" I thought you were my victory /though you cut me like a knife"
The opening lines of Anne Stevenson's poem The Victory set a tone
of conflict. This poem, at its surface, expresses a mother's thoughts
on giving birth to a son. Stevenson describes the mixed feelings many
mothers have upon the delivery of their first born. The final release
from pregnancy and birthing pains, coupled with the excitement of
bringing a live creature into this world, at first seem a victory to
the new parent. The author goes on to confute the event as a victory.
Using words such as "antagonist" (5), "bruise" (6), and "scary"(13),
she shows the darker side of childbirth. The mother has felt her own
life's blood flowing that a stranger might live "The stains of your
glory bled from my veins." (6-8). That she sees her own child as a
stranger is evident in lines nine and ten, where the child is
described as a "blind thing" (9) with "blank insect eyes"(10). The
mother portrays her baby as a bug, not even human. In the last section
of the poem, two questions are asked, attesting to the mother's
internal conflict. "Why do I have to love you?/ How have you won?"
(15-16). These unanswerable queries are some of the fundamental
questions of our human existence.
Below the topmost layer of meaning in The Victory, is an
underlying theme that any parent or guardian will easily relate to.
Children are born out of the great pain their mothers endure. They are
helpless in one sense, yet they command the care of their parents.
Stevenson describes the intrinsic helplessness of infants with the
words "Blind"(9) and "Hungry"(14). Yet, this poem does not refer to
new born babes alone. Birthing pains do not cease with the delivery of
a child. The conflict described in this poem is felt by parents of
adult children as well. All parents give of their lifeblood, at least
in the emotional sense, in raising and maintaining their offspring.
The Victory is a poem written as if by a mother only just delivered of
a new born son, yet the themes expressed in its lines apply to all the
stages of human life. Stevenson seems to stress the pain that is felt
when one life brings forth another, but there are many pains felt by
parents in ways unphysical. "You barb the air. /You sting with bladed
cries" (11-12) these are sharp words that bring thoughts of tangible
pain. These words also describe mental and emotional pain that is
felt by many parents who sacrifice much for their children. The poem
does not place a guilt on the baby nor, therefore on children in
general. It seems to acknowledges the turmoil of birth and life as
natural. The child who is born today, collects the sacrifice of its
parents and will make sacrifices for the child born tomorrow. Even
though The Victory is worded to sound resentful, as though the mother
begrudges her child his new found life, it also has a resigned tone.
The mother accepts her lot, however painful.
Even deeper into this poem is the hint of feminism. The author
chose the sex of this baby intentionally. She used two references to a
knife, indicating pain inflicted in a manner unnatural. The knife has
traditionallybeen a man's weapon. "Tiny antagonist" (9) could refer to
the entire male gender. "Scary knot of desires" (13) is a reference to
the sex act, which is sometimes seen as male aggression. The child is
the manifestation of this act. "Hungry snarl! Small son." (14) the use
of an animalistic noise directly precedes the revelation of the baby's
gender. Once again Stevenson's choice of words reminds one of male
aggression. The woman in the poem seems to feel cheated in bearing a
male child to the man who is indirectly responsible for her condition.
Why does she have to love him? Does that sum up the plight of woman?
Is it Eve's curse that woman shall embrace man, though in so doing she
must suffer childbirth to bring forth more men? (Or daughters who
shall suffer likewise.) Is that how he has won? The Victory asks us
these questions. They cannot be answered.