Thursday, 7 May 2009

Elo Viiding: "Mothers' Day"

Here is the poem Mothers' Day by Elo Viiding, which takes an ironic look at the way mothers are treated politically and socially by public figures full of assumptions and expectations, and is also about the physical side of bringing up children. It was first published in this translated version in an occasional English issue of the Swedish literary magazine 00-tal.

Viiding is just old enough to have have consciously experienced both Soviet and post-Soviet life. But even in post-Soviet Estonia, things are not perfect. Viiding is very much a poet of social comment and observation, whatever the political system of the country. Maybe this poem can be regarded as a kind of anti-Whitmanic rant:

Mothers' Day

On Mothers' Day every child should sing
and give its mother flowers and prime ministers think
that every mother wants to be honoured
and all prime ministers dream
that all women who aren't mothers
will feel simply feel rotten
more rotten than ever before
so the government gives mothers
special advantages
and passes a law on parental salaries

all teachers believe that every mother can be bothered
on Sunday morning at ten o'clock
to come to the Mothers' Day Concert
and every mother regards herself as part of
the social group "mothers"
and every mother is childishly insulted if no one sings for her
or people get annoyed at brutal selfishness of her children
more than about the beautiful two-facedness of society
so that you should be nervous on stage in front of all those mothers
in front of page-boy styled mothers and mothers in hats
and mothers with metallic finish cars
and mothers with nylon handbags and mothers with carrier bags
and mothers with Saint Laurent shadowed eyes
enterprising hawk-eyed single mothers and ostrich housewives
and the few clever fathers who stand at the back of the hall
because they're not allowed to sit they are men and today the mothers are sitting

because it's so nice so nice to sing to complete strangers
do you know your mother's heart
on Sunday morning ten o'clock in the stuffy hall to the gurgle of gastric juices
because if we don't sing to the mothers
they will all die off
not from a lack of sleep or hunger for sex
but because we ruined Mothers' Day for them
and we will have a bad conscience
so bad that we can never return to society

the prime minister thinks
that every mother has a heart of gold
on a chain around her neck
that every mother has read child psychology
that every mother is well acquainted with gender release and with the child's father
that every mother lives in a centrally-heated flat with hot and cold running water
that every mother is a Hansa Bank customer and dreams of obtaining a loan
that every mother wears tracksuit bottoms at home and is slimming
that every mother is happy and every mother ready for motherhood
that postnatal depression is a mere trifle compared with the greater joy
which will come in twenty years' time when life has become six times more expensive

that every mother is healthy and strong and can manage life without moonshine
that every mother has a stable nervous system and avoids injections
that every mother knows at least in the sixth month that she is pregnant
that every mother is older than eighteen years of age
that every mother loves little children
that every mother is a good boss to her children
that every mother sticks her children on the front page of Women's Own
at the first opportunity
that every mother takes her children to some children's activity
don't let them fucking-well play with those young criminals in that sand-pit
that every mother gives her children vegetables and boiled beef for lunch
that every mother has got on damned well in life

and has not been warped by police thrillers on TV
that every mother has a retired grandfather and a grandmother who dandles the children on her knee
so that she doesn't ever have to put it in the crèche as people usually do

that every mother is in fact a human being and every mother is a woman

and that every mother dreams of nothing else but becoming a mother
that every mother takes part in the family forum on the net
that every mother has something to give her child
that every woman regards her offspring as her primary duty
that every woman lives for others and never for herself
that every woman wants to serve her country and her people
that every woman wants to get up early in the morning
that every woman can be bothered to wake up six times a night
that every woman has a bad conscience if she can't produce enough milk
so necessary for the immune system take a look at the scientific research
which divides children up into breast-fed ones and sick ones
that every woman conceives naturally and that every woman is fertile
that every woman wants to give birth in a maternity home
that every woman manages to combine a career with motherhood
that every childless woman regards her life as empty and incomplete
that every woman rushes headlong to buy a pregnancy test
when the right time comes when the biological clock rings relentlessly
she grabs the first best reasonably suitable father
that every woman only wants to talk about her pregnancy
that every woman afterwards wants to teach the non-pregnant
that birth is a special experience not especially unbearable pain
that the three months after birth need to be got used to
that pregnancy isn't an illness, just simply a natural state of affairs
that hormonal changes don't affect our psyche that much
that hormonal changes are sometimes even enjoyable

that every woman likes her primary biological function
that every woman's behaviour is governed by her primary biological function
that every woman's existence is governed by her primary biological function

that every woman thinks of this as a trifling problem
if anyone makes a big thing about motherhood
which is so natural
then every problem is, believe you me,
easy to solve by the government and the mothers themselves

that every supermarket wants
that children honour their mothers
make your mother happy and give her something cheap
something which costs less than 500 crowns
because your mother deserves it
because of you dear child don't buy wrinkle cream
but load some yoghurt, cornflakes or muesli
into your shopping basket
go and ask her for those 300 crowns gift money
and buy her a nice rejuvenation emulsion
every mother enjoys the bargain prices around Mothers' Day
and doesn't pay the January rent because of Christmas presents

and every child wants to say thank you
for its existence
a childishly guilty thank-you
and wants say
to the prime minister
thank you that I'm alive

every mother wants to be sublime and noble
and feel that a child's life depends on her
every mother wants to be selfless and not to belly-ache
every mother manages to cope
whenever she wants don't forget whenever she wants
and every mother believes that those who aren't mothers
should be obliged to feel bad about it
because they have nobody simply nobody who in their old age
will treat them as well as they do now
in a word to pay them back for their trouble
you should always live with recompense in mind
you should always expect recompense

thanks to mothers

as soon as every woman reads women's literature and dreamy prose
as a time of peace arrives dear people
as no one has claims any more
as we are many and we have plenty of serotonin and endorphine
as we all get under one another's feet and jump for joy thanking god
as no one gets irritated any longer or drive people to despair
then our dear mothers will have fulfilled their mission

and even women writers will get their just rewards
when they have children and when when they are nicely buried
when their creative endeavours are good beautiful and safe
and when they agree nicely with their readers
or when they suddenly become children's writers
when they are finally steered onto the right way
when they are translated into several languages
and invited to attend seminars
in whose breaks you can eat a sausage roll
and drink coffee from a plastic cup

even the prime-minister knows
that no woman any longer reads poetry
especially that which is inhuman and subversive to society
and for which no prizes or medals are given
and especially if it is written by quasi-women
and especially when they do it well
yet no one of us can admit it, let's be honest
better write or do something useful

what, let them think for themselves, come on, time to guess yourself

On Mothers' Day every child should sing
and give their mothers flowers and prime-ministers know
that mothers are the only ones who listen to their speeches
because they are mothers

Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens


David McDuff said...

>>Maybe this poem can be regarded as a kind of anti-Whitmanic rant<<

How about "Whitmanesque"? :-)

Eric Dickens said...

I would normally say "Whitmanesque". But I wanted to pun on "manic". Because Whitman didn't half go on about everything he saw, and all the tongue-in-cheek false expectations about women that Viiding mocks form a similar outpouring, but sarcastic rather than ecstatic.

Elo Viiding has a truly zany streak in her, something I have found nowhere else in Estonian poetry. One of her poems, entitled "1997", is a list of silly names, supposedly from a (mixed) school class at the New Ethics School, where Viiding mocks the idiotic names that some parents give their offspring. The surnames are soberish Estonian or Russian, the forenames daft.

I once told Elo Viiding on the tram that I didn't always understand her poems. Her reply was: "Nor do I".

Eric Dickens said...

P.S. I hadn't seen Pia Tafdrup's comment "I have written poems I actually did not understand..." when I wrote the above about Elo Viiding. But it is interesting that Tafdrup too brings up this aspect of poetry creation.