Home > Poetry > You Could Build a World This Way
Published: Mon Apr 17 2023
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2023 Family Relationships Parenthood
You Could Build a World This Way

Together, my wife and I, we’re growing a boy. She is / I am / [in

my body] not / but

we use language to keep me inside.

We joke about cinching a watermelon hammock to her shoulders
when he gets heavy. He taps at her belly. Can I feel him in me,


A philosopher writes: because queer people may not
            have biological children, they’re, within the dominant culture,
​​​​a people without a future. Look
            at this plastic in the ocean, the skinned ozone.
Who on this naked edge can call themselves anything but


queer? The night we stay in the tree house, we both hear chattering
            in the waist of the tree.

A low sound and a higher sound,
            two voices singing about their days:

sometimes they talk over each other, sometimes one consoles the other.
            They carry buckets of water to each other through the leaves.


In the end, both of us tried, to double our shots. Wanting
to be good, to be fair, I hid
that my body was wild with want. I tried

on Rosh Hashanah, the dawning of the new year. Our friend gave the gift:
shooting it into the world, carrying it to us

in a tiny jar. My wife used a five-milliliter syringe to release
in me the makings of half a human, before we drove to the sea.
It was Tashlich: we—us two, the friend, his boyfriend—threw into running

water the year’s sins as bread, but mostly
we are not ashamed of our lives, our acts, instead
we try to cast off what we need to shuck, beside
our friends’ tall shadows, each of us considering
what, with the materials of our bodies, we could
together do, each possible future rippling out.
It will not take. Not here. Not in my body, not in

my body. But in hers a week later. The sea lit in every direction,
that rainbowed broth where once all life maybe began, acids spuming
into alkaline vents, from nothing to tiny pumping cells,

​​​​and then it is done: we will be
companioned.            My dream planted.
But not in my skin.


In my class in the first year of the virus, the year of waiting
for the child, I make a syllabus
to find in my own life, sense. To, with thought,
unwall the world.

I ask my students to queer something, anything. One group queers a sandwich,
beginning with not using a recipe. They assemble it on the Zoom screen:



                                                                      ​​​​A drizzle of honey.

They use one piece of white bread, one wheat. They want a sandwich
that doesn’t quite exist, yet. “We are refusing to be told what one should look for
in a sandwich, or what one can call a good sandwich,” they explain.

It is pretty good. It definitely is still a sandwich. This ache.
But I give them an A, as though we all could out-fox
the shape of the world, and what it contains. After class,

wife and I sit with hot mugs. The boy,            a fish in her belly:
if she drinks anything with sugar,                    she feels him


swim. For the first
three months, she hardly
eats. I can’t feel

the baby. I’m not in. My own
longing shocks through, then

pins me. In the kitchen, I cry. In
the bedroom. Then mostly
in the shower, so she can’t hear me.
Still, I fill the house; she can feel me.


I open a document to write poems, in the second
person, to the tiny
you. I mother myself
into the poem, to learn to mother
the child:

“When I make her soup,

you eat, swimming and swelling,

in waves as your roots brightly

tendril down from earth to

sea, from her to me, from

me to you: a birth”


I show my students a kinship chart: men as squares, women as circles,
ask them to draw their own family tree.

Okay, someone broke your heart, you’re sobbing. Circle the person
on the tree you’ll call. They’re not on the tree? Add their name.

If you’re so tired and hurt you need to go to a diner at midnight and get fried eggs,
who do you call—where are they if not here? If you need

someone to get you out of jail? If you are falling out
of your life? Who do you carry buckets of water to

through the leaves?


The adoption lawyer wants me to print out the agreement
and sign it. Fill out the criminal registry and sign it. Sign
up for fingerprints, contact

the doctor, complete the questionnaire,
and notify the references. Describe
my personality, including

strengths and weaknesses. What kind of parent
do you think I will make? Would you trust me
to care for your own?


This is the world: we get what we get
            (I tell my students). In class, we map

the world’s most usual syntax: subject-verb-object: The man
            saws down the tree. A person acts. On the Earth.

Then sound: cherished iambs of Shakespeare and Donne:
            rising beat, unstressed up to stressed, like the thrums

of a duel, or the sound the state makes, marking each body,
            checking the box for color, for blood.

Often Whitman wrote (my teacher said),
            in the falling meter of trochees, tenderly,

in writing of the body, or nature’s naked fountain, or love. O tenderness,
            come softly, come softly down.


We listen to a podcast about two babies switched at birth. Everyone in
the story suffers: the sociable blond family, the serious dark-haired family, and two
daughters. In the story, each daughter is astray once the string of biology
is cut.

O bloodline, accordion of data,
folded like a swan, and singing. I submit


all the documents. We hire “Comfortable Home Studies”
to assess our home and my life. “Think of how it feels to be
comfortable,” writes one thinker. “Say you are sinking

into a comfortable chair.” I imagine the world is a beautiful but difficult chair
I’m trying to sit in.


Do we only really know
once we know through
the body?

With the virus, there were those who could only
understand when it entered their own beloved
body. Until that point,

the other’s pain was a cold shore.
No. I do not mean knowing through my own
body is the only
way in. Still: certain knowledge entering
my body did change it—a tornado through me—leaving afterward a groove.

With my body, then, I would not know carrying
the child, or the howling exit, the pelvis’s
crushed center.
But is each hot knowledge incomparable
to another? Can you have the thing without
having it exactly?

Is swimming substitutable for gardening? Is erasing
the self in one way equivalent to erasing it in another?
And the pained labor of carrying
                                                            a child into the world—
            let me substitute it for the labor
            of proving to the state that the child is my child.


Here are the papers: I write myself in. And the names
of my father, my mother.
A list of their traits.

In the room at the DMV, the fingerprint woman with hoop earrings smiles, presses
each of my fingers onto the screen. With the pads of her fingers. In a clasp. I
look at the tomato stain on her cardigan sleeve, at her hands, sending data,

writing me in. To the child’s line.


This is the part that’s hardest
to write. We met. I wanted

her but she didn’t want what
I wanted: a child. We quit. We

could not quit. I was in parts. I
begged. Until my want tore
from her our new life. I got it but

still I grieved. Why was it not


The day we met I told her I’d frozen my eggs.
            Bear me, blood. Water my life.

For my love, her island was her family,
            the bells of the chanterelles in the moss.

First we loved a dog: Honeybear. Stroked his velveteen lip, worried his ear, fed him
            fruit, sieved through his puke. We loved him till our teeth ached. Then I loved

her island’s purple gorse, her hills’ bald backs into my bones. Kin. We get better
            at love; it makes us a home.


My eggs in a freezer, what bore me toward the water? But the first year
of the virus, we couldn’t get to the clinic, and anyway do you know
​​how much IVF costs? Each time our friends plant
they lose it. It hollows between them.

I am to carry; she never wanted to.

But while we wait for the clinic, we buy a box of syringes at the dawning
of the new year, doubling our shots, to not be torn
in our trying. Our chance this way so small, says our doctor:
small for me and smallest for her, past forty already. It’s almost
a lark.

She tries lightly. But I hope

with my whole self, turn my body
into a catalog: cold, hot, cramps, twinge, want,


When we find out, we laugh and sob—she laughs I sob—

            I’m so afraid, I say. To be on the outside.

In the next weeks,
I rub her feet, make her toast,
repeat, appearing
good, but alone
in the shower, I sob.
We fight. She knows,
carries this weight.

It salts our joy.


What gush, what gallons of self—

I only half know I’ve done it when, for three months, I turn off
the mains.


Walking alone down the path,
            I dream I make no trace. The days
are lacing together like code,
            but I cannot read them. I dream
of the other child, the one
            I might have carried. I put my ear
to her belly to listen.


Let me tell you how it changed: how I began to mother
our boy, how I began to see what she gave.


On the path to the lighthouse of her island, past

the wild garlic greens, along the sea, I grasp

her hand. Our dog lopes beyond to the rock pools.

Limpets suck the rock. Winkles eye-blink in pools.

In my mind, I see our child, crouching ahead,

holding one small net. The next day, she bleeds—

parcel of berries in my baby’s belly—and we

think he’s gone, light and shadows striping the grass.              But he holds.


O ego,

little jewel in the dark, let
go, stop making this story
about your own
hunger, turn instead
to the candle
of the child’s face.


We’re fighting again, over a second child, one
I carry. She wants to know why, whatever I get, I want
more than I’ve got—the getting begetting wanting:
and she’s right. What little I’ve carried to my love.
And what did I take?

Later, at school, I ask my students to draw queer time, to unbind time
from that one line, x and y coordinates sloping only up.
Annabelle draws a spiral. Nathan, interlocking circles
full of holes and dancing. Caleb draws a clock like a sun,
its numbers whirling into space, above many human stick figures—

1            2

            8            12

  4                    10


                                            —the numbers falling into their supplicating hands.


When we moved here, we heaved away leaves, combed dirt.
Wife built beds, kept the seedlings in cups, in trays,
under a light through the winter.

The year of the lockdowns, the week of my fortieth birthday, she ferried me
to an island to swim, to eat sushi. But it was the week of the terrible
storm. We packed the car. She sneaked in gifts, the makings
of a giant chocolate cake, and oh gosh, the four trays of tiny becoming-plants.

Amid black ice and wind torrents, we carried them: kale, lettuce, basil, marigolds,
and their magenta LED light, between hotels and Airbnbs.
We were so tired and laughed so much—everyone
stared at us, teetering with our trays. The world beyond felt so unsafe, but we ran

through it, squeezing each other’s hands, bringing everything we needed
from here to there.

We kept the seeds warm:
warm as the wisp
in her belly I
didn’t help make with
my body, but co-made
with my will, with
the longing I bore
in me, hot as a seed


Capitalist time is a line, moving up: a graph of glass figurines of data:
                        man, woman, kids, house, profit
                                    and crash. Step outside the line, time is full
                                                of gorgeous, magnificent holes:
                                    we swoon between them.

Hold hands. Fall backwards
through the dark bed
of the sky, as the other child, the one I might
have carried, shoots back toward the stars—
and land if you can right here
on Earth: just look what we grew.


At night when we spoon, I feel the baby’s feathery kicks
on my back, his life, complete and waiting.
After our birthing class, we sit in the sun
and imagine him coming, here, to us.
A faucet in me opens.


World, how do you make a boy?

He might have blondbrown hair like [            ].
Might he have greenblue eyes, like [              ]?
My guess is he’ll tell beautiful stories.
Here’s what I think I know: this child, he’ll have fat, dimpled knees.


I download choose-your-own-adventure games on my iPhone: now that I’m
forty, there are queer storylines in the world, a map
for my desire. No,

the characters are actually queer-straight: ponytailed cartoon cheerleaders
with round tits and lip gloss chase each other. Oh my childhood,

dreaming of girls beginning
to get breasts, birds under shirts.

At school I balanced a dime on my nose
for the one I loved, love-me-not.

Later under the covers I turned the page
away from what I wanted—


My wife spreads lotion on her thighs, the flesh
where her bathing suit hikes up, the crease
of her buttocks. Her shoulders are tattooed with bluebells,

harebells, and underneath, fat golden beets,
roots branching into freckles. Then her belly:
a honeydew melon, my very own baby
carrying my baby.


Months later, I will touch
the seam at her belly, finally able
to name what I took: the green
of her joy. Instead,

she tended to me, called the lawyer,
smoothed my panic over whether the boy
would love me as much when I hadn’t
carried him within me, carting

whatever in the world might hurt me
away—almost as if I were a child,
all as she held, in the quiet inside
her, an actual child. Ours.


It’s spring. A new world is ripening.
            Every day, I bring a bowl to the beds,

pick for us sweet-pea leaves and peas
            and curling stems, and slender growing

kale and spicy mustard greens and fat leaves of lettuce.
            School is still on zoom, my students’ faces

in squares. For her final project, one
            student remixes a song called “Grief

and Hope,” includes in it the theremin, described
            as “an instrument from Earth’s future

or another world.” It’s played by moving one’s hands
            through electromagnetic fields.

Every day, I dream of the boy, swimming. I play the air.
            His life bends


like a poem, his life pounds

on the door—I want
her face, already
in the world: again.


As we wait for him, wife wonders if he’ll be tall like
the men in her family, will he have freckles? I admit it,
I still prickle at biology—doesn’t it cut me out? But
she says, maybe it’s not biology or the social but
somehow a third, unknowable thing? Tiny candle
of idiosyncrasy, each human—is it the soul?


Our friend who gave us the gift, who makes for half
the boy’s genes,
tells us he found one day the cone of a Scots pine:
he left it on the radiator to spill its seeds,
then planted eight. But only

one sent out a shoot. And that one lived—
suddenly it was in the world.
He would keep it for us, he said.
We could plant it one day by the boathouse.


Kinship practices, one philosopher I love explains, create
relationships “to negotiate the reproduction
of life and the demands of death.”
            The single shoot broke through. Held fast.

When I read to him, our child stirs
            in his nest of leaves. One night,
            through my wife’s skin, I read a poem
            about a peach. Another night,
            a poem about the sea and a boat. Then a poem about joy
            after long sadness. You could build
            a world this way, baby, couldn’t you? Leaf by leaf by leaf?


This poem refers to and quotes from Judith Butler, Elaine Scarry, Sara Ahmed, Joseph Osmundsen, Kath Weston, and Jack Halberstam.

AGNI 4 Parenthood Relationships Family
From the Book of the Left Behind
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AGNI 91 Parenthood Relationships Youth
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AGNI 91 Parenthood Relationships Technology

Nomi Stone is the author of three books, most recently the ethnography Pinelandia: An Anthropology and Field Poetics of War and Empire (University of California Press, 2022), finalist for the Atelier award, and the poetry collection Kill Class (Tupelo Press, 2019), finalist for the Julie Suk Award. Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, AGNIThe Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. (updated 10/2022)

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