Monday, August 29, 2011

Two books by Molly Peacock

When I was in Fredericton back in May, my friend Tanis MacDonald and I spent much of a happy afternoon wandering the amazing cornucopia of books that is The Owl's Nest Bookstore. Even though I kept saying I couldn't buy any more books because they wouldn't fit in my carry-on suitcase, I somehow left the store with a significant stack. After all, there is no more virtuous retail therapy around than book-buying, is there?

Top of my stack were two books by poet Molly Peacock. The one I began first, Paradise, Piece by Piece, was marked with that black felt-marker X that denotes a remaindered book, reminding me of the sadness of the disappearing backlist. So many books worth reading that fall between the cracks. So pleased I stumbled across this one and that its title somehow recalled a long-ago-read review. And Tanis seconded that recollection -- the woman was really no help at all in keeping my purchases to a reasonable quota!

Since I'm really supposed to be writing next week's ENGL 115 and 125 assignments and posting them to my newly-created Moodle shell, I won't say much about this book other than to recommend you grab a copy if you come across it. Although Peacock's memoir describes her dysfunctional childhood and family, she does so with such piercing, sometimes shocking, honesty and with such generosity and love and, especially, with all of a poet's descriptive powers and sensory, no make that sensual, observations that you will feel uplifted rather than troubled. Oh, and humour?! The how-not-to-fill-a-diaphragm scene is particularly memorable! More seriously, the memoir is important for the work that it does in outlining Peacock's very deliberate choice, made consciously in childhood by a precociously wise girl, to remain childless.

I copied out one passage which gobsmacked me with the recognition it evoked when Peacock spoke of her mother, Pauline, in her final, failing months. My mother did a much better job of caring for us than did Peacock's, and my family functioned reasonably well given our circumstances, but the little girl my mother's operating as in her (increasingly less mild) Mild Cognitive Impairment wanted to come out from the earliest days of her motherhood, if not before. Peacock writes that experience so clearly:

Who was the little one who'd crouched inside Pauline until the months before her death and arose, fully her little girl self, with confidence and demands? I didn't know. But I saw in her dying her final exercise of that child. In love of her, I was that child's servant. The clarity of my mother's childishness made me know for sure I had taken care of this little girl all my life. I was born as her grandmother. I had [my grandmother's] name, Molly. . . 

The other Peacock I picked up is How to Read a Poem . . . and Start a Poetry Circle, and I grabbed it because I'm always looking for ways to walk my students toward some confidence in the poetry-reading process. It's not the page-turner that Paradise was, of course, thanks to its different goals, genre, but it's a lovely book to pick up and read a chapter. Each of those chapters is a case study taking the reader through an idiosyncratic look at one of Peacock's favourite poems. Not only might you be introduced to a new poem, but you'll also be offered Peacock's 3-part system for approaching one on your own: she suggests considering the system of the line, the system of the sentence, and the system of the image. I'm going to try this with my students this term as it offers a reassuring structure.

And I might even try it out myself on some of Peacock's own poetry . . . because it seems that having read her in prose and learned to love her voice, it's time to check out her regular digs, in the poetry section. . .


  1. The memoir sounds good. I can relate to the "little girl as mother" situation very well.

  2. The Owl's Nest was really something, as was beautiful Fredericton. And Peacock's biography endures. It's been maybe 6 years since I read it and it remains vivid. I loved her description of falling (back) in love in mid-life.

  3. Susan: It's a fraught position that confusion between mother and little girl, perhaps for both parties.
    Tanis: We'll have to go back there and I suspect it's one of those place you can get to magically if only you find the right hinge artifact. . . like the wardrobe/forest . . . . and yes, Peacock's description of finding her high-school love in mid-life was captivating.