By Ananya Wilson-Bhattacharya

I was eager to get my hands on a copy of Alison Winch’s debut poetry collection, Darling, It’s Me. With fiercely feminist’ poems on the themes of motherhood and marriage, I was expecting rich, analysable material and I undoubtedly found it. Winch intersperses her narrative of contemporary women’s experiences with a series of extended metaphors rooted in Enlightenment philosophies and the European societies where these were developed, occasionally shifting form to witty sketches involving philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

One of the more radical aspects of the collection, beyond Winch’s candid discussion of breastfeeding and female sexual pleasure (which feels a lot less controversial, especially within poetry, than it may have done even 15 years ago), is her daring to situate these experiences within a political context of austerity-induced poverty. This emerges explicitly, and with biting wit, in ‘Thomas Hobbes Works Motherhood’. The piece sees Hobbes morph bizarrely into a twenty-first-century working mum, leading him to question his much-cited championing of individualism and self-sufficiency. ‘Back in the day, choice meant doubt and fallibility. Now it is empowerment! agency! control!

These lines subtly observe the shift in Western societies’ understanding of choice: individuals making their own choices is no longer seen as unsafe or daring, but, as Winch sarcastically highlights, has been widely embraced by mainstream Western feminism. Winch exposes the limitations of this discourse through the statement, a few lines later: ‘I choose low wage working motherhood’. This line, and the mention in this same poem of ‘the closure of Sure Start Centres, NHS cuts, cost of everything’, locate Winch’s criticism of Hobbes’ philosophy within a protest against current British neoliberal capitalism. This poem is crucial, as it is the first serious suggestion that Winch’s feminism is intersectional. Hobbes’ ideologies are tested bitterly, not only against women’s experiences in general, but specifically against those of poor and working-class mothers in the UK today.

In fact, this is one of the few open criticisms of capitalism in Winch’s collection. Much of her feminist social commentary throughout manifests through solidly (upper)middle-class imagery, both in her satirical portrayals of Enlightenment society (ridden with words like ‘venison’, ‘Opera’ and ‘pigeon pie’), and in the contemporary references and passages which represent her speaker’s standpoint. Winch’s recurring mentions of well-known London locations and features like ‘Acton Town’, ‘Kingsland Road’, ‘the 29 bus’, ‘Finsbury Park’ and ‘Euston Road’ read as a somewhat unconvincing attempt to cut into these comfortable pictures with harsh grittiness, in fact ultimately being more evocative of increasing gentrification. This is especially apparent in ‘Baps’, which sees the speaker breastfeed ‘modestly in the glam-/ smell of West London/ its artisan cafes and smashed avo’. While Winch’s overarching point here is the perceived taboo of breastfeeding publicly, not least in such an upmarket and ‘glam’ setting, her speaker remains securely located within such settings across many of the poems in the collection. (Another possible exception to this is ‘Alisoun’s’, a Middle English poem based on the carpenter’s wife in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, but ‘[men’s] wrecched love of property’ here clearly refers to an established metaphor for patriarchy, rather than to economic ideology.)

Winch’s contesting of Enlightenment philosophy only rarely extends beyond basic feminist notions of bodily autonomy

Indeed, much of the deliberately anachronistic fusion of Enlightenment-era and twenty-first-century cultural references – which remain confined to such middle-class and aristocratic societies – feels somewhat limited and cliché. Winch’s contesting of Enlightenment philosophy only rarely extends beyond basic feminist notions of bodily autonomy, which she uses to undermine various philosophers’ inherent misogyny in their double standards around male and female sexuality. Such criticisms of these philosophers are not new, nor has the popularity of their arguments in contemporary philosophy gone unnoticed and unquestioned. Indeed, ‘dead white men’ with deep-seated racist and patriarchal views are heavily present within syllabuses at various levels of education. This is a central focus of the broader ‘decolonisation’ movement across the UK, in which activists and academics have both criticised such figures and suggested alternative writers and philosophers to be given equal attention. Winch’s attack on Enlightenment philosophers was the perfect opportunity for her to engage with this discourse, providing a highly contemporary angle on their position within the curriculum. Instead, her use of their work is strikingly selective, sticking largely to points which have been made many times before and which tie in most simplistically with her focus on women’s bodies and motherhood.

This ability to seamlessly weave humour into otherwise bleak and disturbing passages, without it feeling jarring or trivialising, is one of Winch’s greatest strengths

The allusion to slavery towards the end of the collection in ‘The Real Housewives of Curriculum Philosophy’, a poem structured as a play which follows on from ‘Thomas Hobbes Works Motherhood’ casting both Hobbes and Locke as struggling new mothers, is the closest Winch comes to any race-related critique. This is a long overdue acknowledgement that those condemned by Enlightenment philosophy were not all white or Western. Winch finally demonstrates her awareness of this through a quote from David Hume: ‘I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men … to be naturally inferior to the whites’, which is comically attributed to an infant Hume – apparently the child of Hobbes and Locke. The metaphor ingeniously illustrates how Enlightenment individualist philosophy breeds explicit white supremacy, and the ensuing dialogue between Hobbes and Locke underlines the oppression both of women and of ‘other men’ inherent to such notions of white male liberty.

Despite her parodies sometimes feeling tired and fairly predictable, Winch’s subtle and understated wit decidedly lends flair to certain moments, often through simple linguistic moves. The witty rhyme of the sentence ‘Hobbes sobs’ at the close of a stanza of ‘Thomas Hobbes Works Motherhood’, for instance, deftly undercuts the darker (directly preceding) mention of ‘psychosis, suicide, infanticide’. This ability to seamlessly weave humour into otherwise bleak and disturbing passages, without it feeling jarring or trivialising, is one of Winch’s greatest strengths, which undermines the potential blandness of the rhetoric and makes the collection well worth reading – if often politically frustrating for the left-wing and/or intersectional feminists amongst her readers.

Darling, It’s Me is published by Penned in the Margins, 2019.

Featured image: Penned in the Margins

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