Daughters of Empire by Jane Satterfield

May 18, 2010 | 2 Comments

Somehow,” Jane Satterfied had hoped, standing in Brontes’ Yorkshire, “this landscape would reveal the pathway out of the confinements of my life.” The irony of searching for liberation on the doorstep of one of the most confined of literary sisterhoods is not lost in the essays and prose poems of Daughters of Exile: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (2009, Demeter Press). From 1994 to 1995 Satterfield spent a year in Staffordshire, England, while her husband fulfilled a Fulbright teaching exchange. It was, in one sense, a home-coming, because Satterfield was born in England and has an English mother. But home-comings are rarely easy, and while her marriage crumbled and she struggled to find a creative niche on the dingy periphery of the M6 motorway, she, to use the British term, fell pregnant, and fell, fell, flailing into the terrifying vortex of new motherhood. Daughters of Empire describes a world suddenly marbled by vertigo, where the terra is no longer firma, where one’s body is a foreign country, where sensual and creative energies are smothered, constricted, then transformed.

Although her musings on 90s bands, on Diana, Princess of Wales, and on physical and metaphysical hunger are engaging, it is Satterfield’s canny renderings of the scratched linoleum horrors of the National Health Service, (offset by the cosy charms of the visiting midwives, the equivalent of whom doesn’t exist in the US unless one forks out for a doula), and her wry and true observations about being a Mother (with a capital M), which really stand out. Her sensual evocation of life Up North is bang on: “the guitar drone of Oasis, tandoori, the smell of fish and sausages frying, grease upon second-hand smoke: I’d landed in a world no literature could glamorize.” Yes, pet, welcome t’t Stoke. The collection concludes with hints that (like this sister exile), Satterfield has come to terms with cultural dissonance, with a life bobbing between two shores, knowing from such feelings of otherness that poetry is birthed; by the book’s end, she’s learned to look life in the eye.
I would have preferred a tad more structure and judicious editing, but somehow the collection’s fragmented form and temporal dislocation complements the material. There is no linear resolution to the conflicting demands of a woman’s life, only the hope of one day making peace with it. As a new mother struggling to find time to write, I took comfort from Satterfield, knowing that there will be a moment when I, too, will have “kissed my daughter’s forehead and

picked up my pen.”(Note left, my Daughters, the incomparable Empire biscuit: two light shortbread biscuits (cookies) sandwiched with jam and topped, preferably, with a jelly tot (a sugared gumdrop) and not, as shown here in its more vulgar variant, with a machete-d maraschino cherry (pronounced “mara-chine-o” in Glaswegian…) Every suburban housewife should be capable of rustling these up (the Uber-Mommies will bake the biscuits from scratch, while the Shameless Slackers like myself will simply buy ’em and slap ’em together), but no excuses, ladies, ditch that poetry and tie your pinny on.)