Hello, Monday. Or rather, goodbye Monday. I’m calling it a day already, and hanging up my sign: Gone Fishing. Join me?
Katie Kehoe, Fishing at PS1 Contemporary, Long Island City, NY, 2010. Performance art. www.katiekehoe.com
Unknown illustrator, Meiji period (mid-19th century). Japanese book cover design, lithograph.
G.C. Clutton, Ethel King colouring a mounted specimen of a Queensland Groper, 1926. Photograph. Australian Museum, Sydney, Australia.
I’ve had this book on my shelf, waiting to be read for a long time now. Part of that waiting was because I have a never-ending pile of books to read, but I also think part of me wondered if I could relate to a book about pregnancy, when I have never been myself. The verdict? I’m happy I finally picked it up to read.
Nestuary isn’t quite a poem, yet isn’t straight prose — it’s hybrid form of lyric essay in fine form. Sutton Kiefer needles at the acts of becoming and being pregnant to childbirth from countless angles, both in reality with pills and doctor appointments and an unwanted C-section; but also in the format of her prose. This is the weapon she knows best: language, mythology, and poetry. The changing form throughout makes the sometimes difficult subject matter easier to digest and relate to. Some sections are written as straight prose; an account of a doctor’s visit, an explanation of PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome). Other sections read more like standard poems; some are formatted as imagistic snapshots labelled “fig 1″ and “fig 2″; yet others are formatted as dictionary entries:
n. doctor tells patient, pointing to the screen: chocolate chips in a cookie
adj. this seems too domestic
n. distended with air, elongated capsules
n. a crypt; a cul-de-sac or lacuna
n. botany: a dry seed pod, splitting at maturity only along the front of the suture, as in larkspur or milkweed
n. a crypt; a cul-de-sac or lacuna
v. altered: two centimeters or more and it morphs in name; see cyst
Origin: a shell, a bag, a day at the beach. A ship passing into port, a barrel of wine, an elongated telescope, a shoulder, a name whispered into the night.
Sutton Kiefer doesn’t spare any details. This isn’t a pretty pregnancy story, or an easy one. It’s about shy ovaries, morning sickness, and the wonderment/disgust with the human body. Shame and failure of the female body is a reoccurring theme that Sutton Kiefer grapples with, telling another narrative of pregnancy not so often told in mainstream narratives. (In the second section of the book, she even tells other traumatic birthing stories of women who died giving birth, whose bodies were kept alive just long enough to deliver their babies.)
In choosing to tell this narrative, to put all the vulnerabilities and questions and difficulties of her pregnancy out in the world with this book, Sutton Kiefer is opening her arms and creating a support system for other women and their partners who experience similar challenges in their pregnancies.
Sutton Kiefer isn’t alone even in the pages of her book. Of course there is her husband, ever patient with his “infinite tolerance”. Yet the writer is also accompanied by a collection of literary companions: Greek mythology is used as often as medical terminology, which is used as much writerly references to Sharon Olds, Naomi Wolf, Gillian Conoley, and many more.
Failure begets shame, a kind of powerful, pumping horror. I needed hope, curled against me.
Camille Roy writes, “The relation fo baby to body will be ripped apart and then organized by shame.”
Toi Derricotte writes, “I couldn’t tell where my shame ended and his life began. It was as if my body betrayed me, became evidence against me.”
I felt I had wronged her, somehow. This wasn’t supposed to be our story, was it?
As I read, post-birth, swaddled in absorbent pads that could engulf my newborn’s diapers, my body weeping with fluids, the doctor pushing a cotton swab into my deeply infected Cesarean scar, I discovered I wasn’t alone.
The book is divided into three sections; the first is mostly pre-pregnancy, the second is the pregnancy and birth, and the final is largely post-birth of both of her children. Yet despite this chunking of phases, the prose doesn’t necessarily follow a linear path. The book is more of an immersion into the fluid experience and reflection, a comprehensive and holistic depiction rather than a straight narrative. This is one of the reasons the book worked for me; the format fits the experience, and allowed me as a reader to be in that experience next to Sutton Kiefer, if only for moment.
In the end, Sutton Kiefer shifts from the “failures” of her body pre-pregnancy, to learning the everyday truth of how essential she and her body is to the very existence of her children. The following passage towards the end talks about nursing, and the challenges surrounding her son and daughter’s need for her:
This, my liquid gold. It’s hard to feel this way—valuable—as I listen to my daughter wail upstairs; I have disrupted the family bed. I feel selfish—all three are waiting for my return. What if I stayed down to write this, or, better yet, what if I walked out that door, into the streetlight, naked as I am?
In Nestuary, Sutton Kiefer continually puts herself out in the open, naked and honest about the disgusting, amazing, defeating, awe-striking process of creating, giving birth to, and raising children. She tells a brave narrative, one that sits in my belly contentedly digesting, not because of it’s beauty or perfection, but because of how it finds poetry in the muck of reality.
What other writers have written powerful (and necessary) alternate narratives, departing from mainstream messages of pregnancy, or other experiences?
This week the theme is a little abstract. OK, very abstract. Instead of using a concrete object or action to write about, how about we stare at some paint strokes and let our minds wander?
Matthew Stone, Celebrated Fearlessness, from Unconditional Love series, 2014. Digitally printed painting on wood panel. www.matthewstone.co.uk
Anne-Sophie Tschiegg, Germinations (Sprouts), 2009. www.astschiegg.blogspot.fr
Robert Motherwell, Frontier No. 12, 1958. Oil on board.
Sarah Jean Alexander’s first book, Wildlives, centers itself squarely in the 21st-century. Poems name check Google, PayPal, and even indie hip hop band WHY?’s 2008 song “The Vowels, pt. 2.” However, these poems also reference heaven, rain, and stars, decidedly timeless tropes of poetry. Which is not to say that these poems are cliché, simply that they mash up old and new to explore loneliness, lust, and love in a modern world.
Wildlives is a mix of short lyric poems, prose poems, and what could be considered fiction. The hybridity of form rings as the differences between Tweet, Facebook update, Tumblr post, etc. Indeed, there are a handful of poems short enough to tweet:
The biggest stars in the universe are called red supergiants. I shouldn’t have let you become mine.
There is a mountain of words
I am frightened of
and you are at its peak.
God is a good man. We are an accidental series of events. Ideally, we should not be able to tell where one person leaves off and another starts.
That last one is a little too long to be a Tweet, but the point is that Alexander’s short poems tend to be very short, and it’s a fact that she’s an adept Twitter user (over 16,000 tweets as of the writing of this review). Still, these small poems pack in huge ideas.
Despite taking on big themes, Alexander’s poems remain breezy and conversational. The overall effect is like getting coffee with a friend who talks at length of her dreams, nightmares, anecdotes, and fantasies. In “Violent Knight” the speaker sees herself in the mirror as a bald woman: “I put myself into bed and dream about a day when the both of us are 85.” In one of the strongest pieces in the book, “Fit to Size,” the speaker tells us about her beliefs:
My relationship with religion
comes with many footnotes
and complicated annotations
and mostly excuses
and Jesus Christ
it freaks people out
when I tell them I still pray
before I fall asleep every night,
but have you ever thought
about how efficient
a person’s smile is
as a form of communication[.]
These micro moments—a smile, a prayer before sleep—enter into the macro: how do I believe, and in what, if I believe in anything at all?
The book is divided into three sections, the middle of which is a single piece called “Share Your Fears with Mine.” Made up of ten prose blocks, the piece begins:
The living room could no longer hold all of the dead fish that had been piling up for the past week, so we opened the windows and let the tiny silver bodies spill out onto the street.
The piece follows two characters, including the speaker, as they attempt different ways of being intimate. In one section, “You turned to me and lifted your shirt a few inches and said, Touch your belly to my belly[…]”, while in another the characters teach stones how to stack themselves into a “fortress” on which they hang a sign that says “NOT DEAD INSIDE.”
While some of these poems may strike the reader as akin to social media, their sentiment is earnest. Alexander is a poet unafraid to engage with big questions, unafraid to attempt answering them. Using contemporary diction Alexander updates tried-and-true poetic images to create poems that live comfortably in the age of the Internet.
What other poets are using modern forms, language, and images to engage with big themes and questions?