Félix Grande and the poem as the locus of regression to the mother
by Pilar Cáceres-Casillas
October 5, 2011
Using examples from the poetry of one of the most remarkable poets in post Civil War Spain, Félix Grande, my article attempts to explore the concept of regression to the mother through language, and looking in particular at how the formation of a specifically devastating mother model in childhood leads to the poetic voice’s suicidal drives. I will show how the poetic voice uses language as a maternal shelter that substitutes for and seeks to fix some unbearable memories of an introjected bad maternal object. Grande’s poems textualize psychic processes related to the absence of a mother and/or the presence of a persecutory figure, ultimately opening up the possibility of cathartic regression to a mother referent that would keep suicidal drives at bay. The poem functions as the locus where defective representations of a mother referent are replaced with a therapeutic relationship with language and memory in the hope of symbolically re-establishing genuinely maternal links of protection and reassurance. More interestingly, the problematic mother-son relationship is enmeshed in the historical context of war survival and regression to primeval destruction, making the search for bonds and the necessity to overcome traumatic breaches both more urgent and untoward.
Félix Grande, a Spanish poet born in 1937, in Mérida, the second year of the Spanish Civil War, vicariously witnessed through maternal bonds a historical period in which the Spanish had regressed to collective modes of primeval destruction. Grande is one of the most important Spanish literary figures of the second half of the twentieth century. His poems deal with issues of trauma, memory, and suffering. They evoke childhood in a recurrent and compulsive manner, seemingly returning to a place of psychological shock of such magnitude that it caused traumatic arrest. This constant moving backwards, and the interaction of the poet’s subjectivity with external historical events, seem to be intimately linked with the poetic voice’s relationship with objects that recall its primary relation with the maternal figure. My article will address this by discussing three modalities of regression to the mother in Grande’s poems: first, the poetic voice’s identification with the mother’s breast; second, its self-mutilation and staging of death drives in the womb; and, finally, the act of writing itself as a means for transferring the child’s primary anxieties and yearnings into a safe locus, that is, writing as a search for the good breast and the protective womb.
In the beginning was love. And this love was maternal. Melanie Klein’s definition of love is 'the manifestation of forces that tend to preserve life' (1937: 311). However, in Grande’s depiction of maternal love these forces disrupt life and are often characterised by death-like attributes. The basic metaphor for love in his poetry is a stone. The poetic voice talks of 'love that was made stone'. Childhood is referred to as a period of aridity and deprivation of the basic elements for the child’s survival—food and emotional nourishment. Stone might be taken as a symbol of unresponsiveness and lack of love on the part of an absent mother or the instinct to return to an inanimate state. But it can also refer to a desire to return to the unity and communion with the mother and the motherland, as illustrated by the following lines by the poet Pablo Neruda:
I was a stone: a dark stone
and the separation was violent,
a wound in my alien birth;
I want to return
to that certainty,
to the central rest, to the womb
of the maternal stone
from which I do not know how or when
they detached me to break me up…
The ambivalence inherent in the symbol of the stone (separation and unity) as a metaphor for love, and the employment of this motif to express regression to the mother, not only poses questions about the importance of the mother/son relationship in the generation of a vision of love, but also leads to an enquiry into the concepts of love and absence themselves, emerging from the child’s interaction with the maternal. The poetic voice’s regression to the primary scene of separation with the mother, symbolised by the stone, is linked to questions of self-love, the ownership of the self and its being torn into pieces alongside the tearing of the mother’s image. The relationship with language and the psychic objects contained and actualized in it reveal a struggle between the need to re-enact the violence implicit in separation and the desire to cathect, to make ties through symbolic representations of reparative love.
Grande’s poetry shows the poetic’s voice obsession with love, and its counterpart, hate. In 'Love, Guilt and Reparation', Melanie Klein writes that there is a constant interaction of love and hate in the relationship with the mother and that 'these emotions first appear in the early relation of the child to his mother’s breast' (1937: 306). The projection of the child’s ego into the breast is polarised and swings between a vision of the breast as a good and bad object.
In Grande’s work, his search for the 'good' breast is, for instance, manifested in the poetic voice’s vision of nature as a mother’s breast that flows eternally. The life-threatening presence of the 'bad' breast is, in turn, projected into the creation of metaphors reminiscent of its deathly poison, as in a line where cathedrals watching over a grave are compared with breasts that feed the deathbed of the poet friend César Vallejo.
This ambivalent relationship with maternal objects is illustrated by the poem 'Generation'. The latter is an autobiographical poem in narrative form in which the poetic voice is split into the character of a child, the survivor of a traumatic event, and the grown up infant who tries to bear witness to it. These two figures can also be seen as patient and analyst. In the staging of trauma in the poem, the child acts as the patient re-enacting traumatic love losses, while the adult-analyst helps to awaken consciousness of traumatic memories and to bring about reparation and love. The poem’s opening stanza questions with direct allusions to Shakespeare, whether there is a meaning behind birth:
To be born (that is the question)
How you were born, where you were born, for what you were born
In nineteen thirty-seven
(I mean, see the news, in that monstrous
Loathing year, after to be called the first stone)
I fell to this road or failing path;
More clearly: at war; more lyrically: in fraternal manslaughter.
The question of the trauma of coming into life is enmeshed into a historical account of what it means to have been born during the Spanish Civil War. The traumatic circumstances of war are intermingled with a sense of internal deprivation. In a stanza where a scene of breastfeeding is evoked, the breast is presented as a meaning-laden symbol of tragic memory and lack:
Mother fills your mouth with milky memory
From which you drink her powerful pain that she refuelledon
In the hospital wards of blood located in Mérida.
Breast milk nurtures the child with the nourishment of pain, the same kind of sufferance witnessed by the mother in the war hospital where she is a nurse. The mother-nurse figure is depicted positively and compassionately. This is in contrast to the image of the breast, which introduces a fracture between an external vision of the mother and bits and pieces of this image, introjected by the child as 'bad' maternal objects. The poetic voice identifies, in fact, with a suffering breast, a metaphor of absence, through an inner representation that sees the mother as tending to the needs of soldiers but depriving the child of her love. Furthermore, the breast is presented in devastating terms, for in its tragic bellicosity bears resemblance to a weapon of war:
Mother places her tragic nipples in my mouth
Howitzers loaded with the alcoholic nourishment of casual survival
So that I could suck my destiny
And limp forever along with my dethroned childhood.
The lines 'So that I could suck my destiny/ and limp forever' demonstrate that the 'bad' breast has become a persecutory figure. In other words, that the experience of unpleasure has been so great and the need to dissociate from it is so powerful that it requires an object upon which it can be expelled. Psychoanalyst Neville Symington (1986) claims that a crippled ego results from identification with an object which has failed the infant in some crucial way' and that this ego is moulded by surrounding reality. Whilst death occurs on the battlefield, as shown by the line 'they die die die destroying each other', similarly, the child’s internal death and dissolution is brought about through its mother’s breastfeeding. As Jacqueline Rose put it, 'when Freud argues that the infant could have no knowledge of death, this does not preclude the possibility […] that the child can experience feelings of the kind, just as any adult can feel like death, and in a state of great anxiety often does' (1993: 149) .
This vicarious witnessing of violent destruction and experiencing of death through the mother’s milk makes the child a survivor too. The illnesses and war neuroses present in the mother are symbolically passed onto the child and presented as the cause of its adult psychic ailments, as the following lines illustrate:
One day I discovered that
My illness of being born (that is the question)
Resigned to what I am now
This convalescing with relapses
Which I call, prophetically, my existence.
In another poem, 'The visit', we also find a transposition of the breast in metaphors that point to a traumatic past. When the poetic voice says that time weeps, for instance, it is difficult not to see the child’s cry for the breast. Similarly, hunger for the breast is covered up with the symbolic figure 'hungry portraits', which displays a conceptual link between an unsatisfied hunger and its enclosure within the limits of a past that has become fixed as the image of those portraits. In melancholia there is a regression to a state of longing for the mother’s breast. Hunger for the past, therefore, screens the need for the breast and, also, the melancholic desire to return to the cause of frustration in order to recover completeness and plenitude.
This constant returning to the past in search for the 'good'breast might be an act of reparative love; a proof that, as Kristeva (2007) observes, there is a need to believe and a desire to know. For while the child of the poem needs to believe (that somewhere there is a 'good'breast), the voice of the adult perceiving the child, that is, remembering, is driven by a desire to know, and to master absence. At the crossroads of this need to believe and the desire to know there is a painfully joyful relationship with language. This allows the re-enactment of the love/hate relationship with the mother to take place and permits through symbolic representations of pain a kind of jouissance in suffering, a 'happy'suffering. In other words, through identification with a destructive breast and its sublimation through the constant symbolic construction and deconstruction of its meaning, the child revenges on the poem and tries to heal its injury through the imaginary.
The vision of erotic love in Grande’s work recalls those first primary breast sensations, the excruciating primary image of maternal love. As Melanie Klein points out: 'The child’s early attachment to his mother’s breast and to her milk is the foundation of all love relationships in life'(1937: 325). In Grande’s poems erotic love is also lived painfully and marked by absence. It is in this light that we must read the poetic voice’s regression to the womb. The adult genital relation with the organ stands as a remainder and a reminder of the child’s primal rapport with the womb. It recalls the womb in that it repeats in adulthood the child’s sensations of angst, desolation, abandonment and, ultimately, death. This obsessive return to the womb in erotic love seems to calm the pain inherent in the psychic wound.
In the poem 'The age of flesh'there is a stanza in which the adult’s interaction with the genital organ recalls the stage when the fetus was in the uterus. The sexual act serves the end of mutilating involution to the mother’s womb. The woman’s organ functions not as the instrument for pleasure and the creation of life. On the contrary, it produces more death, seemingly the kind of death felt by the child in the womb. This is the stanza:
He curls up in a woman’s body
And transforms in turbulent gesture
That which keeps the world
And seeks in the womb not a rotund affirmation
But an energetic never
Not a son but a resting cave
Not a bright future
But a shadowy corner for the wounded beast.
The verb 'curl up in a woman’s body'reproduces the position of the fetus inside its mother’s womb. The impulse to retreat is drawn, the poem suggests, by despair and in search of negation. The womb is referred to not as medium to expand and generate life through pleasure; on the contrary, its function for the poetic voice is that of humiliating withdrawal, a quest for security coming from some involutive disposition. This is, if not an actualization of the death drive, an indicator of regression to an earlier stage in human life where men entered caves to feel protected and sheltered from external danger. One of the words with which the dyad womb/genital organ is referred to is 'cave'. So, it could be that a pre-human mode of mental functioning inheres in the psychic economy behind the choice of words 'cave'and 'wounded beast'.
Thus this fatalistic regression to the fetal stage in an act of erotic love ambivalently links a search for protection and the desire to disappear. What is questioned and even rejected is the idea of birth as the beginning of life. It is death that begins. The poetic voice refers to the premature abortion of the embryo in the growing of a seed that was malformed from the outset of its plantation into the womb. This seed that symbolizes the poetic voice’s conception is referred to as 'embryo of oblivion', as though the psychic formation of the embryo were surrounded by unknowable silence or as though it only grew into more painful oblivion. This act of self-injury implicit in the line 'stabbing oblivion to make it bleed more oblivion'might be taken as a concrete actualization of the death drive, that is, as an artistic quest, in Baudrillard’s words 'to know how to disappear before dying and instead of dying' (2009: 25).
Overcoming separation in the poem
Grande’s self disappears into language in order to find a self before the self, a region where, 'the naked symbol harms us in the marrow of our heart'. The naked symbol is paradoxically the symbol that after the trauma of separation resists symbolization, the foundational event of the pre-symbolic that establishes the basis of the process of symbolizing. This thus raises the question as to why it seems important to shed light on the oblivion inherent in oblivion, for a kind of conscious awakening to occur. Although the naked singularity Grande talks about, that black hole which is oblivion, can be known only by its effects. As a concept it cannot be thought; it is through fantasy that it can be recreated.
When the silence inherent in separation takes over, writing does not ignore this state of the self warring with silence, but rather empties it of anguish. The death drive changes its object. Language empties it from its lethal poison. Words and sounds become representations of a narcissistic impulse to form a speaking self capable of shaping this silence and creating the possibility of love.
In conclusion, breast and womb are not only motifs of recollection in Grande’s poems. These primary maternal objects are meaningful structures; they become inner representations that inform his relationship with the rest of objects actualized in the poems. The forms of relationality with the breast and the womb constitute the source from which the meaning-making mechanisms derive. This psychic interaction also contains the logic of war. In Jacqueline Rose’s words, 'the violence of psychic separation precipitates subjects into language and the violence of a social order' (1993: 43). And the fact that Grande’s devastating relationship with his mother was being formed against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War elicits reflection on this two-fold phenomenon. Primary sensations of death and separation are constructed and deconstructed but they also construct and deconstruct other objects, transforming them into symbolic processes. Breast and wound are not only objects of aggressiveness and self-destruction. Through their transposition in the poem a re-elaboration takes place by virtue of which the poem brings about protection and reassurance, in other words, it becomes a good breast and a protective wound. The poem becomes a surface in which Grande sees himself as a substitute of the mirror that the mother’s face once was, the 'big door' as he calls it, through which a therapeutic and cathartic access to love and violent loss, can be reached. The poem can thus be conceived of as the performative act whereby untenable dichotomies can be played out through fantasy, ambivalence and breaches safely overcome, between thanatos and eros, body and psyche, separation and unity, victim and perpetrator, the social and the psyche, inside and outside, identity and difference, mother and son.
Baudrillard, Jean (2009) Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, Greenford: Seagull.
Feinstein, Adam (2004) Neruda: a passion for life, London: Bloomsbury.
Grande, Félix (1989) Biografía. Poesía completa (1958-1984), Barcelona: Anthropos.
Klein, Melanie (1937) Love, guilt and reparation, in Love, guilt and reparation and other works 1921-1945, London: Hogarth (1975), pp. 306-343.
Kristeva , Julia (2007) Cet incroyable besoin de croire, Paris, Bayard.
Rose, Jacqueline (1993) Why War? - Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Return to Melanie Klein, London: Blackwell.
Symington, Neville (1986) The Analytic Experience: Lectures from the Tavistock, London: Free Association Books Ltd.
Received: October 6, 2011, Published: October 5, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Pilar Cáceres-Casillas