Hysterical Water is a collection of fierce, funny, feminist poems, prose poems, and essays with poems woven through them, all connected by threads associated with female “hysteria” and motherhood. Hannah Baker Saltmarsh troubles the historic pseudodiagnostic term hysteria as both a constraining mode used to contain and silence women and as a mode that oddly freed women to behave outside the bounds of social norms.
The poems in this collection question the way maternal thinking, sexuality, affect, and creativity have been dismissed as hysterical. Saltmarsh reclaims the word hysteria by arguing that women poets might, in art as in life, celebrate incongruous emotional experiences. Drawing on and reshaping an intriguing array of source materials, Saltmarsh borrows from the language of uncontrollable emotion, excess, cure, remedy, and cult-like obsession to give shape not only to the maternal body but also to a hysterical textual one. She revisits selective silence and selective speech in everyday crises of feelings, engages meaningful “anticommunication” through odd gestures and symbols, and indulges in nonsensical dream-speak, among other tactics, to carve a feminist poetics of madness out of the masculinist discourse that has located in the woman the hysteric.