Woven into the Fabric of the Text: Subversive Material Metaphors in Academic Writing

Originally published by the LSE Review of Books as part of their Material Cultures of Research series.

It’s rather like a ball of yarn when it gets tangled up. We hold it this way, and carefully wind out the strands on our spindles, now this way, now that way. That’s how we’ll wind up this war, if we’re allowed: unsnarling it by sending embassies, now this way, now that way.

Lysistrata

Often there is no space in my favourite café with its walls of textured teal, thronged with faces that may have meant something once to people who’ve long since donated the quirky paintings and photos to a charity shop. Anyone can find their place among them, bending or stretching to frame a new face in one of the pitted art deco mirrors. Even the rickety tables in the middle, little inhospitable islands buffeted by passing elbows and rucksacks, are full. Academic disciplines are like this: bustling, tightly knit communities, space at a premium. Customs and practices woven into a rich tapestry of enquiry and knowledge; questions and answers interlaced; threads taken up from the writings of the serious, scholarly faces peering down from their frames. But different as each discipline might be from the others – the colours of the walls, the style of the frames and how they are arranged – there’s a common strand that runs through: we write.

Weeks later, I sit at my temporary desk – a borrowed kitchen table with one leaf folded down – in my new study that used to be a kitchen. I can see the eighty-year-old seams of the house: two doorways once led to a scullery and a coal store, bricked up now but not yet smoothed out of sight by plaster. Copper pipes, dully glowing, cut off partway down the wall. Compared to what would have been the parlour and dining room, this kitchen was tiny, more reflective of the lowly status of the person who cooked and cleaned than how much space they might need. The women of this house would toil here and now so do I, writing to reinvent, to cobble together fragments in the pauses between other things. Stitching rejected remnants, making a form of frameless art, like a patchwork quilt.

The previous two paragraphs are stuffed with material metaphors: knitting, weaving, tapestry, embroidery and quilting variously represent kinship, identity, complexity, time, structure and style. In the social sciences, though, often we write about our research as if theories and arguments are buildings. Theories have frameworks and foundations and they need support. Arguments can be constructedshored up by facts and buttressed with a solid line of reasoning. Sometimes they can be shaky and even fall down. But as well as communicating what we mean, metaphors structure our thinking. Or, at least, the metaphors we choose when we write can reveal a great deal about underlying assumptions. The theories-as-buildings metaphor always makes me imagine an enormous wall made of rectangular bricks, orderly and straight, progressing upwards and onwards. The researcher’s job is to climb the scaffolding, find a gap near the top and make a brick to fill it, or to knock a few crumbling bricks out and replace them with others, strong and freshly fired. Or rarely, to grab a spade and start digging a new foundation, because this metaphor doesn’t work like Minecraft: bricks can’t float, unsupported.

Why does this way of thinking about knowledge hold such sway over us? For one thing, it offers a comforting sense of progress and control. Buildings have blueprints; their construction appears to proceed in a predictable fashion; engineers can calculate precisely where the load bearing walls and lintels need to be; construction workers know how to mix the mortar so it won’t crumble. Making buildings is also something that happens in the public sphere; even with houses, the insides only become private when the work is finished and people move in. And though we all know full well that knowledge creation doesn’t actually happen in the controlled and predictable way the metaphor implies, this is the structure that it imposes on our writing: an activity that is orderly, involves rationality over emotion and inhabits the public sphere not the private. Notice that these are a set of characteristics that fit nicely with conventional notions of masculinity.

Needlecraft metaphors offer another way of thinking about the creative and generative practice of writing – and about how we write in relation to particular knowledge claims and communities – that is more about piecing together fragments…

…patchwork from best gowns,

winter woollens, linens, blankets, worked jigsaw

of the memories of braided lives, precious

scraps…(Marge Piercy, ‘Looking at Quilts’, 21)

…of things of varying source and quality (at least, in conventional terms) that wouldn’t necessarily fit together seamlessly in the more structured metaphorical tradition of theories-as-buildings. This essay, for example, was stitched together ‘by squares, by inches’ (Joyce Carol Oates, Celestial Timepiece, 22) from fragments of life writing, books, articles and blogs written by feminist art historians and quilt makers, poetry, references to Aristophanes and Thomas Pynchon, books about linguistics and philosophy, personal experience and belief. And now it forms a single piece.

But why do I regard switching from a metaphor of building to one of stitching as a subversive act? For several reasons. Throughout history, needlework has been a marker of femininity in its various iterations, a means to inculcate it, and something to sneer at as a way of shoring up women’s supposed inferiority. Theodore Roethke described women’s poetry as ‘the embroidering of trivial themes […] running between the boudoir and the alter, stamping a tiny foot against God…’ (165), for example. Women’s naturally nimble fingers were to be occupied; we were to be kept out of the way and out of trouble, shut in the top room of a circular tower and thus prevented from engaging in the masculine pursuits of politics, thinking, reading and writing and making Art (for a fascinating discussion on women, folk art and cultural femicide, I recommend this post by Dr Lucy Allen-Goss). The frills and fripperies our needles produced were ample evidence, should anyone require it, that we were frivolous creatures entirely unsuited to public life. Or so the story was. So using needlework metaphors in my academic writing blows a resonant raspberry to that notion, for one thing. But the subversion here is not as straightforward as reclamation, of presenting something usually disparaged as having value after all. Femininity and its inculcation is a displeasingly twisted yarn of benevolence and belittlement. The trick is to unpick the knots without snapping the thread and unravelling the beautiful work, to value that which has been constructed as feminine while at the same time escaping its constricting net.

Imagining academic writing as piecing fragments is one way of recognising that it can integrate all sorts of sources but, more significantly, piecing is also a decentred activity. When quilting, one can plan, cut and stitch many individual squares whenever there is a moment spare, before bringing them together to form the overall pattern, which is flat and in aesthetic terms may have no centre or many centres, and no predetermined start or end. This holds true both for the practice of quilting and how we might think differently about academic writing, with each contribution not a brick in a structured wall but a square ready to stitch onto other squares to make something expected or unexpected, the goal depth and intensity rather than progress (see Mara Witzling). There is sedition here in several senses. This way of imagining how writing works is not individualistic or competitive. Each voice is a thread, and only when they are woven together do they form a whole, as Ann Hamilton’s tapestries represent social collaboration and interconnectedness; many voices not one, cut from the same cloth or different.

But acknowledging that one might have to fit the work of writing around other things, a problem that has occupied me from the moment I became a mother, is a particularly rebellious act, I think. As Adrienne Rich expresses in the poem ‘Transcendental Etude’:

Vision begins to happen in such a life

as if a woman quietly walked away

from the argument and jargon in a room

and sitting down in the kitchen, began turning in her lap

bits of yarn, calico and velvet scraps,

laying them out absently on the scrubbed boards

in the lamplight, with small rainbow-colored shells

sent in cotton-wool from somewhere far away,

and skeins of milkweed from the nearest meadow –

original domestic silk, the finest findings

This way of imagining academic writing as something that is part of life, rather than something apart, challenges the view of the scholar as the extraordinary, solitary genius who sits alone in his study day after day while the minutiae of clothing and food is organised for him, around him, despite him. But with metaphors that emphasise the piecing of fragments, both everyday and exceptional, we recognise a way of working in which every fragment that can be pieced together into a square is ‘the preservation of a woman’s voice’.

They multiply their wings

This piece was written in collaboration with composer Christopher Cook and won the RNCM Rosamond Prize 2022.

Performed in 2022 at the RNCM by Georgie Malcolm (soprano), Elena Orsi (Violin), Jeanette Hiu Ying Szeto (Viola), Kara Taylor (Cello) and Jo Dawson (Cello).

They multiply their wings

lit with pale sparks
and take flight

in their wake, nothing
but bare black barbs.

All but one, trapped, contrite
She plucks him

by one foot
and lets him fly.

Where life begins and ends

Originally published by Oxford Writers’ House as part of their Hinterlands series.

The pain began at 5am, after a night of fitful rest and vivid dreams. In bed, lying on my left side, facing the white lacquered built-in cupboard lined with shiny green and pink 1980s wallpaper. The cupboard is too narrow to be useful but we can’t change it, it’s not our cottage. Later I sit bolt upright on the sofa, like a suspect in an interview room. Please state your name for the tape. Where were you on the afternoon of the twelfth of November? By that time I was on the way, travelling to the place where I was born.

Ivy was so tiny that she had no hair at all, not even eyelashes, and she could be bathed in a jug. Her hair never really grew properly, and to cover its sparseness she often wore a red beret.

Unlike me, my mother was born at home, at the centre of everything, in Nanny Roberts’s front bedroom at Haig Place. My grandmother, Rita, was born at home too, in the Roberts family’s tiny cottage in Llandough. And her mother, the woman who became Ivy Roberts, was born in Queen Street, Barry Island. Ivy was so tiny that she had no hair at all, not even eyelashes, and she could be bathed in a jug. Her hair never really grew properly, and to cover its sparseness she often wore a red beret. When she nursed wounded soldiers at Llandough hospital she wore a white cap as part of her uniform, but Ted Roberts, who spent months in a mustard gas coma with shrapnel lodged in his spine, would always tell his daughters he first saw 17-year-old Ivy wearing her red beret; he called it her ‘berry’. That Ted Roberts, Ivy’s mother called him. The broken soldier who could only shuffle, fifteen years older, who married Ivy when she was already four months pregnant. That Ted Roberts.

But twenty-five years ago – give or take a few weeks – I was born here, in this hospital. On the outside it hasn’t changed at all; an ugly concrete slab slapped onto a steep hill. Hobble down grey concrete steps, across the ambulance bay, through double doors to find a sweeping curve of reception desk that matched the Scandinavian style laminate floor, a basement swarming with a strip light buzz. Phones ringing, feet bustling, pop music from the speakers. The oily smell of waiting room chairs with base notes of sickly floral disinfectant. Lying on my back on a high, hard bed with a plastic mattress, knees dropped, dignity a tattered flag, to discover how many centimetres dilated I am. Too few. Go home. We can’t help yet. Try a warm bath.

That Ted Roberts, Ivy’s mother called him. The broken soldier who could only shuffle, fifteen years older, who married Ivy when she was already four months pregnant. That Ted Roberts.

Warm baths are soon cold, and anyway the prone position is wrong for the pain. Wrong for the tiny fingers inside, clinging to the spine like ivy growing up a fence, the weight of a thousand tendrils crushing it to splinters. Back on the ancient sofa, lemon yellow with tiny green flowers. It’s not mine but it sags in the middle in just the right way to make it bearable, as if I’ve always sat here like this. A visitor, unwelcome footsteps clack across the floorboards we sanded and varnished a few weeks ago. I sit upright, chin lowered to chest like a stubborn toddler, and stare at her sensible, low-heeled pumps. She’s said nothing, done nothing, and yet I resent her intrusion with the throbbing deep red of treacherous muscles: the furious colour of my insides. My unblinking eyes scorch her shoes until they are dry and burning and the shine fades to a dull glow. Maybe she feels the heat. I don’t look up, the shoes move out of my vision, and I hear the soft swish of the front door pulled shut.

Hours more, it must be time to go again. Back up the motorway, wincing and gasping at every bump. Down the treacherous sharp-edged steps again, across the yellow hatchings of the ambulance bay, again, and through the double doors. The oily chemical-floral smell, the hard-backed chairs upholstered in hairy blue, lining the endless corridor in which we wait. Rhythmic music. Flashes of perception… I don’t know who you are, but you must be some kind of superstar… We are ushered into a different room with the same high metal bed with the plastic mattress. I just want to know, I’ve got no frame of reference for this, I explain. It’s my first time. Will it get worse than this? I just need to know, so I can prepare. I’ve already been awake for 15 hours with these pains every five minutes – I don’t think they believe me about that – and I just need to know.

Rita had her first son in Nanny Roberts’s front bedroom, during the war. Not in the Blitz, when Cardiff residents would cringe from the sound of the balloon barrage on Ely Racecourse and the growl of Henkel bombers looking for the Currans factories where Rita stitched aircraft wings, but just after the Normandy landings. Jim was an officer in the RAF and he would talk to Grandpa Roberts, by now confined to his wheelchair. He would confide in him, and only him, about the horrors he witnessed, and those he caused. Like the time they shot down a German bomber somewhere off the south coast and circled while the aircraft and crew were mired, helpless before the tide. Jim wasn’t supposed to talk about it, of course, but his father-in-law understood as few others could. Understood these young men, always so close to death, who took uppers for missions and downers so they could sleep afterwards.

It does get worse, of course it does. The shift changes, my new midwife is older. I tell her I haven’t slept for more than 24 hours. She tells me in her lilting accent that guidelines advise against it, it makes the baby drowsy, but if I want she can give me a shot that’ll help me sleep for a few hours. I want. I lie on my side; she strokes my hair back from my face and tucks the sheet around me. I can still feel the pain in my back, just a dull roar, like an ocean from behind the dunes. But the line between dream and reality blurs, shapes move around the dimly lit room, whispering. I think someone’s trying to sleep leaning against a birthing ball. The squeaks of discomfort become an inflatable dinghy swept out on the tide, riding the swell.

Memories become damaged footage, connecting tissue dissolved, each new scene introduced with the click of a dusty slide projector. I’m in another room, with the same bed. How did I get here, did I walk, was I wheeled… Lighter here, perhaps day time. I don’t know time: it bounds forwards, I scamper to catch up. Another shift change. The new new midwife is slight and blonde. It’s been a while now hasn’t it, perhaps I’d like to consider an epidural. I would. We’ll have to monitor you; you’ll have to be still. That’s fine, can’t move anyway. We wait for the anaesthetist. I can’t believe they’ve left you like this for so long. It’s just the two of us; I’m perched on the edge of my high bed, leaning forward. She doesn’t get it quite right on the first attempt, has to pull the needle out and try again. It’s just another kind of pain, nothing special, if anything the variety is a relief.

When Lizzie Roberts, mother of That Ted Roberts, was a midwife there was none of this. If I’d lived then, I would have died. Lizzie had a pony and trap, and off she would go, down the lanes into the countryside. Although she died when Ted was in the trenches, Lizzie was still remembered when Ted’s daughters were youngsters in the village; she had delivered lots of people, or their parents, or their grandparents, and they remembered. Midwives like Lizzie – handywomen, women you called for – learned from experience and from older women. They delivered babies, nursed the sick, and laid out the dead. For working class women, a midwife was often the only help they got, if they couldn’t afford the doctor’s fee. Midwives like Lizzie were stamped out by middle-class reformers like Alice Gregory, the daughter of the Dean of St Paul’s, who saw the properly trained midwife as a holy crusader against the Devil’s emissaries: superstition, dirt, germs that bring disease; the superficiality and carelessness of the nurse; the ignorance and laziness of the mother.

I’m afraid I’ll drop him, I tell them. You won’t, they reassure me. But I might, I can feel the slipping. Alone in the ward I dream that black and white birds, four for a boy, scream at me from twisted branches, warning, there’s something I’ve forgotten.

I think the baby’s in distress, the midwife says, his heartbeat is slowing right down with every contraction. The registrar turns up the audio and as the needle sketches out the jagged mountains of a contraction I don’t feel, the heartbeat changes from a quick patter to a pat… thud… silence. My breath swoops in response, but as the contraction’s peaks give way to rolling hills, the heart’s burbling resumes. He needs to come out now; we’ll top up the epidural and take you to theatre. In theatre is music, kind eyes above surgical masks, laughter and jokes. A sweep of a mint green curtain hides my stomach, a huge clock says ten-to-midnight. What day is it? It’s the thirteenth. Can you wait until midnight, so he’s not born on an unlucky day? By the time he’s out it will be the fourteenth, a muffled voice reassures me.

We’re pushed from recovery to the ward. They’ve wrapped him in blankets and tucked him into my side, but I know I’m too weak to hold him properly. I’m afraid I’ll drop him, I tell them. You won’t, they reassure me. But I might, I can feel the slipping. Alone in the ward I dream that black and white birds, four for a boy, scream at me from twisted branches, warning, there’s something I’ve forgotten. I’m poised between awareness and unconsciousness, delirious from lack of sleep and codeine, afraid to let go in case I dive too deep and drown from sleeping. There’s something to remember. My neck is cricked but there’s a reason not to turn my head: this tiny, silent creature nestled in his plastic tank. If I stare at him, if I don’t turn my head away, that’s enough mothering, for now.

The second time was different: harsher, more urgent. 30 minutes after we arrived, I thought the rushing sensation must be my waters breaking, but it was bright blood, a bow wave down the crisp sheets to knees, then ankles. Don’t think about what would have happened if we’d waited it out at home, like last time. They ran down the corridor to the theatre, pushing me in my metal bed with the plastic mattress. The shock of a blown cannula in my right hand, unable to communicate this new bright pain through the anaesthesia mask. An image, one I thought would be the last thing I saw, of someone putting her arm around my midwife’s shoulder as her shock dissolved to tears, reassuring her, she’s going to be alright you know. This is it, I thought, and fixed my 3-year-old son’s face in my mind, until everything faded.

Rita could hold the new baby, sitting in her chair, arms propped up with cushions, her elegant, once skilful arthritic fingers cradling the tiny creature. I have a photograph of them together, where life begins and ends.