A poem sequence that is spare, tender, and haunting, this book navigates the difficult territory of grief and loss. Poet Rebecca Goss’s newborn daughter Ella was diagnosed with severe Ebstein’s Anomaly, a rare and incurable heart condition, and lived for only 16 months. This collection of moving, deeply thoughtful poems brings Goss’s professional and personal experiences to bear, beginning with Ella’s birth, her short life, and her death, and ending with the joys and complexities that come with the birth of another child.
|Publisher:||Carcanet Press, Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.20(d)|
About the Author
Rebecca Goss is a poet and the author of the collection, The Anatomy of Structures, and the recipient of an Authors' Foundation Grant from the Society of Authors in 2011. She is a former creative writing teacher at Liverpool John Moores University.
Read an Excerpt
By Rebecca Goss
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2013 Rebecca Goss
All rights reserved.
It uncurled, unfolded
into four but was clover
with an unlucky lobe,
the rarest of anomalies
that would flourish
to defeat her.
Room in a Hospital
No tabloids, no vending cups, no debris
of the bored and hungry. Instead
carpet, fireplace, neat homely items.
This is not the room where you wait for news,
this is the room where you are told it.
At the coffee table, the doctor hunches
to draw a heart. It needs time from his pen,
crossings out and a white space
where the valve won't meet.
The heart is thirty-six hours old and hers.
Perched on cool leather, we puzzle the sketch,
my husband takes his glasses off to cry.
Our daughter warrants a new vocabulary
and we are struggling to learn.
Wrapped inside my gown
her hot pearl of cheek
sticks against my chest,
her knees dent the dough
of my stomach until a registrar
comes to incubate, must find
a vein beneath luminous skin,
his arms gowned, his hands gloved.
Hunger sends us seeking its cheap white thickness,
forces us to leave her, two days old, incubated
in Neonatal and stand in the 'parents' kitchen'.
Fluorescent lit, poky, we embrace the closest thing
to home, busy ourselves separating slices, re-washing
plates. I take two squares of butter from the fridge,
warm their foil corners in my fists. Fear rolls in my shrunken
gut, watching you, wanting our sad mouths to kiss.
You spread, cut and pass me a golden triangle,
the oily joy of it leaking onto fingers. We suck it down
into machinery that made her, wondering where the fault is.
We wait to be called
and watch a toddler,
bare for a nappy,
playing at the toy table,
a raw, linear scar
in the centre
of his chest.
I picture him
dulled to a floppy
sleep, slit like a fish
for a surgeon
to cup his heart,
take its damaged
weight and begin.
Not the one that starts in your mouth, bounces back,
rolls down your throat, vowels collecting like balls in a net.
I mean an echocardiogram. The doctor's probe plays
slim keys of her ribs, draws the murmur of music
that beats in there. Her baby heart dances on the screen.
If only it was lucky to see this secret cave. A deformed
valve leaps between chambers like a March hare,
marking the spring day she was born. Diverted on its travels,
her blood is a mystery trail, leaving me lost.
I distract her with bubbles. Keep clear spheres
coming around her head, wanting them to last,
each pop a small, inexplicable loss.
I knew what it meant, but that didn't stop me:
I came home from clinic, early in her life,
sat on the stairs with my hardback Collins
solid as a baby on my knee, thumbed quickly
through papery leaves, whispering l, m, n, o, p,
to seek the word they said once
when discussing the flawed mechanics
of her heart. There, on a gauzy page,
its definition printed across shadows
of my fingers, I read 'serving to palliate',
(from Latin pallium, a cloak) and turned back
to find 'palliate' vb 1. to lessen the severity
of (pain, disease etc.) without curing
and I re-read without curing until curing
didn't look like curing anymore,
it looked like curling and I clasped my hands
around my knees, pulled that book hard
against my gut. As a student I loved its reams
of indisputable fact, its ability to reveal
and make clear. Now I bury its bulk
on the shelves, swathe myself in hope.
A Dream of Heart Babies
(a poem for their mothers)
Gathered on deck,
we slip them from our hands
like they slipped from our legs,
a shoal of heart babies
sweep down the hull.
Their fragile beats
thrum the keel, beats we've
often pressed our ears to,
seen tremble in dozing chests.
Here, they plunge and soar
in gregarious mass,
skins of cyanotic sheen.
Their pulses echo
for nautical miles,
in a search for chambers
more complex than coral.
We cut through ocean,
nets trailing the stern,
see our babies somersault
the spot we must haul.
The catch rises, drips
and bulges, spills glistening
infants, like oysters at our feet.
Each one cups a new heart
and we wonder every accurate throb.
I Sweat When I
Hoover. Mash potatoes. Fuck.
She sweats sitting up. Eight kilograms
and able to spread a stain on her
father's shirt, asleep in his arms.
A breastfeed left us slippery, hot,
her heart working harder
than mine. Weaning her
was undocumented. No chapters
for a child who can't eat.
I prepare another bottle,
blonde floss of her hair
sticky at her neck,
while she watches, breathes.
in the park,
on the bar,
her smile bigger
than my heart;
it must have been
such a thrill
and fall like that,
for a child
even pull up
against my shin,
she must have been
then, on the swing.
Ward at Night
Composed in her lungs, the cough
scales her throat, stops her from sleeping.
I scoop her from her metal cot and rest
her broken heart on mine. Televisions hang
like planets overhead, as we creep past beds,
hear the cadenced breath of babies
through the bars. Bright at the ward's core,
the nurses' station beams help from its hub –
women who mark my baby's decreasing
growth, report to a cluster of registrars.
Eventually, she dozes. A nurse tacks a plaster
to her toe, restarts the monitor, to follow
this small satellite, failing in my arms.
Severe Ebstein's Anomaly
The lack of a cure sparked dreams.
In one, her father and I set out
for the island of disease beating
in her body. Her breath in our sails,
we navigated waves of excess fluid,
toured the ruins of her lungs.
Gradually propelled to the heave
of her heart's edge, I laid my hand
on its plump shore. Her father
kissed my brow, kitbag swung
across his back, and trekked towards
the faulty, flapping dam
of her tricuspid valve. There,
he gazed into the chamber
with its swish of redirected river
and set about his sole desire
to fix her. In intensive care,
as she fails in her father's arms,
doctors run to swarm her, apply
repeated pressure to her chest.
We flounder in the doorway,
lose sight of her small body
until a man, head bent, his mouth
aflood with tender vowels,
tugs us to her bedside to grant him
the undocking and let her come adrift.
A Child Dies in Liverpool
We are tourists now, in her home city,
but there was no last-minute booking
or excited packing of a case.
With pockets void of tour guides, we drift
to the waterfront we know well;
each dome and bronzed wing tip
blurred in gauzy grief. Stilled by rain,
we find a bench, sit down where her death
has docked us. Going home, back down
the river road, will be a foreign route without her.
Who knew to trap the Inland Revenue's
slim brown demands inside a sorting office
for a few more days? Who let them lie
in the dark with promises from Barclays,
requests from BT? Who made sure
it was just the cards that came?
Twenty at a time, hitting vestibule tiles
with a heavy slap. I scooped them
from that cool place to our bed, where
her breath used to be. Those breaths
you counted (her five to your one),
as she slept between us, propped up
to keep the fluid down. Cards pile in clouds
of duvet. Little one, sent among us briefly,
your spirit meant to fly. Her cough
still rises from the sheets, from pools
in her lungs; her struggling wings.
Keeping the hem
of my new black dress
held up, I perch to pee
while a verger waits
Close to my knee
a brick wall is
painted palest pink
and music I chose,
in that surreal
week, planning this
service for my child,
is coming through the clay.
People are entering
the church. Her funeral
has started. I cannot stop it.
On the wall, petunias,
painted in Walberswick.
I call to you, say
That's a good omen,
that's a good sign,
gripping the hospital bed.
Walberswick is where
I holidayed, every childhood
summer. It's where we announced
the news. Sixteen months
after the effort of her birth,
we collect a faux-walnut
box from Jenkins & Sons.
Inside, a clear sachet,
weightless as dried herbs.
We drive two hundred
and eighty-one miles
for that cold, unstoppable
wave to suck the sachet clean
and I ask you, She is all right now,
isn't she? She is all right?
She said the river lured him to lie.
The day he slipped from her, stayed out
as the rain fell and fell, the village
bracing itself for change. There was
a boat, then it was gone. As the story
went on, my husband and I, tourists
in this empty post office, could only listen.
I saw her run to that swelling, every breath
sucking in hair. As she reached stepping stones,
saw the boat, his friends and finally him, alive,
I pretend to share relief in my envious mouth.
I want fear to breed like that in my sweat,
want my daughter, two weeks dead,
back here to grow, run, alarm me.
Gleaned from her own hives, a woman
who'd never met my daughter
but heard she'd gone, left a jar resting
on my step in August sun. A script
of instructions slipped beneath hot glass:
it was to be opened occasionally, inside
the scent of one last spring, preserved.
I roll its gold against light, picture the woman
bent at my door, but have never dared
to twist the lid, afraid the perfume of bees
might hurl me back to the garden; my daughter's
warm exhaustion in my arms. What if the lid's small pop
meant the vapour was lost? It would be my fault –
unable to keep an entire season in my lungs.
My swims kept those scars at bay,
two thousand lengths it took, to form
my mapless globe. No trace she was here,
her travels around me refused to surface
as she dived between poles, lapped
that black belly ocean. Once born, meridian
of my achievements, she went off course.
I followed her divergent route, but this was not
her geography. I have wished for them,
a record of her tracks, all snowed over, gone.
Fastened in its straps,
she craved my breast
like a new lamb.
Denied the breath
to chew or swallow,
her limbs did not puff
with weight, her neck taut
from the chin as she failed
to bloom. I'd announce
'Lunchtime!', in my
hopeful tone; she sat
grumpy as a gnome,
shook her head. The highchair
went to Sure Start.
hurled frozen in a bin bag,
until it was lumpy with waste.
We have her prints.
Hands and feet, pencil grey,
as if they stood her in soot.
A nurse lifted her palms
then soles to the paper.
Underneath, wrote her name,
the date. I wanted her handprint
to come home on sugar paper:
bright yellow, ready for the fridge.
Months later, the sun picked out
her paw on the pane, each tip,
tiny as peas. I peered close,
nose almost touching my fossil,
backlit on the glass.
I let socks dot the washing, coats grace
a chair's arm. Her hospital bag, too hard
to unpack, stayed slumped and ignored
but eventually there was a gathering,
the limp outline of her size carried upstairs.
It accumulated in the cot, a cold pit
of pyjamas, dresses, jeans. My heap of her,
visible through bars. Insides of sleeves
brushed with her cells, last flecks compacting
in pastel matter, until her father found me
fretting at its edge, suggested it was time
for the careful mining of her things.
Our intention to sort, fold and label soon became
a quick, unhappy shoving into grey plastic bags,
the silent hoisting to an attic's dark. Her cot
collapsed, I sobbed in that desolated space,
while my desk was carried in, books and pens
planted on its surface, her father's wise reclamation
of the site. I kept a row of lilac-buttoned relics
in my wardrobe. Hand-knitted proof, something
to haul my sorry lump of heart and make it blaze.
Excerpted from Her Birth by Rebecca Goss. Copyright © 2013 Rebecca Goss. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Fetal Heart 13
Room in a Hospital 14
A Dream of Heart Babies 20
I Sweat When I 21
Ward at Night 23
Severe Ebstein's Anomaly 24
A Child Dies in Liverpool 25
St Mary's 27
Her Birth 28
The Postmistress 31
Stretch Marks 33
The Highchair 34
You're Lucky You Can Dream About Her 37
Muscovado Sugar 39
My Neighbour's Himalayan Birch 40
The 21st of March 41
Mothers of the Dead 42
The Lights 45
Sunday Papers 46
Grief Goes Jogging 47
Peeing at the Odeon 48
Why We Had Another Baby 53
Hyperemesis Gravidarum 55
As Owls Do 56
My Animal 60
Telling the Tale 63
In Memory of John Ernest Goss 1920-2011 64
Taking You There 67
Last Poem 68