"Is my skin alabaster? Then it's cold and hard and one day
someone will skin me, and make me into a cold hard
box tinged with pink or yellow, to hold unguents, then
how will you love me?"
So writes Rachel Zucker in her poem "Don't Say Anything Beautiful Kiss Me." I like this. I've always dwelled in a body and am suspicious of those who don't. My body is surface and interior. It isn't along for the ride, it is the ride, and not only do I have a body, but I also am that body. It's the stuff of science fiction. Or poetry.
While the Cartesian mind-body split governs many a lyric, there's an abiding lineage of writers who are freaked out and rapt (wrapped!) in the body. Without them, poetry is a sorrier pursuit, and without the body, it rings a bit hollow. Consider the modernist repertoire. It tends well to the mind, but for the most part, it does a ham-fisted, half-assed job on the body. Enter Mina Loy. In Loy's speakers, we travel the extraterrestrial terrain of genius and the "spoiled closet" of the human form, starkly aware that we can't party in the former without waking hungover in the latter. Loy's bodies shamelessly ferment, rebel, and hum. In the introduction to Lost Lunar Baedeker, we learn "the public's prevailing objections: if she could dress like a lady, why couldn’t she write like one?" A lady eschews the corporeal and ignores her immanence therein. Through painting, drawing, music, and fine linens, ladies transcend their vulgar physicality, which otherwise has the nasty habit of reminding men that they too sport bodies. It isn't ladylike to insist that all bodies are subject to lust, birth, disease, and age, but it is awfully human.
The trouble (the thrill!) with Loy, and (I'd hazard) the reason it took so long to find her a niche in the canon, is that sex leads to illness, old age, corpse-strewn death, and, duh, pregnancy. Her poem "Parturition," unlike anything else of its time, focuses exclusively on the mother, a somehow shocking subject for a childbirth narrative:
I should have been emptied of life
Have I not
A dead white feathered moth
These lines have affinity with Marianne Moore's "Critics and Connoisseurs": "I have / seen a fastidious ant carrying a stick north, south, / east, west, till it turned on / itself." In Moore's case, however, an analogical abstraction overshadows the painful physical burden. Moore's speaker muses on existence, while Loy's speaker delivers existence. Moore's speaker keeps her hands clean; Loy's loses her head.
Loy isn't the only embodied haint in the house of the mind. James Dickey on Anne Sexton: "It would be hard to find a writer who dwells more insistently on the pathetic and disgusting aspects of bodily experience." Sexton: "Fact: the body is dumb, the body is meat." I am terrified, relieved, delighted, and wracked by a writer who dwells on its less lofty aspects. Sexton rolls out the gut-wrenching "dark socket" in "The Abortion," solid ghosts with "their breasts limp as killed fish" and the girdled woman's "thighs, thick as young pigs." Yet, while her disappointed and disappointing female bodies are pillaged, they also joyously, literally contain multitudes. "In Celebration of my Uterus": "Everyone in me is a bird. / I am beating all my wings....Each cell has a life. / There is enough here to please a nation."
I don't intend to privilege the position of the breeder. Walter Benjamin: "None of the properties of creativity is adequately expressed in metaphors drawn from the life process. To beget and to give birth are no more creative than to die is annihilating." It's creative writing 101. Don't kill your narrator, don't send her into labor. However, like death, birth offers a lens through which we can all peer and learn something about what it means to be an animal with culture. Contemporarily, we've an embarrassment of riches when it comes to poems about that peculiar state in which one human grows another inside her own form. In the fierce Not For Mothers Only: Contemporary Poems on Child-Getting & Child-Rearing, edited by Catherine Wagner and Rebecca Wolff, Wagner reminds us:
We tend to value mothers as a kind of negative space, a container that does and should empty itself out in nurturing. ...Not for Mothers Only is not a celebration of the [saccharine] mother-child relationship.
Historically, poems that celebrate motherhood celebrate the sacrifice of identity, of self, in service of loving the child. Freudian Melanie Klein warns us about the deep psychological damage a mother will do should her mind wander while breast-feeding, should she do anything other than gaze lovingly at the infant. It doesn't take Betty Friedan to tell us what's wrong with that equation, nor does it take the poor neurotic soul whose mother lived for nothing but him. Not for Mothers Only conceives of mothers in all their acts as real live persons.
Few experiences are more Möbius strip of doubled weirdness, loftier or lowlier than pregnancy and childbirth. As Loy does, many of the poets here make a whole out of oppositions and fragments, wonder why giving life doesn't result in death, speak both inside and beyond the body, double bodies, cross supposedly impermeable boundaries, elucidate by excess, rupture syntax, and hijack diction. Toi Derricotte's "Natural Birth":
the meat rolls up and moans on the damp table.
my body is a piece of cotton over another
woman's body. some other woman, all muscle and nerve, is
tearing apart and opening under me.
Or Alice Notley from "Dear Dark Continent": "I'm wife I'm mother I'm / myself and him and I'm myself and him and him." Or Maxine Chernoff from "A Birth": "I can't remember the birth. Cold white rooms, cleanliness the color of nothing. Sometimes a woman dreams that she's given birth to a litter of piglets attached to her breasts like pink balloons." Or Beth Ann Fennelly's "Bite Me," which I first heard aloud at a reading in 2001 and which returned vividly to mind a few years later when I faced my first labor:
though I wasn't thinking then
about the weeks to come
or anything at all besides pushing and dying,
and your father was terror and blood splatter
like he too was being born
and he was, we were,
and finally I burst at the seams
There are full collections on death, war, food, and other such heavy hitters of human existence. For many contemporary women poets, birth also expands beyond the occasional poem to full-fledged inquiries. Catherine Wagner's Macular Hole is, as Alice Notley tells us, "Really good poetry about childbirth. Faithful to the scary parts; and reckless:"
Here comes baby
Screaming down vagina
Brain tissue coning
Making of himself a painful
In the scary several light
The scary several light
Swedish poet Aase Berg's pregnancy missives terrify and amuse with a grotesque flare that's unnervingly accurate to the experience. The English title of her With Deer echoes that moment Susan Howe selects from Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative:
As we went along they killed a Deer, with a young one in her,
me a piece of the Fawn, and it was so young and tender,
that one might eat
the bones as well as the flesh, and yet I thought it very good.
Along with the image of the mother as empty vessel or compassionate servant, we find the gentle mother, the soft and nurturing hand, Mother Nature, the sheltering bosom. When a mother is cruel to a child, an innocent, a cute animal, the world turns inside out. In the popular imagination, mothers who commit acts of cruelty are "monsters." Berg's use of deer, foxes, squirrels, and guinea pigs, as Lara Glenum points out,
radically upends the notion that women...are free from sadistic compulsion and cruelty....The preoccupation...with all things cute, perhaps, speaks not to their attraction to things that mirror their own innocence but to things that mirror their own abjection and fear of further deformity; it reflects the degree to which they have already found themselves stripped of significant social agency.
Here are the adorable deformed animals in Berg's "In the Heart of Guinea Pig Darkness":
The gorge is swarming with guinea pigs. They crawl on each other like spiders....The guinea pigs are swarming and crawling around on the gigantic guinea-pig queen's sensitive, swollen egg-white body. She gives birth and groans, she moans and bleeds. Everywhere the membranes, everywhere their bloated puff bellies. We run with the heart in the tunnel, you and I, while nervous systems break down behind us, while the amniotic fluid surges in the pumping, pulsing chasm.
Unsurprisingly, the spooky multiplicity of selves doesn't disappear in the postpartum. Berg's Transfer Fat fuses cute and massive animals in an effort to fathom the disturbingly illogical postpartum experience of being devoured by a darling creature:
the hare skindry the whale heavy of the bag's fatmilk
Just as these humanoid animals disrupt our sense of body and boundary, the mangled and spliced language intensifies our sense of unheimlich.
Lara Glenum's own Maximum Gaga takes on the pathology of heterosexual unions and their inevitable offspring with a ferocious grin:
Mino feeds at one end of me
The Normopath at the other...
of my blubber suit
Two feeding tubes dangling from my chest...
The animals my skin could not contain
are clanging through the hospital.
In the portion of the book that reads as a play, "Meat Out of the Eater," the character of Queen Naked Mole Rat is staged thusly:
[... The Queen sits on the couch, her ribcage cranked open
display nine tea-cups dangling on hooks. In each tea-cup,
baby rats are
continually born and tumble out of her body to scavenge
on the floor.]
It is worth noting that in the real world of naked mole rats, a queen might have up to twenty-eight babies in a litter, and that one human baby can often feel like twenty-eight.
A new translation of Japanese radical feminist poet Hiromi Ito titled Killing Kanoko contains the poem by the same name, a blunt exploration of infanticide:
Kanoko eats my time
Kanoko pilfers my nutrients
Kanoko threatens my appetite
Kanoko pulls out my hair
Kanoko forces me to deal with all her shit
I want to get rid of Kanoko
I want to get rid of filthy little Kanoko
I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko who bites off my nipples
I want to get rid of or kill Kanoko
Before she spills my blood
I have committed infanticide
Ito's other works, transgressive and shamanistic, explore the dark, absurd, and glorious potentials of the female body, its sexuality and reproduction, resituating these, as Jerome Rothenberg says "somewhere between bliss & nightmare."
I'd argue that since none of us got here without getting birthed, and many of us will give birth or participate on the front end of that process, such poems are indeed Not for Mothers Only. But, as a Washington Post review of that anthology tells us, not everyone agrees. So, what can poems about childbirth and pregnancy do for the nonbeliever, beyond the ghetto of their content? The appropriation of childbirth or pregnancy to metaphorically describe artistic creation nauseates me more than morning sickness. An act that aggressively engages the body should not be appropriated to excise the body. It does violence, as when Moore's speaker is able to muse on ambition while casually observing what, for the ant, must be a physically taxing, all-encompassing experience. However, when pregnancy or birth becomes a lens through which to view those other existentially vexing experiences of embodied life (sex, illness, death, etc.), I think we begin to use the lyric to its most interesting advantages. In the strange and wonderful Medical Semiotics, Eugen Baer tells us, "In the symptom [of an illness] existence often becomes oppressively concrete and at the same time frighteningly abstract." And, later, "often an illness episode...lays bare an underlying yawning abyss in which the individual experiences himself [sic] as a 'scandal.'" Similarly, Elaine Scarry defines those destabilizing aspects of pain: "an almost obscene conflation of private and public" and "its ability to destroy language." Though pregnancy is not itself an illness (fie on anyone who says otherwise!) we could easily replace Baer's illness with pregnancy, and much of what Scarry says about pain readily applies to childbirth.
In this age of the damaged body, species failure and environmental degradation, high fashion and low blood sugar, when we risk finding ourselves "trapped by nature in our body as a dungeon" (Harold Bloom's formulation) or, as Dickey complained, "pathetic and disgusting," D.A. Powell brings us in close, gives us back intimacy, shame, nerves, our redemptive choreography, as in his song of Lazarus of Bethany:
slightly foetid. foetal and stooped. an afterbirth of rags
myrrh-soaked pus-stained the cracklings the matted hair
but having heels. I flushed out from my mortared vacuole
then the coins were lifted from my eyes: my lord
because holy is the viscera.
Though she doesn't explicitly discuss childbirth, Dodie Bellamy's Barf Manifesto is haunted by images of pregnancy and birth as she examines the conflation of mother/lover, vomit/feces, and attraction/abjection. Hilariously so when Eileen Myles smashes open a birthday piñata, frankly so when "a paralyzed woman in a wheelchair said people don't want to think about the body because it reminds them of their vulnerability, the woman breathes through a tube that she closes her lips around like a straw." Aging, ill, parent, lover, how can we be reminded? How can we be anything other than always already aware of vulnerability?
When my babies were newborns, I didn't want anyone else to touch them. A newborn was a bit of myself turned inside out. My in-laws, my neighbors—I didn't want any of them reaching their indecent paws into my most intimate space. That's my sweetest, dearest organ, I'd think, as someone hoisted the baby from my arms. In life, a panic, but on the page a thrill to grope at these painful, shameful, fear-filled, and vulnerable bodies. To explore the tender violence of being, and making the human. Tory Dent:
If Nietzsche called his pain a dog then I call my pain a desire,
a creature who looks up at me from a bare mattress on a
floor, a kind of dog, a kind of child....When she sleeps I work
the graveyard shift and watch over her fits and mews....
Although it feels a bit cruel to close in this harshly lit space, I wouldn't dare try to write my way out of the body. Instead, my shame, my joy, my achy muscles, and my own little hare wait for me, my whale's milk, our dense fleshy slumber. The stuff of poetry.
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle Pafunda. Reprinted from American Poet, spring 2010, issue 38.