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Birth Passages: Maternity and Nostalgia, Antiquity to Shakespeare. (Reviews).

Theresa M. Krier, Birth Passages: Maternity and Nostalgia, Antiquity to Shakespeare

Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001. xvii + 266 pp. Bibl. Index. CL $42.50. ISBN: 0-8014-3893-4.

Psychoanalytic/feminist literary criticism, writes Theresa Krier, has too repetitively seen the male-authored canon as driven only by desire for and dread of the maternal body. In her Birth Passages: Maternity and Nostalgia, Antiquity to Shakespeare, she delineates an alternative tradition in some literature that deals with sexuality and generation, a tradition that, she argues, resonates with the theories of child development offered by D. W. Winnicott, Melanie Klein, and Luce Irigaray. She discusses in detail the Song of Songs, Lucretius' De rerum natura, Chaucer's Parlement of Foules, Spenser's Amoretti and Faerie Queene, book 4, and Shakespeare's Love's Labor's Lost and Winter's Tale. While she agrees that ambivalent nostalgia for an archaic mother is part of the culture in which these works were written, she argues that they criticize the constrictions of such nostalgia and open up other perspectives. Her literary tradition is about gratitude, of all things -- gratitude to literary predecessors and to po ssibilities of creation and procreation. Yet it is not sentimental gratitude.

Historicizing Winnicott and Klein, and defending them against oversimplified readings, Krier looks to them and Irigaray for pictures of mother-child relations that imagine "spaces between" and aggression instead of merger or loss. She looks for analogous pictures of the speaker's relation to the maternal -- usually not to literal mothers -- in the poems and plays she discusses. A modern example, frequently quoted, occurs in Vicki Hearne's poem about the Song of Songs, "From my mountain of words I can see / You on your mountain."

The Song of Songs is also where Krier begins. She notes how often the female speaker refers to her mother in her erotic welcome to her lover, wanting to lead him into her mother's house, "into the chamber of her that conceived me," and imagining him as also nursed by her mother in childhood. She has the "benign detachment required to identify with the mother" (60) as desiring subject. The comparisons of parts of the lovers' bodies to various foods and animals are seen not as objectification but as praise of the goodness of creation, mixed with references to nurture that are allied with "the lovers' maternal cherishing and provisioning" (65) and not just with childbearing.

In discussing the Amoretti, she argues that the tendency of blazons to commodify women, as in sonnet 15, "Ye tradefull merchants," is criticized within the sequence. She contrasts sonnet 15 with sonnet 64, "Coming to kiss her lips," the "garden sonnet," in which, she argues, "It is as a fellow creature that the lover now understands the beloved . . . [in] a potential space of reciprocal bounty and conversation between the lovers" (90-91). In the later Amoretti, the speaker becomes more infantilized, but the Epithalamion, by contrast, shows the "man and woman . . . embarked on real intimacies the articulation of which owes a great deal to the Song of Songs, with room enough and nourishment enough for the active desires of both" (104).

Krier treats Love's Labour's Lost in relation to Klein's concepts of envy and gratitude: the lords envy the ladies, and deflect that envy onto the locals of lesser rank; by contrast, characters such as Holofernes and Armado show gratitude, if somewhat pedantically. She also analyzes the play as rewriting elements of the Parlement of Foules (to which another chapter is devoted).

Discussing Faerie Queene, book 4, Krier sees the endless bloody fight between Cambello and the brothers Priamond, Diamond, and Triamond in relation to their desire for absorption into a chthonic mother identified with the underworld. They are trapped in a cultural tradition; Spenser's female characters Cambina and Canacee provide alternatives, and suggest a tribute to women's oral culture. Krier also emphasizes the importance of Spenser's praise of the cosmic, generative Venus (borrowed from Lucretius, the subject of another chapter) in bringing about the resolution of the poem.

The book concludes with a chapter on the Winter's Tale. Krier suggests that Leontes' jealousy emerges because he feels threatened by Hermione's expressions of desire; he feels crowded and needs more space. He is regenerated partly because he is able to listen to the fantastic stories the play gives him, and partly because of the way Hermione and Paulina use their aggression.

Birth Passages opens up new possibilities for feminist criticism, using psychological theory which ought to be better known. Krier's ear for literary echoes and for poetic strategies such as catalogues, similitudes, and the vernacular, convincingly constructs the tradition for which she argues, linking it as well to such unexpected figures as Emerson, Frost, and Angela Carter. Her claim that authors can be creative and grateful to their predecessors at the same time is refreshing. This is a gracefully written book that will provoke thought -- if not always agreement -- among readers interested in gender and literary relations.
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Author:Novy, Marianne
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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