Something You Don’t Know Yet
Who Knows What to Do
This has to do with the house having settled over the years and now the dining room table is not level and we are knee deep in one another, in diarrhea that is on the wall, and vomit that’s also on the wall. As for colors. Look. Look at my colors. Silver moonlight falls from the ceiling right into both of us. I roll the moonbeams between my fingers and they smell like flames. This is a symptom. A symptom of not seeing bedsheets in 12 days. And don’t mind this language. We are a shriek. A fuming. I sit at the dining room table and remove small heaps of you in the night, and I wouldn’t want you to see us this way, you and me, waiting for morning so I can call someone who knows what to do. Me swearing when the diaper creme rolls off the dining room table again and again. Me crying in fear.
The Facts of Chairs
Chart acid levels
Shadows here are made of windows that never open
Write down feeding attempts
Of urgent imperative and drift
Stare at the empty bed you are unable to lie in
Of intentionally polite ego stroking and nearly crude directness
Take comfort that your skin is my skin, that my body breathes when yours does
Of your long dark eyelashes
Forget that our existence depends on a cascade of precise cellular interactions
Of pH probes, reflux, delayed gastric emptying, and holding ourselves upright
Sing a song that goes like this, I’ve got you, I’ve got you, you can’t rely on chairs
In Which People Think We Need a Night Nurse
It’s hard earth here.
You are 45 days old. You drink 1 to 2 ounces of breast milk or amino acid formula when you can. You have forcefully vomited 23 times because of all the worlds floating upward in the night, because all of the windows came with you, came sealed and locked. Your colon forcefully expels everything. We cut holes in the night. Afterwards they weigh you. Or, really, they weigh us. You are within limits. But they use some other metric to weigh me, like, the sliding scale of how dark the temporary circles are under my eyes. You have not really begun to know day from night, and people are shocked that Reglan, Prilosec, and Carafate are not mending you perfectly. I’m encouraged to hire someone for “night duty.” They seem certain I can hire someone to ebb and flow, someone to keep their eyes pointed at the sky in case someone or something flies past in the night. But, see, how this works is that after a while, answers come knocking. Patterns climb up from the depths of nothing, the sound of their fists pounding, saying, here are the sounds you made deep in your throat that led to the ways you arched your body that led to the ways your fists hovered at your throat that led to the vomiting of three feeds that accumulated in your stomach during the day over a period of eight hours. The patterns take me by the head and then they insist, and I am filled to the brim with you. That’s when the footholds come. I get why they would think, hey, you shouldn’t be so full of night. I get bodies pacing the dark, dip below the horizon a thousand times, and then rise for answers not found in offices or night nurses.
We’re taught to not hang out of windows, especially at night, unless we mean it.
Long live the darkness.
I watched a woman having a breakdown today in the room next to the playroom.
The one with the velvety couches that are kind of a blueish purple.
That’s the room with the laundry machines, the coffee, the tea, the snack machines.
She was wrestling with a box of Tide wedged up in a vending machine and she looked like she wanted someone to say, just leave it, and when the willow drops it’s leaves you can tell me about your day, but until then sit by my side, and let’s sing a verse about all the things you feel like you have to promise, and the refrain will be about the difference between something breaking your heart and then something breaking itself in two.
Instead, I heard her muttering to fluorescent lights, and maybe she said something like, it’s the song not the singer that’s most important, but I don’t think so.
I think she said, it feels like the night is the only thing holding me up.
When I first wrestled with that Tide box, it was because I couldn’t provide myself with a stable definition for what I was. Instead, while my son dozed, I washed and dried his pajamas and I ate cheddar crackers with peanut butter in the glow of his IV machine while the night held me up.
That My Shoulder Touches His
Shoulder to shoulder we sit in the landscaping rocks outside of the doctor's office me and my son. One day these fossils we bring home and keep in little boxes he made will settle in to him. When I look back this might even be seen as a reclamation followed by a giving away. Frequently people only own treasures for a very short time. Dear world if you would please be small enough that as he grows my shoulder occasionally touches his.
Melissa writes poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction that explore themes related to impermanence, family relationships, and living with progressive illness. Recently, she has had prose/poetry published with, Tangled Locks Journal, Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine, Miniskirt Magazine, TMP Magazine, Hearth & Coffin Literary Journal, and the Red Fez.. Long ago she graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in psychology and from John Carroll University with an M.A. in counseling. She is retired from homeschooling and from counseling, and lives with her husband, who is an attorney and who gets that meaning in living comes from the differences between what you expect to find and what you actually find when you look. She has work forthcoming with Wild Roof Journal, Misery Tourism, Full House Literary, 431, and Wishbone Words. You can find her at melissamulvihill.com, on Twitter @UnreliableHeart, and on Instagram at melissamulvihill.
I think the things I want to write about need to be reduced for me to get at what I want to say, so any language that does that works for me. There’s only one world and only one me, but there are many ways of talking about the world, about me, and about me in the world. My notions, or anyone’s notions of right or wrong, of beauty or ugliness are not part of the fundamental architecture of the world, so I don’t think there’s a single vocabulary to delineate what’s important from what’s irrelevant. Poetry allows for a varied vocabulary. There are many stories one could tell about me, some of them capturing some aspect of my reality and all true in some way. Poetry feels like attunement, buoyancy, and clarity to me. There’s a great line in Peaky (Fucking) Blinders in this intense scene in which the character, Thomas Shelby, realizes he needs to rest, realizes that he is being assaulted by himself, and he says to the tune of Radiohead’s Pyramid Song, which is so excruciatingly perfect for the moment, “Its just myself talking to myself about myself.” . That’s poetry. That moment is poetry and there’s no other way to experience it for me. Shelby is reduced. Poetry does that when it needs to.
How long do you usually spend with a single poem?
I have an idea list I’ve been keeping for a long time like most people who write. It’s usually a strong emotion that moves me to work out a poem and finish it. A long ache. A flash of incredible indignation. Over time, I have grown more patient with not having exactly the right words when I want them. I’ll wait for them and be more patient about it. I’ve written poems in a day and sometimes it takes a week to get it just right. As an aside, like a decade or more ago, when I wasn’t writing, but I was keeping an idea list in case my life ever was calm enough to write, I kept the list of shit I wanted to write about on my Blackberry. I really only used that device to make phone calls and knew next to nothing about how to use for anything else. On vacay up on Lang Lake in Ontario, Canada, I tripped on our dock, dropped my phone through the slats and that was it for my list of stuff. That Blackberry and all the words saved on it live at the bottom of that lake. I had no idea about backing up data back then. I keep my ideas digitally and on paper now.
What poets have influenced you most recently?
I just read Stupid Hope Poems by Jason Shinder (2009). It’s powerfully painful and beautiful. Shinder was terminal when he was writing this book. Four of his friends edited and finished the arrangement that is this book. Several months ago I finished A Boot’s a Boot by Leslie Lewis (2014) which I loved and have read more times that I can say. I just found Fresh Oil and Loose Gravel by Maj Ragain (1996) and Ashes and Seeds by Michelle Greenblatt and I am making my way through those. Whenever I am published in a magazine, I read the whole thing and then when I find someone I love I go to their page and just read and read. I have a lot of time for that right now. I’m frequently not able to be up and around because of chronic illness, so reading sustains me. Although this isn’t poetry, Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay feels like poetry/prose. Her voice, her timing, her ability to isolate the right words to describe herself and others while she describes these complicated emotions and brutal thoughts is something I really admire.
Where does a poem start for you?
These poems in particular are an excerpt from a chapbook, Something You Don’t Know Yet, which is being released July 27, 2022 with ShabdAaweg Press. The 30 hybrid pieces in this book span from our youngest son’s birth to when he was about six years old. The poems in this book start when he was born very ill with several diagnoses discovered in his first two months, but also we were missing a diagnosis, Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome. I excluded a lot of stuff when I wrote this book because I wanted to tell a specific story that involved the two of us, our youngest son and me. That is not to say that my husband and our oldest son who is five years older, were not affected by and part of the care and the love that got us all through. They were. It’s just that in order to tell the story, I had to reduce it and that meant zooming in, which meant leaving out some significant parts of the story that involved my husband and our oldest son. The poems start in that reduction. It’s not so much about the details of our son’s diagnosis, although I do mention some of that. I hope I wrote it in a way that parents of kid’s with birth defects, chronic/progressive illness, and disability might find it meaningful. We actually stumbled on the diagnosis by accident despite five really hard years of searching, which was the real reason I was like, “I have to write something about this.” So, much of what I write starts from an interaction, the lack of an interaction, and the feelings and thoughts that I have about all of that. That’s when the poems start. They start in that moment during the interaction. Most of the poems I have been writing lately started with unfinished emotions/thoughts and honestly, lately one of those emotions is anger and all of its umbrella emotions. I’ve been chronically ill for 20 years and I parented through those diagnoses, right over the top of my own challenges. Complex diseases that are difficult to diagnose, to understand, and to treat drain life forces in so many ways. There is no single reason for why healthcare is the way it is, but all the different reasons don’t exist in isolation either; they are connected by feedback loops within feedback loops. Tug at one strand and you feel the weight of it all and the utter disregard for precision in these relationships. Our rituals and beliefs can be both fiercely held and dynamic, changing over time even when we are unaware that we are changing them. As a patient, you are at the mercy of this dynamic in the physician before you can even get to the medical care you might need. Our own inexperience with the complexity of rare disease and the personality of the physicians we saw, kept us from diagnoses and care we’ve needed over the years. What you want and expect depends on who you think you are and also on profound differences in perceptions of norms that define masculinity, femininity, and even what constitutes illness. These perceptions affect everything in the physician/patient relationship. As an example, I discovered eventually, that if I wanted to be heard, to be treated like a human with agency in my own healthcare appointments I had to bring my husband along with me to those appointments. Everything changes when he is present, even if he doesn’t say much. These things affect the kind of care we can access and I think that’s worth writing about.
In what ways do you feel your work has evolved most significantly? I’ve been reading prose/essays for form and trying to understand how the form can compliment the message or the meaning or the narrative. This isn’t something I learned in college. I was a psych major. I don’t think I really understood until recently how form is part of the delivery of the message. I’ll spend days printing out and reading essays, just soaking them up and seeing how they’re constructed. How they move. I’m actively learning and exploring I guess. It feels good to be challenged by something I can improve upon, because the rest of my life is kind of chaotic with chronic diagnoses. Not a lot of movement in that part of my life. When I get up in the morning, I look forward to writing and reading new stuff.
What poem should I read to my daughter tonight?
I’m laughing. My kids really hated most poetry! We read like crazy, but not poetry. I don’t have a suggestion off the cuff. But you know, today I was really struggling with this habit I’ve fallen into since my health declined after January 2019 and our country started sucking so badly, and then the globe went with it. I started jaw clenching at times. I’m remarkably good at it. I mean, I had a talk with myself about it, and yet I persist. My real point is the awful state of civil rights and the fragility of our democracy and our inability to prioritize our children and the presence of this pandemic and then the next one too, and all of this, all of us, heaped upon each other…this, too, absolutely makes me jaw clench. Every time we break a little further and the news surges and I let myself surge with it and drift away from reading and writing poetry, I jaw clench. So, I figure, it’s more that you’re sitting with your daughter, that she feels you, that she hears your voice that matters. Connection is always the answer. Writing and reading anchors me. My people anchor me. We have to do that for each other. Whoever writes those poems, about that kind of stuff, read that person’s words to your daughter. And then send them my way.
Would you say that most of your work deals with trauma?
Has this always been a sort of outlet for you? Well, I guess I write what’s in my mind, what I see, what’s pressing in on me. My family has had a lot of pressing and very meaningful things happen to us, around us, and among us. We made a good many unconventional choices as our family was growing up and dealing with challenges. I think these choices about how we lived our life on our own schedule while setting our own priorities motivate me to think about what’s worth saying about us through that time. Our son, who is the topic of these poems, is now living on his own, working, making his way. I miss him a great deal, but he’s being himself and he’s good. This excerpt, these poems, are heavy for sure, very reduced and raw in parts, because I’m writing about my infant son having Gastroesphageal Reflux Disease, delayed gastric emptying, and cyclic vomiting syndrome. I felt raw because it is raw. The chapbook that these poems are a part of is a narrative and that narrative does not end traumatically. It doesn’t end happily ever after either. Cuz that doesn’t exist. It winds away from the hardest part. Our oldest son is an exceptional young man. He’s autistic and also is managing his own genetic syndrome and post viral autoimmune disease. His life has been paused so many times for medical issues. He takes it in stride. I’m just starting to figure out what I want to say about him and me and what we’ve been and what we are. We take it all together as best we can. I don’t think of us as trauma though, even though we’ve been through so many events that I think other people might interpret as trauma. It’s an overused word I write a about the events I felt deeply, things we’ve stumbled over, how we’ve persisted imperfectly. Something I’ve not written about is that I actively avoided listening to any music for 12 years. It was a conscious choice. My health was very poor and still totally sucks! I had more than a dozen abdominal surgeries for stage 4 endometriosis over a decade when our kids were growing up and I was not interested in getting cozy with what I was feeling and what I was thinking at the time. My husband and I were intensely involved in keeping our family and our personal relationship moving forward and there was just no emotional room for music for me. All this is to say that I can’t stop listening to music now and once I started listening to music again, then I started writing again. This happened when our youngest went off to high school; prior to that I had been homeschooling him since first grade and our oldest since sixth grade. My time was my own again after they grew up and I wasn’t teaching them. So I started to write. Beyond my family, beyond digging around in my past, my favorite thing to make into a poem/prose piece is an actual interaction or something I’ve witnessed happening.