July 31, 2010
July 31, 2010
I drove much of the way home to Minneapolis that evening. Holding the wheel helped me keep from getting sick. As Dan slept, I began passing billboards in a series along the highway back to the Twin Cities. Each billboard featured a bouncing baby, several months old, bright and expressive.
What! I could smile before I was born, one stated, rather inscrutably.
Hello world! said another. My heart was beating 18 days from conception.
The signs were like slaps in the face—invasions of the quiet peace I had managed to cultivate over the weekend. Did the organization sponsoring the billboards, Pro Life Across America, really believe that women needed to be reminded that the choice to end a pregnancy is a choice against a life of some kind? I knew I might one day choose against seeing my son’s smiles. Against pressing my ear to his chest and hearing his heart thumping like a tight little drum.
Abortions were legal in Minnesota up to twenty-two weeks’ gestation, when a fetus would have fingerprints and hair, suck his thumb, and hear sounds from his mother, but would not be able to survive outside the womb—and certainly wouldn’t wear size-three diapers or grin with billboard-perfect dimples. Against my better judgment, I had been dipping into mainstream books to read about the progress of my pregnancy. Like the billboards, each book eagerly addressed embryonic and fetal development, giving me, week by week, little human characteristics to mourn if we chose to say goodbye to our pregnancy. An abortion following DNA testing would most likely take place at about fourteen weeks, when our four-inch, translucent-skinned fetus might begin to coordinate the movements of his arms and legs.
As the colossal spokesbabies flashed by, I realized that I wanted a book to reassure me of the things my six-week-old embryo couldn’t yet do. I wanted to read a single paragraph that took pains to remind me how far from consciousness, from human behavior, my gestating fetus was: Your baby is one-and-a-half years from being able to interpret simple spoken sentences, and at least two years from speaking phrases on his own. Your baby is at least two years from recognizing himself as a conscious being, and three years from understanding that other people are separate individuals. In five years, he may have the capacity to read written language. He is at least eighteen years from distinguishing information from propaganda.
But instead, the authors of some popular pregnancy guides actually identified which circumstances might justify an abortion. “If testing suggests a defect that will be fatal or extremely disabling,” one said, “many parents opt to terminate the pregnancy.”
These passages always caused me to call into question my reasoning. HED wasn’t directly life threatening. Our affected son would be unlikely to die as a child. And I didn’t know what “extremely disabling” meant, but I suspected that the authors of the book would not characterize HED that way. Neither would I.
Dan slept in the passenger seat with his head tipped back and his jaw gently open. My frustration grew as the city lights drew closer. I felt angry that my society had made a taboo subject of one of the most important journeys of my life. An abortion—a story that would belong to me, shape me, become a part of me—would henceforth divide people into those who could handle a relationship with me and those who couldn’t. It seemed I would have two choices: I could live as if I had a terrible secret, or I could live marked.
The next morning, I phoned my friend Eula, who described a woman’s rights in words I hadn’t considered: “A pregnancy falls within the mother’s domain, and no one else’s,” she said. “Not the public domain, not the church’s, and not the state’s.”
Now that I was carrying a baby, I viscerally felt what Eula meant by “a mother’s domain.” I had a moment of physical sickness just thinking about the idea that anyone else might try to claim authority over my pregnancy. Imagining such a thing was one of the most confining, frightening feelings I had known as a woman who had grown up carefree and safe in a nation of so many freedoms. It was the feeling of persecution. Someone might as well steal my hands and face, I thought, and call them their own.
“But I still feel so guilt ridden,” I told her, “to consider ending a little life just because it is imperfect. This baby would live, and he could quite possibly have a good life. I just can’t know.” But “I’m doing this for the baby,” I reminded myself out loud, “not for Dan and me.”
Eula let my words hang in the air. Then she said, “Why don’t you feel you deserve to have the child you want?”
I was struck. Her words touched into the thinking that seemed most dangerous to me, most immoral. Could it possibly be all right, in my America or in some other life in some other place, for parents to want healthy children for their own peace of mind? I thought of my ancestors who, like millions of modern people around the globe, needed plenty of healthy children with strong backs to ensure the family’s survival—and with any luck, prosperity. Dan and I had no plans to rely on our children for a livelihood; we wanted children just for the joy of it, just for the journey. Even though we knew a baby without HED would save us tens of thousands of dollars in medical and dental bills, our choice to become pregnant, and our desire for a healthy child, could not be rationalized as economic necessity. It was closer to emotional luxury.
But thanks to Eula’s question, I saw folded deep in my heart a tiny possibility. Maybe, I thought, I should want a healthy baby for myself, and for Dan, and for our marriage and future. It might be noble to shoulder a burden, but it is also good to forestall harm and strive for plenty.
I kept the thought to myself, holding close its kind whisper of acknowledgement that this was, after all, about me, too. I felt a glimmer of self-love—something I had not allowed before. It marked the beginning of a turning for me, but my transformation was slow. I still read pregnancy books like an addict. I couldn’t pull my mind away from the details about how much bigger and more vital our baby was becoming.
“I’m due at the end of May,” I told my sister over the phone. “It’s the strangest thing to look into my future just seven months and see such different possibilities.”
“You know,” my sister said slowly, “you’ve started the journey toward having a baby, and it’s really not going to be over until someone is born. The way I see it, you’re going to be pregnant until that child arrives, whether that’s eight months from now, or twelve, or twenty-four. This might not be the baby we hold. But you’re on your way.”
She was right. I felt as if I had jumped into a lake and started swimming, not knowing when I would reach the opposite shore, or even how far it was. I had been thinking of my pregnancy as three months long at minimum, about ten at the max. But my sister helped me stretch my idea of pregnancy to include another sense of the word: meaningfulness in waiting.
I felt better with the idea that my swim could be all one long, blind backstroke to a distant shore, instead of several dogpaddles from the sand to the dock and back. I liked water, but swimming to actually get somewhere had always been exhausting and difficult for me. Holding my pregnancy—the figurative one and the physical one—felt no different. Yet in my dreams, I had been swimming almost every night. I swam through floods, under ice, through choppy shipping canals, and across the bows of ocean liners. I was never afraid. I always knew I would make it. Sometimes I rescued other people who believed they would drown.
I was bursting to talk to my mother, who lived 2,000 miles away in Seattle. She was an avid dreamer who would relish helping me explore my nighttime swims. But it wasn’t just for the pregnancy news or the dreams that I wanted to call her, go to her. I just wanted to be close to her. I took my daily walk, shoulders slumped, wishing that she would appear around the next bend, waiting with a hug for me, a rub for my hair. A phone call to Seattle wasn’t going to give me the connection that I wanted. And I was tired of words. I knew if I told my mom about the pregnancy and our plan, it would rend her heart. It would pry open years of her own questioning, leaving her with a daunting emotional project. After all, she was a carrier, too, having received the gene for HED from her father, who lived a too-short, too-difficult life. And she passed the gene not only to me, but also to my brother, who now lived with the disorder. If I told my mother about my tentative pregnancy, with modern medical choices she never had and perhaps never would have wanted, I would be forcing her to reexamine her own secret sadness. At that moment, I didn’t have room in my head or heart for the guilt I would feel if my pregnancy became anyone else’s burden. Someday I would be ready to share, but not now. Not halfway through week seven, when my lungs burned from swimming and my baby’s heart had just bloomed into four perfect chambers.
Approached by boat, the cliff did not look high,
But when we boys gazed downward from its summit,
We felt uncomfortably near the sky.
We would leap out in turn and, feet first, plummet—
Legs working frantically in search of brakes.
Or, not to be the last left on the heights,
We’d jump in twos and threes and burst the lake’s
Dark surface like a shower of meteorites.
Elsewhere bravado led us to remorse;
There, though, we learned of force and counter-force,
Descending through the many-moted, cold,
Green, sun-shot water with our lifted hair
Till depth slowed us, and buoyancy took hold
And helped us rise back to the light and air.
originally published in The Sewanee Review
I’d been inventing a new kind of filmmaking called The Unveiled Animal (how it’s germane to Derek and Mired’s bizarre, sadistic tale will soon be clear, as will my plan for revenge against my brother). It revolved around the notion that the cinema needed to evolve past actors, scripts, contrived scenes, fraudulent emotion. Movies needed to shun closure and happy endings.
SLADE HAM. Stand-up comedian, Texan, TNB Arts & Culture associate editor.
Drinker of whiskey and coffee (although not necessarily at the same time).
Admirer of Garfield Logan, flag virtuoso.
And, in the end, a useless individual.
July 31, 2010
No, I don’t see using meter and rhyme as a rejection of anything. The opposite, in fact. It’s an affirmation of what drew me to poetry as a reader when I was young—the love of poems that lend themselves to being memorized, for example. I started writing verses for pleasure when I was 12 or 13, and it seemed natural to use the verse techniques of the poets I loved to read—Dickinson, Frost, Yeats and Millay were poets I fell for early and hard. Hopkins and Auden a few years later. I wrote bad imitations of all of them, too. But that’s part of learning to write poems and finding what you have to say.
One of the biggest advantages of rhyme for a poet is the way it brings randomness (via the arbitrary similarity of sounds) into the writing process. I often surprise myself, looking for rhymes, by coming up with an image or metaphor I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise or having a poem take a turn I couldn’t have predicted. Creative constraints can be freeing. But the short answer is that I write in rhyme and meter because doing so gives me pleasure. It’s not part of any program of opposition—to modernism or postmodernism or feminism or any other ism.
Forms don’t belong to anybody. Why cede a long-lived, flexible form like the sonnet to men? Or to Caucasians, or Christians, or Europeans? Take them and make them your own, I say. And sometimes I do invent my own forms. “Experimental” verse isn’t necessarily free verse.
A poet I know who uses meter and rhyme exclusively says that he tried to write free verse once, and it nearly gave him a nervous breakdown. (Maybe he should be featured here.) I’m not quite as extreme as that, but to write free verse I seem to need a model or template of some kind. I’m paralyzed by total freedom, where every line can be broken anywhere. A few years ago I wrote a free verse poem that borrowed the basic structure and some of the rhetorical devices of “My Cat Geoffrey” by Christopher Smart. That poem, which is about Guinea Worm Disease of all things, originally was in an elaborate stanza form. It lay dead on the page until rereading Smart showed me what I needed to do—two or three years after I put the draft in a drawer.
Loves and influences aren’t necessarily the same thing. I love Whitman, but I don’t think his poems have influenced mine much. I love the Metaphysical poets, especially Herbert and Donne. I used to think that Dickinson wasn’t much of an influence, but as I’ve gotten more and more interested in verse riddles and in shorter meters than iambic pentameter, I think she’s there. Frost, Wilbur, and Larkin, definitely. Christina Rossetti, Elinor Wylie, and Louise Bogan, too, though I discovered them later than the others.
Among contemporary poets, I’ve been lucky to have generous mentors who encouraged and challenged me to do my best work, both directly and by example—among them Dick Davis, Carl Dennis, Rhina Espaillat, Dana Gioia, Sam (R.S.) Gwynn, and Timothy Steele. Among poets of my own generation, I feel an especially deep affinity with Joshua Mehigan, A.E. Stallings, and Greg Williamson, all of whom I admire and have influenced me.
It can be misleading to talk about poets as influences, though. More often it’s individual poems influencing other poems. And poets influence themselves, too, if only in the effort to avoid repeating themselves.
The main thing is to read deeply and widely and not worry too much about influences. In graduate school, I once invited a poet in the MFA program for coffee. I was thinking then of switching from the Ph.D. to the MFA program, mainly because reading literary theory was making me miserable. She seemed like (and was) a nice person, and I was eager to talk poetry, so I asked her which poets she read for pleasure. She named one contemporary American poet, and then said, “But I don’t like to read much poetry. I don’t want to be over-influenced.” I was stunned into silence. I doubt her attitude was typical—at least I hope it wasn’t. But I decided to finish my Ph.D.
It came out of the experience of new motherhood. Those first weeks and months are so all-consuming, and you sleepwalk through them in a haze of sleep deprivation, a sort of timeless time. You’re up crazy hours, and the days and nights blur together. We were living in Brooklyn then, and I’d run into other mothers at the park with their toddlers or older kids, and often they’d say, “Oh, it seems like you’ll never forget the time when they’re tiny babies, but you do.” I remember vaguely thinking there might be a poem in that (everything I thought was vague at the time!). And of course my daughter wouldn’t remember any of what we did together in those early days—that struck me too. I scribbled one line from what became the poem in a notebook when she was a few months old—“You will remember none of this.” That’s where it stayed for… well, I didn’t get the poem on paper until the form finally revealed itself, about six years later.
That’s the way it feels—that the poem discovers its form. You have to be very patient sometimes, or you force it into being before it’s ready and ruin it. On the other hand, you can’t give up on the failed drafts and partial drafts if you think they have potential. You have to exhume the bodies now and then and check them for signs of life.
It’s in 8-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter, each stanza having two rhyme-endings, with the seventh and eighth lines identical to the first and third.
I made it up—at least I think I did. But the form was inspired by a Louis MacNeice poem called “Meeting Point,” about two people having a love affair who share the illusion that their love can make time stop. That poem, also tetrameter, uses five-line stanzas in which the last line repeats the first. It’s a wonderful poem. I’d come across it a long time before, in college maybe, and then a few years ago I encountered it again and was fascinated with the music it made. I memorized it and carried it around for awhile. And that one little line of my own germinated.
Not quite, I think. A bigger strike against it is that Larkin used it for one of his greatest poems. But titling it “Aubade” let me frame the poem as a conversation with the many other poets who have written aubades, in various cultures and over centuries. I could participate in that tradition in my own way. That early, all-consuming bond between a mother and an infant is like the early stages of a love affair, and even as you suffer sleeplessness and mood swings and feel completely overwhelmed, like someone in love you want that time to last forever. And you know that it can’t. I could say a lot with the title without having to say it outright.
Unfortunately, yes. It seems to take me ten years, more or less, to collect enough poems for a book.
Maybe. If I’m as lucky with finding a publisher as I was the last time, which is a big if.
My husband and I just finished watching an excellent Brit TV series called Foyle’s War, about a police detective (played by Michael Kitchen) investigating murders in Hastings during World War II. We felt bereft when we’d watched the last one. Another of our recent enthusiasms is Breaking Bad. Right now our recommendations on Netflix are divided into two categories: “Understated British Dramas” and “Critically-acclaimed, Violent TV Shows.”
I started studying piano a year and a half ago. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Getting your hands to do different things simultaneously is not an easy skill for a middle-aged person to pick up, so I have to be patient with myself. My favorite genre is blues, which sounds good even when arranged for a beginner. I take lessons every other week, and my piano teacher and I exchange “words of the day” at the end of each one. My word of the day last week was “opsimath”—somebody who learns something new later in life.
I don’t know. Sorry! I couldn’t sit down and do it until the deadline was bearing down on me. I guess I have a horror of coming off as self-centered and self-indulgent.
Right. It comes with the territory! Might as well embrace it.
That I’m really jazzed about being featured on TNB, especially now that I’m done with this interview. Please tell Uche thanks!