The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.
Destiny O. Birdsong, MFA, PhD
I’m a crime TV junkie, and some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever watched involve fetal abductions: the kidnapping of an unborn child, usually by removal of the fetus from a pregnant woman’s body. Fetal abductions are almost always committed by women, are almost always violent, and the mothers almost always die, but what most fascinates me are the interviews of people who knew the assailants. Typically, when a woman commits these abductions, she has also faked a pregnancy, but family members will say things like: “She had to be pregnant. I touched her stomach, and I felt the baby kick.” The person telling the story is always so convinced. They had to have felt something. And the woman, so desperate to be expecting, must have felt something too. What power can the body harness in the midst of that much belief? Can it become the thing it is pretending to be? I’m not sure, but this is the question that prompted me to write this poem.
There have also been times in my life when I’ve been desperate to be pregnant, usually for reasons other than wanting a child. I’ve wanted to be pregnant to keep men. Or to prove my body capable of something I’m still not sure it can do. I mean, I haven’t always been the most careful, so I’ve often wondered what’s wrong with me for not conceiving. I’ve had some of the moments I outline in the poem. I’ve done things. I’ve said things. I’ve made wishes.
So “Macular Conception” is a story about the body’s utmost desire and belief, and the title lends itself to this. The macula is the part of the eye where light is transmitted to nerve signals that tell the brain what you see: a word, a stoplight, a baby. It’s also the point of sharpest visual acuity, where we see things the most clearly. But as a person who doesn’t have perfect eyesight, I also understand that acuity is relative: easily compromised, or often misread by the brain.
I started with the first image I knew: the speaker wrapping negative pregnancy tests in paper towels and throwing them away outside her house. She’s hiding them from herself as much as from the guy, a fact that I try to bring home when she also hides her tampons (because her boyfriend isn’t counting her tampons). I wanted to open the piece by illustrating her neuroses, and the listing of these actions with the halting sentence structure is another manifestation of that. I wanted her to be practical about all of it. I wanted her to have checklists, even as she was doing this irrational thing.
I was also certain that I wanted her to be young. Honestly, I was writing back to a younger self, and I wanted to highlight that naiveté in the speaker as well as in her boyfriend. I wanted him to misread her fingernail imprints on her belly as stretchmarks. I wanted her to see a pregnancy as a “suc[cess] at failure” without truly understanding why the single mothers in her life wanted her to do something different. I wanted her to be oblivious to how dismissive (and inaccurate) a term like “failure” can be. There’s something tragic in that: a girl who wants to take on this massive responsibility but is unable to articulate independently a personal stance on what motherhood means to her. That moment is the most problematic for me in the poem (I’m always a little apprehensive of how readers might perceive it), but I chose to keep it in for that exact reason.
I also really wanted the speaker to have an orgasm, an instance when her body—in all its imagined and hoped-for failure—has a visceral reaction, like the non-existent child kicking in the would-be mother’s womb. I wanted her body to work for her in a moment when she is enraptured by the thought of her holding a part of her lover inside it. The sentence structure changes here too, and clauses get longer to illustrate the messiness of it all: the dirty bathroom stall, the child who feeds on her insides like a catfish, the boy with his painful kisses. It’s unfortunate that this is the place where it happens, when she is alone and hoping, and not with someone who wants to be with her, pregnant or otherwise—or better yet, when she is by herself in some other place, thinking about her whole self, and not about what her body must do in order to be valid. But that too is a part of her story. Not only is her desire overwhelming, but also unwieldy, perhaps because she has never taken the time to explore it on her terms.
It isn’t until the final lines of the poem that we get to something like that, but it is still a problematic moment: an articulation of self-belief, but again, for the unworthy cause of keeping “the boy,” who is only staying because he believes she is having “his” child. I chose the final image of the traffic light and making a wish because she is still so young, and this is a game she’s playing with the hopes of not getting caught, but still doesn’t understand the implications of doing so. I wanted to leave the reader with this final image of youth and self-absorption, but also of an intense, transformative belief—a dangerous combination. Like the television shows I often watch, I wanted to narrate a disaster in the making, in the instant before the light turns red, or the cop pulls out of his hiding place, or the car comes barreling toward her. And I also wanted to give her a voice before the disaster—a flawed one, but not a monstrous one. So often, I too have wanted something that badly, not knowing that my body’s desire alone was proof enough that I was human, haveable, whole.
by Destiny O. Birdsong
She wrapped all the negative tests in paper towels
And threw them away at the gas station up the street.
Lined the tampons up, one by one, beneath her mattress:
Thirty-six. Doesn’t want to need them; hopes
That in the days and weeks of the summer’s bilious heat
She will succeed at failure. Failure in the eyes
Of the single mothers she knows. Especially her own.
But she wants this. She wants it so badly she imagines
Her skin stretching in sleep. She claws it feverishly,
Awakening to trails of crescent-shaped welts on her belly
That resemble a seascape drawn by the hand of a child.
The boy, who has never slept next to a pregnant girl,
Has seen them, but he believes they’re stretch marks.
The boy believes her, along with her shift manager,
All of her friends, and two of her professors.
But the stash of tampons is dwindling. She can’t buy more.
Luckily, the flow is weak—red dabs of spit.
If anyone asks, she can tell them she’s spotting.
Squatting over a restroom seat, she wonders
What her body means to say in this remittance.
The possibilities excite her. Standing, she wills
The unshed blood and refuse to knit a net,
Trapping a piece of her lover. This swimming self
Nudges against the folds of her endometrium
Like a catfish nosing algae from the walls
Of an aquarium. She can see it
As clearly as if her womb were made of glass.
She can feel its small, open-mouthed kisses stinging
The way the father’s does: teeth nicking her tongue.
And the bliss of it—the body’s obedience, and the boy—
Brings the rush she never feels. She arches, contracts.
This father, the boy who sleeps next to her, wants to leave
But now he won’t: she’s having a child. Or she will be.
She must be. Beneath yellow traffic lights, she
Scratches the sun-visor and makes a wish
That is much more like a prayer: Please,
Let it count for something that I believe
Myself. Because I believe myself.
Online Editor’s Note: Destiny Birdsong’s “Macular Conception” will appear in the Winter 2016 “Myth” Issue. Also, her poem “Selective Reduction” appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of Rove.