Today we read from the gospel according to Gwen Harwood:
Grey mountains, sea and sky. Even the misty
seawind is grey. I walk on lichened rock
in a kind of late assessment, call it peace.
Then the anemones, scarlet, gouts of blood.
There is a word I need, and earth was speaking.
I cannot hear. These seaflowers are too bright.
Kneeling on rock, I touch them through cold water.
My fingers meet some hungering gentleness.
A newborn child’s lips moved so at my breast.
I woke, once, with my palm across your mouth.
The word is: ever. Why add salt to salt?
Blood drop by drop among the rocks they shine.
Anemos, wind. The spirit, where it will.
Not flowers, no, animals that must eat or die.
Not bad, eh?
It’s called ‘The Sea Anemones’.
Don’t you love ‘gouts of blood’? The image – indeed that whole, caesura-jagged fourth line – crashes upon us: so sudden, so sharp compared with the soft advance of the three lines that precede it. And it reminds us of something, does it not? Of course: of Macbeth on his way to kill Duncan, Macbeth so disordered in his mind that he imagines a dagger hovering in front of him: ‘I see thee yet,’ he says of his phantom dirk,
in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou mashall’st me the way that I was going,
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’th’ other senses,
Or else worth all the rest. I see thee still,
And on thy blade and dugeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before (II.i.40-47).
But Harwood’s eyes are not made ‘the fools o’th’ other senses’ when she sees the anemones. She knows exactly what she’s looking at: the beginnings of a metaphor for a mother’s conflicted feelings about motherhood.
These ‘seaflowers’, with their ‘hungering gentleness’ present a reminder of the nurturing component of motherhood through breastfeeding, but the very next line presents us with a mysterious, sinister image: ‘I woke, once, with my palm across your mouth.’ Across whose? A lover’s? Or a child’s? Is this an unconscious silencing, or an unconscious near infanticide?
The contrast between the notion of breastfeeding – surely a beautiful and positive notion – and the speaker’s grief (‘Why add salt to salt?’ – why weep into the ocean?), between the image of a ‘seaflower’ and a creature that must ‘eat or die’ presents motherhood in a paradoxical light. It is on the one hand a mystery and a joy, on the other a slow sacrifice as the mother herself is devoured. This is a thought, incidentally, that Harwood makes more explicitly in ‘In The Park’. The last phrase of this poem is the a mother’s despairing summation of her motherhood: of her children she says “‘They have eaten me alive.’”
The clash of impulses and impressions about motherhood, is gently emphasised by linguistic contrasts: ‘Anemos’, and then ‘the spirit’.
In the Greek, the Ἄνεμοι (Anemoi) were the gods of winds – but ‘spirit’ derives from the Latin: spiritus: (‘breath’, or ‘air’). Harwood’s associations here (anemone, anemos, spirit, wind, breath) are also a hint about the speaker’s meandering thoughts.
The speaker’s thoughts may be meandering, but Harwood certainly isn’t; in this as in her other sonnets on motherhood (‘In The Park’, ‘Suburban Sonnet’) she writes not love poetry but poetry of regret and mourning. Bloody good poetry too.