In the Absence of a Word for a Woman Who Is Not a Mother

Third Draft:

In the Absence of a Word for a Woman Who Is Not a Mother

“Your dream, then, is of a nothingness where an investment of love lives on.”
~ Charles D’Ambrosio

Under the pitted crust of April snow, blind and
rooting, everything waits.
Even my resolve not to have babies,

elegy, effigy, small absence in the loam
holds its breath, tested
by lily bulbs and history of rose.

All thorns and orange tongues, as they
near glory, name the day they’ll interrupt
in green with shoots to split

my alibi, catch me in the act.
Look: I am no traitor to the cause.
Energy replicates itself in buds or

bust. I have labored in my love,
atomized, dispersed like rain.
Notice my nothings, as well,

enjoined to life. My children’s children, offer me this
kindness: bless me in your travels
as a pilgrim loves the road.

Notes from Ella, a best reader:

I think something is a bit off with the third line, “Even my resolve not to have babies.” The word ‘babies’ feels really frank and sticks out from your other words. It also kind of takes on the connotations of the words around it (buried, blind, rooting, snow), which makes it feel more fetal than baby to me. The image a fetus stands strangely against the warmth of “babies.” I think the bigger thing is that the 3rd line feels like it should be more about you, but the attention really hangs off the word babies.

Maybe phrase the 3rd line differently so it focuses more on you, and if you keep the word babies, move it farther down in the poem, once you’ve had more time to establish your tone for the reader?

I like the idea of the absence being tested by lily bulbs, and the orange tongues interrupting in green.

Just in terms of lines, more of the poem is about what happens when one has babies (orange tongues and all that) than what happens when one doesn’t. Since the poem is entitled “In the Absence of a Word,” maybe you could make what happens when not a mother more full. You have the bit about your alibi and catching you in the act — maybe just one more line or even half a line about what you were doing? It moves to “Look: I am no traitor” very quickly, which could seem a bit like a quick justification, whereas I want you to linger a bit more and give me a sense of what has been given instead of children. The second to last stanza is almost like a justification as well, so I think more linger would balance this.


In the Absence of a Word for a Woman Who Is Not a Mother

“Your dream, then, is of a nothingness where an investment of love lives on.”
~ Charles D’Ambrosio

Under the pitted crust of April snow, blind and
rooting, everything waits. It’s not like you’d
expect, not having children. It’s not

elegy or effigy, but some days even this resolve must
hold its breath, tested
by lily bulbs and history of rose.

Again, the promises of thorn and orange tongue
near their glory, needle through the loam
in interrupting green.

My love with its own labors,
liquid, runs it channels,
energizing what it didn’t fix in place.

By now, I know no ghosts will share my bearing,
and there is peace in what one waters.
No trace or debt, one just

evaporates. My children’s children, offer this
kindness: bless the rain that patters
as a pilgrim loves the road.

The Other Morning

for Claudia at 5 hours old

There were two kinds of mornings
the day you were born.
We had the other.

We whispered about you in bedrooms
and then we talked in kitchens.
We did laundry, folded sheets
thinking about your hands,
how they would be so small.

We paired sock with sock
and then we saw your sister who knew
this was the day she was suddenly big,
bigger than when she went to sleep

because of you,
how you would see her,
all that you would need.

We all thought about what you’d need,
so we arranged flowers, rode in boats,
cleaned sinks, bought apples and washed them.

We talked about your tiny feet
and then your damp-dark hair.

Your morning was water and light,
warm voices and, for the first time, taste.

Ours was final preparation, final prayer,
other things in the world that wanted you,
waited on you,

saw you, at last,


Three, today, is
the happy morning number
of soggy robins in the closest tree, new blooms

on damp petunias, cups of tea I’ll drink
as I thumb Genesis, again, to keep on learning
how creation’s never through.

On the third day
God made ocean and dry land,
vegetation, plants and trees –

mad synthesis of growth and seed.
The process never stills.
Someone who knew Him wrote

His day is as a year, so here we are,
miraculous invention:

I create you as you create me,
and while we will not finish,
we are always more complete.

It poured this morning
like it did three years ago
when I awoke alone

and listened for the start of life.
It sounded like rain on leaves
and I saw that it was good.

How Needful to Burn

Books of advice, magazines, secret cures,
formulae, strident pages
stiff-legged and shouting expert
in the public square of the indomitable truth,

snapshots of the honeymoon,
paradise in silhouettes, champagne,
a silver script: it all flares up
so eagerly to flame,

takes the match like a lover’s hand
hungry to dissolve.
How urgent to abandon others to their lives
so you can sit in this,

the only room
where both your hearts are beating –
your only hearts and only yours,
the man across the room,

the only man who sees your heart
as the composer saw the birds perched across the alley on the wires.
They were not notes and staff until he played them as they stood
and they blazed into song because he made them so.

Is the tune he plays the song you want to be?
No answer is good enough,
as long as it is yours.


Writing at Night

I like walking the house at night,
my husband asleep
beside my absent shape.
I would use the word secret,
but it makes him restless,
as though he were a child and I
used the word tomorrow;
as though he were dying
and I used the word
tomorrow.  I walk the house
I built before we married,
water plants I’ve tended longer
than our bed. The weeping fig
and I sift confidence.
I vow to write for morning,
for tomorrow, for the man
who will wake and rise,
walking the house alone
with coffee and windows
full of light, surveying trees
and telling birds his own eternal
mysteries, of which I am not

How to Make a Portrait

Look in the mirror.

Practice saying you’re beautiful.
You must say this

out loud – you must say this
one thousand times
until your face believes you.

You must say this and see
the glorious and wounded
contours of the human frame,
your broken nose and hooded eyes,

creased skin, your crooked teeth,
you must say this
until your face contains
the tired man beside the road,
the woman in the field,

the boy in the cardboard box,
the girl beneath the hanging tree,
the mother’s calloused hands,
the father’s folded breasts,
the milky stare of old woman, man,
all begging to believe

that no one is invisible, you must say this
until it becomes a chant, a cry, a call, a cheer, a song,
until the willed imagination turns
to face the other faces in the crowd of self
and in that gaze that nods and smiles, the camera
– in the image of us all –
destroys and remakes the world.



Nine chickadees hunch
in the packed snow of a tire track
picking spilled seed.

They look so suddenly
earthbound, as if they are what scatters
from the sack, blind
in January sun, sharp
scribbled feet stuck
in the drift,
so many careless darts –

I laugh and laugh.
Love comes to this:
forgetting our wings, we bob about
for scraps until we startle
and recall the sky.

I step near.
The little band explodes
and the last dark ruffle streaks
his line uneven, low across the plowed-up bank,
wild pitch
from strong, unpracticed arms.



for Janet

from the premise
that your life’s your own

and you are free
to tear through reedy fields
shouting now, now, now
at diving chickadees

as if you were a dog awakened
after death passed by,
and now, all paws akimbo,
means this time

a sacred work,
a wishing well, a friend
who sets her task aside,
and offers: walk with me

so we can cast the penny of ourselves
like planting seed
for flowers we can’t name,
expecting, this time, soil

beneath our nails, our hearts
like children at their roadside stands
with lemonade and grace.
We stand before the vast

and meditate on serendipity, our pulses
in our hands like yarn:
talk with me
about our library of dreams,

our fingers soft across the pages,
spinners in their web, memorizing pattern,
fate, slipping on
like handmade socks.


Sunday mornings, she would gather eggs,
slipping her hands beneath the white feathers,
biddies murmuring in prayer.

The warm globes felt like hers, the same way
the beauty of shadow on the wreckage of truck
did not surprise her, the same way

the knife had missed her toe –
of course it had – when her brother threw it.
Inside, the blade stood sentry

in the floorboard, witness
to all that she refused to lose.
She knew what she deserved:

salvation, not for good works, but purely
for faith that the world was lovely,
that it held things like starfish she had never seen,

but would, one day, so far from this Missouri dirt
that she would feel she’d lost a limb, remembering
that what we need grows back, casual as scattered seed.