In the Belly As a woman carries an insect, unconscious of the sign it shapes with diplomatic footfalls across her skin, she carries me. As a lake lifts the sky’s image, all burnished admiration, or proffers a crushed cup, a leaf, a rainbow slick of grease. As your network of neurochemicals and electricity carries, through flicker but indelibly, flame of the first death to teach you anyone can be lost. A charred mark. Ring stain. She carries me like a tired parent carries a limply sleeping child, like an embossed page carries a warning, like a gutter carries a bird’s nest. She carries everyone germinant, everyone needling like sleet and wind, everyone starving or afraid. Stop for a moment and feel for it as a tongue seeks a jagged tooth, the pressure of her carrying, and give her permission through your muscles. Her holy day means lambing, beds of rushes, means no more lone shouldering of a long hard year. First published in Birmingham Poetry Review "In the Belly" is one translation of Imbolc, a.k.a. St. Brigid's day, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, a time for lambing, spring cleaning, and many blessings, including lengthening daylight. I'm no expert on Irish, pagan, Christian, or any other kind of festival, but this seasonal turn matters to me. I wrote the poem above around Imbolc years ago, when a sensation of being held up by a benevolent force arrived suddenly and very strongly. I perceived the feeling itself, and the poem accompanying it, as gifts.
“In the Belly” is part of a poetry ms I’ve been working on. The poem swims to the top of my mind now both because of the seasonal reference and its maternal vibe. My mother’s birthday is next week. She would have been 83, although she died in April 2021. Many traces of her remain lodged in my brain and scattered through my house: earrings, knickknacks, kitchen things. My mother is a main character in the poetry collection, so I keep visiting with her on the page, too, as someone I loved wholly–and as a person who hurt me in ways that I’m finally free to write about. Unfortunately, some difficult unresolved stuff about her estate is also occupying a large part of my attention. She didn’t have a lot of assets, but trying to to disburse them has involved snag after snag, with all kinds of painful family dynamics playing in.
I’ve been doing better at keeping my work worries under control, but this stuff about the will busts my coping mechanisms into smithereens. And my plantar fasciitis is back, so if I try to burn off anxiety through long walks, the pain is intense. Finally, although I’ve been revising on and off (interesting that Ann E. Michael and Marilyn McCabe are too!–tis the season?), I haven’t been writing new poetry or fiction AT ALL. That’s mostly fine, lord knows there’s plenty else to do, but it shuts off a way I’ve always processed my life. I’d even call this version of writer’s block self-alienating. I open a page, stare at it, and think, am I too old to have any more good ideas? What’s the point of writing another poem if I don’t have something urgent to say? What happened to me?
As far as how my mother’s estate will shake out: who knows. But Imbolc week brought internal movement. For starters, last weekend I co-led a workshop with poet Sara Robinson called “Writing for Change.” It was at Barren Ridge Winery on a Saturday afternoon, and the crowd was sizeable for rural Virginia. First I gave everyone a slip of paper and asked them to jot down something they’d like to change, or help change, this year–small and personal, large and political, whatever. Then I gave a 5-minute writing prompt: Describe how that change would feel in your body. What would it taste like, what texture would it have? I did the prompt too and, presto, I suddenly had fresh words on paper. On Sunday afternoon, the scribbles became a poem draft.
I can’t yet tell if this mini-burst of poeting is an aberration or the beginning of a renewed practice, but I do remember past years feeling this way: January in a hole, February signs of emergence, and then writing like a wildfire come spring. I’ve also learned from my former student Cameron Steele’s excellent and moving Substack newsletter “interruptions” that my inner turn coincided with Mars leaving retrograde, ahem. Maybe reading my horoscope and learning that I was supposed to have an especially creative day on Sunday gave this Libra a kick in the pants? It doesn’t matter, I guess, why things change for the better, so long as they do. (Cameron’s post “Sanguine and daring” also gives me a highly apt tarot card reading I’d requested about my relationship with work, in case you’re curious–you may have to subscribe to read it, though.)
Looking ahead: I’m giving a reading from Poetry’s Possible Worlds in Charlottesville, Virginia at New Dominion Books with Remica Bingham-Risher: Saturday Feb 25, 7 pm. I’m stacking up some AWP plans including a panel, a signing, and a reading. And while my obligations as Department Head are heavy through spring, the end is in sight: I’ll be officially done June 30, but mostly done earlier that month. (June is pretty damn slow in academia.) No more lone shouldering of a long hard year. I so look forward to just being a full-time professor again.
6 responses to “She carries me”
“She carries me like a tired parent carries
a limply sleeping child, like an embossed page
carries a warning, like a gutter carries a bird’s nest.”
Oh, I love these lines, these images! And Imbolc coincides pretty closely with the Chinese calendar’s 立春 lìchūn, translated as “start of spring.” So, sure, a turning! (Sorry to hear the plantar fasciitis is back. Feel better.)
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One of the most useful exercises a friend challenged me to do was to loosely chart my creative energy: over the day, week, month, year. When I realized that certain months seemed always to leave me feeling flopping around like I fish, I could stop worrying and berating myself for it. “Oh,” I can now say, “right, it’s July.” I also learned that I secretly am actually quite productive during August even though I never feel like I am. Come September I find all kinds of surprising things in my notebook. Mornings are good for me, and late afternoon. Midday, well, it’s a loss. So helpful to know!
And oh yes to this: > > I open a page, stare at it, and think, am I too old to have any more good ideas? What’s the point of writing another poem if I don’t have something urgent to say? >
Oof. yeah. Okay, love the process. Love the process.
Congrats on your SPD nonfiction bestsellers-in-Jan slot.
Thanks for the shoutout to my blog. Marilyn
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On tracking creative energy: SUCH good advice. And thank you for telling me about the SPD list–I hadn’t seen that!!
[…] Lesley Wheeler, She carries me […]
“I open a page, stare at it, and think, am I too old to have any more good ideas? What’s the point of writing another poem if I don’t have something urgent to say?”
Is this burnout or a wise and necessary question? It’s certain that in my life (maybe yours too) that there’s an increased level of urgency or importance needed to overcome the inertia before creation begins. And there’s this nagging thought too, that the best work doesn’t always tell you at its inception that this one is urgent.
Your imbolc poem seems rich. Augurs well for a collection.
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Thank you on the poem, and yes on the burnout. I’m thinking hard these days about what refills the well vs. depleting it.
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