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The Loss I Didn’t Have Words For
When you have a miscarriage, one thing that gets drilled into you fast is that miscarriage is common. According to the American Pregnancy Association, 10 to 25 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Those are just the ones we know about; many others happen too early to ever be detected. And the risk gets higher as you get older. Your friends, if you tell them about your miscarriage, will confirm how ordinary it is: “I had one,” someone will say. “We had two before we had our son.” “A neighbor’s aunt had four miscarriages and then four children!” “Meghan Markle had a miscarriage.” “Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan had three.”The first time I miscarried, in December of 2020, I took pills so that my body would expel whatever wasn’t growing inside me. I bled too much too fast and came to in the emergency room, hooked up to someone else’s blood, while a sweet young doctor held my hand and told me the facts. It’s nothing you did. It happens so often.Because I am a poet, I filter my experiences through lines of verse. Usually this is automatic, rather than for comfort. It’s not that I reach for them—they’re just there, rattling around in my head. When I came home from my post-miscarriage night in the hospital, the words that echoed were from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In the second section of that poem, Eliot imagines an exchange between two Cockney-sounding women, one of whom has taken pills to end a pregnancy. On being accused of looking “antique” (at 31) for her returning husband: I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same. Weakly I wandered the house in sweatpants. It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, I thought. I felt let down by my doctor, who had been blasé when she sent me home with medication in the first place, noting that if I felt like I was bleeding too much I might want to head to the emergency room. The doctor said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same. I imagined myself toothless and decrepit at the age of 36.When I had a second miscarriage nine months later, this past fall, I skipped the pills for a procedure called a D&C, for “dilation and curettage” (a “curette” is a surgical tool for scraping things out). This time I drifted off to sleep and woke up when it was over. I saw no blood. The closest thing to physical contact with whatever I had miscarried came in the form of an email a few days after the surgery, from a company my doctor had used for genetic testing of the “tissue”: “Dear Lindsay Kathleen,” the email said, “Your sample has been received and our lab is processing it.” I felt vaguely unwell, both mentally and physically, but otherwise it almost seemed like nothing had happened at all. It was particularly strange trying to figure out how to grieve while an ongoing, intensifying political debate about abortion was raging around me, to watch people argue in the news over whether what I’d lost qualified as a person. I didn’t—I don’t—believe it did. So what exactly was I grieving?[Read: All the pregnancies I couldn’t talk about]It’s terrible to question your own loss like this. Was it possible that I had had nothing, and therefore that I had lost nothing? I had told almost no one that I was pregnant, and I had known for only a short time. The relatively high probability that the pregnancy might disappear is, indeed, why it’s long been a norm not to tell anyone the good news until you’ve reached the end of your first trimester, after 12 weeks—so that you don’t have to un-tell it if the news goes bad. You just keep silent about the whole thing. But my miscarriages felt like major events to me: My life had almost continued on in a new way, and then it hadn’t. Somehow I’d had both life and death inside me, or something right on the knife-edge between life and death. Walking through a Colorado aspen grove in October, a week or so after the second miscarriage, I began to crave some kind of marker for the miscarriages: a tattoo, a sign, a set or two of brown initials scratched on the trees’ tall white trunks.This desire to commemorate is part of where poetry comes from. An elegy marks the life of a person who is no longer; a sonnet stands, in the words of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, as a “moment’s monument.” I wrote a poem after each miscarriage, and uncharacteristically I dated them so that I wouldn’t forget their significance. The beauty of poetry is that it records what is otherwise ephemeral.Poetry also gives us language for what is both widely shared and highly individual. When you have a miscarriage—this is often true about grief—you learn that your deepest and most primal impulses are generally not unique at all. You’re going to feel like it’s your fault, that first kind doctor said, but it’s not. Of course I knew it wasn’t my fault. Of course I felt like it was absolutely my fault. I caught myself thinking about the word miscarriage like misplace or mislay: miscarriage as in, you carried it wrong and it all went awry. But online, I found similar thoughts about the word. (It was suggested that I think of pregnancy loss instead.) I wanted to read about my specific but ordinary experience, not just on Google but in verse. And, for the love of God, I didn’t want the only poem ringing in my head to be the one from Eliot.And so I set off looking for the miscarriage poems I knew had to be out there. From the 17th century, I found Lady Mary Carey’s “Upon Ye Sight of My Abortive Birth Ye 31st of December 1657,” which laments the loss of a “little Embrio; voyd of life, and feature” and hints at the peril of childbirth at the time: The loss, Carey notes, is the end of her seventh pregnancy, but just two of her children remain living. In Carey’s poem, I glimpsed the long and heartbreaking poetic tradition of which I might be part.I was also struck by Lucille Clifton’s 1987 “the lost baby poem,” a dark and icy lament, a record of racialized poverty, and a resolute pledge to keep living. In it, Clifton addresses the titular “lost baby” as a way to talk about her present experience, drawing strength from the connection: you would have been born into winterin the year of the disconnected gasand no car […] if you were here i could tell you theseand some other things And reading Sharon Olds’s 1984 poem “Miscarriage,” I felt deeply satisfied by her inclusion of the gritty material details. It begins: When I was a month pregnant, the greatclots of blood appeared in the palegreen swaying water of the toilet.Dark red like black in the saltytranslucent brine, like forms of lifeappearing, jelly-fish with the clear-cutshapes of fungi. Later, Olds wrote two more miscarriage poems: “To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now,” and “To Our Miscarried One, Age Fifty Now.” She was still thinking about what she’d lost, but in these poems the visceral realism drops away, replaced by softer, wistful addresses to the adult that child would have become and whom she will never meet.[Read: How poetry can guide us through trauma]Though these and other miscarriage poems exist—readers might look to contemporary work by Dorothea Lasky or Douglas Kearney—the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar argued in a Poetry magazine essay that miscarriage remains a “private and unseen loss near invisible or taboo” and that miscarriage poems represent only a “minor note in the canon of women’s writing.” I share her suspicion, but my own interpretation extends past this: I think that taboo is just part of the story, and that another part of it is that weird invisibility of the miscarriage experience, even to yourself. You tell yourself that these things happen, and you return to your living. Part of you wants to remember; part of you wants to let the loss dissolve like blood into water.“Parliament Hill Fields,” a 1961 poem by Sylvia Plath, is about exactly this tension between commemorating and moving on. She addresses it to “you,” the miscarried one she lost in between her two children: On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.Faceless and pale as chinaThe round sky goes on minding its business.Your absence is inconspicuous;Nobody can tell what I lack. But in the course of the poem, she enacts a trade-off: In order to return to her living child and her ongoing family life—the “lit house”—she must turn away from her loss, must let it disappear from her consciousness. Your cry fades like the cry of a gnat.I lose sight of you on your blind journey,While the heath grass glitters and the spindling rivuletsUnspool and spend themselves. My mind runs with them,Pooling in heel-prints, fumbling pebble and stem.The day empties its imagesLike a cup or a room. The moon’s crook whitens,Thin as the skin seaming a scar.Now, on the nursery wall,The blue night plants, the little pale blue hillIn your sister’s birthday picture start to glow.The orange pompons, the Egyptian papyrusLight up. Each rabbit-earedBlue shrub behind the glassExhales an indigo nimbus,A sort of cellophane balloon.The old dregs, the old difficulties take me to wife.Gulls stiffen to their chill vigil in the drafty half-light;I enter the lit house. At the heart of Plath’s poem—and Clifton’s, and Olds’s two poems “To Our Miscarried One”—is the impulse to address the lost one even as the loss fades. And they use the perfect poetic tool to do so: “apostrophe,” or an address to a nonpresent entity. (It’s not the same as the punctuation.) I realized, reading these poems, that this was what I’d wanted in the first place—a way to ask: Who are you, who were you, who might you have been? Do you even exist?At first using you for my loss didn’t feel right, personally or politically. But poetry allowed me to reach for a “you” that was ambiguous, even if only to let it go. And in doing so, I—like the miscarriage-poem writers before me—could feel this loss as real and significant.To say “you” to a lost thing in a poem is to acknowledge the thing, to keep it around for as long as it needs to be around, and to bid it goodbye when you’re ready—even if you have no idea what that thing is, or whether it has ever existed at all.
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Instead, Kavanaugh and his fellow conservative justices seem prepared to impose the will of an anti-abortion minority with a kind of one-two punch. In a ruling in the near future, the Court’s conservatives are likely to hand autonomy over women’s bodies to state legislatures. And in rulings in the recent past, the Court has set those state legislatures up, via gerrymandering and voter suppression, to ban abortion regardless of whether those bans are supported by the people of their state.Even without the Court’s help, many states’ legislative maps would give the Republican Party a natural edge. That’s because Democratic voters tend to cluster in cities—think of Detroit in relation to Michigan, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin. The goal of gerrymandering politicians is to dilute the power of the opposing party’s voters by “packing” them into a small number of districts; when Democrats cluster in cities, they essentially pack themselves. As the urban-rural divide in politics has grown, so too has the GOP’s edge.In many competitive states, it would be impossible to gerrymander a Democratic majority that would withstand nearly any voter backlash, but fairly easy to gerrymander a lopsided Republican one. And that’s just what Republicans in many states have done. In Wisconsin in 2018, for example, Republicans lost the popular vote by more than eight percentage points, yet won more than 60 percent of the assembly seats.The Supreme Court has taken this bad situation and made it worse. For years, as gerrymandering became more egregious, the hope was that the Court would step in and throw out the most blatantly partisan maps. But in 2019, in Rucho v. Common Cause, the conservative majority dashed that hope completely, ruling that federal courts cannot overturn a map for being too partisan, even if politicians explicitly drew it to keep their party permanently in charge. They’ve essentially invited Republican state legislators to gerrymander as aggressively as possible—in this redistricting cycle, that’s exactly what we’ve seen happen in states including Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina.[Mary Ziegler: The end of Roe]Rucho was a blow to fair districts in general, but its effects have been particularly damaging to state legislatures. In theory, Congress can still pass redistricting reform at the federal level, and the For the People Act would do just that. But Congress is powerless to demand independently drawn districts for state legislatures. Some states have constitutions that curb gerrymandering, and others already have independent commissions or ballot initiatives that allow voters to support reform directly. But thanks to the Court’s conservatives, states without those tools are stuck in a catch-22: The only way to end gerrymandering is with a new state law, but passing a new state law is impossible because the legislatures are so badly gerrymandered.Rucho belies Kavanaugh’s claim of “scrupulous neutrality.” Along with other anti-voting-rights decisions handed down in the Court’s conservative recent years, it means that if Roe is overturned, deep-red states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky won’t be alone in lining up to eliminate a woman’s right to choose. States whose voters are split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans but whose legislatures are controlled by Republicans—including Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin—are likely to do the same. According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in most or all cases. But thanks to the Court’s rulings, the majority won’t get its way nationwide—and won’t get its way statewide in many places, either.As is by now obvious, allowing state legislatures to gerrymander themselves into perpetual power was a means, not an end unto itself. The arguments in Dobbs, and the ruling that will likely follow, are about to present the country with an incredibly clear example of what “tyranny of the minority” looks like. For example, in Wisconsin, a 172-year-old law criminalizing abortion was never taken off the books, and could spring back into effect if the Court overturns Roe. For state legislatures to refuse to repeal that law—taking away women’s rights via a law passed before the Civil War that’s been inactive for five decades—is exactly the kind of scenario that could spark a voter backlash, especially because a majority of Wisconsinites believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. But thanks to Wisconsin’s gerrymandered Republican majority, a voter backlash might not matter.[Adam Serwer: Republicans hope their assault on democracy will stop a post-Roe backlash]The power of this one-two punch—eroding democracy at the state level and then handing power to the states—won’t be limited to abortion. There are any number of areas, including environmental regulations, workplace protections, and anti-discrimination laws, where gerrymandered state legislative majorities are far to the right of Americans as a whole.Most dangerous, the Court could do to voting rights what it seems poised to do to abortion rights. If the Court decides to give state legislatures complete and total control over who votes, whose votes are counted, and how elections are certified, the same rulings that allowed Republicans to grant themselves permanent state legislative majorities might allow them a similar stranglehold on Congress and the White House. In 2020, the Court stood firm and refused to let a president overturn a presidential election. But there’s no guarantee that the justices won’t allow states to overturn a presidential election instead—which, not incidentally, would lead to even more far-right judges joining America’s courts.Despite what Kavanaugh claims, the biggest question currently before the Court is not whether the Constitution is pro-choice. The question is whether the Constitution is pro-self-government. It should concern every American that the majority of justices believe the answer is no.