"Hot damn!" I thought, "it's Daisy Fried!" I was paging through the May issue of Poetry, and there, on page 138, was Fried's poem "The Girl Grew and Grew, Her Mother Couldn't Stop It." I've never actually met Daisy Fried, but I've been reading her forever, and we both spend too much time hanging out on Facebook. One reason I feel closer to her than I do to many of the poets I read is that we both have small daughters, and post about them with some frequency (actually, the fact that we're both on Facebook a lot, rather than dizzily pouring ourselves off some barstool somewhere, is also probably a parent thing). Anyway, I was happy to see a new poem by her, and doubly happy to see that it was on a topic close to my own experience. The poem's first line nails something very true about being a parent:"The girl grew and grew," writes Fried, "her mother couldn't stop it; it terrorized." The phrasing seems like something out of a horror story—where some kind of Frankenstein's monster grows too strong for its master and runs amok. But the terror here is subtler than that: its primarily the terror of losing one's small child, the inevitable result of successful parenting: they grow up, these children, they grow away from you, and you, acutely aware of their vulnerability, let them go.
What follows is, for a time, a nicely-drawn and keenly observed catalog of children's experience, a world of play and crafts and school projects, behind which we sense the child's ravenous acquisition of skills and symbolic codes—geometry, biology, systems of writing, fine motor skills, and the like:
What would the finger-dance do? Kindergarten art a buffet of markers
gluings of stuffs to seasonally-keyed paper, Elmer's pools drying clear.
A stapling and testing of cylinders versus spheres versus cubes
for kinetic and entropic possibilities, stuffing balled newspaper
into paper dragons, two sweet silver elephants with heads too small
and trunks too long, situated off-center, snuffling flowers. And silver rain.
And 16 silver hearts stacked vertically and strips of masking tape, colored
in reverse rainbow. Unnamable tendrils diffusing to scribbles. A bird.
Another bird, more rain, peace signs, a horse with sideways-flowing mane,
I enjoyed this as I read it, but wondered where it might go, how (if at all) the poem would turn. And then there was this:
and knowledge: that the sky's full of blackstruck Ms and Ws, drifting
clouds; that her kitty cats watch sunsets; sky doesn't reach
down to meet the earth;
Okay, I thought: we're getting a bit of a generalization, after all those particulars ("knowledge"), and we're getting a sense of the child's difference from the adult, the way the sky isn't represented according to the canons of adult realism. But then something really interesting happened: the final half of the final line comes along, with an end-word that turns the poem so sharply in a new direction that I'm surprised the page doesn't emit an audible shriek of squealing tires:
mother shrinks to the size of a penis.
What to do with this? Well, okay, there's the literal to consider: we're talking about a kid drawing something, and in that drawing the mother could indeed be the size of a penis. And we are invited to think about the diminishing importance mothers play in a child's life as that child grows up—the same diminishment that was so terrorizing at the beginning of the poem. But one could have said "doll" or "crayon" or, for that matter, "vagina." Why say penis? It's such an incongruously masculine word to apply to the diminishing role of the mother.
One thing that's in play is simply surprise and novelty: it's an incongruous image, by being so masculine in a poem about motherhood, but there's a rightness in it too, in scale and in having to do with reproduction and therefore parenthood. And then there's a real sense of disempowerment that you wouldn't really get, at least not in the same way, with another image: the penis is so connected to connotations of power that whole schools of psychology, from Freud to Lacan, use the term "phallus" to mean something like "empowerment" and "castration" to mean "disempowerment." We get a sense of the mother's disempowerment as the child, through all of the innocent and sweet seeming play and craft-making detailed in the poem, grows beyond the mother's control—and putting the word "shrinks" near the word "penis" gives us a sense of the detumescent loss of power or potency.
There's more than this, too, I think: there's also the simple fact that the penis, here, becomes not just another iteration of the traditional symbol of power and potency: it becomes an image of smallness and disempowerment. There's something feminist in this, a reversal of the old Freudian model of masculinity as power and femininity as disempowerment. In a way, then, the poem isn't just a mother's lament for her loss of authority in the life of her growing child. It's that same mother's intervention in the realm of symbolism, aiming to undo some of the patriarchal imagery that still contributes to the disempowerment of women. It's a mother's attempt—as her daughter gains independence—to make the world that daughter will enter into a place less hostile to her. The mother works hard to help the daughter grow into strength and knowledge and independence—and, in the end, she also works to make the world itself a place better fit to receive that daughter.