In the Park #
The mother negatively depicted In the Park is a counter point to the dominant sacramental mother who is fulfilled and enriched by the procreation of children. The dominant motif of motherhood in artist history (Madonna and Child) usually emphasizes the positive aspects.
In the Park’s choice of a Petrarchan sonnet form with a regular rhyme pattern ironically contrasts with the bleak flat monotone of a rather depressing frumpy view of motherhood. Harwood depicts the restrictions of women trapped in domesticity who develop a nagging feeling of life being wasted and that their children drain them of their youth. Before the liberated sixties, mothers were expected to stay at home until the children had grown up.
The pejorative choice of words including the bland clichés trivialize and depreciate the role of the mother making her appear to be the loser in life while the “neat” head of the man appears positive and affirming.
However, it is always dangerous to take a poet’s words literally. The seldom say just what they mean. It is easy to find a touch of mischievous irony in what they say. She could be sending us society’s patriarchial attitude.
In The Park
She sits in the park. Her clothes are out of date.
Two children whine and bicker, tug her skirt.
A third draws aimless patterns in the dirt
Someone she loved once passed by – too late
to feign indifference to that casual nod.
“How nice” et cetera. “Time holds great surprises.”
From his neat head unquestionably rises
a small balloon…” but for the grace of God…”
They stand a while in flickering light, rehearsing
the children’s names and birthdays. “It’s so sweet
to hear their chatter, watch them grow and thrive, ”
she says to his departing smile. Then, nursing
the youngest child, sits staring at her feet.
To the wind she says, “They have eaten me alive.”
Harwood liked to insist that her life had been uneventful. To A. D. Hope she wrote, ‘I have lived a quiet domestic life with four children’. But the reality is she, in effect, had to juggle three careers: that of mother, that of a secretary in a doctor’s surgery, and the secret one of poetry (she composed largely in her head, and her teenage daughter once declared that she had scarcely seen her mother write a line of verse). She seems to have oscillated between frustration that she did not have more time for poetry and feeling grateful for that persona of housewife, which protected her from the literary world and its cast of hyper-inflated egos.
“When people tell me I’m a genius I reach for the All-Bran. Sauce is fine but you need bulk. That kind of talk makes me nervous and eager to get behind a mask”.
Mask, or reality check, the role of Tasmanian housewife had a ambivalent grounding effect, but it could also offer perspective on the creative process:
Children are better than the best poems, but poems are good too. Of course I shall always be able to write something, but technical skill is nothing without the passion of creation – ‘the internal ceremony of creation’. I’m glad I have the children: they’ll stop people saying, when the book comes out, ‘O she’d never write all that mad stuff if she had a family to look after’.
There can be no doubt, Gwen found the burden of raising children in a society of isolated nuclear families; the missed opportunities, making it hard to live a happy, fulfilling life, and to focus on her passion for music and writing. To the former lover she describes the joy of watching the children " growing and thriving" whilst to the wind she claims “that they have eaten her alive”. Harwood is aware that unless Men change their mindset by a more equal sharing of housework, wives and mothers are drained of their life force.
The flip side of the coin, the truth could easily be inverted where he is childless, lonely, sterile and unfulfilled, while she is cherished, valued and fulfilled by her family. The perspective you choose to view it from determines the final consensus. The image of “flickering light” reinforces the ebbing hope she has for the future.
According to Cassandra Atherton’s take: Harwood referred to the poem as ‘In the Dreaded Park’ and said it should be ‘extirpated’. Yet for a long time this was her most popular poem and was constantly requested at readings. Perhaps Harwood dreaded the poem because she had to justify it numerous times in interviews, often having to disentangle herself from the infamous narrator: “People read [‘In the Park’] directly as by Gwen Harwood of 18 Pine Street, saying that my children have eaten me alive. ‘What rubbish,’ I tell them. ‘It says, “She” sits in the park, “her” clothes are out of date. Mine are not. So why should you take this to be me?’
And, I am horrified at the tendency of people to identify the ‘I’ with the author … I keep saying that the ‘I’ of the poems is not the ‘I’ making jams jellies pickles and chutneys”.
What is particularly interesting about such scenarios is that the scrutiny ‘In the Park’ attracted could have been used by Harwood to discuss more openly issues like postnatal depression and the confines of domesticity for women. I am not suggesting definitively that Harwood suffered from postnatal depression herself, but it is obvious that like any mother she at times found her four children overwhelming. This is evident in many of her letters to friends: I [am] oppressed by the endless routine tasks one has caring for very young children. And, … we have so few friends we can’t afford to lose them by parking the atom-age brats.
By publishing ‘In the Park’ as Walter Lehmann, Harwood perhaps invited suggestion that the sentiments within the poem were something that needed to be hidden; the fact that she herself, a known female poet, couldn’t publish a poem that acknowledged such pejorative thoughts is as good an indicator as any.
Two more poems reinforce the trapped motif -
Burning Sappho, written under one of her pseudonyms, Miriam Stone:
The clothes are washed, the house is clean.
I find my pen and start to write.
Something like hatred forks between
my child and me. She kicks her good
new well-selected toys with spite
around the room, and whines for food.
Inside my smile a monster grins
and sticks her image through with pins.
Suburban Sonnet #
She practises a fugue, though it can matter
to no one now if she plays well or not.
Beside her on the floor two children chatter,
then scream and fight. She hushes them. A pot
boils over. As she rushes to the stove
too late, a wave of nausea overpowers
subject and counter-subject. Zest and love
drain out with soapy water as she scours
the crusted milk. Her veins ache. Once she played
for Rubinstein, who yawned. The children caper
round a sprung mousetrap where a mouse lies dead.
When the soft corpse won’t move they seem afraid.
She comforts them; and wraps it in a paper
featuring: Tasty dishes from stale bread.
Other works such a Euripides’ Revenger’s Tragedy, Medea, first performed in 431 BCE, indicates the historical precedents. Medea, falls in love with Jason of the Argonauts, betrays her father, the King Aeetes of Colchis and kills her own brother, to help Jason claim the Golden Fleece, but is then abandoned in Corinth by Jason when King Crean has his daughter Glauce, seduce and marry Jason. Medea, in vengeful spite manages to kill both Glauce and King Crean before resorting to filicide, killing their two sons, in retribution, before her flight to Athens.
Natural Law, the idea of a moral code integral to and inseparable from whatever it is that makes us human—is tested in the events of Medea when characters make decisions contrary to their nature, when Jason, a husband, abandons his wife or when Medea, a mother, murders her children. Medea’s decision to kill her children, even as a form of retribution, was as shocking to the ancient Athenians as it is to us today. It was then, as it is now, considered a violation of Natural Law.