September 16, 2016 by Jaimie Gusman
The Maternal Bone
Sometimes I open The New Yorker. But mostly the issues pile up, loggish and ready to be lit, in the wicker magazine holder (which acts more like a trash can) that sits on the bathroom floor. I subscribe for two reasons: (1) I’m a sucker for mail–especially the papery glossy stuff, and (2) I like to read the two poems featured in most every issue. When my daughter was a newborn, and I truly did not know what to do with myself, I’d sit on the lanai, open an issue of the New Yorker, and read poetry out loud while she screamed.
Now that I’m busier writing, working and dragging Jonie to infant(ish) activities, my reading routine has slowed to the point that I now consider it a huge success if I can get through a recipe I found on Facebook. I’m working on this.
So, in my attempts to get back on the wagon, I’ve been thumbing through old issues of The New Yorker. Between articles about Trump (I can barely breathe through a headline before I cringe, sigh, then look at my baby with dread for her future), I find a gem or two.
I didn’t know who Nicole Sealy was before I googled her. I found her poem “A Violence” in an early August issue of The New Yorker and now I feel compelled to read everything she’s ever written. I immediately connected with her–she was also raised in Florida, is a little obsessed with form (I spent my first year in my MFA program writing bad villanelles, exclusively), and we’ve both been published in The Feminist Wire. This is all the evidence I need to say that it’s pretty clear we are destined to be friends someday.
Anyway, here’s the poem that got me hooked:
I’m a new mom, so I think about mom things always, even when I am really trying to peel back that skin (my former skin should be under there somewhere!), I am consumed by “it.” I can’t help but think of Jean Valentine’s poem “At The Door”: “It is not I / It is Mother / (But it is I.)” But I am also thinking about the negative space around this new role, this new voice and the silence around it. Silence is a difficult place for me to enter. Even falling asleep is loud.
I first came to this poem from darkness. Where I live in Ka’a’awa there are no street lights. We have chickens, roosters, peacocks and feral cat fights. The mountains are monstrous as they blend into the sky after sundown. “The high-pitch yawls of strays” is a literal beginning for me. I read the line and listen. Silence. Cats.
The baby goes to sleep at 6:30pm. It’s an evening of absence. But there is no silence. I hear the animals. And even when she is sound asleep, I hear the baby crying. Phantom cries.
In the evening, I reread the lines, “They sound like children you might have had. / Had you wanted children.” This sound–the wailing yowl of babies–is a violence, but is also a reminder that absence is felt, and comes in many forms. When I don’t hear the baby. If I never heard the baby.
Sealy writes, “Had you a maternal bone / you would wrench it from your belly and fling it”. I never thought about the “maternal bone.” What is that, beyond the gnawing (“stubborn”) feeling in a woman’s gut? When I look it up, all I can find are discussions and studies about the effects of prolonged breastfeeding on maternal bone density. Being a mother is bone deep. A real body-loss that can be examined, measured.
But this is not Sealy’s metaphor. “A Violence” is not the violence of motherhood. Not yet. First, it’s the wrenching of Sealy’s phantom bone–the one that you feel you do not feel, twisting and pulling– that is brutally wounding. Absence. Silence. The sound of nothing–a smile–breaks through and becomes a reminder that a phantom bone grows into a phantom body and deteriorates there. I can’t get the image out of my mind: the barren nesting doll’s smile. The father who, if he had a smile (not yours, daughter, but his own straightened lips), would only point out your own body’s emptiness. “Nor does he believe you are his.” You look like/belong your mother. Now that is a violence.
My husband and I often go back and forth, picking out what parts of our daughter belong to him or me. Eyes, nose, smile, gestures. Then we decided all those physical features and quirks are entirely hers. Jonie’s. There is no ownership. I look back at my early 20’s and think about how difficult it was to see myself as separate from my parents. How I still struggle with freeing myself from those parts, and the guilt that comes with this kind of separation.
When I read this poem, I go back to the stray cats, their phantom cries. The phantom bodies that raise us, leave us with our own “sick burning” which are physical bodies conditioned to sustain “for hours.” What can that hell be other than cycling back? To the birthing of a child of your own? If I remember correctly (oh, and yes I do remember!) this is a violence that can only be described as desperately beautiful. Yes, the body–the mother’s and the child’s–must sustain this, but forget the pain. But the mind is wild and resistant, open and anxious about what happens when the world has gone quiet.