Read extracts from briefing notes and exchanges about poems published in 2014 in Pick Me Up by Anna Kiernan (poet) & Harriet Lee-Merrion (illustrator).
In Part One and Part Three, you will find the poet’s reflection on two poems, ‘The robot nursemaid domain’ and ‘Bloomsday is cod’. Part Two offers the illustrator’s response to the first title. The commentary illuminates personal and cultural gendered contexts of creative work by women.
Part One: Poet’s Notes on ‘The robot nursemaid domain’ by Anna Kiernan
A mother whose child has been run over reported that, for a long time afterwards, she found her thoughts constantly and unwillingly drawn back to the event, to what she might have done to prevent the accident, to what the child might have been doing had it not occurred. She was so tormented by this that only the desire not to harm her remaining children prevented her from taking her own life. A common feature of infatuation is that thoughts, desires, questions and worries concerning the loved one keep intruding (Beaudoin & Sloman 1993).
For this poem, I have drawn heavily on Beaudoin & Sloman’s article, ‘A Study of Motive Processing and Attention,’ in part because I was interested in the juxtaposition of maternal bereavement and infatuation. Comparing these two intensely emotional states is problematic in the sense that the latter is, of course, regarded as socially and culturally less important. Yet, in other contexts, it has been acknowledged that there are similarities between the two states.
The language in this article is powerful because it draws on an emotional lexicon as a starting point for the development of a robot that is able to emulate certain human behaviours. The coolly detached use of emotional language is compelling to me, and I tried to emulate this mood in the poem.
Linked to this is the stanza that draws on artist William Nicholson (1872-1949):
The Gate of Honour ‘Porta Honoris’ is the third of three gateways at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, symbolising the career of a student, the first being named ‘Humility’ and the other ‘Virtue’. It was built c. 1575, but when Nicholson painted it, the gate had lost some of its original features (www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk).
Nicholson had a thing for gloves. On one occasion, he presented as a wedding gift a pair of white kid gloves with a verse inscribed on each of the fingers.
My son Leo gave me the last line–he is trying to make sense of death, and I liked the idea of the gentle fade out.
The robot nursemaid domain
The nursemaid comprises
a number of databases
and two sorts of effectors:
claw controllers and gaze controllers.
The architecture of a human mind
is to be ‘beside oneself’:
the loved one keeps intruding.
Nicholson had a particular penchant for gloves,
which he collected, designed and offered
as gifts to close friends:
his painting of her swanlike neck
a gate of honour under snow.
You can make an artificial nerve
out of spider threads.
But when you die
your heart beats so quietly
you don’t even hear it.
Part Two: Illustrator’s Response to ‘The robot nursemaid domain’ by Harriet Lee-Merrion
On first reading the poem, I assumed ‘the nursemaid’ to also be Nicholson’s ‘her’. I suppose that was my interpretation, to assign those two identities together, and I think that is reflected in the illustration. The solitary figure central to the illustration implies a character, and by pairing the image and poem together, I think the female figure in the illustration adopts the identity of ‘the nursemaid’. The figure is turned away, the body language is pensive or ‘beside oneself’.
I was interested in reflecting the scientific tone of the poem, by approaching the illustration as a diagram. The image is made up of separate elements, compositionally similar to a medical diagram or botanical illustration. I was also interested in using symbols to depict the visceral tone of the poem. On the left, the upturned marigold symbolises grief and bereavement. The marigold is un-rooted and drawn as if it has been pulled from the ground. The roots create a visual connection to microscopic images of fimbriae, which are parts of the female reproductive organ. The flower on the right, Peruvian Heliotrope, symbolises infatuation. The stem of the flower perforates the circle, giving reference to fertility and conception. The diagram of the womb is used symbolically, to create a visual link between maternal bereavement, pro-creation, love and infatuation.
Using flowers as symbols was an idea based on ‘The Secret Language of Flowers’: a Victorian tradition in which flowers sent as gifts held cryptic messages to decipher.
Part Three: Poet’s Notes on ‘Bloomsday is a cod’ by Anna Kiernan
This is about my firstborn son Leo. In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, the main character is Leopold Bloom. All the events in the novel happen on one day, and from different perspectives and time points. The date is 16 June (Bloomsday), which is the date on which I thought Leo would be born (he was two weeks late).
I started a PhD on Joyce but did not finish it. My name is Anna Livia Plurabelle, which is the name of a section of the novel Finnegans Wake. The metaphor for ALP is a river whose source is pure in the Wicklow Mountains, but who gets dirtier as she gets to Dublin (and becomes a whore).
Bloomsday is a cod
I don’t remember
How it started or
What happened next.
The end was an opening,
The beginning a stitch-up.
You were sixteen days late!
I counted them, thinking you
would join us, naturally,
on the day it all happens,
when Leopold blooms.
But the sixteenth came and went.
Two days later I began to shudder,
while we counted the minutes
between times and the flailing knife
of your slanting shoulder turned.
Spinning on my axis,
you swam inside,
until your heart slowed
and the cut was made.
Here comes everything, I thought,
Here comes everything.
Beaudoin, Luc P & Aaron Sloman (1993), ‘A Study of Motive Processing and Attention’, in Aaron Sloman et al. (eds) Prospects for Artiﬁcial Intelligence, Proc. AISB’93, Amsterdam: IOS Press, pp. 229-238. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229024680_A_study_of_motive_processing_and_attention (last accessed 20 Sept 2020).
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