In My Infant Mouth a Darkness
My mother says it happened
before they started stitching her
together. She lay a spool waiting
for the technicians to rewind her,
herself just given birth, herself unraveled,
empty. And then they took you,
she says. Naked in my newness, a broken
bell, fallen through
the loom. The NICU,
not a memory
I can claim, but in my mind the pealed metal
still resounds. In a photograph
my cheeks are dusted newborn rouge.
Sticky eyes. Even then, a head of hair
and in my infant mouth,
a darkness. It was always my fear, she says
and this fear, ripe for the grooming,
she passed on; the bell
suspended over my sternum
like a lavalier could not be shaken
loose, and so the word it kept repeating
to itself: encumber, and with age,
with bell after bell, the constant
hum below my collarbones—
forth from birth, I wore the wreath
on which iron flowers grow.
If I could show you fathoms as they exist in the realm of breathing
I would show you cloudbreak, another sky split
open, another white scar too bright to set eyes on.
Would our sky, our sea, admit the wound was not worth this roiling
out, was not worth a heart pealing until the broken bends of light
shattered across the maples’ ashen overstories?
Predict this: what stops a warm front and cold front’s
fatal duel is not an antidote. The fight doesn’t win
the fight. It is nature
in the same way a person holds unstable air
masses in the body that always result in storms,
all updrafts and downpours. And yes, the storms part,
sometimes for days on end, but what matters
more is distant thunder of faint origin
and how open arms can never brace for the collision.
A few good words with Maison
PDS: In reading “In My Infant Mouth a Darkness,” I thought a lot about infant and maternal mortality, especially as it applies to black birthing. I thought about “ownership” and agency in black family units, as well as the kind of pendulum-esque sense of trouble (trouble for the new child, trouble for the mother) that swings over this poem. Tell us a little about how this poem was built, and how you processed writing about birth (which is, inevitably, connected to death for me).
MH: Interesting question! I love your analogy of a pendulum swinging between two points of a mutual trouble. The connection between birth and death was a consideration that loomed over the writing of this poem and its past incarnations, certainly. The title of the poem actually started out as a strange turn of phrase that I found myself constantly rewriting and thinking about, and that’s when I knew there was truth (of some caliber) to be mined here. The first line comes from a text my mother sent me after I had asked her about the nurses taking me to the NICU immediately following my birth. The word “stitching” was all I needed to begin the journey through this poem. I’ve always been interested in inheritance and these threads of “the self” that we are given to carry in this life by our parents. We don’t just carry our “self” though--we carry pieces of our parents’ selves, their parents’ selves, back and back. So, the poem imitates a lineage: it starts with my mother, continues with the bell in the central stanza; and by the end of the poem, I have taken this bell and fashioned it as my own. I wanted to convey descent, which I think answers your second question. I also think that birth and death are inextricably linked, so I approached it from this idea that the link--the thread--is never ending and has always been part of a grand cycle.
PDS: In “Contender,” how do the lines, “The fight doesn’t win / the fight” and “open arms can never brace for the collision” make a critique on today’s social/political climate?
MH: We live in quite the social/political climate, don’t we? Because this poem was born during our times of uncertainty--and at their most extreme, our times of upheaval--the poem inevitably shows some traces of our current times. For this reason, I think your reading is a valid one! The lines you cite sort of resonate with this idea of defeat--that at some point, the act of fighting overtakes the stakes that prompted the fighting in the first place. In terms of social/political commentary, the poem asks us to examine the worthiness of our anger--the poem even wants to say it isn’t worth it. But storms on the horizon dispel that wish, in the same way we start to think social/political harmony is possible, only to realize we’re not quite there yet after seeing another headline, another story, etc. We--on a personal level and a societal level--let our guard down, only to be sobered again and again.
PDS: What work got you ready for summer (e.g. makes you feel hot, free, sticky, cool, and/or popsicle mouthed?)?
MH: I recently had the great fortune of finding a couple gems in my university’s library. The first is Wild is the Wind by Carl Phillips, a luminous collection that reminds me of still summer evenings. The second work I’ve been reading is Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, which features an excellent range of sense-appealing voices.
Maison Horton is an emerging poet and recent graduate of the Writer's Workshop at the University of Nebraska Omaha, where he was the recipient of the 2018 Outstanding Graduating Student in Creative Writing Award. His work is also forthcoming in Split Rock Review's Fall 2019 issue. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska.