Let it never be said that The Scallop-Shell isn’t interested in the Royal baby: today’s poem, by Kathryn Maris, features some generally-applicable dark meditations on motherhood and responsibility, with a light touch and conversational tone which allow its author to sugar the pill. In an institution whose raison d’être is the long sweep of geological time, Maris considers the mistakes any one of us, parent or otherwise, can make in the present moment.
On Returning a Child to her Mother at the Natural History Museum
Hello, my name is Kathryn and I’ve come
here to return your daughter, Emily.
She told me you’d suggested that she look
around upstairs in ‘Earthquakes and Volcanoes,’
then meet you and her brothers in the shop.
You know that escalator leading to
the orb? It’s very long and only goes
one way, you can’t turn round. She asked me if
I knew the way back down and would we come
with her into the earthquake simulator –
that reproduction of the grocery shop
in Kobe, where you see the customers
get thrown around with Kirin beer and soy
sauce, things like that. She told us stuff about
your family. Apparently you had
a baby yesterday! That can’t be right:
you’re sitting here without one and my God
your stomach’s flat! She also said she’d had
an operation in the hospital
while you were giving birth one floor below.
I know, I know: kids lie and get confused,
mine do that too. She talks a lot. She’s fat.
She may not be an easy child to love.
I liked her, though. I liked her very much,
and having her was great, the only time
all day my daughter hasn’t asked me for
a dog! We got downstairs and funnily
enough we found your middle son. He ran
to us upset and asked us where you were.
But here you are – exactly where you said –
the shop! Don’t worry: I don’t ever judge
a mother. Look at me: my daughter drank
the Calpol I left out when she was two;
I gave my kids Hundreds and Thousands once
for dinner while I lay down on the floor,
a wreck. I know you well! Here’s Emily.
Maris’s title and opening ought to put us at ease – after a fashion. The child, after all, is being returned, no longer wandering lost in the corridors of natural history; we are reassured that the danger, such as it was, has been averted, and Maris’s spoken diction (‘Hello’, ‘you know’, ‘don’t worry’) slots neatly into her seamless pentameter rhythms. Everything seems so easy, so contained; but the poem’s real subject emerges from the terror of what could have happened, the disappearance and the frantic search.
Emily has been exploring a world of simulated disasters – cracks which open up in the world, where human beings, accorded no greater syntactic value than ‘Kirin beer and soy/sauce, things like that’, are ‘thrown around’ (like a child’s doll) and teeter on the edge. Far from being scared, she wants to return; like the narrator’s child taking an accidental Calpol overdose, what’s scary is how easily a child left unchecked will make a beeline for catastrophe. This single-minded deathwish is borne out by Maris’s description of the museum escalator:
‘You know that escalator leading to
the orb? It’s very long and only goes
one way, you can’t turn round.’
It has a Biblical quality, with its arduous journey to an elevated sphere from which no traveller returns, and in this context her own involvement takes on a certain Messianic air: ‘I’ve come here/to return your daughter’, neither of which seem out of place in a collection entitled ‘God Loves You’.
But mainly Maris frames the meeting of these two women in the terms of shared experiential knowledge – first ‘You know’ (reaching out), then ‘I know, I know’ (sympathy), and finally ‘I know you well!’, staking a claim for sameness which recalls Baudelaire’s iconic sneer of fellowship: ‘Hypocrite lecteur! Mon semblable! Mon frère!’ It’s these elements of overlap which make the points of divergence so troubling – nothing in the narrator’s experience allows her to fathom Emily’s anecdote about the hospital, and her response, ‘my God/your stomach’s flat!’ is a frenemy compliment which evades a point of genuine confusion.
Whatever’s going on (and the point, surely, is that we’ve no idea), by the end of the poem ‘I could have done the same’ becomes ‘I have’. Two moments of vivid detail present Maris’s speaker as ‘a wreck’ no less comprehensive than ‘the grocery shop/in Kobe’; both feature capitalised brand names, suggesting a peculiar horror inherent in the modern consumer kitchen. And though she claims to never ‘judge/a mother’, her descriptions of the ‘fat’ and dog-like Emily shore up the speaker’s self-acknowledged instability a sense of her own children’s superiority; we get no other sense of them besides their vulnerability. But despite a few moments of apparent certainty (‘kids lie’, ‘that can’t be right’), the poem can’t sustain the upper hand for long. To do so would contradict what makes it so disturbing – the possibility that in any family these faultlines wait to fissure or erupt.