Theory Teacher's Blog

“Hester’s Song” and postmodern Scarlet Letters

For the past couple of years, one of my side projects has been re-writes of Hawthorne’s  The Scarlet Letter — one of the most classic and often taught novels in American literary history. There are tons of re-writes, both high literary and pop cultural, and wikipedia has listed quite of few of them. Why so many re-writes of this one text? Perhaps the novel continues to have such resonance because young men and women continue to be subject to bizarre, contradictory peer pressures, and single mothers continue to be stigmatized. We don’t have to look far to find examples: the story that dominated the network news a month ago about a single woman having octuplets [here]… and then Anne Coulter’s recent book that accuses single mothers of being the source of all societal problems [here]…  and last year I blogged about recent movies about single mothers [here].

My favorite pop cultural version of The Scarlet Letter is the episode “Caged!” from the TV show Popular. On the more high-brow literary side, John Updike himself wrote not just one, but three novels that re-envision Hawthorne’s classic: Roger’s Version (as in Roger Chillingsworth’s version) is the best, but also S. and A Month of Sundays. And Susan-Lori Parks, the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer prize for drama, wrote two: In the Blood and Fucking A, published together as The Red Letter Plays. Then there are those that incorporate Hawthorne’s novel indirectly: Bharati Mukherjee’s Holder of the World and Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba are both terrific. One could, I suppose, call all of these “postmodern” texts (and Mukherjee and Condé “postcolonial” in addition) because of the way they take up a classic narrative and re-write it from a different perspective. (By the way, I’ve blogged about other postmodern re-writes here.)

Just a couple of days ago I read one such re-write for the first time, and it really hit me emotionally, so I want to talk about it in this blog: it’s called “Hester’s Song” by Toi Derricotte, and it comes from her book Natural Birth (1983) and was republished in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Toi Derricotte was an unwed mother, and that is one of the main themes of her book. Here is the poem:

Hester’s Song
My seventeen year old son asks me if I’ve read The Scarlet Letter

              i rode you piggyback
          through groundless sky,
          the stars white foam in my face.
          they wanted to drive you
          back to namelessness,
          were jealous of the thought of you
          convulsed wide open
          and made a cave.
          i prayed
          you, miracle,
          to root through my fingers,
          grow in the spot,
          be with me.
          at night i curled over you
          guarding my rage,
          i thought you might escape
          through the crown of my head
          like a chimney.

          i lay without husband
          and drank at the stream of light.
          (how wide god is, my child,
          a pillar, he wrenched me…
          now you are with me
          like prayer.)

          clot in the night,
          thick swimming,
          hold, i say, hold:
          you are the one gold
          ever to come of alchemy.

I love how this poem begins, with the image of the pregnant woman riding her unborn child piggyback into the heavens. The image is a reversal of the normal image — the rather standard image in popular culture of a child on the father’s shoulders, riding him piggyback. In addition, Derricotte’s image creates a sense of how the mother is oddly dependent on the child rather than the other way around.

Why does she begin this way? The answer to that question may be that she is writing this poem to her son. Derricotte has provided us with an imagined situation — her son, in high school, reading The Scarlet Letter, about an unwed single mother branded with a social stigma. Naturally, Derricotte and her son are tempted to make the analogy between their situation and the situation described in the novel. Derricotte thinks about the situation as a mother would. She cares less about the social stigma that Hawthorne focused on in his novel, and instead she worries that her son will feel bad about himself… will ask her, “Mom, did you regret getting pregnant with me?” It’s a scary question, and as Jane Juffer points out in her book Single Mother, it’s a question that countless images in popular culture provoke millions of unwed mothers and their children to ask… or to feel afraid to ask. And in answer to that question, she concludes “you are the one gold ever to come of alchemy.” The poem affirms the relationship between mother and child.

But it does not do so simply or vapidly. Like the plot of Hawthorne’s novel, the poem recognizes the hostile environment in which the mother and child find themselves, and it transforms the difficulties and challenges Hester faces into a source of strength — transforms the negative  into a positive. The poem evokes a negative, uncertain void with words such as groundless, namelessness, wide open, night, ocean. But Derricotte uses these words in order to remind her son that they are rooted together. Here again, a line like the first that reverses a standard image. Normally, we think of fingers rooting or searching through something, but in her line, “i prayed you, miracle, to root through my fingers,” she says the opposite. What we would expect the subject of the sentence to be (fingers), she makes the object, and in doing so, she flips our sense of experience and perception.

The effect, I think, of her poem on the reader is one of simultaneous intimacy and alienation.


March 13, 2009 - Posted by | feminism, poetry

1 Comment »

  1. A friend of mine e-mailed me about this blog post and pointed out that I may have mis-read one of the lines of the poem. The phrase “I rode you piggyback” more likely simply means she gave her son a piggyback ride. And this makes the poem more sweet, as it imagines a specral adventure, and also is kind of a cool description of a piggyback ride– “groundless” because on his mom’s shoulders and so high up as to be among the stars. And in this case, if the child is not born at all, what do we make of the image of the mother curling over him at night? Is he in a crib and she is guarding it, or are they sleeping together?

    My friend was actually somewhat appalled that I would even suggest such an image of a mom piggybacking on top of her unborn child. (I don’t get what’s appalling about it–poetry is supposed to play with imagery like that.)

    Anyway, here’s another poem she found on the internet which is an example of the use of the phrase “rode you piggyback” to refer to the traditional image of the father giving his son a piggyback ride:

    With his strong hands he rocked your cradle, gently but sure,
    For wherin the soft linens lay the babe that was his world.
    He’s the one who gave you kisses and tucked you in at night,
    And said “put up your dukes”, when he taught you how to fight.
    His steady arms steered your bike when you were learning to ride,
    Those same arms once were your favorite place to hide,

    Daddy gave you big bear hugs, and taught you how to play ball,
    The one man that you can count on when you need someone to call.
    He’s the one who rode you piggyback when your legs got tired,
    The one that gave you candy before your dinner on the sly.
    Dad taught you the ‘cool’ music that he loved when he was ‘your age’,
    He introduced you to the best food you’ve ever had on your plate.
    Dad taught you how to snap your fingers, and whistle out loud,
    He brought you up to be strong, independent and proud.
    Daddy told you bedtime stories until your lids got heavy,
    And dad would sit with you and share peanut butter and jelly.
    For all that he has given you and the fun that you have had,
    This Father’s Day do not forget him, your dear and loving dad.
    A card or a small gift, even breakfast in bed will do,
    To tell your father figure truly, “I thank you”.

    Comment by steventhomas | March 16, 2009 | Reply

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