I had no words, no way of writing Baby until I was nearly 50 years old. The secrecy-bound, fragile foundations of my childhood family relationships frightened every fleeting thought of it out of me. How dare you? The voice in my head went, how could you?
Then. Well, then my mother said in an email: 'when did you get to be such an asshole?'
If there was one thing I knew, beyond any shadow of doubt, it was that I am not an asshole. At nearly 50 years old, I cried for two days.
I began to write Gestation (Shearsman Chapbooks, 2014) within two weeks of this event. I wrote all ten parts in two sittings, feeling as if I were crawling over coals, broken glass, reaching for words. They came singly, circling, landing. I felt sick throughout, locked into a terrible betrayal I wasn't sure I wanted to be part of.
The following week, my mother disappeared. I traced her to a hospital, and I then realised I had to do what needed doing. I was, after all, her only child.
For a week during that US visit and the subsequent one a year later, I held a writing residency at a retreat a couple of hours' drive from where I grew up in Southwestern Virginia. During these two one-week stints, a year apart, I drafted the entirety of Baby.
Whereas Gestation felt dragged out of me, Baby fairly flew out. Something had shifted.
Employing a similar technique to my last book Littoral, I wrote day after day with no editing, no consideration, no real thought. Like my first creative writing professor had advised, I wrote 'while looking away'. And the pages filled.
I was not however prepared for the rancor, the absurdity, the despair, the love and the directness of the poems as they emerged. I was not prepared for the way so many of them spidered across the page — I was a prose poet, what was I doing? Even the prose poems, of which there were a good number, felt different — like flashes of voices speaking out of dreams… I was not prepared either for the way the poems seemed to take on the weight of so many struggles, so unfiltered: delusion, dementia, abuse, disillusion, disconnection. I had not known I was capable of any of this.
As I approached the last few pieces, I knew I had a book-sized thing. I could feel the finality of the poems as they surfaced, and knew that last poem I wrote ('All My Life') was indeed the last one. The whole book had been a story I didn't even know I was telling until right then, the story of how people we love never leave us, no matter what. No matter what. And that this fact is hard to deal with.
It took me another year to look at the work in any way other than out of the corner of my eye: the pieces felt impenetrable, inexplicable. There was little conventionally beautiful about them. Little traditionally lyrical, metaphorical or cumulative. There was, on the other hand, a lot of something that felt like talking. A lot of everyday words. A lot of empty space. Flat images. Colour.
And line breaks, lots of them. These were the camel's straw: I had no idea at all where to start.
Meanwhile of course, deep down, the fraught subject matter whirled like the Tasmanian devil in one of Baby's poems ('Reincarnation'). The voice in my head would not shut up, telling me over and over that I'd got it all wrong.
I had to find a way to quell that voice. So as I'd often done in my life, I returned to my first poetry love Adrienne Rich for inspiration and support, absorbing again her ragings, her grief, her search for language. Her acceptance. And always: her voice close to speech, embodying the speaking, privileging the action of speaking out. From there, I knew that if ever there was a moment for the woman 'drowning in secrets' to talk to 'my own soul', it was now.
And so, with the added support of wise writer friends, I set about editing and re-writing, with my eye and ear now tuned to speech, space, sound, movement, image, suspension — and away from resolution, justification, description.
A further year later, Baby still frightens me, but the fact of it now exists, much like its subject matter. It is real. I am grateful to Adam Craig at Liquorice Fish Books for his midwifery and belief, and to close friends and family who convinced me that, if nothing else, these pieces occupy their own spaces regardless, come what may.