaic emphasis on “no snake” in the fifth foot of line one—stressing what is absent--the initial quatrain scans regularly in iambic pentameter, narrating the story of absent snake and absent consequences (Eve’s credulity leading to the fall and with it eviction from the garden and the pain of childbirth are all under erasure). 

     As in “Eve,” the snake is a sign of positive power, and the absence of the snake represents an absence of matriarchal authority.  In its relation to the goddess, the snake represents not the phallus, but the woman’s “true self,” which is disavowed in the Biblical myth.  In the Judeo-Christian version of the story, the serpent is the scapegoat Eve blames for her fall and thus symbolizes the part of Eve she projects outward or relegates to a realm within her that she considers “not me.”  This dynamic results in the isolation and emotional arrest of the true self and its alienation from the false self.   In evading responsibility, the Eve figure of Genesis and Paradise Lost disavows her own agency.  In Finch’s Eden, the speaking self becomes both Eve and snake, “circling down” like Milton’s Lucifer “from above.”[29]  She regains her original power, if not her patriarchally idealized  perfection.

     The second stanza, a tercet, departs from conventional meter and from a Petrarchan rhyme scheme seemingly in the making (with its traditional patriarchal representation of women).  Line five formally circles down from above, through enjambment landing on a trochaic substitution in line six; though in itself not unusual, this trochee introduces a downward movement which fluctuates with the rising iambs; a pyrrhic substitution in the first foot of the next line followed by a spondee on the words “high hawk” and another trochaic substitution in the fourth foot of the same line create a falling/flying effect.  The next line spreads (like wings) in a regular iambic beat, but the rhythm again surprises us in line nine as an anapestic substitution makes the second foot dip.  The line recovers in an iamb only to drop a foot at the end. Like the serpent (the “she” of this poem) the line coils to “spring   / out” toward the next, which like the speaker’s shadow “grow[s]” in that the line returns to the five foot norm.  The eleventh line, like the ninth, has only nine syllables (unless one gives coil an extra syllable) , but in it a final stressed syllable, a headless iamb adds a fifth beat.[30] As the fourth beat seems to coil, seemingly about to shorten like the precedent line, the last stressed syllable breaks free.  The final tercet dips and swerves with trochaic substitutions in the third and fourth foot of line twelve and the first and third foot of line fourteen, which rock against the prevailing rise of the sonnet’s iambic meter.

     Both sonnets offer in conceptual terms a feminist revision of Eden.   More importantly, in material terms, both embody motions—rising against the falling motion of downward moving lines; coiling, springing and breaking free—that provide an almost physical countercurrent to the notion of the fall.  Whereas in Herbert, Christ becomes good-enough mother, a Second Adam providing a side/womb out of which the “new man” may emerge (see “The Bag,” e.g. 29, 32), for Finch in these poems the “new woman” must return to the original Eve in search of a good-enough mother; she must unite Eve and the snake within her own Eden in order to retrieve the true self, embracing her own power, in spite of its label as evil in patriarchal Western terms.

     William Blake writes that to bring new gardens to fruition you must “drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Proverbs of Hell,” 2).[31] Although in her Eden poems Finch’s speaker seems to rest hopes of starting over on her reshaping of the first mother’s contours, in “The Garden,” a poem less directly tied to the Eden myth, Finch’s speaker suggests that the seeds produced within the old earth (symbolically the womb/holding environment) must be radically recontextualized in order to yield new fruit:

Out of old earth where the worms have eaten,   
the grim garden begins to grow.   
When peas, dull dragons, unwind and dip
rough leaves the land has licked, 
lulled by a dust of lingering crumbs            
dropped by the tongue of the turned-up
underground, hunched over the earth,
beans bend and bow like figureheads.
Raise them roaring, ribbon sun,
beat them open, oar them out              
far to sea.  They’ll face furrows
through the wind.  They’ll walk waves.

     Alliteration and the heaviness of “old earth,” “grim garden” and “rough leaves” constitute a return to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, the four beats of each line suggesting the crux of imagery and affect.  Amidst the decay even growth is grim, and the movement of lines unwinding through two heavily enjambed stanzas composing a single sentence dips, is lulled, drops, hunches over, bends and bows.  Movement is heavy, downward, and bent in spite of the turned up underground promising new growth.  What lies beneath the ruin of the old garden is fertile, yet to make a new earth, it must be transported to the womb of ocean.  It must be raised by the ribbon sun (a gift—of fire), beat open in the water, blown by the wind.  The four elements mix in a new creation, promising to “walk waves,” an allusion to New Testament miracle and the possibility of redemption.  Whereas for the Germanic sensibility illustrated in poems like “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and Beowulf, life ends in defeat or the world ends in ruin, we end here through a storm of wind and waves with a sense of re-inspiration and rebirth. 

     This new birth starts with an intervention re-originating the garden.  In human society, such a re-origination must start with reorientation of ourselves; there is no womb but within the mother who is, herself, tied to a past and a culture which deconstructs the female subject, splitting the true self off at the root—pruning the flower to facilitate the weed.   Who will mother the mother who can mother the future?  Where should we begin, and how should we presume? (paraphrase of Eliot, “Prufrock,” 58, 60)

     Fears of the bad mother exist in both Herbert and Finch; while Herbert sometimes fears that Christ may be a bad mother, Finch’s speaker fears being a bad mother to her child.  The good-enough mother begins for Finch, as for Herbert, with the holding environment, figured in poetry by form, out of which both mother and child may emerge as true selves.

     For Herbert, even Christ as mother fails to be good enough from the infantile speaker’s point of view in such poems as “Longing”:

With sick and famisht eyes,  
 With doubling knees and weary bones,
To thee my cries,  
To thee my grones,  
To thee my sighs, my tears ascend:  
No end?  
My throat, my soul is hoarse;  
My heart is withered like a ground    
Which thou dost curse.  
My thoughts turn round,  
And make me giddie; Lord, I fall,    
Yet call.    
From thee all pitie  flows.    
Mothers are kinde, because thou art,  
And dost dispose    
To them a part:    
Their infants them; and they suck thee  
More free. (1-18)  

Here Herbert’s speaker shows all the signs of infantile abandon and the sense of personal dissolution which Winnicott views as evidence of maternal failure; yet the prosodic subject, tying the stanzas together with a coherent rhyme scheme and consistent stanzaic pattern for line lengths, evidences that Christ continues to hold the human child, unifying him as a bodily and psychic self, in spite of his sense that he is falling apart.[32]  Christ here is a  good enough mother not only to the speaking subject who lacks faith in him at the moment but to all mothers who are good enough for their infants.  In nursing on the blood of Christ, human mothers become “kinde” and pass on that kindness, with all its Renaissance connotations of positive human nature, to their infants.

     The faith of Herbert’s age would frame allegations that Christ is not good enough in the light of human misperception or error—even sin.  But the mythic human “bad mother” is credible enough given historical representations of women like Eve.  Having met the bad mother in our literature, we may give more credence to our own memories of her from infancy.[33] And for that matter, bad mothers exist— to varying degrees for all of us. Given that in the postmodern view, no transcendent redeemer promises to mother the mother, making her good enough to mother the child, women approach motherhood with only their own histories of being mothered behind them.  This is to say that women are environmentally programmed from childhood toward the “reproduction of mothering,” as Nancy Chodorow puts the idea.[34]

     From an object relations perspective, one origin of the “bad mother” in infantile perception occurs at the intersection of nature (the child’s true self) and culture (the child’s socialization, leading to a false self).  A good-enough mother must exist in part as bad mother in the toddler’s mind, since a mother should gradually disillusion the infant, orienting him/her toward the social world in age-appropriate ways.  Paradoxically enough, where there is no “bad mother,” there is no good enough mother but rather a too-good mother who is, in actuality, bad for the infant.  On the other hand, the infant’s “bad mother” may reflect an actually ‘bad mother’ if the mother introduces the child too early or too harshly to her own demands or the demands of society. 

     As represented in Finch’s poems, the bad mother is a false self who threatens to consume the soon-to-emerge infantile subject in order to complete herself.  She is like the Lacanian mother, caught up in the web of her own unfulfillable desire, needy and willing to milk her own infant for sustenance.[35]  The good mother, herself still infantile in terms of development, exists as a potential residing in the true self (and represented by the motion of form); regression to the possibilities of the true self resituates the mother at the root of her own potential; the maternal true self becomes mother to the mother, who may then give birth to a child not so desperately implicated in his own “prehistory” as Lacanian theory suggests is inevitable.[36]

     In “The Raptor” Finch’s speaker figures the mother not as the infant/toddler’s mirror, constituting the baby’s self through accurately reflecting it back to the child, but as a bird of prey hovering over her unborn young:

My mind hovered over my baby, like
a raptor, and froze everything it saw.
I looked through my own pregnant belly’s raw
perimeters and found his heart to strike

attentive until, helpless with the pound 
of still more blood, he seemed to settle down.
It was my loss to feel like god alone
for a new one always listening, to reach
inside for his ears to share the flying speech

I heard so constantly.  Within my grown
silence, my sounding, my loud body where
the baby turned, my mind learned not to care
whether thoughts I felt he noticed with no fear
were mine alone—or whether he could hear.


This raptor is similar to the “high hawk” in “No Snake” in that both are predators.  In both poems the speaker provides the reader an aerial view of mother and child in relation to each other—whether the relation is one of presence (as it is here) or of absence (as in “No Snake”).   While the apparent purpose of the speaker in “No Snake” is to rethink the Eden myth and redefine Eve as the snake (a figure of female power) the apparent purpose of “The Raptor” is to present the speaker’s reflection on her pregnancy; indeed the poem may be literally about the speaker’s viewing ultrasound images of her unborn fetus.  But again, female power is emphasized as the mother claims to “feel like god” in relation to her child.  In fact, it is the speaker’s position of power in relation to the unborn baby that makes this raptor image more disturbing than that in “No Snake” where the speaker is simultaneously the “high hawk” in relation to a snake and the lowly child in relation to a powerful mother.  Also the idea of a baby’s eating the mother (breast-feeding) is less alarming than the idea of a mother’s eating her child (cannibalism). 

     Shocked by the image of the fetus as raw meat for the raptor-mother, the reader may fail to notice how the mother’s own consciousness here splits in two.  On the one hand, the speaker’s mind (the base for the false self) becomes raptor-like in the way that her consciousness hovers over her unborn baby and [freezes] everything it [sees]” in an objectifying gaze; on the other hand, her pregnant belly, itself raw, represents the body-based self (the true self) as holding environment for the developing baby. 

     The choice of simile rather than metaphor and the fact that the word “like” at the end of line one is emphasized as a rhyme word suggest that the raptor image is, after all, merely an analogy.  These moves ameliorate the shock of the image to some degree; yet, the verb “strike,” again in a rhyming position, reminds us of the violence that the raptor image threatens.  Next, enjambment undoes the initial impact of “strike” as the continuation of the sentence clarifies that the mother is not a raptor about to strike her baby’s heart but rather her mind is like a raptor in its hovering (an image more associated with overprotective than destructive mothers) and it is the baby’s heart which strikes or seems to “strike attentive” in its pounding; the sound of the pounding heart strikes also in the poem’s iambic meter, reminding us  that prosody is the textual locus of the one-body relation between mother and child.  But the word pound  also has a double effect in that it signifies not only the beating of the heart but a measure of weight: the pound of blood may remind us of the pound of flesh in Merchant of Venice, for instance. 

     Thus the first six lines play on a deep human fear—one some psychoanalysts believe to be intrinsic to late infancy—that the powerful mother may eat her young in retaliation (so the infant believes) for the nursing infant’s eating her (since the infant at this stage does not yet distinguish milk from mother as a whole). 
It is the mother rather than the infant in this poem whose anxiety shapes her into an imagined raptor.
Yet each time the fear is summoned, the suggestion deconstructs itself, leaving us uneasy not only at the assertion (mother is raptor) but also at the way in which the assertion vanishes each time it rises to the verge of consciousness.  Finch’s use of form in these lines—specifically of rhyme and enjambment—seems to contradict discursive meaning at every turn.

     To further complicate the raptor image from a psychological standpoint, it is the mother rather than the infant in this poem whose anxiety shapes her into an imagined raptor. Perhaps the false self is projecting its own early childhood anxieties onto the scene, especially since the true self exists in a merger relation with the infant in utero.  But at the same time, the idea of a mother’s eating a fetus suggests a premature maternal apprehension of separateness (since one can eat only that which is other) and an attempt to undo that separateness (by taking in that which the mind perceives as other in order to make that other part of itself--permanently).  It is as if we are experiencing a threat of pre-post-partum psychosis—a separation anxiety spinning itself into nightmare.

     Within the poem the speaker’s overt fear is power—the power of “god alone” to give and take life; in feeling god-like, she feels, and fears being, alone, isolated from both infant and true self.   And she feels as if there may be no God but the self she fears.  Finally in the mix of boundaries between mother and fetus, the speaker fears that the baby will overhear the “flying speech” she hears “so constantly”—an image of Babel fraught with anxiety that the baby will become god-like and understand the words the mother speaks or, worse yet, understand the felt language of primary process summed up in the raptor image.  Thus the ultimate anxiety is that the child will fear the mother as the mother fears herself in relation to the child, that the child will know what power she has—and what powerlessness.

     The boundary confusion gets played out in the poem’s grammar toward the end, where squinting modifiers make it difficult to determine whether the speaker feels that the baby with no fear notices her thoughts or whether the speaker with no fear feels her own thoughts that the baby notices.  Whether the thoughts are the speaker’s alone or whether the baby can hear leaves aside the question of how the baby would understand the raptor image.  Too young for splitting (that is, too young to perceive the mother as two—the good mother and the bad mother), too young in fact to perceive the mother as separate from the self, the unborn child could only merge with the raptor-mother in flight if he could apprehend her at all—and indeed the eating of the womb-mother/self unit would be only part and parcel of the infant’s merger experience.  The mother’s true self, on the other hand, seems more vulnerable to the attack of the false self/bad mother, abiding it seems in a psychic never-never land where the false self as the bad mother’s emissary eternally preys, vulture-like, on a Promethean self.

     “The Raptor,” then, seems simultaneously to address a progression toward responsibility for another human life and a regression, which may serve a positive purpose from a Winnicottian point of view: specifically to posit an infantile fantasy that the mother may eat the child to the end of transforming it as the child becomes a mother.  In another sonnet, Finch’s speaker again confronts boundary questions between expectant mother and unborn child.  In so doing, she confronts her own “angry past”—a “loud carrying life” full of “silent memory”-- in order to free herself and her baby from “Three Generations of Secrets”:  

Is the sound of my loud carrying life a knell
far across your small ocean?  Do you share
the secret that the months keep hidden there?
Is my past-filled pregnancy a hungry shell?
I think I will turn metal, like a bell,
so you can clapper my voice out to where
the silent memories will echo care
and speak again.  We’ll sound our double spell
swinging; we’ll swing back then, to forgive
my mother’s curve around the angry past—
and then her mother’s.  They were smothered, bound
and quiet.  But we’ll speak, and you will live,
tolling and striking what we know at last,     
until you ring aloud with newer sounds.

     “The “small ocean” is the womb filled with potential for birth/rebirth as opposed to the womb as “hungry shell.”  The “past-filled pregnancy” may refer to a pregnancy during which the mother fears her past will intrude or to a past pregnancy gone awry; hence the past which fills the new pregnancy makes for a “hungry shell,” an emptiness filled by the child, again with an association of the mother as one who eats the child, or at least as one who desires or needs a child.  The empty shell also echoes or seems to echo the ocean, though the womb as shell seems to lack the life-giving potential of the womb as ocean.  For the mother to become the bell means both for her to become the instrument through which her child may speak--the mirror facilitating the emergence of the child’s true self—and an instrument whereby her own silent memories may first “echo care”—that is a prior, more feeling state—then “speak again.”  In a sense then, to carry and give birth to the child is to carry and give birth to her own true self: pregnancy here becomes a “double spell,” a magic that empowers both the speaking subject and the child she carries.

     The poem’s form, heavily enjambed in lines one, two, five six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven twelve, and thirteen, images the ebb and flow of the ocean tides, and also through the knell/shell/bell/spell rhyme figures the clappering of the bell, which represents simultaneously the infant’s voice promising to “ring aloud with newer sounds” and the mother’s voice once “smothered, bound and quiet” like her mother’s and grandmother’s.  In miming both ocean tides and the tolling bell, the sonnet form comes to stand for the womb.  Through the swinging of lines into each other a past “bound / and quiet” is carried through rhyme “to ring aloud with newer sounds.”  Thus form represents the womb, once past-filled, that gives birth to the future.

     Another poem, this one from Finch’s second book Calendars, offers a more explicit conflation of the child’s birth as the mother’s rebirth.  The poem is entitled “Over Dark Arches”:

Naked and thin and wet as if with rain,
bursting I come out of somewhere, bursting again.
And like a great building that breathes under sunlight
over dark arches, your body is there,
And my milk moves under your tongue— 5
where currents from earth linger under cool stone
rising to me and my mouth makes a circle
over your silence
You reach through your mouth to find me  
Bursting out of your body that held me for years,
as the rain wets the earth with its bodies—
And my thoughts are milk to feed you  
till we turn and are empty,  
till we turn and are full  

     The poem begins in the voice of an infant being born; then in the first italicized line, a mother suckling her child speaks; the words of the infant continue in lines six through eight thus enveloping the mother’s words.  At the same time, a disorienting spatial sense begins to emerge.  The mother is a building under sunlight and over dark arches; the mother’s milk flows under the infant’s tongue.  The mother’s body exists for the baby “where currents linger under the cool stone” yet these currents rise to the infant,  whose mouth makes a circle over the mother’s silence.  The arches may represent both the mother’s legs between which the infant is born and the mother’s body encircling the nursing infant; the “currents” may be breast milk flowing under the “cool stone” of the infant’s tongue, or they may be embryonic fluid “bursting” with the birth from the womb, flowing “under the cool stone” of the arches.  In any case, the infant seems to begin under the mother’s arches and end up over the mother’s silence, breastfeeding. Or does the mouth of the mother’s vagina make a circle over the baby’s silence?  In spatial terms, mother and child  (like false self and true) encircle each other and are in motion, so that it is difficult to say who is above whom.   To further the confusion, it is the voice of the infant in line thirteen which articulates the emptiness that a mother might feel after giving birth; and it is the voice of the mother in line fourteen which articulates the fullness an infant might feel after breastfeeding.  The mother and baby are physically and psychologically intertwined within the body of the poem like a Mobius strip so that it is impossible to tell who is who or where.

     To complicate the picture further, we may not only see the poem as an exchange between two speakers (the one born and the other giving birth) but also read it as an interlacing of two events in a single speaker’s life—her own birth and her giving birth. Indeed, it may be both at once, since the mother puts her words--imagined from her past experience of being born or from her present experience of feeling reborn—into  the child’s mouth.  The un-italicized lines in the poem may represent the voice of the mother’s past self, an infant, whose sense of the world the adult self now has words to articulate; this is the voice of the mother’s true self, now emerging in relation to, and identified with, her baby.  These lines also represent the experience of the newborn, who will find words only in the future.

     Finally we might see the poem as dealing with two births sequentially: the birth of the infant in the first four lines, whose mother speaks in the fifth, and the birth of the mother in lines ten and eleven, whose mother speaks in line twelve.  A salient difference between the words of the mother in line five and the words of the mother’s mother in line twelve is that the mother of line five feeds her infant milk, while the mother of line twelve feeds her infant thoughts.  One mother feeds her child from the body, the other from the mind; one feeds the true, the other the false self.

     For present purposes, I will treat both voices as those of a mother held “for years” in a metaphorical womb, unborn.  This womb, equated in line eleven with “the earth with its bodies” has become a grave.  The true self, with its sense of depth and aliveness,  has been buried underneath the false.  But with the birth of her infant, the mother as a true self is born.

     At one level, the body out of which the speaker comes “naked and thin and wet” is her mother’s body, and the first strophe, a quatrain, dramatizes a birth experience the speaker could hardly remember except to the extent it has been replayed in another birth, one suggested by the image of an infant feeding on the speaker’s milk.  At another level, the persona’s birth as a subject in her own right, now separate from a mother who “held [her] for years,” occurs only in the presence of her own infant, who reaches through the mouth to find her—who reaches and finds the true self, seemingly being born at the instant her infant contacts her.  Past and present one-body relationships merge in the single body of the poem, yet are, in the words of Shakespeare’s Richard II,  “like a deep well / that owes two buckets, filling one another” (4.1.184-85).[36] As the past relationship empties out, persona and child are filled not only with literal milk but with the thoughts that fill the mother’s mind, the metaphorical milk that promises to nourish the child in the future.


      Finch’s prosody, like Herbert’s, represents the maternal body and the mother-infant matrix out of which both mother and child may emerge as true selves.  As in Herbert, in Finch prosodic signification sometimes departs from discursive content to enact a revision of self.  In Finch’s case, form empowers the mother/author to overcome patriarchally scripted female roles with their attendant inadequacies.  From the mythic bad mother Eve to the historical false self Finch’s speaker sometimes represents, Finch revises the female as object and allows the subject mother to be born.   Ultimately her emergence means the birth of promise for her child, for the future.

      But what is that future to be?  In “Gulf War and Child: A Curse” Finch offers one image of it.  As the speaker’s new infant sleeps with “curled” fingers and legs “gathered still / in their bent blossom victory”—an image of full potential and the triumph of new life--the mother-speaker of the poem distinguishes herself from “the woman who gave birth” in that if she were still that mother she “could not speak of “war” (1, 2-3, 5, 4).  As the poem continues we discover that the two-day long gulf war has coincided with her labor and the delivery of her child, “soft-footed, with . . . empty hand / and calling heart, a border of new clues” (6-7).  The mother who could not speak of war is one who fights at the threshold of birth for a very different sort of “border” than geographical boundaries delineate. The infant’s empty hands symbolize lack of material greed and contrast one common motive for war; instead infantile desire resides in the “calling heart,” and the need is not for conquest but for sustenance, nurture, and love.  In the final stanza the speaker offers her “curse” on war:
May the hard birth our two heartbeats unfurled
for two nights that lasted as long as this war
make all sands rage, until the mouth of war
drops its cup, this bleeding gift we poured. (8-11)
The mother’s blood and the waters of birth mix almost sacramentally in a libation poured out to stop the “mouth of war”—the devourer that drinks human blood to the end of destruction.  The two heartbeats of mother and child here unfurl their “hard birth[s]”like flags at “a border of new clues.”  The true self, “soft-footed,” may root itself there and under the right conditions begin at last to blossom.

     To borrow again from Yeats, it is as if the “falcon” now “turning and turning in the widening gyre” is human consciousness; the “falconer” is the feminized body-mind unity out of which we come.  When “the falcon [hears] the falconer,” the revolution begins—one not of blood in the streets but of creative living in the postmodern garden (“The Second Coming,” 1-2).


1 Finch, email to the author,  4 February, 2001.

2 According to Winnicott a “true self” begins as the source of an infant’s “spontaneous gesture,” expressing a sense of omnipotence.  A good-enough mother understands and follows the infant’s gesture (feeding a child whose sucking suggests that the baby is imagining being fed, for example) while a mother who is not good-enough does not understand the infant’s gesture and thus substitutes her own gesture, with which the infant must comply.  Over time, if the baby’s spontaneous gesture meets with appropriate reaction from the mother consistently enough, an actualized true self will emerge-- a core, bodily based self with the capacity to live creatively, to feel real, and to serve as a source of agency.  A false self, on the other hand, emerges in compliance to the mother, or later in life, to another authority figure.  All people have false selves, but while in health a false self is the outward layer of self and  represents the manners and mores internalized during socialization, in illness the false self is overly compliant and may, in extreme cases, be mistaken for the true self, thus alienating the person from her or his own inwardness.  The pathological false self is based in the mind rather than the body; its purpose is to protect and hide the true self from exploitation. A person with a dominant false self feels fragmentary and unreal, unable to initiate action, and alienated from bodily and emotional being at the core of the self.  See D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational  Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (New York: International Universities Press, 1965), 140-52.

3 W. H. Auden,  Selected Poems.  New Edition, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage, 1979), 82.

4 Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, ed. Holly Stevens (New York: Vintage, 1972), 174-75.

5 On the way individual predisposition and talent in relation to God gradually became as important as parental desires in determining adulthood social identity for some middle and upper class young men in 16th-century France, see Natalie Zemon Davis, “Boundaries and the Sense of Self in Sixteenth Century France,” in Reconstructing Individualism: Autonomy, Individuality and the Sense of Self in Western Thought, ed. Thomas C. Heller, Morton Sosna, and Davide E. Wellberry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1986): 59.

6 On the paradox of selfhood in reformation terms, see Gordon Braden, “Unspeakable Love: Petrarch to Herbert,” in Soliciting Interpretation: Literary Theory and Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Elizabeth D.

7 Harvey and Katherine Eisaman Maus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 265-69, esp. 267. 

8 Stanley Fish, Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972).

9  One might look for example to Foucault’s ideas about the self or to Lacan’s.  On Foucault’s ideas, see James Hans, Site of our Lives: The Self and The Subject From Emerson to Foucault (New York: State University of New York Press, 1995), e.g. 301 and 321-23.  On the divided subject in Lacan, see Jacques Lacan, Ecrits:A Selection, trans.Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), 1-7; see also Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, Jaques Lacan and the Philosophy of  Psychoanalysis (Urbana: University of Illinois Press,1986), esp. 1-67.  

10 For an accessible account of the theoretical underpinnings of current movements in “narrative therapy,” see Mark Freeman, Rewriting the Self: History, Memory,  Narrative (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).  For practical illustrations of the principles at work, see Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities (New York: Norton, 1996).

11 Finch, email to the author, 4 February, 2001.

12 All quotations of Herbert are to  The Works of George Herbert,  F. E. Hutchinson, ed., corrected ed. (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 1945).  In regard to my reading, rather than reiterate all the details of my prior work on Herbert, I have summed up salient points as briefly as possible, wanting in this essay to focus primarily on Finch. For my more fully developed discussion of self-image in  “The Altar,” see Guernsey, The Pulse of Praise: Form As a Second Self in the Poetry of George Herbert, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999), 39-46.

13 All poetry by Finch comes from Eve (Brownsville Oregon: Storyline Press, 1997) except one poem from Calendars (Dorset, VT: Tupelo Press, 2003) which I will discuss at the end of this essay.

14 By “internalized voice of patriarchy,” I mean something like  the “civilizational self-controls” which Norbert Elias claims people in the West began to internalize starting in the Renaissance and which I equate with the Freudian superego.  See Elias’ The History of Manners, vol 1 of The Civilizing Process,  trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Urizen Books, 1978), 252-63.  See also Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, in vol 21 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Standard Edition), trans. and ed. James Strachey, et al (London: Hogarth Press, 1927-31), 64-73.

15 The term self-object (or selfobject) pervades Kohut’s writing.  See for instance, Kohut, Self Psychology and the Humanities: Reflections on a New Psychoanalytic Approach, ed. Charles B. Storzier (New York: Norton, 1985), eg. 8-9, 19-20, 74, 78-79, 86, 131, 147-48, 149, 151, 158, 188-89, 191, 194, 224-43, etc. 

16 Winnicott, Maturational Processes, 145.

17 Finch, The Ghost of Meter: Culture and Prosody in American Free Verse, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 31-56.

18 T. S. Eliot, T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 5.

19 Although according to Timothy Steele, trochaic substitutions in the first foot of iambic pentameter lines need hardly be remarked on as substitutions, being quite normative in the tradition of English prosody, I would argue that Finch’s use of trochees does  function in terms of signification.See  Steele, All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999), 61.

20 Finch, Ghost of Meter e.g. 13, 20-22, 29-32, and 39. 

21 Alexander Pope, “An Essay on Criticism” in Eighteenth-Century English Literature, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson, Paul Fussell, Jr. and Marshall Waingrow (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969), 559.

22 William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1956),  214.

23 Nancy Mairs,  “On Being Raised by a Daughter,” in  Women’s Voices: Visions and Perspectives, ed. Pat C. Hoy II, Esther H. Schor, and Robert DiYanni (New York: McGraw Hill, 1990), 201-211, esp. 203. 

24 For clarification of Winnicott’s term, good-enough mother, see Winnicott, Psycho-Analytic  Explorations, ed.  Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, Madeleine Davis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989),  44 and his Home Is Where We Start From:Essays by a Psychoanalyst, ed Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, Madeleine Davis (New York: Norton, 1986), 144-45.

25 Michael Schoenfeldt, Prayer and Power: George Herbert and Renaissance Courtship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 248. For my full reading of “Paradise,” see Pulse of Praise, 64-66.

26 Finch, Eve, 59.

27 Finch’s treatment of Eve seems in some ways a corrective to Milton’s Eve and the influence of Milton on generations of women readers as discussed by Sandra M. Gilbert in  “Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections of Milton’s Bogey” PMLA 93 (1978), 368-82.

28 Finch, Eve, 57.

29 Milton’s Lucifer has, of course, been received in various ways.  I am thinking here of the version of Milton’s Satan that Romantics like Blake perceived—the heroic, Promethean figure, misunderstood by the Urizen-like Father of Milton’s epic. On the parallel between Eve and the serpent in Milton, and on the way in which female aspirations for greatness relate to the “Romantic-Satanic” impulse  “to join the visionary world of those who fly by night,” hence linking fall and flight, see Gilbert, “Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers,” 376.

30 I give one syllable to coil in accordance with Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, but it would be easy to read the word as a two-syllable one given the dipthong.

31 William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven a in English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967), 70.

32 See Pulse of Praise, 79-82; cf. Winnicott, Babies and Their Mothers, ed. Clare Winnicott, Ray Shepherd, Madeleine Davis (Reading Mass: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1986; paperback 1988), 98-99.

33 The notion of the “bad mother” is fairly common in psychoanalytic literature.  For an example of how the term may be applied to literature, specifically to  the witch figure of fairy tales, see Bruno Bettleheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), eg. 161-62.

34 Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering:Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), eg. 39 and 57.

35 Lacan sees the “moi” or the self of narcissism as constituted in a dialectic between the infant’s desire for recognition and the Mother’s own Desire, itself “derived from lack.”  See Ragland-Sullivan, Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis, 40-41.

36 The idea that maternal regression is necessary in order for the mother to successfully identify with her infant is intrinsic to Winnicott’s ideas.  I am suggesting in addition, that this regression, much like a regression in a psychoanalytic context, may work to the end of the mother’s growth and health.  On the necessity of maternal regression for the purpose of primary identification with the infant, see Chodorow, Reproduction of Mothering, 88-89.

37 Shakespeare, William, Richard II in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).


Julia Guernsey-Shaw is an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, with specializations in 17th-century poetry, Milton, and the Bible as literature. She received her M.F.A. in poetry writing from the University of Arkansas in 1989 and her Ph.D. in English from the University of Arkansas in 1996. She is the author of The Pulse of Praise: Form as a Second Self in the Poetry of George Herbert (University of Delaware Press, 2000).


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