Poets are born, they say, not made. By the time of my own birth I was an over-cooked baby, having dallied in the interior of The Mudda for week after overcast week beyond the normal term. After such dalliance, little wonder I hanker to recover Arcadia. I am Boon, and begin by imagining the Mudda in the place where I was born long years before Australia and my friendship with Henry Luck.
The Mudda is what I called her and these two blunt syllables with their definite article established for me a proper distance. How else to share the world with the person who had carried me inside herself?
As my embryonic presence swelled her usually neat, Flemish frame, this grew ungainly as a washtub, and needed to be hauled, ah, upstairs, uphill, upfront and ups-a-daisy, onto double-decker buses and into the Pa’s small black car, this Mudda, my Mudda, being throughout these indignities Boon-buoyant, Boon-weary with the burden of me.
Did she complain? I believe not. If she sat at table, I was a round under her grey smock like a great cheese remembered from the plenty of pre-war Holland. If she returned from wet Woolwich High Street where she had stood half an hour in the queue for a ration of sausages or liver, she felt my presence as a grapnel on her every fibre. Her patience, her resilience, were entering my character, as were some of the qualities of her Brabanter forbears, my clean complexion and open forehead, my good-natured nose and my eyes a little too trusting of the world, perhaps.
And if I pushed out my fist or my foot, how do I evoke the strangeness of her sensations? Here, did she but sense it, was a live butterfly fluttering against the interior of a balloon, here was the gear-stick of a small black car pushed back and forth against her inner fabric?
‘Nou, we zullen zien wat er gaat gebeuren,’ she growled, first in her own language to mask her impatience with the pregnancy, then in English, to show politeness to her host country’s maternity nurse, ‘We must see what comes, of course.’
If the Mudda’s patience was sometimes tested, I appeared at ease with the situation. Through those weeks of the British winter and early spring I hunched in the placental tree-house, stem-fed by her magnificent system. Into my future flowed those exact proteins and vitamins she could extract from the spam, the herring, the dried egg of that tin-food era, the orange juice, rose hip syrup and extra allowance of milk allowed for this pregnancy by her green ration card. While the Pa – unlikely career soldier – beavered among his memos at the British War Office, I spent the day, either rocked asleep by the Mudda’s internal rhythms, or dreamily pushing that exploratory gear-stick against her womb wall.
Do embryos dream? Did my own lifelong attachment to reverie begin in the tree house with some part-aural, part-maternal-fantasy? Is this where the protozoa of poems originate? For the muse is said to be a mother-figure.
Beglub-beglub pumped the Mudda’s heart. Gloink, her intestinal plumbing eased itself. Purrr, slid her blood along its Flemish conduits.
Is it possible my proto-intellect was actually wired to the maternal dreaming during her final weeks of pregnancy in the Woolwich army quarter? From some trace-memory I possess, here is Mrs Boon dozing during the February afternoons, tiaras of raindrops agleam under the telegraph wires, while the scenes behind her eyelids show the imminent Boon, a spiked coronet on my round head that must surely tear her as I leave her. Then, in this phantasmagoria of a woman-with-child in a monarchic nation not her own, she watches as I grow away from her wounded body, recede to some altitude above her head like a gargoyle leering from the façade of one of those decorous, overbearing English cathedrals that her Englishman husband had shown her during his intervals of post-war army leave.
Week to week, cell on cell, morula, blastocyst, trophoblast, from fertilized ovum to gargoyle I grew. Ears, limbs, testicles popped from me like mushrooms. Blood went beading along my arteries and capillaries; insulin was secreted; teeth aligned themselves below the gums in preparation for their future troublemaking. I gained the full human kit, with the apparent exception of the will to move on from that original tree-house welfare state. So complacent was my attitude to being born, it was decided three weeks after my term I would need medical help to be induced into the world. Poeta nascitur, non fit.
(An excerpt from the manuscript of the novel, The Poets’ Stairwell, by Alan Gould)