1. Morning Sickness
I had lost myself in a novel by Marie Darrieussecq
in which a woman grows bacon skin—broken by
hair that claws with its roots, coarser than on her
pudenda—and teats like gelatinous melanomas.
I saw her fretting and muddying the earth until her
rear end let forth a litter of mutant-lets, pink and
coarse as tongues and slippery. Their lids were serene,
as if eyes did not exist, and their ears were closed
to the sound of their own not screaming. It was then
I felt the tide come in, bearing silt stirred from the
fetid sea floor, old with starfish and eel bones. The
moon, for nine months, did not care to claim it again.
I had read that some women feed life with scratched
hunks of earth that gravel their teeth, with the residue
of fire that sludges their gums, and with the odourless
powder their grandmothers used to stiffen petticoats
of crinoline. I imagine the starch creaming my throat grey,
and to us you look colourless as if you were made that way.
Still emerging from yourself, the bud of your nose alone
makes the universe less impossible. You do not know
that we are here, but this is how we watch you: on a
black-and-white plasma screen suspended on a wall
—the happy technician flicking us between dimensions
like Dr Who—and as if from an infinite distance.
3. Foetal movement
In my guidebook to pregnancy, a pencil illustration offers me
a profile of myself: armless and headless, legs to mid-thigh,
only my reproductive organs and waste channels sketched in.
My abdomen encases an upside-down foetus above the
bulbous and textured outline of my rectal cavity, the muscular,
smudged passage of my vagina and my clear urinary tract.
The caption announces that by the end of the seventh month
the foetus can respond to taste, light and sound, and it can cry.
As I watch you shadow box with sourness, radiance and din,
the sources of which you must fear like a medieval Christian,
you make of my belly a theatre for unseen marionettes and
for pain that has no origin—except for the life I have given.
We saw it on TV, in black and white:
the child was coming.
The days became dirty with time.
Dogs panted at the debris
of a world already absenting itself;
An ordinary rock might kill a bird,
though the sky was empty as a clothesline.
In the trees only the breeze swung:
Nights were a scullery,
close as a womb.
It seemed like eternity.
We kept each other clean;
pulled each other from dreams,
like animals in all our shuddering and panicking.
Meanwhile the fire glowed;
the knives on the table mirrored its flush.
It is true: we had kept the channels free
in case they wanted to contact us.
I lie in the dark like an amputated god,
leaking gangrene onto butcher’s sheets,
clinging to the remote control for
the night nurse, bed, TV and lights.
Beyond the closed door there are labyrinths,
austere as heaven. I hear the midwives as
they promenade with their perspex bassinets,
our infants wrapped like bleeding limbs.
Through holes in their faces we call mouths,
the new flesh keens, quiets and keens, for a
dawn that none of us can see, but that I imagine
as crimson with rawness and never-ending.
They return you, wailing of the modern configuration
of a world that will not recede before your primitive stare,
but next to my body you hulk and settle. There you lie,
strangely hungerless, intense as a nucleus,
alive with an intelligence of I know not what.
Men wage war to make something this real,
but it was life, pure and gluttonous, that committed
this glorious violence upon you and me.
After Black Saturday
Like succulents and the nocturnal,
my newborn and I keep secrets from the sun.
He consents to being lulled by the air conditioner
in the absence of my heart and lungs.
While we sleep, cots are x-rayed into molten,
and radiance seals the eyes of women and men.
Black-out. Torchlight in my child’s room
catches his silent and swaddled watching.
The world, at dawn, is a tray for yesterday’s cigarettes,
unattended for my infant and his lush bawling.
The TV before us is silent.
Planetary and darkling, you are
like the first-born human waking
to the light of a fire on his skin.
An evangelist weeps on a polished stage,
offering us his tour schedule:
Luanda, Rio de Janeiro, Rome,
damaged like the moon.
Then a choir of women materialise
with red telephones,
their lips lustrous as enamel.
Greetings, they mouth, from modernity
to the time traveller at my breast,
who closes his eyes, drowsy again
from the pleasures of mammalian flesh.
A caesarean section of the immaculate sky,
And we were posed: twenty-something, marbled-limbed.
There were no membranous hollows in skulls
No teeth, dumb and insistent, beneath foetus-soft gums.
No guts racked by the victuals of mammals,
The primeval composition of breathing.
No ova, milky and superstitious, buried within.
How the city shimmered;
It shimmered with us.
We know the legends of the frightened ones.
How they founded intrigues on clumps of hair,
Soil’s hunger, ghosts thrown up by heaving seas,
The chiasmic violence of trees.
How they pictured the universe, quaintly,
As day or night.
By then words had emerged with the quality of mice,
Soon desperate in their teeming.
We were judicious in our purging.
The universe yawns,
cavernous as a mirror.
Half of earth’s creatures:
star-struck and blind.
A dream, earth-bound
and sudden as a cockroach.
Night is true.
And not true.
Supple dawn light
blesses small spaces.
My son in his highchair
looks into a silver spoon.
And again you are fierce as a bear to night’s imperative,
There: the sounds of the animal.
How the dark years, those abominable millions of dark years,
Endure in this wombing.
The owl outside in the lightning tree:
Yellow-eyed as a ghoul.
When comes the slowing into plangency,
And the sun-quickened birds
Rally and remember to rail,
Believe none of it.
Your brightness, like theirs, is miniature.
The Interpretation of Dreams
For David McCooey
My dreams these days leave me to sleep.
In the unsound night my body is steadfast in its life support,
and in the morning I remember nothing
of the Machiavellian intrigues of my insomniac brain
as it reckons with paralysis and blindness,
a history of diurnal violence.
What lingers is only the sordid
and ordinary intuition that I am not what I seem.
Now here you are wrestling with the night,
your brain sparking your corpse like Dr Frankenstein,
as if life might grant you alone dark vigilance.
There is a field restless with scarecrows that send birds reeling,
which only your brain knows about.
Your larynx pushes out its cry for help
—the noise alien as a starling’s.
I must wake you, quickly, so you do not disturb our son.
Within the undead body of our sleeping child
his brain is desperate as a Punch-and-Judy puppeteer.
There are fighting words: “Mine! Mine!”
I write them down. But if I were a muse, rather than a scribe,
I would tender dreams that shimmer
like birch leaves and glow like moonstones;
not these darkling hallucinations of a brain
already whiling away the night on its pitiful past.
Reflection: Out of Darkness
The nine selected poems speak of the generative process of bringing forth life out of darkness. In fact, they seek to shine a new and bold light on pregnancy and childbirth, experiences that have been emptied of their power and strangeness by the banal repetitions of taboos around women’s bodies and consumerist sentiment. The poems are inspired by my own experience of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and nurturing. They are also driven by what I believe is the remit of the poet: to overcome the automatism of perception, as the Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky (1917) put it, to see the world as honestly and shamelessly as one can.
The procedure of defamiliarisation, fittingly for these poems, resonates with the perspective of a child, a newcomer to the earth, who sees everything for the first time. Indeed, one of the poems, “Night Feed,” imagines my son as the “first-born human / waking to the light of a fire on his skin.” Certainly, despite the modern medicalisation and sterilisation of childbirth, parturition and nurturing struck me as particularly primal and powerful acts, connecting my son and me to every other infant and woman on the earth, going back to prehistory. However, my attempts to understand my reproductive body and its offspring are inevitably staged in a modern network of cultural meanings, by which we are all sustained but in which we can also become stuck. In the first poem “Unborn,” for example, I seriocomically consider my pregnancy in relation to the French novelist Marie Darrieussecq’s feminist novel Pig Tales (1996), which embraces the female generative body abjected in our culture, and to a pregnancy guidebook, which reduces the female body to a line drawing. Science fiction elements recur in a number of the poems, such as “Arrivals” and “Utopia,” the latter of which imagines the futuristic creation of life purified of flesh-and-blood imperfections—and of the muddled words that seek to represent that abject embodiment. Science fiction, of course, has long been employed to represent birth. Indeed, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818)—referenced in the final poem of the selection “The Interpretation of Dreams” (which also references Sigmund Freud’s eponymous work of psychoanalysis)—is often considered the first science-fiction text. As depicted by Shelley, whose mother died in childbirth and who lost a number of children herself, childbirth and its aftermath can be calamitous. The event of my son’s birth, as documented in “47 Degrees,” coincided with the horrific 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria that killed 173 people. The final poems in this selection attend to sleep, that obsession of every new parent. They also shift their focus, so that the strangeness of our diurnal lives comes to reflect the strangeness of the universe, which we, as the poem “Utopia” proposes, insist on picturing conventionally and “quaintly / as day or night.”
Darrieussecq, Marie (1996). Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, tr. Linda Coverdale. London: Faber & Faber, 1998.
Freud, Sigmund (1930). The Interpretation of Dreams, 8th ed., ed. & tr. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1955).
Shelley, Mary (1818). Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, ed. Maurice Hindle (London: Penguin Books, 2003).
Shklovsky, Victor (1917). ‘Art as Technique,’ in Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays, ed. & tr. L.T. Lemon & M.J. Reis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), pp. 5-24.
Maria Takolander, an Associate Professor in Literature & Writing at Deakin University in Geelong, is the author of three widely reviewed collections of poetry, The End of the World (Artarmon: Giramondo Publishing, 2014), Ghostly Subjects (Cambridge: Salt, 2009), and Narcissism (Geelong: Whitmore Press, 2005); a book of short stories, The Double (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013); and a work of literary criticism, Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground (Bern: Peter Lang, 2007).
Her poetry has been widely published and anthologized, appearing in The Best Australian Poems and/or The Best Australian Poetry annually since 2005 as well as in Thirty Australian Poets, ed. Felicity Plunkett (St Lucia: U.Q.P., 2011), The Turnrow Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry, ed. John Kinsella (Monroe: Turnrow Books, 2014), and Contemporary Australian Poetry, ed. Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson & David Musgrave (Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2016). Her poetry was also the subject of ABC Radio National’s “Earshot” programme on the 6th May 2015. A complete transcript of her extended interview for that programme appears in Cordite Poetry Review, No. 53, February 2015 at: http://cordite.org.au/interviews/varatharajan-takolander/. Her webpage is: http://www.mariatakolander.com/
The nine poems selected by the author were originally published in her collection The End of the World (Artarmon: Giramond Publishing, 2014) and are reprinted here with permission.