WITH TWO VOICES: MOTHER-LOVE IN SULA
PART I: BABY
Because this is how I felt that Sunday, nothing to do with Twitter or the Uighurs or the slaughter of Jews older than my grandmother, or anything else very real and very terrible:
The rain was more like wind that day, the first nor’easter blowing through. My boots barely grazed the thin yellow leaves in pools on the pavement. I tried to concentrate on those yellow leaves and how luminous they were under my dry feet rather than on anything in my mind, which I knew was all made-up anyhow. That’s the frightening part––fear itself always being worse than fear of something touchable.
And I woke feeling better, which meant myself, and called my mother. I have long wanted to tell her not to worry, even as I worried. That day I did not lie. Yet she guided me in a way I should not have doubted she would before. Wasn’t she was once twenty-two and afraid? Oh, you understand. Oh, you too. This guidance came as a rush of relief, hot tears. I licked them.
So this is a letter about mother-love, which is a better and more accurate translation of amor matris than ‘love of the mother’ because it refuses to distinguish whether it is the mother or the child doing the loving (Joyce wrote: subjective and objective genitive) and thus similarly obscures the line between mother and child, since they may not be separate objects anyway.
PART II: MOTHER/BABY
A professor once suggested I always start with a question. My question, then, is about mother-love, about those lines between mother and child, how blurry they can get. About how much love to give, about when enough is enough, about whether there ever could possibly be an “enough.”
To answer my question, I looked to Toni Morrison’s Eva, from Sula. A mother who said enough! This is how she said it:
“When Eva spoke at last it was with two voices. Like two people were talking at the same time, saying the same thing, one a fraction of a second behind the other.
‘He give me such a time. Such a time. Look like he didn’t even want to be born. But he come on out. Boys is hard to bear. You wouldn’t know that but they is. It was such a carryin’ on to get him born and to keep him alive. Just to keep his little heart beating and his little old lungs cleared and look like when he came back from that war he wanted to git back in. After all that carryin’ on, just gettin’ him out and keepin’ him alive, he wanted to crawl back in my womb and well… I ain’t got space for him in my womb. And he was crawlin’ back. Being helpless and thinking baby thoughts and dreaming baby dreams and messing up his pants again and smiling all the time. I had room enough in my heart, but not in my womb, not no more. I birthed him once. I couldn’t do it again. He was growed, a big old thing. Godhavemercy, I couldn’t birth him twice. I’d be laying here at night and he be downstairs in that room, but when I closed my eyes I’d see him… six feet tall smilin’ and crawlin’ up the stairs quietlike so I wouldn’t hear and opening the door soft so I wouldn’t hear and he’d been creepin’ to the bed trying to spread my legs trying to get back up my womb. He was a man, girl, a big old growed-up man. I didn’t have that much room. I kept on dreaming it. Dreaming it and I knowed it was true. One night it wouldn’t be no dream. It’d be true and I would have done it, would have let him if I’d’ve had the room but a big man can’t be a baby all wrapped up inside his mamma no more; he suffocate. I done everything I could to make him leave me and go on and live and be a man but he wouldn’t and I had to keep him out so I just thought of a way he could die like a man not all scrunched up inside my womb, but like a man.
Eva couldn’t see Hannah clearly for the tears, but she looked up at her anyway and said, by way of apology or explanation or perhaps just by way of neatness, “But I held him close first. Real close. Sweet Plum. My baby boy.’”
Toni Morrison, Sula: 71-72
We can begin at the very beginning, before Eva even starts to speak. Alongside Hannah, her daughter, we’ve been waiting: there’s been a silence, and the passage tells us about Eva speaking before we hear her. Isn’t this a kind of pregnancy? To be known before you are known at all, to be important before you’re even seen. Just felt. Your kick, in fact, is felt.
The passage tells us that “when Eva spoke at last it was with two voices.” We can read this not only as though there has been a pause but also as at last, it was with two voices. As if Eva and Plum have been speaking separately all this time and only now can they speak together. This concept will frame the entirety of her monologue, as Eva struggles to delineate the conflict between mother and child––more specifically, the conflict between their fusion (pregnancy) and separation (birth, and the lives that follow).
I initially wrote that phrase as the “life that follows,” but this is the whole point, I’ve decided, that maybe it’s plural, it’s two, as much as we want it to be one. And also that as much as we want it to be two, it is always one. In other words, this essay is grappling with how two can be one and also how one can be two.
Even once we accept that Eva speaks as “two in one” and only “half of two” here, there is an inherent complication. “Like two people were talking at the same time, saying the same thing, one a fraction of a second behind the other.” Yes, mother does become a fraction of the second (more or less half, though modern genomics tends to complicate even that). But taken less mathematically, we notice that the two voices are not speaking exactly together, but instead slightly over/overlapping. There’s no competition or hierarchy because we don’t know who is behind the other, or who is louder or clearer. Like Hannah, we can hear them both, together.
This aspect of the form serves to situate us. We will consume this entire scene through Eva’s perspective, but that perspective will eventually show us just as much about Eva as it will about Plum, and the way that Eva sees Plum and their relationship. And that projection always says more about the speaker than the object itself. In Morrison’s own words, “the subject of the dream is the dreamer.”
This is all a false start. The true beginning of this meditation is when Eva starts speaking––starts being heard. When she speaks, she too begins in the beginning: with Plum’s gestation. “Look like he didn’t even want to be born…such a carryin’ to get him born.”
Eva inverts the possibilities of “carry,” which we generally associate with pregnancy itself and then afterwards, as the mother holds the child, carries him through the world before he gets too heavy. Here, carrying becomes substitute for the act of labor. The “getting out” is a labor in the same way as the holding is––both are burdens. And both then mirror the effort to “keep him alive. Just to keep his little heart beating and his little old lungs cleared.”
At the close of Plum’s life, Eva seeks coherence by pointing to the way it opened, as though the clues to our fates lie in how we swam inside the womb and how quickly we were able to depart it.
As Eva relates the way that Plum didn’t want to leave the womb to Hannah, her first-born, we are thrown into the turbulence of this passage, which is so grounded in the physical world, focused on Eva and Plum’s bodies. See Plum’s height (six feet), his little heart, his little old lungs. Messing up his pants. These are the first sites of familiarity to a mother and child, though we may soon realize, despairingly, that they are so much more changeable than we ever fathomed.
More, this is where half the labor happens. The luggage, the burden, the carrying––between aging bodies. One growing, one shrinking.
Simultaneously, however, the action of the text here also reflects a physical impossibility, totally independent from that extreme version of corporality just discussed. Instead, there is something fantastic at work, along Todorov’s definition, wherein we are unable to define events as either uncanny or as marvelous. Eva does not hesitate to accept that Plum objectively wanted to re-enter her body, that he was “crawlin’ back.” Lying awake at night, Eva would hear Plum “creepin’ to the bed trying to spread my legs to get back up my womb.”
Morrison includes the expression “spread my legs” carefully. I think we are meant to cringe here, yearn to shield ourselves from the image of a grown man opening his mother’s legs in order to worm his way back in. The nature of this scene as either infantile or fully incestuous is perhaps unfortunately where its devastating truth is located, in its duality and the failure in our capacity to define and confine it.
But this is only a nightmare, a dream Eva keeps having, “dreaming it and I knowed it was true. One night it wouldn’t be no dream.”
Like through much of Sula, although Eva is confident in her version, we are not handed the tools to decide or confirm how much of the excerpt is based in reality or not. But the ambiguity itself is just as germane, for it leads us once again to the conclusion that the boundaries are hazy between two objects that we want to assume are just that, separate entities: in this case, real and fake, fact and metaphor.
In the world of the novel, this can all be real. So let’s say that Plum is trying to get back in. What would that mean, to be born twice? We only get to be born once––as much uncertainty as there is in this world, that much is certain. But other than that, how much are we assured? How much can we get, and how much do we deserve to get?
This is where my initial concern around “enough” becomes so significant. Am I enough? Am I too much? we ask of our lovers. Do we ask the same of our mothers? I remember Beloved, where we encounter the word “thick” to describe love. Like honey. The way it can be so cloying when it gets too close. Hard to stand the smell.
Eva seems to refuse too thick a love. This isn’t to say she is thin––hard, hardened, cold. She simply seems to know she never can be enough when Plum is asking for something she can no longer give. The body, especially, depletes. Eva nearly starts to ramble on this point. She has to “keep him out… A big man can’t be a baby wrapped up inside his mamma no more; he suffocate.” The vocabulary (wrapped, suffocate) is one of runaway closeness, a smothering. We normally associate that smothering with mother––“over-mothering.” Here, we somehow witness its transformation into the reverse; although Eva worries about Plum’s suffocation, in reality, she is also being stifled by him.
The opposite of this suffocating closeness would be independence. The room to grow alone. But there’s no “space… not in my womb” for that growth, since Plum is already “growed.” While Plum continues to want to fuse, both mother and son remain in freefall. So Eva steps away, thereby asserting both of their autonomies by rejecting not Plum himself or their mutual and endless connection but rather, the erosion of her son and that same relationship.
We would be remiss not to look at what is missing from this part of the text, trying to find meaning in what is purposefully left out. To do so, we can start at the most literal, historical level presented, zooming out a bit.
Plum is a young man who has returned from war. We can be sympathetic for that, for the double trauma he has experienced––as a black man serving in World War I and then re-entering a segregated, albeit civilian, society. This re-entry should be another fusion, a coming home. Instead, it seems foreign and increasingly painful, and Plum develops an addiction to alcohol and heroin. They would not have used the term PTSD in 1921, but they might have used “shell shocked.” About the idea that Plum seriously longs for another kind of re-entry, into Eva’s womb, we may initially squirm and similarly pass it off as pathological, as with addiction.
But a diagnosis of this sort would be contrapuntal. Morrison does not medicalize Plum’s experience. Rather, the passage normalizes Plum’s desire and his suffering by avoiding those kinds of labels. It does this while still remaining firm in its final assertion that what Plum is experiencing cannot continue. In the same stroke, by refusing to label Plum, it also does not label Eva, and does not cast an essentializing moral judgment upon Eva for burning her son.
We might ask whether Eva is guilty (“immoral”), but since the text does not indicate it is important to contemplate such a verdict, a more interesting question might be whether Eva herself feels she is guilty. She weeps, and we certainly trust her tears. The passage is self-aware: it notes this might be “apology or explanation.” The monologue can become Eva’s justification. But that last, throwaway addendum––“just by way of neatness”––is key. Apologies or explanations are also a kind of tidying, a cleaning up. Eva remains outside the realms of that kind of justification; she does not need to give grounds for her action. So if we let it, this can remain the relational mess that Eva understands and does not feel the need to make intelligible to others, only continue to find clarity in within herself.
Remember, though, that there are two voices here. And if there are two mouths, there are probably two ears. So perhaps Plum is listening too. As Eva pours the fuel oil over Plum’s body, maybe the slick of the kerosene comes as a rush of relief, also hot licks. Oh, you understand. Oh, you too. I hope so.
You’ll always be my baby. It’s a strange phrase, one that my parents tend to remind me in sing-song––syrupy, sentimental, precisely fitting. It’s just how Eva’s muse concludes. “Sweet Plum. My baby boy.” He always will be.
As my ninety-two year old grandmother said on the phone today, after the nor’easter passed and gave way to blue, in a nugget of truth so nonchalant I rushed to write it down so as not to forget:
You find yourself at the end of your life in the same place you began.