Yes, I Am
Writer: Melissa Ahart
Editor: Allison Geller
Melissa Ahart, a Brooklyn-based poet, shares her experiences bringing poems of birth, motherhood, and postpartum depression to the MFA workshop table.
In her poem “the mother,” Gwendolyn Brooks asks, “… oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?” In a writing class, the writer’s mind is placed under intense scrutiny: why this word and not this? What has been hidden, what revealed, and why? Scrutinizing my own mind as motherhood cracked it open, I felt like I was living two truths: the intellectual truth of classrooms and reading lists against the wet, sticky, loud truth of motherhood.
I often made the joke that I had singlehandedly rocketed my MFA program to the top of the Poets & Writers rankings in fertility. The feat of bearing two sons, twenty-one months apart, overlaid onto a two-year MFA program seemed like the sort of thing one needed to joke about, to prove one’s seriousness about everything else. It was embarrassing to have an alternately ripped and cut-open uterus, as a person and as a poet; it seemed both banal and gauche to discuss around the workshop table. I could not hide behind the polite fiction that the “I” of these poems wasn’t actually me.
Throughout my second pregnancy, I feared I was growing more invisible, more superfluous, as I grew bigger, so I resolved to take as little time off as possible after the birth. So, one week after the C-section that brought us our second son, I took my three-train commute to school, arriving almost an hour late, the surgical binder digging into my scar under the maternity jeans I still needed to wear. Getting home, walking down the long platform, I wondered who I could ask for help if I split apart right there. Would a cop help me if my guts fell out walking down the subway stairs?
I Skyped into class once, turning off the camera on my end to nurse the baby while a friend fed my toddler dinner in the kitchen. I screamed at my husband, insane with frustration, when we all got the stomach flu and the week we’d set aside so I could finish my thesis evaporated. I couldn’t decide what my life was supposed to be about and everything made me angry—hearing childless friends talk about their fatigue, how far behind I felt, how fragmented and interrupted my days and nights were. One professor told me I had “an obsession with mothering.” Another let me cry in her office, sleepless and frantic. She seemed an angel of grace.
The poems were my way to dissociate from my life while still obsessing over it. They were all I could write, more than I could ever have hoped to write. They sprouted references to semi-obscure Dr. Seuss books and 70s Sesame Street reruns. I wrote through two births, the NICU, developmental delays, state services, sleep training, postpartum depression. Ashamed, scared, broken with loving, self-aggrandizing: I wrote a magnificat about my own chimerical DNA. There were too many of these poems, and not enough. Now they seem like artifacts, precious and indecipherable, of uncertain cultural significance to their long-lost maker.
Even here, in a space for women’s writing, I hesitate to describe the elation, the consuming joy of motherhood—my anxiety over appearing schmaltzy unshakeable. It’s easier to talk about the sleep deprivation and the birth scars than to admit I’ve spent hours smelling the top of my children’s head, eyes closed against time’s brutal passing. That is perhaps my greatest anxiety in all my writing now: how to render the sweetness as clearly as the pain.
By Melissa Ahart
I crack jokes to prevent worse
from happening, as if all proceedings
would stop while some authority asks
“Why hurt this funny human being?”
The resident says to curl my spine
into the needle like a cat. So I do,
straight against the affront of it.
The shock of pain is always new.
Nothing in that room is quiet—
no doctor or chirping apparatus.
Even my own mouth chimes on.
Exhale into widening numbness.
Now I down the Dixie cup of sharp
grape gunk. This neutralizes stomach acid.
It comes right back up. But they say
I’m doing well, so I stay placid,
heaving. They take my glasses.
Blind, paralysis creeping to my head,
I’m not without feeling. What comes
next? The sharp thump of hot lead
on the chest, a loud gush,
then the force of his slide slick
and hard out from under my ribs.
Red digits on the clock click
the moment into place. Thrust through cuts
in me and the surgical drape,
he’s rushed into view, still tethered
to the mess. Again I heave vile grape.
Our first meeting staged: strapped down,
eviscerated, I kiss my bloody baby,
then wish him gone, scrubbed clean,
while surgeons sew and scrape me.