Motherhood is complicated. Perhaps due to its complicated nature, poets often gravitate toward this subject. Anne Stevenson is one of many poets who write about motherhood. She takes on this topic in her trademark way of handling topics in her poems—by wondering and speculating. “The Victory” is one such poem. In summary, “The Victory” is about a mother’s experience of ambivalence about her son’s birth. The poem seems to take place immediately after the persona gives birth to a son, during which she is probably tired, in pain, but also relieved and glad about a successful birth. However, the poem is full of conflict from beginning to end. An analysis of the poem reveals how Stevenson used the imagery elements of poetry to unravel the persona’s internal conflict about motherhood.
“The Victory” begins with a statement addressed to the persona’s newborn child. This statement immediately establishes the conflict by highlighting the change in the persona’s thoughts about her child. Where the act of bringing forth a new life is often glorified, Stevenson highlights the pain involved in the process—“though you cut me like a knife / when I brought you out of my body / into your life.” The next stanzas describe the newborn child—“tiny antagonist,” “gory,” “blue as a bruise,” “blind thing,” “blank insect eyes.” These are not terms usually used to describe a newborn child, yet in the most objective view, most of them are quite true of newborn infants. The last two lines of the third stanza and the last stanza reveal images that reflect the persona’s opinion of her child. The revelation that the child is a son is followed by two piercing questions—“why do I have to love you? / How have you won?”
The imagery used by Stevenson is not commonly used in poems about birth. Childbirth is often portrayed as a beautiful phenomenon, described in the most romantic of languages. Stevenson does not mention this “beauty” of childbirth. The first image she invokes is that of victory. But before she could expound on the kind of victory she is referring to, the true images surrounding childbirth occupies the lines. By writing a more realistic description of the pains and bloody nature of childbirth, Stevenson exposes the reader to the realities of women, and perhaps those who suffer from post-partum depression. Because childbirth has been romanticized for so long, this other, very real, aspect is overlooked. Until very recently, these pains—post-partum depression, for instance—were not acknowledged or treated. Women suffered in silence. Even today, writing about post-partum depression is considered writing about a controversial issue.
Stevenson’s honesty regarding motherhood does not stop there, however. Not only is the description of the newborn child free of romanticization, the last two lines of the poem also reveal a painful truth:
Why do I have to love you?
How have you won?
Rather, it tells the truth that the mother does not feel love for her son but recognizes her responsibility to do so.
The poem’s use of unpleasant imagery complements the aforementioned sentiments. The reader is forced to see the newborn infant through the eyes of the persona, and sees not a human but a thing, an insect, a snail, an antagonist, a knot of desires. This reveals the persona’s emotional distance from her child. She does not see the child as an extension of herself, or a representation of a trauma, but as the source of future pain and suffering. The infant is aligned with painful imagery, too:
“though you cut me like a knife”
“the stains / of your cloud of glory / bled from my veins”
“You barb the air. You sting / with bladed cries.”
In doing so, Stevenson invokes the theme of unjust male dominance in society. As soon as the reader reads “Small son” after all the non-human and violent images, the theme of gender inequality bursts out. A new layer of meaning is revealed. Stevenson implies a different set of rules and expectations on mothers who have sons, as opposed to those with daughters. A son must be loved no matter how much pain he inflicts upon his mother and women as a whole. Even his cries are different—they sting and are sharp, therefore cannot be ignored.
Stevenson’s use of such imagery ultimately removes the infant son’s innocence. As soon as this infant was borne from her body, he is already guilty of crimes against women, in particular his mother. However, it is worth noting that throughout the poem, the infant does not do anything unusual. Indeed, his only crime is being born male—a reversal of the trope of being in the wrong for being born female. The infant is not guilty because of what he did, but because of what he is. Just as it is expected of the persona to love the child unconditionally, the male child—at least for the persona—is expected and bound to cause pain whether he likes it or not. The persona seems to be aware of this, too. Though it seems like the contrary, the persona’s last two questions suggest concession instead of anger. She concedes that despite the pain, and the lack of emotional affection she feels, she has no choice but to love and take care of him.
Stevenson’s “The Victory” is a strong feminist piece. At first reading, it seems like a very angry piece of poetry. It may even be considered to have tones of misandry. However, the poem, in fact, is about the persona’s—the woman’s—acceptance of her fate as the mother of a male child. As mentioned in the thesis statement, through the use of strong imagery that is not commonly associated with childbirth and newborn children, Stevenson was able to convey the complexity of motherhood and the fact that it is also drenched in issues of sexism. Stevenson’s poem is emotionally striking and socially charged. Although “The Victory” was published decades ago, a review of this poem proves that it is still relevant to this day.