I am walking down a moving airport pedway, or the centre of a rocking canoe, or the hallway to the baby’s room. It’s 4am and he’s awake for his third overnight feed. Nursing in the dark, I think of the truncated dream I was having mixed with the page I was reading before bed, a passage about drowning from Samantha Hunt’s novel The Seas. I scratch a few words on an envelope before landing back in my own bed, which feels like a raft. The words won’t make much sense in the morning but they’re there, some kind of proof.
I’d say I haven’t written anything in months, but that’s not exactly true. There’s a series of beginnings in the notes app of my phone; some notebook pages; lines entered in an epic collaboration on Google docs; an older poem fixed up to email to a friend as we trade drafts; documents scattered across my desktop’s night sky background. These fragments keep piling up whether I want them to or not, like the clumps of dust and dog hair and my own hair (falling out in handfuls, five months postpartum) that gather in the corners of my apartment.
My family is a month into quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic. We try to remember to turn off the news when our five-year-old wanders into the room. The days loop relentlessly, contained and mundane. They also jolt me with déjà vu; elements of them (the world behind glass, the smell of bleach) have surfaced memories of a period of illness and isolation from years ago. Or yesterday. I remember a series of rectangles: a hospital room, its door, the door’s little window, the window’s blue curtain, my spiral notebook. I didn’t believe I would ever figure out my body or my mind and no longer wanted to try. Today I’m healthy, obscenely lucky. The five-year-old, out of school, eats his toast and looks out the window at the thick fog and raindrops. “Looks like it’s going to be a great day,” he sighs, content.
If I had an hour, I would write 20 lines beginning with I remember. Or maybe I would go back to bed.
My husband has just transitioned to doing his mental health care job from home. He closes the door to our bedroom and chats with a clientg about acceptance and commitment therapy over Skype while the five-year-old “practices bowling” in the hallway. I get the baby down for his nap and put a stop to the bowling, feeling guilty that we don’t have a yard, more space. I suggest we continue with Charlotte’s Web. My son gasps with his whole body when we turn the page and Charlotte has woven SOME PIG with her silk. Earlier, we were talking about the difference between by, buy, and bye. “I can’t believe there are only three kids’ books by E.B. White,” he moans. (We recently finished Stuart Little.) I say that writing a book can take a long time. I copy down a couple of phrases from the chapter (“a miserable inheritance” and “bloodthirsty”) for no particular reason. Later,wheat paste drips over the kitchen table as we make collages. Using scraps of paper printed with constellations, I wrap up a book I loved (Cluster by Souvankham Thammavongsa) to mail to a friend. My son and I chant and move to a video sent home by the school: dance when the words rhyme, freeze when they don’t. I can’t sing well but I sing all day long, the words to the songs my boys love.
From The Seas: “My mother is regularly torn between being herself and being my mother. Her internal argument is sometimes visible from the outside, as if she had two heads sprouting from her one neck.”
A conundrum: I no longer feel like myself when they aren’t with me, either. Two hours is the longest I have been away from the baby. He was born fast, with ninety minutes between the first true contraction and the moment a nurse helped me catch him myself. Through the pain, I knew exactly what I needed and wanted. I needed to get out of the elevator and into a delivery room, for no one to cross my path with a wire or needle or wrong touch; I wanted him. Somehow this was less than six months ago, and he has since doubled in size. Time accordions out and snaps back in on itself again.
When the baby wakes, the five-year-old insists on unzipping the sleep sack. The baby purses his lips and sends out something new and clear. “His first word!” the five-year-old cries. I explain it’s impossible, he’s too young. But it really did sound like hello.
While my husband cooks lunch I am on the floor with the rolling baby while the five-year-old watches a terrible show he loves. I look at Facebook. Several poets I know are generously sharing writing prompts and while I’m not able to dive into them, they spin like quiet tops in the back of my mind. These tops are both comforting and frustrating—frustrating because I can’t get to them, resolve them. At times, I think if I could rid myself of this back-of-my-mind buzzing, I would.
I text a friend while nursing the baby. This is a kind of typing I can do with one hand. From the bedroom-office, my husband emails me a poem by Wendell Berry, which contains the lines, in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be and I come into the peace of wild things. I stand by the window with the baby, who tilts his head back and suctions his mouth onto my chin. We bounce peacefully like this for what feels like a long time. Our view is of another small apartment building, another window. The more I stay inside, the more disoriented I feel. Everyone jokes about not knowing what day it is, and I feel this too, but also, I’m encountering the sensory details of old memories I didn’t think I still had, several times a day. I don’t know if writing through these would be useful; I’d try, but my arms are full.
The end of the day unravels with crying and frustration from everyone. The five-year-old is annoyed with me; he wants me to read the names of Pokémon from his sticker book with the baby in my lap and my mind is wandering and I keep skipping names or mispronouncing them. Sudowoodo, Politoed, Hoppip. The baby wants to nurse and then doesn’t, and, arching his back, howls. Holding him can be like wrestling. Later, after his bath, he glistens, plunges his foot into his mouth and beams. I try to imprint this onto my memory, block out everything else. Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed, I practice zeroing in, snip one thing out of its surrounding distraction and paste it into an imaginary collage. I wonder if I could manage to focus on a single thing more of the time—be less split—whether I would be a better parent, a better writer.
I’ve become a person who falls asleep after one page. It’s in this gradual way that I’m reading, for a second time, Sadiqa de Meijer’s The Outer Wards. I’m drawn to the way the poems make space for the grey uncertainty of illness, for mothering under duress—the way they acknowledge interruptions and let them in. I haven’t written today, and can’t see a day in the future where I will. I don’t know how much it matters whether I write another book or another poem. Then again, I wrote this. When?
It's April and a thin layer of snow accumulates in the dark.
Jaime Forsythe is the author of two collections of poetry, I Heard Something (Anvil Press, 2018) and Sympathy Loophole (Mansfield Press, 2012). She lives in Halifax/K’jipuktuk, NS.