Home > Blog > The Writing Lives of Roe v. Wade
profile/agnimag.md
Published: Wed Jul 10 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2024 Loss Reading On Poetry
The Writing Lives of Roe v. Wade

In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization—a decision that overturned almost fifty years of national access to abortion—fourteen states have so far criminalized this healthcare procedure, and eleven more have developed restrictions that the Center for Reproductive Justice identifies as hostile.

Dotting this shredded map, several states have emerged as sanctuaries, if one can afford to get there in time.

With referendums to reestablish the right to abortion set to appear in Arizona, Arkansas, and Nevada, and the next President of the United States likely to appoint another Supreme Court justice, this year’s electoral outcome is both an existential and a literary matter.

The essays gathered here remind us that Roe v. Wade not only ensured access to abortion but also enabled writers to choose for themselves how, what, and when their creativity—in every sense—would manifest. Roe provided intergenerational safeguards for a private interiority to resist and name a culture of abasement, surveillance technologies, and cruel theater. This authorial imagination and its networks of shared storytelling have been crucial to the coming-of-age of writers and the formation of contemporary U.S. literature.

“The influence of a poet—even an homage to a poet,” writes Lynn Emanuel, “can take the form of both veneration and quarrel.” Reflecting on Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “the mother,” Emanuel ponders, “If it were not for ‘the mother,’ I would not have written my ‘—Disappearance—Nativity,’ which argues with motherhood. And if it weren’t for the repeal of Roe v. Wade, I don’t think I would have found my lost poem. When I discovered it among a pile of drafts, I am not sure—without the looming overthrow—that I would have been able to recognize it for what it was.”

This clarifying memory arrives unbidden. It brings fresh revelation, prompted by fundamental questions—an author’s questions—about the right to decide how we make sense of experience. Nahal Suzanne Jamir asks, “What is a woman? What is a child? What is a revolution? What can a word mean in any language?” May the essays gathered here bring life-sustaining recognitions to readers in every outpost, field, and trench, both public and private, whose lives are gripped by these questions and entwined with their democratic stakes.

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs 허수진
Bugaksan, Seoul, Republic of Korea

 

  
Carol Muske-Dukes
Breaking Bad: Breaking a Bad Law

for my daughter

My senior year of high school, long ago in St. Paul, Minnesota, I told my father I had my heart set on going East for college. He blocked a tentative gesture toward independence when I brought up possible scholarship opportunities. Though a lifelong Republican undercut by my mother’s Democrat loyalty, he agreed with his spouse on the absolute necessity of college for their six children, but balked at my scholarship idea, refusing to allow the government to “pry into” his taxes—or his wealth. He had “converted” to Catholicism from his Scandinavian Lutheran background for my mother, who, I knew, hoped that I would choose a Catholic college.

So—what was my next move, as a seventeen-year-old would-be writer, non-stop reader, straight-A student, product of an excellent “convent school”-type education? With impeccable wrong-way radar, I managed to find the worst college I could possibly have chosen for myself: a Jesuit learnery called Creighton in Omaha, Nebraska. (I now share alumnae status with the wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, “Ginni” Thomas, who apparently flourished there.)

  
My unfounded hope was that perhaps this institution would equal or better the excellent education I had received from the nuns at our convent-style high school. The Black Robes, I thought. The Great Equivocators.

But my passionate ambition to learn nearly died when I ended up in Omaha with the Jesuits. They made no attempt to hide their gruesome misogyny, and a commonplace crushing sexism informed every aspect of student life. In theology class, the silver-haired Jesuit prof. remarked slyly to the “men” in the class that the “ladies’ should keep their legs crossed. When women’s legs were crossed, he smirked, “the gates of hell stayed closed.” I grew deeply depressed, my grades suffered. The school had only recently become coed. I was a homecoming queen candidate—probably I stood out because the ratio of men to women was so lopsided. I had a steady social life but broke dates and acquired a reputation for being “fast.”

Without campaigning, I was elected editor of the literary magazine, Shadows. I put together, with staff, an issue of which I was mutedly proud, though I believed few on campus read the journal. I was wrong. One of the poems I’d selected, a witty musing by a young poet on her breasts, created a firestorm, a major scandal on campus. Unbelievably, all copies of the magazine were confiscated and I was called into the president’s office. The president, a potato-like Man of God in a black frock, attempted to interrogate me about the poem. I asked him why all copies of the magazine had been seized and he said I’d published a “bad word.”

“So you’re saying that breast is a bad word?” I tried hard to hold on. I noticed that The Potato was starting to sweat in his great leather chair—I guessed that he had not read the poem in question, but perhaps had always been made nervous, even grossed out, by any reference to female anatomy.

I explained, as if to a child, that this innocent anatomical term in question showed up universally, historically, in various discourses and publications, medical to literary. I thought of the irrepressible poems of Catullus that my best friend in high school and I had once translated, stretched out in front of a fire, with our Latin books propped up in front of us. With a dictionary, a “pony,” and our excitement, those jagged insouciant poems came to life in English before us.

“Shakespeare used the word breast,” I noted. (Was it possible this person had managed to live in a world without bosoms, busts, bubbies, teats, tits, dugs, jugs—or was he confusing these more casual allusions with the “too solid” fleshly reference of plain old mammary glands?)

The president looked inspired, then uncertain. Then he said, “But he only referred to breasts in plays.”

  
Not long after this alarming conversation, I had a date with an attractive but cocky classmate, whom I did not trust. I had intended to drop the date. He had a very loud laugh and drove a hot car with a Florida plate and a Confederate flag in the rear window. On the afternoon of our date, I realized it was too late for a “headache.” He picked me up, we had a quick bite, after which I told him I’d like to go home, my “headache” showing up out of nowhere. He said he had to stop at his apartment, he’d forgotten something. When we got there, he began kissing me. I pulled away, but he began to force himself on me.

We struggled, I pushed away, then felt the hair on the back of my neck rise. There is someone else in the room. I shouted in alarm. A closet door opened and a lurker, sheepish, sidled out. My date had planned to let this guy watch.

The creep slipped out the door. I turned to the door myself, but I didn’t make it. I was raped.

  
It was the end of the semester. The Vietnam War was raging. Bobby Kennedy had been shot. I had been teaching a freshman composition course. I left Omaha the day after the semester ended. I traveled to San Francisco and stayed with acquaintances from high school. Not long after, I discovered I was pregnant. I had no money and no life plans. I was a runaway. Twenty-one, all alone, in trouble. And now all the Catholic hellfires blazed in my dreams, intensifying my terror and guilt. Murderer. Murderer.

I somehow found a job as a technical writer at a major insurance company, but kept to myself at work, though everyone was friendly.

I now had morning sickness. Time was not on my side.

  
I told no one about my situation. I couldn’t let my parents know, they would’ve disowned me. I visited a health care / social services center and a very kind social worker there took pity on me. I was so terrified about breaking the law that criminalized women seeking abortions (Roe v. Wade would not establish a Constitutional right to abortion for a couple of years) that I gave the social worker a pseudonym, panicked about using my real name. She understood my panic. I told her I knew that my only hope was a back-alley procedure, probably in Mexico, but she let me know that a legal abortion might be available at a major hospital if I could convince a psychiatrist that I was mentally unstable, unfit to give birth—or, suicidal.

She helped me register for an appointment to talk to a psychiatrist at San Francisco General hospital. It took time to get on the schedule. Meanwhile, the clock kept ticking. Weeks passed and finally I was assigned a slot for a pre-interview.

At the hospital, I met with an older woman who may have been a therapist. I never knew, because she did not introduce herself, but directed me to her office with a distracted wave. I tried to tell her my story, but I stumbled over words, my voice shook. I was mentally unstable, I said, truthfully. I was filled with guilt about the possibility of an abortion. But I had no other choice. I had no resources. I could not afford a child. I did not want a child. And I had been raped. No one would have believed me at the Catholic college, and even if they had, they would have hushed it up, blamed me, forced me to bear this brute’s child. I had nowhere to turn. And the thought of a back-alley abortion . . . I couldn’t go on. I sat in front of her, frozen, unable to utter another word.

The woman stared at me for what seemed like a long time. Then suddenly she began laughing. “Sorry,” she said. “You’re a nice smart little girl who got herself into a pickle, aren’t you? You’re in a pickle, kiddo, but I can’t help you.” Her merry laughter continued as I left her office.

More time passed. Despite the disastrous pre-interview, I was allowed one more meeting with the authorities. I was given the name of a male psychiatrist at the hospital. In the waiting room, I sat next to a young (my age or younger) Black woman. We began to talk, sharing our stories. She too had been assaulted, but by a family member—the attacks ongoing for a couple of years. Her tormentor was an uncle, who entered her bedroom late at night, drunk, whispering, fondling her, then lying on top of her. When she told her mother, her mother slapped her face. Now she was pregnant. As with me, weeks and weeks had gone by while she waited for a chance to plead for help from someone with the power to deny or, miraculously, provide that help. Neither one of us was hopeful.

Suddenly there were tears, silent tears—we both stared straight ahead as the tears fell, soundlessly. One of us took the other’s hand.

Jeanette (I’ll call her Jeanette) was summoned first by a secretary, who poked her head round the door, shooting us a lowering “look.” We were used to that look by now. I wiped my tears on my sleeve. I suddenly realized, sitting there, that Jeanette and I, and all other women in our desperate state, wrongly thought of this system of formal appeal as “help.” It was not help. It was a wrongful law’s mockery of mercy—a “loophole” provision that exacted a performance from both the “wrongdoer” and her judges.

  
From the wrongdoer: a show of abjectness, a “voluntary” act of self-criminalization, of self-abasement akin to that of a political hostage. How low would she go, admitting her crime? What distance would she crawl, begging?

And from the all-powerful “decider,” a performance of objective professional evaluation offering theater both psychological and legal on the program featuring the freak show: “how” mad, “how” desperate, “how” impoverished, “how” sick at heart, “how” remorseful, did these base supplicants seem? And what would be enough for a supreme judge, allowed ultimate power over a woman’s womb, to deny or allow her a reprieve based on sexist scorn and a barely masked sense of voyeurism?

  
I had been judged by a fatuous dolt of an old Jesuit for publishing a poem using the word breast. For this crime, all efforts of my mind and talent were censored—and disappeared. Now my body and my right to my body were being erased—because my body had a uterus, because it had breasts—because I was a woman: the original “sin.”

I recall having all these thoughts. I have total recall. If this seems unlikely, just remember: I was a nice smart little girl who got herself into a pickle.

  
This was my state of mind when I was summoned. I remember wondering if there was another exit because I hadn’t seen Jeanette leave.

The psychiatrist sat behind a large desk, his hands folded on a stack of papers. I don’t remember his face. I remember anger, like a high unwavering whistle in the air, a dog whistle audible only to me because I was a dog. There was a family photo on his desk: a wife, faceless, and three faceless kids. A faceless dog.

The shrink smiled at me. I didn’t smile back. He scratched his head reflectively.

“You know,” he said, “it’s unusual to see a nice girl like you. What we usually get in here is trash.”

I repeated trash, as if I hadn’t heard the word before.

“You know, like that one who was just in here before you.” There was a long pause.

“Trash—like, shall I say, that Black slut who was just in here.”

For “Black” he used another word—we all know what it was.

  
I don’t remember exactly what poured out of my mouth. It was violent and it rose up fast and suddenly plastered faces onto the faceless. From the time I was a child I knew that race hate was indefensible because it had one face, of cruel stupidity, its illogic an insult to the intelligence of anyone conscious. Oh such a nice girl in a pickle, but also someone with her eyes open—smarter than a half-wit college president, smarter than this sleazy fake empath, each with a face both misogynist and racist. I knew more at nine about this face than these so-called authorities.

I remember how he startled away from my rage, dropping fast his phony shrink impartiality: “I should have known better than to expect something reasonable from you. You sleep around and then claim rape? Don’t even know his name?”

So far was I from caring what happened next—I’d blown up any chance I’d had for fair “adjudication”—imagine my surprise when the unthinkable occurred. Imagine my surprise to learn later, after exiting another way, following Jeanette’s lead, that I had been granted a “safe” hospital abortion—because of my aggression, hostility, threatening and violent behavior, therefore: insanity. I managed to find out that Jeanette’s appeal had been approved as well.

  
What followed was both predictable and the opposite. Predictable were the orderlies mopping floors outside the curtained examination rooms calling out “Murderers!” Not predictable was the abattoir of a labor-like abortion—the result of my long forced bureaucratic wait. I covered myself with blood as I crawled on the steel table, so that I would never forget any part of it—though I was given a drug to make me “forget.”

  
After my youthful history among the Jesuits, the ultimate irony occurred. The college invited me—years after my literary magazine debacle and my awkward disgrace—to come to campus to accept their highest alumni award in recognition of my post-college success. Because my parents learned of this honor and arranged to attend the ceremony, I relented, stopped saying no, and showed up with Mom and Dad. The new “guard” of black robes applauded my speech, (in which I hailed my education there as equipping me for “any crisis of the 12th century”) but a couple of older priests, whom I remembered, could call up no trace of me in their records. No record of Shadows’s censoring and seizure, my having been called on the carpet of the dimwit president and our “breast” debate, no record of my teaching freshmen, then disappearing. It was as if I was a ghost returning to haunt—except I was a “who’s who” without identity.

Yet this was oddly liberating. I had always wanted to attend another school—perhaps, in a wishful summoning of an alternative universe, my bad memories would naturally be erased and I’d travel back through time to begin again. And the Jesuits would go on searching for a young woman they’d never find, because she never actually existed for them. I was never real to them in the past and I wasn’t real now. But my doppelgänger is walking down a street somewhere—a nice smart girl—and her story is the one I just related. The one where I am indeed real—as real as any woman. And like some women who attempt to speak up, I have survived so far.

  
Before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, stories like mine and Jeanette’s were not unusual. Because we were pregnant, whatever the circumstance, we were considered criminals for seeking an abortion. A woman, whether impregnated by rape or by chance when birth control failed, or simply having made the decision not to have a child for whatever reason, including to control (or save) her own life, became a criminal if she exercised choice. After fifty years of legal abortion, we are in danger of returning to the Dark Ages once again.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Return to the introduction

  
Lisa Lewis
Writing for Our Own Lives

For nearly fifty years, Roe v. Wade freed everyone who could conceive a pregnancy from any legal requirement that they carry it to term. When the decision came down, in January of 1973, I was sixteen. There was a feeling of new freedom that was less focused than vast: a sense of expanding possibility supported by relief. What could be better than to be offered a future without the helpless terror of ending up with an unwanted child? I had been one myself, though at that point I had not yet heard the whole story that would give me insight into just how profoundly unwanted I was: my biological father was a rapist half my mother’s age, wealthy, and the son of a famous right-wing radio commentator.

That unbounded plain of nothing-in-my-uterus-can-stop-me—and the ambition it framed—eventually carried me across the plains of the Midwest to Iowa City. But on the threshold of that voyage meant to liberate me from my stepfather’s hostility and the limitations of the Southern states where I grew up, the very definitely unwanted pregnancy happened. The timing was magnificently stupid. I was to soon leave Charlotte, North Carolina, where I had been living with my mother and stepfather in a rental house as they attempted to recover from a bankruptcy, to make the drive across the country. I didn’t have much time to get my interior back to normal. My job working for a market research company was not going to earn me enough for the procedure. My mother had no job, and the bankruptcy of the previous year still weighed heavily on the family finances; there was also no way it would be acceptable for my stepfather to learn why I already needed even more money than I was going to need to follow the path of poetry. He had tried hard to convince me to do an MBA instead of an MFA, claiming he would pay my tuition if I did what he wanted. But his big claims about what he would pay for were the reason they were bankrupt in the first place. He would not have been able to pay for any graduate degree, and I knew it—not as if that would’ve changed my mind. I hated the business world; I imagined myself slitting my wrists or driving off a bridge if I were somehow cornered into a “career” there.

But because I was living in my mother’s house, I told her I needed money for an abortion. I wasn’t apprehensive about what she would say, though I was relatively sure she would not be able to help me. When I broke the news, she indicated that she had suspected as much. It’s not easy to hide one’s personal conditions from one’s mother. The bigger surprise was what she told me, my confession prompting her own: she had wanted to abort me, she said, and had gotten as far as the door of the illegal abortionist before being overcome with fear and turning around to return to the car where her own mother was waiting.

This secret network of women guarding one another during unwanted pregnancy is eternal in its dignity. It helped me then, hearing my mother’s revelation of at least part of my unfortunate origin story. As did the financial assistance of a recently divorced next-door neighbor just a few years older than I who was experiencing her own freedom and wanted me to be able to do the same. She didn’t even ask me to pay her back. I remember sitting in her upstairs loft looking out over the woods behind our houses. I returned there the day after my abortion, when I had fairly miserable cramps, to take in my neighbor’s robust feminist support, the casual way she understood that I was in a situation any young woman could find herself in, nothing to make a big deal about. In those days the anti-choice noise was still at a relatively minor din.

This sustaining feminist warmth, buoyant throughout the culture if not always overtly visible except between female friends and neighbors, may sound a little hard to believe. Which is not to say it doesn’t exist now—networks of feminists are the ones protecting the reproductive freedoms of those living in red states. These networks exist, but they provide a relief I feel nervous about in the current political climate. And there’s no longer a sense of calm optimism, since a climate hostile towards reproductive freedom is a climate hostile to us all. Those who might want to be rid of a pregnancy are characterized by a significant kind of cultural authority as agents of evil, and the agents of that authority don’t keep quiet about it. Their rhetoric distributes contempt and outrage across the entire population, suspicion on both sides, have you had an abortion, would you have an abortion, do you hate us if we have had an abortion, how do you plan to punish us for having an abortion . . . these questions are asked openly on social media every second of every day.

That spirit of freedom and independence, that spirit of mind-your-own-business, I’ll-do-what-I-want—for the first time! The very first time!—must’ve fired the poetry and prose of hundreds, thousands, of women writers besides myself and, later, students of mine who talked first about the need for an abortion and later the subsequent relief of the open road ahead. Back then, the process of having an abortion was mechanical rather than pharmaceutical, and the known discomfort joined us in pain and courage and, always, relief. The victory of Roe v. Wade itself lingered for years, carrying us through the increasing outcry of the anti-choicers, who started very small and gained momentum partly through the media’s need to represent a “both sides” even when one of the sides was so tiny. They downplayed the size of the pro-choice crowd. I observed this in person at a Planned Parenthood in Houston, when Operation Rescue showed up to protest during the Republican National Convention with a tiny retinue, compared to the hundreds of us locking arms in front of the clinic. On the TV news, their side got as much airtime as ours did. I’ve always assumed that the writers who were freed to do their work by the availability of abortion didn’t write about it because after some years had passed, the allegedly morally superior side had cast its aspersions so widely no one really wanted to get caught up with them. Roe was still there, whatever they said. Its energy was stabilizing long after its first years of newness, and the newness of self-determination was in the past.

It seems now, of course, that we all made a mistake and should’ve kept talking, celebrating what we were able to do with our lives and our visions of possibility. I tried, but it was impossible to sense what the reception would be of a poem or an essay. It was like I was in possession of stolen goods but couldn’t talk about how wonderful they were—and that feeling alone announced the menace of the future and the growing animosity of the anti-choice movement. Surely we knew it in our bones. Something now seems to have left my bones, my soul, my surroundings. Even though I am well past the need for an abortion, the way I feel now, what I hear in the gloating on social media and what I see in the eyes of the red state students I teach, is—there’s the wall. Maybe the wall is the state line, where there’s no more freedom on the other side, just more trapped pregnant people; or maybe it’s the knowledge that women have been restored to a second-class citizenship which undermines the authority of everything we say, every word we write. That was always a problem, and it never really went away, even at the height of our victory, if only because there were and are still more battlefronts and more ongoing skirmishes. Maybe that wall is not really an obstacle to vision and imagination; maybe it’s the kind of wall that you know you need to scale or break down so it redoubles your energy. But I was there when the old barrier went down, and though access to abortion was never as complete a freedom as I and my peers probably thought it was, I now fear even more limitations on bodies that are already viewed by large segments of the population as in need of controlling. Within those bodies our minds seek the limitless. Those of us who can and do suffer from unwanted pregnancy are the same people whose gendered expression and existence are already subject to suspicion by those who are not subjected to the same. Cruelty and brutality dance in disguise as “morality,” and we are dragged into the harshness of definitions we reject in vain. Zygotes and fetuses are called babies; pregnant people who identify as men are mocked as impossible. We are not going to be allowed to stop fighting. But we are not as unified as we were when Roe v. Wade was decided the first time, and since its overturning doesn’t affect every potential unwanted pregnancy in the nation, residents of some states feel less urgency than others. It’s a blessing that those states are available for those who are able to travel to get the health care they need, but like a lot of the blessings we live with, it’s mixed. We need unity and we need action and we need persistent voices and we need to hurry because every day we don’t have the rights we need, whatever we write will land in a space that isn’t the space we wanted or the space we had. Every day of those fifty years, pregnant people who needed not to be pregnant had rights they no longer have. Fifty years—how fast they went, and what a small window in the history of unwanted pregnancies that have been a destroyer of hope, ambition, security, and life itself.

Return to the introduction

  
Lynn Emanuel
The Mother

I was a reluctant mother. It was the 1980s and I was pregnant—a pregnancy that would have to be terminated. My husband and I had gone looking for baby furniture, which we found sold alongside “adult beds and bedding” in a cavernous mall store. I remember a crib. My husband, standing, gazing down into it. I was overcome by the scene, reminded of my own troubled childhood, the demands I had put on my mother who was working to support us, the daily complete exhaustion my mother must have felt, and a child’s piercing vulnerability. I had to sit down on a display “bed” with its sheets, quilts, and pillows; then, I lay down. I had suddenly and agonizingly realized that I was not merely reluctant—I was an unwilling mother.

~

I read Gwendolyn Brooks’s remarkable and unsettling poem “the mother” in high school or early college. It begins: Abortions will not let you forget. For my part, I wrote only one poem about the procedure that ended my pregnancy, and I lost that poem. In fact, not until the long, harrowing weeks leading to the repeal of Roe v. Wade, did I rediscover it in a pile of drafts. I revised the poem and then read it at a celebration of AGNI 95. At that celebration, AGNI’s senior poetry editor, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, remarked on the poem’s relevance in the new and brutal context of the coming overturn. The public utterance took me aback.

Not only had I lost the poem, I had also utterly forgotten the procedure that ended my pregnancy. I had forgotten the sheets, the probes, the depersonalization, the attempts to ensure my pregnancy and my deep longing not to be a mother, my feeling of triumph when, at the end of it all, I was alone. I had forgotten that woman and the cold, efficient technology used on her, the cruel hypocrisy of anonymous technicians telling her to “relax.” The technicians described as the fetus’s co-conspirators—as those plotting to overthrow the mother’s body. The woman is forced to watch the “cinema of her pregnancy” on the ultrasound. The objectification, the obedience. I was surprised that the poem not only described my ambivalence about motherhood, but at the end, describes a kind of triumph over it, a loss of a pregnancy as a liberation.

—Disappearance—Nativity

  
I was a garden and you
my gardener. I was a house,
you my lodger,

lodged beneath my heart.
My Heart, you were the fist that knocked
and knocked and I would not answer.

You starved me down
until a glance could pass straight through me
as I lay

on the obstetrician’s vinyl couch,
under a shroud
that stank of Clorox.

They mined for you—
their probes slick with
the scentless oils of technicians—

for whom I must
be opened, peeled back, forced
to look. And I did, as I was told—

not relax—exactly—but give myself up
to your co-conspirators, who dug you
out of the blankness of my flesh,

parted the dark waters and suddenly
you came forth
a smudge of white against the ultrasound’s

blackness, you floated spectral and thickly
pale, a magnolia in a bowl,
an elegant centerpiece. You had no heart,

were as minimal as a Mobius strip.
But you had style. Even your dying
was oddly stylish, the way you resembled

more and more each day a comet,
the wan tail of you grew
longer, more tenuous on the screen.

I saw you calmly
and with endearing gravity take a nose dive
until the light blinked out and I was

no longer a house for an uninvited guest,
nor heaven for a gauzy constellation.
The screen went dark and I came back

to myself. I was no longer a ghost’s ghost.
I was myself again. I was flesh. And living.

  
“the mother” begins Abortions will not let you forget. But I had forgotten. “the mother” ends Believe me, I loved you all. / Believe me . . . I loved, I loved you / All. The end of my poem describes a kind of rebirth for the mother, but it does not express love or regret. One of my graduate students once said to me: “You know what they are going to write on your tombstone? They’re going to write I disagree.” The influence of a poet—even an homage to a poet—can take the form of both veneration and quarrel. And my poem—even in its early stages—has always been talking with and back to Brooks’s poem. It has been an armature for my poem. In my poem, whether or not it is obvious to a reader, I am writing to and beside Brooks. If it were not for “the mother,” I would not have written my “—Disappearance—Nativity”, which argues with motherhood. And if it weren’t for the repeal of Roe v Wade, I don’t think I would have found my lost poem. When I discovered it among a pile of drafts, I am not sure—without the looming overthrow—that I would have been able to recognize it for what it was. For me, the threat of the repeal provided a context for my poem. An awareness of the poem. During that threat, the poem had become a possibility, an occasion to voice what had happened to that woman and to acknowledge her tribulation.

Return to the introduction

  
Nahal Suzanne Jamir
Fourteen

brief sections of this essay appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review and Bennington Review

I have a framed picture of my maternal grandmother, Tabandeh Vahidi, from a long time before she became my grandmother. Maman Bozorg. The phrase means grandmother. The denotative translation is big mother. Her name, Tabandeh, means brilliant, luminous. All her names make me look up. Here she is.

The picture is taken in Iran right after she got married. Right before she started having children. She was fourteen years old. She smiles a tiny smile and sits demurely in a chair with her husband and father by her side, her husband’s hand upon her shoulder, her own hands gently clenched and resting neatly on each of her legs. Was she forced to marry? She was fourteen years old.

~

My mother grew up the second oldest of nine children: three boys, six girls.

Aunt Pari is the oldest, the matriarch, and we joke that she has never really retired—just got bossier.

Then, Mother.

Aunt Ghodsi next, the fun aunt. The one without children.

And finally, six boys, each sweet or annoying in their own way. They didn’t matter so much when I was growing up because the women were always in charge.

~

My grandmother came to the United States for my parents’ wedding. I have a picture of her standing with my parents. The happiness of the occasion doesn’t increase my grandmother’s small smile. She is a sort of Persian Mona Lisa in these two pictures taken almost forty years apart. This year, 1978. The revolution in Iran is coming soon.

~

I met my grandmother just once when I was in middle school. Maybe I was fourteen. She couldn’t speak English, and we (my father, sister, and I) couldn’t speak Persian. My grandmother kept saying our names—Vinson, Nasim, Nahal. Nahal, jan. Nahal, dear. I don’t have any pictures of this visit, though I’m sure they exist. I’m sure my grandmother said more than our names, but I didn’t understand Persian and so I don’t remember.

~

All of my relatives tell me how quiet my grandmother always was, how she just never had much to say. Most of her children and grandchildren, however, are very loud and opinionated, my own mother no exception.

~

The only other time I saw my grandmother was about a decade later in a video that Aunt Ghodsi brought back from her visit to Iran in 2004. In this video, my grandmother sits on the couch among her family members. There’s a bright window behind my grandmother. The light is so bright and misty, too. A cloud of light on my grandmother and her grey hair blur the edges of the video frame.

As usual, she doesn’t say much, yet I can see her heart in her mouth and in her gaze, which is on her loved ones. Her daughter, my aunt Ghodsi, is leaving soon. Her other children and grandchildren surround her.

The light is all that moves. My grandmother, who looks just like she did at my parents’ wedding, smiles slightly while her children cry. Still, I can tell her heart will break the worst when Aunt Ghodsi leaves. Sure enough, the next scene is tragic.

~

In my family of origin, I’m the oldest child. Being the oldest child means you are a good daughter. You don’t have to do much. Just let them impose goodness on you. Don’t fight back. Don’t grow up. When duty calls, you won’t have the strength to know what it means. You will think it’s simple. The lessons will keep coming, but you might never understand. Or you will think you understand. You will think it’s simple to be a good eldest daughter, to write the story. Easier to be a good eldest daughter than to write the story.

~

When Aunt Pari was growing up, students had to choose an academic path on the secondary level. She was first drawn to literature. But she had a job at a hospital in Shiraz. Others there were impressed with her, and Aunt Pari saw the practical side of things. So, she switched to a science track and ended up becoming a nurse, eventually running and establishing nursing schools.

Aunt Pari leaned into practicality because she felt she had to as the oldest sibling. She helped her younger brothers and sisters. Gave them money, let them live in homes she rented or bought. Aunt Pari took on the role of matriarch before her own mother was even dead. Aunt Pari has a reputation for being a force or for being bossy, depending on who you ask.

As the country approached the 1979 revolution, more conservative attitudes became evident and powerful, and Aunt Pari received death threats. She didn’t leave until she had to, the day her country’s shah left, too.

I don’t think she learned to be this way from her own quiet mother, Tabandeh. Often, I wonder how Aunt Pari ever learned how to help and lead and be so strong.

~

Among my Shahidpour first cousins, fourteen of us, I am the oldest girl, next in line for the matriarchy. This role is much more complicated than being eldest daughter. I’m not like Aunt Pari. What can I do for my Shahidpour cousins as matriarch? I tell them, regardless of gender, that they don’t have to have children. I even told my youngest cousin who just started middle school. He looked pretty confused.

~

When Aunt Ghodsi first had cancer and was in treatment, I was so young that I honestly don’t remember. She’d suddenly transformed from a fun, young, single aunt to a married woman who didn’t have children, and never would.

Aunt Ghodsi had deep and justified concerns about her breast implants, which were silicone. News reports claimed many women had problems with these types of implants. So, Aunt Ghodsi had a second reconstructive surgery to replace them, and afterwards, she had trouble with her recovery. Her husband was out of town for work, so she came to stay with us. My mother was a nurse and could help in more logical ways than a man. She understood a woman’s body, how to live in it and how to heal it.

Now in middle school, I was still too young to understand the aftermath of the second reconstructive surgery, and I don’t mean the medical stuff, though that’s a part of it. I mean being close to a body in distress, a woman who would never have children because of fear or concern for those children. She had spoken with the death that stands just behind every human body, a death that came to actually live in her body for a while and wouldn’t let her forget it, even after she healed. Healing doesn’t get the fear out of the body just like sickness doesn’t destroy the good parts.

I remember Aunt Ghodsi lying on our couch after this second reconstruction. Afraid. Maybe it was just pain. She didn’t remain on the couch, but that image of her prone is the only one that remains for me. Seeing Aunt Ghodsi like this—prone, scared—is the first time that I realized she was a warrior, too. Where had she learned how to heal and to fight?

~

So far, I have six second cousins on the Shahidpour side. I have chosen not to have children. A choice I’ve had to make repeatedly and one that traces backwards and forwards in time further than I can understand.

~

My mother, like Aunt Pari, went to Shiraz for her secondary education. Then, my mother went to Abadan for nursing school. In Abadan, she had fun and met many men, some American, all of whom wanted her. She was like a movie star, an icon. People nicknamed her Cher. She says she didn’t want any of the men, like a princess not satisfied with her suitors, but I think she knew she was too young.

She traveled the world and this country. She’s been to more of our country than I have. Just ask her about a place, and she will tell you she went there or always wanted to go. She will tell you about a boat rocking on the turquoise twinkle of the Caribbean Sea or the most glorious violin she ever heard in Green Acre, Maine.

If she is tired, tell her about a place she’s never been, like Seattle, and her energy will return.

My mother is the only of the three sisters to never return to Iran. She knew how to leave home and how to journey. I know she couldn’t have learned this from her mother, Tabandeh.

~

I ask my mother what she remembers of her own mother, my grandmother. My mother speaks in generalities. I say, “No, specifically.” I want to know my grandmother’s eye color and if their color changed in the sunshine, how she wore her hair in winter. I push my mother for a real answer. As usual, we’re fighting. I’m being mean. I ask, “If your mother were dead and you had to deliver a eulogy including one specific memory, what would you say?”

She says, “I would say that [my mother] always told me stories, that she always woke me up with a hug. She took me to the store and let me pick out my own clothes. Big deal for a kid in Iran. She didn’t make me get married. She was strong. She brought us warm water to wash our face and hands in the winter. She was quiet and hardworking. We could talk to her.”

My mother then tells me to leave her alone. I suppose that will do.

~

My mother came to the United States so that I could be all that I am now. But that doesn’t mean she likes all that I am, especially not the writing part. Which is fine because I don’t think I learned it from her. She’s just my Persian Mona Lisa. If you heard her laugh, you’d understand.

My Persian women were all older when they married, much, much closer to forty than to fourteen. They knew to be free while young. As a young woman, way back in my twenties, I told everyone that I didn’t want children. I had seen enough of cycles to believe in their repetition. I didn’t want to pass anything on. I had also seen enough of freedom to know that I wanted it. I wanted to speak. I had learned so much more than they had.

I told everyone that I didn’t want children, made no secret of it.

Today, I’m forty-four years old, and they’ve given up hope. They’re old and tired. As they mark their trials and tribulations with adult children and grandchildren, I give my unsolicited advice, and they say, “Nahal, you don’t understand. You’re not a mother.” But I won’t stop.

~

I was just a child when my mother had a hysterectomy. She’d had an ovarian cyst and endometriosis. She says the hysterectomy is the best thing she did in her life—except for having me, of course. Sometimes when she is tired, my mother says that if she’d known how it would all turn out, she never would have gotten married and had children. I say, “Gee, thanks.” She says, like always, to wait until I’m her age. Now, I am all her ages because I can turn time like that. Watch me leave.

~

Masha Amini was twenty-two years old when she was murdered. My grandmother made it into her nineties and died of old age. Sometimes, I wonder how my grandmother didn’t die in childbirth. Sometimes, I wonder if she’d had no children if she would have talked more, talked louder. If she would have been a health-care worker like my mother and aunts. Or maybe she would’ve been a writer like me. Or maybe she would’ve raised her clenched fists up to fight. Or maybe she would’ve just left. Sometimes, I think that I really don’t understand. What is a woman? What is a child? What is a revolution? What can a word mean in any language?

My mother has disowned me twice, yet she’s still my mother. I’m forty-four years old. I have no children and all her stories. I call her once a week like a good daughter. She begs for more often, but I’ve left home. We disagree and fight all the time. We learn to love like this.

~

After Aunt Ghodsi’s husband died in 2021, I went to her house to talk grief and sit with her in grief. She gave me a gold angel-shaped metal bookmark and a pocket-sized picture of my grandmother that I hadn’t seen before, one where she looks about my age now, in her forties. Still the same ghost of a smile. So small. I acted grateful for the photo and told Aunt Ghodsi that I would keep it in my wallet, and I do.

Return to the introduction

Back to top