I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
1. Wishful Thinking
What we think about when we think about loss. Viktor Shklovsky and the crossed out letter in Zoo; Jacques Lacan—and the grapheme of The Woman crossed out; Carrie Fisher and her letters to the baby yet unborn. The unborn is a term from the abortion debate in the US; the unborn is what they’re fighting over. The unborn is hypothetical, it’s ideological. The unborn sounds like the undead to me.
Apparently in Japan, women’s life expectancy is something like six years longer than men’s, and therefore the aged widow is a regular thing, and she has her own derisive nickname, ribojin, which means ‘not yet dead person.’ As if that didn’t apply to all of us.
I’m amused almost by the virulence of this wish for a baby. As if it’s still the baby that I wish for, that inimitable thing, the baby, even though I’ve had one. I wished for a baby for what—for five years, or something, and then, amazingly, I got to have a baby, and I had the baby for about 18 months, there was the baby, and I was ecstatic, and then gradually the baby vanished, replaced by an extremely lovely little girl, and I love her, and I’m left with the wish for a baby again. A virulent wish: poisonous, having a rapid course and violent effect.
In Victorian families, the youngest child was called the Baby, or Baby, and it slept in the mother’s bedroom until it was (inevitably) dislodged by the next baby. Whereupon it would begin to be addressed by name. This interests me—infant mortality was so high, perhaps the Baby didn’t really require a place in the social, a name of its own, until it had successfully run the rapids of infancy. Names which had been given to babies who died were often reused, or recycled, and given to babies born later. So you’d have Amelia I, Amelia II, and sometimes even Amelia III, in the same family.
Being a good mother meant keeping your baby alive, skills which we’ve more or less handed over to the doctor and the pharmacist. It’s taken for granted now that mothers don’t know anything, that they don’t have to know anything, really. It’s taken for granted, almost, that babies don’t die. The relentless sequence of pregnancies also meant there was no need to wean the baby, to get it to give up the breast, because the mother’s milk dries up when she becomes pregnant again. So that marker of the transition from infancy to early childhood was non-negotiable, so to speak, it was out of their control.
Alternatively, maybe the baby was called the Baby because that’s what it was—and a name was only felt necessary when the little mite itself began to use language, to stop being a baby.
My friend Julie’s mother is 78, and she acquired a puppy, and Julie talked to her on the phone, and said, ‘How lovely to have a puppy,’ and her mother replied, ’I’d rather have a baby.’ Julie has five sibs, her mother had six kids, and she’s 78, and she’d rather have a baby. Julie said to me, ‘See, it never ends. Never!’ This seems like a truly dreadful prospect. Years of doomed longing stretch before me, the vibrant fantasy ever beckoning, vivid and undeniable.
My sister said, ’It’s easier to get over it when it’s not possible. As long as it’s a possibility, I think you’ll be thinking about it.’ Another dreadful prospect. I don’t want to go on thinking about it. I want to do it, and get it over with, get on with it, or else decide not to do it, and get over it.
At a certain point, the baby becomes a child, and the child delights. Nevertheless, you want the baby again, another baby. And part of the point of the fantasy is to make good this loss— the baby that has become a child, and will never be a baby again. E. is two, and she plays at being a baby, she has done so all summer, since she left daycare. She began by climbing into my arms to lie cradled there, making baby noises, which sound like a puppy whining. She says, ‘Babies can’t talk.’ Then in a high voice she says, ‘Me want to nurse,’ and she strokes my breasts, or reaches down my neck to touch them. This is outrageous: we never called it nursing, that’s an Americanism, and besides we quit months ago, and she’s never shown the least sign of regret. This is all a game for her—not for me.
Nursing is what her dearest friend at daycare calls it; Louise is older than E., and she’s still doing it. Her mother says Louise has given each breast a name, and plays complicated fantasy games with them; one imagines a kind of reverie in which both mother and child partake while lying in bed together, nursing. Then Louise talks about it the next day to the other two-year-olds, and when her mother comes to pick her up at the end of the day, she says, ‘I want to nurse.’ Louise speaks perfectly grammatical English and has done since she was about 18 months old. She says things like, ‘After my sandwich, I would like to have some ice cream.’ It’s uncanny. Anyway, I thought E. was just copying Louise.
I don’t like the term ‘nursing.’ It has lousy connotations for me. It’s like this word ‘comfort’ the baby books use all the time, as a euphemism for pleasure. I call it breastfeeding, and I used to say to the baby, do you want a suck? That seemed closer to what was actually going on, although it’s too simple to say what’s going on is sex.
I was always available, I mean, the breast was always available, whenever I was around. Such an odd expression, the breast, as if the definite article somehow makes safe this sexual object, this extraordinarily useful thing. As if to take two individual, idiosyncratic breasts and refer to them as the Breast, like the Queen, or the Ukraine, is to elevate the lowly object, to make it impersonal and somehow absolute. Like the Baby, indeed. Anyway, the breast was offered, by me, constantly, casually, when I was around, as if it really wasn’t a big issue whether the baby sucked or not. A friend hypothesized that a truly insecure neurotic mother wouldn’t be able to offer the breast in this easygoing way, because half the time it would be rejected. (That’s the other virtue of calling it ‘the breast,’ you can refer to it as it, instead of she.) Half the time, she would be rejected, and that would be intolerable. But I was easy, as they say.
These days, when E. says she wants to nurse, I talk to her. ‘My breasts are empty,’ I say, ’there’s no milk in there.’ ’You’re not a baby any more,’ I say, ’you’re a big girl.’ And lately, I say, ’Don’t play with my breasts. I don’t like it.’ ‘You no like it?’ she says, looking up at me. ‘Me like it,’ she asserts, amused by my troubled face. If I make a fuss, it makes it more of an issue, and she’ll fight with me. If I don’t make a fuss, I have this two-year-old climbing into my lap and shoving her hands down my bra. I smile and say, ’Don’t play with my breasts, please.’
It’s continued now for a couple of months, and partly I feel like I’m being taunted, because I was the one who breastfed her on demand for 15 months, and who continued with two lengthy feeds a day until she was 21 months old. I was the one whose breasts were never empty, who was easygoing and generous and available, when I was around. Now, at thirty months, two and a half years old, she doesn’t say, ‘Me want to nurse,’ any more, she says, ‘I want to play with your breasts.’ She’s taken up my expression, she’s taken me at my word. When I say no, she says, ‘I want to.’
For the child to return to the breast as some kind of elaborate joke, a sexy game, is like an old lover turning up and climbing into bed with you. For the ex, it’s a whim, a little bit of nostalgia, a flingette. For you, it’s heartbreak. Don’t play with my heart, I want to say, don’t play with me this way.
What was once our daily intimacy, our lovemaking, is now her silly game. My friend Annie says breastfeeding is analogous to sex, in that you know when you’re having good sex and when you’re having bad sex, and you have to think about it, and work it out, and at the same time, somehow, figure out now to relax and enjoy it. Breastfeeding was our intimacy, our consummation—and now it’s something to be referred to, to be discussed, I guess. It’s mediated by an idea that she’s got from somewhere else, from Louise, her pal at daycare, that seems to me to have very little to do with the thing itself. It’s like she’s seen it, she’s seen other kids doing it and she thinks it would be fun. Because I don’t think she can possibly remember it, I don’t think she can remember that time. She wasn’t talking then.
It’s partly a question of language, as if talking about it isn’t it. As if part of the pain of the child acquiring language and not being a baby any more is giving up that intense, non-verbal, non-mediated relation. I used to believe that sex was like that, that sex was not a signifier, it didn’t mean anything at all, it didn’t refer to anything but itself. I don’t know if I still think that, after all these years of sleeping with the same person. Because the value of sex now appears to be what it might mean, that we still love each other enough to try to give and take pleasure in that way. Or that we love each other enough to try to have a baby. Or that we don’t.
You think about it, and try different things, and watch and hold the baby, to follow the baby’s response. You use your mind and your body to make it good, for both of you, and when you get it right it seems so easy, it’s a breeze. When it doesn’t work, when the baby’s crying and you try everything and nothing makes it better, you want to shoot yourself. Some babies are like that a good part of the time, it’s called colic. It doesn’t last forever.
What I remember is that gesture, when you bend your elbow in, to push the side of your breast with the palm of your hand, to feel which one is more full. I remember giving a reading when E. was three and a half months old, and realizing I was meant to be on stage at the very moment when I was unbuttoned, unzipped, and she was sucking away. I heard the applause stop, and I realized that was for the previous person, I realized I was supposed to be on stage. I flew.
I remember all the gigs I did when she was in the audience, and how Robert would take her out into the hallway when she cried, she cried when she heard my voice, usually, and how divided I felt. I remember when she was a year old I had a gig to do and I left her with Julie, and I performed well for the first time since she was born, because she wasn’t in the building, because I’d forgotten about her completely.
Julie said she knew it was time to pack it in when her son would let go of her nipple and croon, ‘Other side! Other side!’ The baby drains one breast, and wants the one on the other side, the one that’s still full. She felt if he could ask for it, it must be time to quit.
E. says, ‘Me got no breasts.’ We tell her she has little breasts, she has nipples, and when she’s big she’ll have bigger breasts, and maybe she’ll be a mummy someday too. She’s delighted with this, she says, ‘Me a mummy,’ and puts her baby doll to her chest, making baby noises. Then she says to Robert, ‘You have nipples?’ He concedes this fact. In the restaurant, out of the blue, E. cries delightedly, ‘Me have nipples, me have nipples!’ To my sister, she said, ‘You have big breasts, you not my uncle, no.’ Big breasts, little breasts, nipples. She talks about vaginas and penises too, but apparently the breast is still the crucial thing. The breast is the mark of difference.
My mother’s idea about breastfeeding was it was too good for the baby. ‘Breastmilk is like champagne,’ she cried, as if to say, only for special occasions. We argued, often, during the pregnancy, and gradually I recognized an ancient paradigm: the dinner party, my mother’s beaded brocade knee-length fitted dinner dress, her sheer stockings, bright silk high heels. My mother implicitly believed that men only stuck around (and let you have your babies, or their babies, rather) if you bounced right back—hurtling out the front door to the formal dinner, hair done, made up, with no sign of maternal disruption, no leaky, engorged breasts, no heavy hips, and no irrational longings, no intense, unspeakable attachment to the three-week-old thing, the little omelette, the little scrambled objet.
Miss Jolly took care of me for the first six weeks, and my inability to catch —anything: balls, frisbees, cigarette lighters—was always put down to the hilarious fact that Miss Jolly dropped me on my head, once.
In any case, when the baby, my baby, was born, and she was enormous, and I phoned my mother, and I said: ’It’s a girl, she’s enormous, 11 pounds, three and a half ounces’—without hesitation, my mother said: ’You’ll never be able to breastfeed that child!’ The first thing, first response was this dark echo of a distant curse, some voice of doom from beyond the 1950s, a voice of prohibition, drawing the line: No, you can’t have a baby and have that too.
Harriet says they’re jealous, simply, our mothers. The childcare culture of their day insisted that doing anything ‘on demand’ was exceedingly harmful to the baby, giving it a feeling of omnipotence that it just couldn’t handle. One must stick to schedules, rigorously, one must train the child in self-control, preparing it for a world of delayed gratification.
We think the opposite now. We think meeting the baby’s demands gives it a sense that it lives in a good world, where needs and demands can be responded to and met. We think the sense of power this gives the baby is healthy, we think we are respecting the baby as a human being right from the start. We think we are helping the baby to learn how to communicate: the baby cries, we comfort it. We respond. When my mother’s babies cried, she ignored them. That doesn’t seem right, these days.
I was fine, apparently, an easy baby, and then my mother told me I developed colic when she quit breastfeeding at one month. Then I was fine, except when I was screaming the house down. She said, nothing could comfort you, nothing.
I suspect, absurdly, that our way of doing things is harder on the mother—although clearly my mother’s domestic arrangements, for example, weren’t what you might call easy. It seems as if it’s always really hard whatever you do. It’s unbelievably difficult, and at the same time, paradoxically, the most pleasurable thing ever.
When E. was born, I thought, wow! So this is what all those women incomprehensibly living in the suburbs have been doing—having babies! I felt like I’d become a member of a secret society, a group who all knew firsthand how amazing this thing was, who knew how it wasn’t represented anywhere, this thrill, this pleasure, superseding all previous pleasures, all other activities.
I was almost shocked the other day when I was talking with a friend, an old friend that I hadn’t seen for a long time; we were talking about the boyfriends, we were griping, inevitably, and she said, ’It’s always me that has to think, that’s the last banana, we’re out of cheese, I’ve got to do the laundry, the baby’s run out of socks, etc.’ So we were commiserating, and I was saying, ‘I don’t know a single household where this is not the case,’ when she said, suddenly, shocking me, she said: ‘But how could they be as involved as we are, I mean, they don’t have the same contact, do they?’ I looked at her. ’Let’s face it,’ she said, gesturing towards her 18-month-old son, ‘I get much more out of this relationship than I ever could with any man.’ And I thought, she said it. She said it out loud, she said the unsayable thing.
It may be impossible to describe labor. I’ve tried, in writing, and it may simply be the degree zero of women’s experience, something which can be referred to, gestured towards, but never written. And who would be interested? Women who’ve done it, women who are about to do it, maybe. It might mean something to them. It’s very isolating, thinking about it; I feel very alone with the memory of it, as if the quality of the experience is impossible to convey, and as if it’s impossible to know what it meant to me.
I suppose it always means the same thing: this tremendous thing, this new baby. It’s all about her. As if I wasn’t alone with it, after all, but it was something we did together, E. and I, to get her into the world. As if she had to be strong, and keep going, and I had to be strong, and keep going, and we had to get through it somehow, and we did. People usually do. On the other hand, she doesn’t remember it like I do.
I can’t describe it. The pain filled me up, it filled my whole body, and it reduced the world to a small part of the darkened room, the space between the bed and the window, where I was, with this pain. Robert was there too, at the edge of my consciousness, and Sharon, the labor nurse, and the pitocin drip was there, a pump on a stand that had to be plugged into the wall. The pump’s battery didn’t work, so we couldn’t move around much at all. The drip went into the back of my left hand, a long needle taped to my hand in such a way that I couldn’t bend my wrist. This meant that I couldn’t kneel, because I couldn’t support myself on my hands. I couldn’t squat, because I couldn’t support myself, because I couldn’t bend my wrist back. I couldn’t lie down, the pain was too intense, I had to keep moving. So I was on my feet, hour after hour, breathing.
The window was a sliding window, and it was way below freezing outside, night time, frozen snow on the ground. I wanted air, lots of air, but it was so cold outside I could only have the window open half an inch. Still, I focused on that crack, as if the fresh air was everything. On the window-sill was the little boombox, and the cassette tape that we played over and over and over again: Thelonius Monk. We brought a bunch of tapes to the hospital but that was the only one that worked for me. Somehow the precision of the piano, the relentless, deliberate sequence of each note, kept me there, gave me something to hang on to. When it was time to turn the tape over, I almost lost it, I couldn’t keep it together unless those notes were playing. All night long, incessant, over and over again, we listened to Thelonius Monk play. I forgot everything, the world became that window, my breath, the sound of that piano playing. The pain filled me up, erased the world. With every single contraction they had to talk to me, they said, relax, breathe, relax, breathe, breathe, relax. Every single one, all night long, Robert and Sharon talked me through it. I didn’t look at them, I heard their voices beside me, I was swaying from side to side, shaking my head, breathing out.
I forgot everything, I forgot there was such a thing as anaesthesia, I forgot there was any kind of alternative. I was in this thing, I wasn’t on top of it in any sense, I was inside it, and all I knew was I had to get through it. I had this determination to get through it, and a kind of stubborn short-sightedness. I couldn’t see any further than the next minute, the next thirty seconds. The doctor kept turning up the pitocin, they adjust the pump and the contractions come faster and they get stronger. It was like being tortured. I remember standing, dancing, moving my limbs, my knees bent, my arms shaking out the pain, and breathing, breathing deep and slow. On the window was my plastic cup of Evian water with Rescue Remedy in it. There was nothing else.
This went on for 12 hours or so. I’d already been doing the gradual, gentle beginnings of labor at home for about 16 hours before that. The waters broke at 6:00 AM and by 7:00 PM the contractions were erratically coming about every five minutes. It wasn’t unbearable. I went to the hospital at 9:00, and the contractions stopped completely. I hated the doctor, I hated having to go to the hospital. The doctor said I had to do pitocin, and by 10:00 PM. I’d unhappily agreed. All night long the contractions came, one after the other, with no space between them, no breathing space. The contractions were longer than the space between them, all night long. Sharper, deeper, longer, as they turned the pitocin up, all night long.
With every contraction I pictured a red flower opening, my cervix opening, a red rose. I never spoke about it to anyone. At one point, Sharon said to me, ‘Ride it like a wave,’ and all my most ancient terrors, uncontrollable fears of the vast, fathomless ocean, rushed in. I was absolutely terrified, momentarily. My worst nightmares are nightmares of scale, when the waves are beyond measure, the sea unimaginably deep. I believe these terrors are the terrors of infancy, where there are no boundaries, no above and below, left and right, no walls, floors, ceilings, just flight, and sudden landing, beyond your control. Picked up, put down, falling in thin air. Studies have shown that a newborn baby recognizes a drawing of eyes, mouth, nose as a face, no matter where they are placed in relation to each other. The mouth can be above the eyes, and the baby still responds, and it makes sense, because there can be no above and below for the infant, everything is all at once and in any order, without form. Sharon said, ‘Ride it like a wave,’ and I was flooded with fear, lost at sea, alone in a vast ocean. ‘No,’ I said ‘I can’t.’ I went on listening to Thelonius Monk, picturing the red rose opening.
At 6:00 AM it was still dark outside. They told me to push. They told me I was fully dilated, time to push. This was like going to hell. I tried, I said, ‘I can’t push,’ they said, ‘Then you’ll have to have a caesarean.’ I pushed, hard, for three hours.
I pushed standing up, I pushed sitting on the toilet, I pushed holding on to the bed. Breathing through a contraction is all about letting go, letting the pain shimmer through your body, releasing the pain, as you shake your hands and fingers, sway from side to side. I’d become pretty good at this. Pushing, on the other hand, is all about holding the pain in, holding your breath and holding onto the pain and directing it all downward as hard as you can. It was like turning everything inside out, all my skills, my deep breathing, releasing, had to become the opposite: I had to learn how to hold on to the contraction, to shit it out, instead of letting it go. It was hell.
At 10:00 AM the sun was pouring into the room, and we decided, somehow, during the contractions, it was decided that I had to have a caesarean. I was convinced by Sharon, she showed me the chart, she told me the baby had descended precisely one and a half stations during the previous 12 hours, despite the pitocin, despite the pushing, and there were six more stations to go. The baby was nowhere near being born. Somebody turned off the music.
I trusted Sharon completely, and she was quite clear that the caesarean was necessary. I asked Robert what he thought and he said, ‘I think it would be nice to meet the baby.’ As soon as the decision was made, I wanted the contractions to stop. If the contractions weren’t going to bring the baby, I couldn’t stand them another second.
They produced a form for me to sign, and they turned off the pump, and shaved my pubic hair. The pitocin was still circulating in my bloodstream, still generating the occasional contraction, unbelievable, irrelevant pain. At 11:00 I was in the operating theater, laughing with the anaesthetist, joking with the five student nurses who were observing the operation, shaking hands with the pediatrician. It was like a party, people kept arriving, introducing themselves; in the end there were 16 people packed into this bright little room. The two doctors talked the student nurses through it, a running monologue, ‘Now we’re making the first incision, this is the really hard part, because if you go too far you puncture the bladder, there’s the amniotic fluid, now, ladies, what colors can we expect amniotic fluid to be?’ ‘Green,’ one said, ‘or brown.’ ‘Clear,’ said another. Listening, it was like a radio play, and I was stunned to think that we were finally going to have this baby, for good or ill. In that moment, I turned my face to Robert, I wanted him to tell me he wanted to have a baby. It seemed absurd to ask him, and there wasn’t time, suddenly she was out of there, screaming and wriggling and the biggest girl baby anyone had ever seen. She had bright red hair and a crooked foot, and all the student nurses cried out: ‘Strawberry blond!’
Robert said afterward that I was like someone who has been given the most wonderful, most unexpected present. I was ecstatic; my happiness is impossible to describe.
Leslie Dick teaches at CalArts, in the Art Program, and her new book, The Skull of Charlotte Corday and Other Stories, will be published by Scribner in November 1997. She has written two novels, Without Falling and Kicking, and her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Sight & Sound, ANY, BOMB, Semiotext(e), Errant Bodies, and Emergency.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.