He remembered the nine months of his pregnancy. I mean to say, of his own gestation, the months of his unfolding, of his creation in the womb. For years he went by oblivious to it when, slipping jerkily on a bloom of ice, he knocked his head. That was when he remembered how he had come into being, built from cell to cell.
He couldn't look at his mother. He couldn't bear to face her. She called him on the telephone and the unknown intimacy of it overwhelmed him. He bit his lip and blushed the colour of tinned salmon. But he was obsessed with it, with realising that memory. He spent hours wrapped tight and body-curled on his bed, piled among sheets. He wore three pairs of socks. He bathed for hours, thickening the water with flour.
Tremblingly he explained it to me. How he remembered this complete awareness. How his organs splayed and grew and filled the spaces of him. Of recalling the hazy development and definition of his fingertips and toes, the clarification of his mouth and nose. He even recalled the taste of his mother's birthing fluid—the taste of game, with a distinctly floral tang. He tried all sorts of concoctions to remember it—hare and honeydew, deer and damson, pheasant and plum. None of them recalled what he had once tasted.
We worried about him. This project of bringing back what now was gone. He let his job slip, his commitments and familiarities. He grew angry when we told him he was too obsessed. He simply explained the fact that he was born strangely blue. Of how the midwife had marked the time of his birth from an unusual and non-clinical oriental clock, the hands of which were spread like the heads and buds of flowers.
He spent more and more time at the local pool, just floating in the warm water, his fingertips crinkling like sodden paste, eddying on the tideless waves.
It wasn't long before he had spent his savings on creating a vast spherical tub in his garden. We came to visit him, but he was simply agitated and dismissive. He glanced anxiously at the too-hot sun and repeatedly dipped his fingertips into thick water, ducking his head into buckets, under it.
On the day of the sphere's completion he donned a mask and tube that connected with the outside world. He called it his umbilical. His eyes were glassy and shallow like fake pearls. He clambered up a ladder and, moving his legs slowly like an astronaut, he dipped his body into the thick, brackish fluid. He floated there in the depth of it, spinning slow trellises of himself in the soup, his body twisted into a question mark.
He never spoke again. Even to this day we wonder whether he got his wish—whether he shrunk to a point, and disappeared into the mash.
Owen Vince is a poet and writer living on coastal west Wales. Originally an archaeologist, he has since turned to writing, which has appeared in Cadaverine Magazine, The Siren, NNATAN, and Igloo, among others. “Swim” was one of the winners of the Press 53 Flash Fiction Contest at AWP 2014.
There is no greater Sin after the seven deadly
than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great poet. John Keats
The minor poet wanted to be a major poet and so he refrained
from the seven deadly sins, not spewing his wrath on the face
of the sheet, but being long-suffering and gracious when
the not-so-good poet won the latest publishing contest, 60-96 pages
and $1000, even writing a congratulatory letter, glad to hear
your confessional schlock found a home, thought that stuff
went out with Lowell, and he eschewed greed, how avaricious
could he be when the biggest prize couldn’t rescue a Cambodian
family of four from poverty? And nobody could ever accuse him
of sloth. He wasn’t one of those Sunday poets who wrote only
when inspiration struck, oh no, he scribbled every day,
even if only a haiku. Why he often wrote a poem on the way
to work because what poet could live on his poetry, no laziness
for him, though he had heard leisure was necessary for culture,
and it was certainly true that very few of his kind seemed to have
any time to read poesie. As for pride, what did he have
to be proud of, that stapled volume, his life’s work, several
hundred copies, remaindered on his shelf, at least his ex-wife
had left him that. Of course, there was lust from time to time,
that cute seventeen-year-old with the voluptuous verbs and sinuous
sonnets, but really, he wasn’t a pedophile like those Catholic
priests who were also trying, but not very hard it seemed, to avoid
the seven deadly sins. He suppressed occasional envy, all those
kids right out of MFA programs blogging their poems, tweeting
on and picking up prizes here and there, he would have had
a much better chance if he had gone to Harvard or Yale.
As for gluttony, well, like most poets he had given up red meat.
However, he did flatter himself at those open readings where he
was better than most and always had an extra single-spaced
three-pager wadded in his pocket to pull out when the host said,
“Yes, one more poem but then that is enough.”
Lois Marie Harrod’s 13th and 14th poetry collections “Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis” and “How Marlene Mae Longs for Truth” appeared in 2013. “The Only Is” won the 2012 Tennessee Chapbook Contest (Poems & Plays); “Brief Term,” poems about teaching, was published by Black Buzzard Press (2011). Widely published in print journals and online from American Poetry Review to Zone 3, she has received six fellowships from VCCA and three from New Jersey Council on the Arts. A Geraldine R. Dodge poet and former high school teacher, she teaches Creative Writing at TCNJ. Visit her work on www.loismarieharrod.org
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: Since FAMOUS POET is an oxymoron, I have been having fun writing about MINOR POETS in all their bizarre and touching manifestations. “The Minor Poet Commits the Eighth Deadly Sin” is part of a series that includes “The Minor Poet Takes Her Old Lady Students Out to Write en Plein Air” and “The Minor Poet Gives the Two-Poem Warning.”
This is how you do it: Load the test strip into the little blue meter and watch the screen spring to life. A digital teardrop blinks, ready.
Rub your index, middle, ring, or pinky finger from base to tip to redistribute blood, changing fingers and hands to avoid callouses. Your fingertip should blush rosy, like you’ve just released your grip on the handle of a heavy suitcase.
Insert a clean lancet into the lancing device. Twist the cap of the lancet until it releases, revealing the short, sharp point. Cock the lancing device. Press the end against the side of your finger, a less sensitive spot than the nerve-clustered pad. Fire. Wince because it hurts. Wince because it doesn’t, and that surprises you. Wince because it still feels wrong to stick a sharp object into your skin on purpose. Wince because the anticipation is over so quickly.
Collect the droplet of blood, no bigger than the beads you used to string on pieces of fishing line, and feed it into the test strip until the meter beeps. If the meter doesn’t beep, set the lancet to pierce you deeper—you’ll feel the difference, a stinging, spreading warmth down the palm of your hand.
Wait for the number. Feel relief or disappointment (the self-chastising kind, the kind that curses your weakness for taut red grapes).
A dietician showed my father this process four years ago, after his first heart attack necessitated the full medical work-up that discovered his Type II diabetes. I took him to his diabetic training session at the hospital, where he got an exclusive hour with a young, attractive nutritionist, all blond perk and reassurance. As he did with women of her ilk, my father pleased her with compliance. He put his reading glasses on to examine the meal plan sheets, leafed interestedly through the booklet on carbohydrates, and, when instructed, performed the finger-prick.
But that’s what it was: a performance. My father was an expert performer. When I offered to drive him to the pharmacy to pick up his insurance-covered glucose meter, he said, “That’s okay, hon. I’ll do it later.” I knew then he’d already made up his mind never to prick his finger again. Even though Type II diabetes had brought on his father’s renal failure. Even though all the science suggested the chances for a second heart attack went up exponentially with diabetes.
My mother called it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I fully expected to fail my twenty-eight week glucose tolerance test. I expected to fail despite all the friends who told me how rare it was to fail, despite all their pleas for me to eat some ice cream and quit worrying, despite all their certainty that my pregnancy was textbook fine.
Maybe it was the family history. Maybe it was the unprecedented cravings for brownies that left me misty-eyed at the office when a colleague brought baked goods to work. Maybe it was the fact that I conceived my baby five months after my father died of a heart attack, a result of his advanced renal cell cancer, according to the death certificate. When the two pink lines appeared on my test, I immediately prepared for a miscarriage, certain as I was that my body, wracked by loss, was too noxious a place for a baby. The trajectory of my pregnancy has not been a blissful, starlit path marked by joyful milestones, but a hectic highway of nausea, mood swings, and grief. When my midwife called with the gestational diabetes diagnosis, I nodded at the phone with resignation. Then I cried for three days.
Everyone—my midwives, my friends, my husband—assured me that it wasn’t my fault. They cited the research that says gestational diabetes, unlike Type II, isn’t the result of heredity or lifestyle, but the impeding of insulin by hormones produced in the placenta. They reiterated that it could happen to anyone, regardless of body type—marathon runners could get it, they said. They reminded me that I had been eating healthy and exercising throughout my pregnancy. I’d done everything right.
And yet I was overcome by guilt and fear. Guilt because my body wasn’t working as it should, and I’m quick to blame myself when something doesn’t go my way. Fear because of the complications gestational diabetes introduced to my pregnancy. My screwy insulin could affect my baby’s insulin. She could retain too much blood sugar and develop fetal macrosomia or hypoglycemia. Or worse, my placenta could “age” prematurely, pulling away from the wall of my uterus, depriving her of vital nutrition in her final weeks inside me. In the worst-case scenario, she could die.
The first line of the brochure the hospital sent me read, “If you are diagnosed with glucose intolerance, this is now considered a high-risk pregnancy.”
I declined to view my father’s body before it was sent to the morgue, a choice I’ve since regretted. I never kissed his face one last time, or breathed in his scent of smoke and detergent. I can’t describe what he looked like dead because I only made it as far as the ambulance before I couldn’t look anymore.
But after my GD diagnosis, I typed “stillborn baby” into Google and made myself scroll through the images. I was shocked by the sheer number of them, pages and pages of dead newborns. Some were gruesome, almost too much to bear, but most showed fully formed babies who appeared to be sleeping in a swaddle, or a bassinet, or, most tenderly, their parents’ arms.
Some photos were even taken professionally. The camera lens zoomed in on perfect and perfectly lifeless tiny hands resting on adult fingers. There’s a photographer where we live that will do this, take beautiful photos of the dead babies their mothers pushed into the world only to bury them.
I openly wept as I viewed the images, and never once did I assume these deaths were caused by parental neglect, by poor choices. I was amazed, in fact, by the profound love and loss I could sense in so many of the photos. All the efforts. All the hope.
But as I felt my daughter push her heel against my stomach—the game we play at night called “Show Me Your Foot”—I wondered, for what could I forgive myself?
My father taught me about indulgence. The pleasure of excess. He had mottos about it. Only order from the right side of the menu. Tip like a Rockefeller. It only costs an extra thousand to go first class. He made money to spend it, drank to get drunk, ate disproportionately down a narrow swath of the food pyramid (pasta, white bread, Hostess cakes and Oreos by the sleeve, sometimes a detour to corn or green peas drowned in butter). One weekend, both of us sick with the flu, he drove to the video store and returned with the first three seasons of The Sopranos. We had seen them before, but my father thought it would be fun to see them again while we waited for the virus to pass. We watched them in 12-hour blocks for three days straight, pausing only to eat ice cream and refill our grape sodas.
Years ago, his friends had ironic business cards made up for him: Danny Monticello: Moderation is the Key!
He was loved, of course. Who doesn’t love the permission of a friend who will always have seconds, always go one more round, always make the night last a little longer?
On the day we went to hear the results of his CAT scan, my father finished a worried cigarette outside the sliding glass doors of the urology office. “It’s not going to be good news,” he said. “I fucked up.”
I knew what he meant. He meant his life. The smoking. The drinking. He didn’t need anyone to tell him. But he was my big-hearted dad, and I couldn’t dream of blaming him for being him, of believing he deserved what we both knew was coming in those test results. Who deserves tumors because the hard things about being alive seem easier with a beer, or a smoke, or a bowl of Neopolitan? See, I’ve never understood the value of frugality, am mystified by self-deprivation. I loved to watch my father consume. Satiate. See his head loll and eyes glaze with the too-muchness of what could fill his one and only life.
Because he said yes. Because he said more.
I rested my head against his arm. “Nobody makes all the right choices,” I said. “The important thing about life is that it’s meaningful. They were all good times, Dad.”
I expected him to be thankful for the exoneration, especially from me, who had the second most to lose. But he tossed his butt and shook his head. “Wasn’t worth it, hon,” he said.
I test first thing in the morning. That’s my fasting read. Then again an hour after breakfast. Then before lunch and an hour after. Then before dinner and an hour after that. Six times a day.
Exercise helps the body process glucose faster, using it up before insulin-blocking hormones can send it to the blood, where it passes the placenta to my baby. My belly is now too large to do my spinning classes, so I use an elliptical machine. I also walk, usually several times a day, waddling up and down the streets of my suburban neighborhood in a winter coat that just barely still fits my seven months’ pregnant body. Sometimes I do squats, or lift small weights, or do a prenatal yoga video. I swim at the YMCA. I climb the stairs on the campus where I teach. I pace in the classroom, squeezing in a few extra steps where I can. I’ve reached 33 weeks. Seven more to go.
Other parents advise my husband and me that now is the time to see movies, take naps, eat out every night at all our favorite restaurants. But we don’t go out; all my food gets measured now, weighed in grams and doled onto on little plates where we can see our efforts precisely portioned. My husband and I scrutinize nutrition labels, counting the carbohydrates. Is it worth it to have half a cup of ice cream when I can have a whole cup of Greek yogurt? How many grapes do 3 oz. equal? In the game of Six and One-Half Dozen, I still want whatever looks like more.
My husband and I started trying to get pregnant when my father was still alive. I knew I wanted a child someday, but I’m ready to admit I thought having one now might bribe him into taking better care of himself. I had no right to do this, to manipulate him into changing. I had no right.
In the end, it didn’t matter. My husband and I waited too long to start trying. When the doctor told us my father’s cancer had spread, and we could only try to prolong his life—a few weeks, maybe a handful of months—with this or that experimental therapy, my father asked what was the point. He was going to die anyway.
My father, my mother, and I stood in the hospital lobby after the appointment. I didn’t know what to say. Behind us, the automatic doors slid open and closed, a moving threshold between living and dying, which is what all of us are doing, really, all of the time.
My mother was angry that he didn’t want to fight. “For your daughter?” she said. “For your future grandchild? Is that something you’d like to see someday, if you could?”
He looked at the floor. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I’d like that very much.”
But hope isn’t a cure, and one loss doesn’t prevent another. Though we try, don’t we? We eat the leafy greens and eschew the desserts. We run and spin and swim ourselves to the perception of safety. We count the carbohydrates. We go Paleo. We go vegan. We say it’s all a matter of priorities. Illnesses are just choices manifesting. Death is preventable.
I hinge my days on a series of numbers. I catalogue every morsel I consume. Again and again, I find my daughter’s foot. There it is. She’s alive.
My husband and I have given her a name, but as we approach her possibly risky arrival, I’ve noticed myself saying it less. Saying it only sparingly, a caution, a talisman. An entitlement I do not deserve. A whisper of hope I’m afraid to have.
When we speak, we do so slowly, trying to enunciate.
Amy Monticello’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iron Horse Literary Review, Brevity, Natural Bridge, Redivider, and elsewhere, and was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2013. Her nonfiction chapbook, Close Quarters, was released by Sweet Publications, and her work has been anthologized in Tuscaloosa Writes This (Slash Pine Press, 2013) and Going Om (Viva Edition/Cleis Press, forthcoming 2014). She currently teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: The piece began as a kind of meditation on this shared illness between my dad and me, this link between his death and my pregnancy. But while I was writing, I was also reading a ton on diabetes, and I noticed how often the focus is on prevention through diet. That’s the culture of health we live in America, an insistence that we can outrun illness through our choices, and a conflation of health with personal value. So, the slight cultural critique that emerges throughout the essay, especially at the end—something I’m exploring further in other pieces—came during revision, when I saw the piece more as an artifact than a reflection.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: Lee K. Abbott once told me that all characters deserve “full citizenship,” which is another way of saying, I think, that they deserve to be written with empathy. They have pasts and are products of environment. Most importantly, their core behaviors can produce a multitude of effects. My father’s indulgent lifestyle most likely brought on or exacerbated his illnesses, but also brought joy to others’ lives, including mine. I wanted to show those two things intertwined, impossible to separate through judgment.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: That changes depending on which part of the journey we’re talking about. At the moment, I’m writing a lot about grief, so reading material is basically endless. But a few books that have really dug in as I work are Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Kathleen Finneran’s The Tender Land, Emily Rapp’s The Still Point of the Turning World, and Mary Miller’s Big World. I’m still trying to figure out what it means, if anything, that all of these books were written by women. Something they have in common, though, is an explicit interest in the instructive nature of grief; they’re all inquiries into character, culture, religion, medicine, history, and family.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: Ideally, I write at home, at my little antique secretary’s desk (that’s what my mother calls it), in the middle of the day. I’m a weird afternoon writer who likes her mornings for reading/teaching/grading, and her evenings for TV. But as I get older and busier, I’m less in need of the ideal. I write in airport terminals, I write riding shotgun on car trips, I write during office hours. Sticking to the ideal would mean I’d never get enough work done.