Two Poems by Caitlin Grace McDonnell

For Malachai
     after Lucille Clifton
Yes, we named you
even though we couldn’t
agree to bring you
into the world. Move
to California with me,
he said. Ride my dick,
he said. This is the worst
thing I’m gonna do in
my whole life, he said,
but no part of me
wants to take this
journey with you.
How do you think
you’re gonna do it,
he said, pinning
me up against a wall,
huh, how. Ask what
help you can get,
my friend said.
We find the question
inappropriate, they said.
We don’t know what
strabismus is the
Kaiser clinic said.
They might not
make you start
right away, he said
in his sleep, What?
I asked, awake and
worrying alone.
At the book-signing,
he said. I mean,
at the abortion, he said,
and turned his back as
I got up to write it down.
Malachai, I wanted you
but one day, coming
down the mountain,
when I realized
it was too late for
the chemical way,
I felt you growing
like witchgrass, like
something wild
and unwanted, like
the shadow of me
inside of me. I could
not say the words:
I want an abortion,
so the Berkeley
women’s health
clinic practitioners
didn’t know what
to do with me, are
you sure you’ve
considered all
your options, they
said in the small
room made by
old tapestries, yes,
I said. I can’t say
it but I think you
should do it anyway.
Can you hold me
down, I asked, in
case my body
struggles. Yes, they
said, working that day
for free for me,
their young tan arms
in soft cotton across
my thighs, holding hands.
You’re not pregnant
anymore, the doctor said,
who was famous,
apparently, for giving
abortions back
when it was hard
to get them, like
it is again now,
dark curtain like
a cervix closing,
like a phone’s dial-tone,
like the man whose seed
sprouted in you turning,
like the grey men
in suits, counting bills.
When will I feel better?
I asked the friend,
home and emptied
like a dried rind,
like wildflowers,
like something free.
When you have a baby
she said, which was
true for her, and maybe
true for me. This is how
it happened for me.
Nothing easy.
Everything painful
Everything exactly
as it should be.

Animal Bodies
What now that the small
animals are outside
my belly. Tight chest
with four chairs,
congress around
the heart. Shame
is the black dog
in the crate, daughter
menstruating on
the hotel fold-out couch,
deep in her screens.
Can an aloe plant die?
Because I think I killed
something that thrives
in thirst and desert sun.
Sometimes I wonder
what I have to give.
Thank you, my mom
said, twice, as I was
leaving her in rehab.
Once in my ear as
I kissed her head, the
other over text with
whatever permanence
that holds. I want to
say sorry for something
I said to her the second
day. I’m sorry I didn’t
walk slowly with you
last summer. Caught
between her 81-year-old
pace, my daughter’s at
12, and the small black
dog of indeterminate age
who leaps like a raw
nerve at other beings
and then retreats, as
if to say, love me quick
before you might kill
me. As if to say love
is terrifying. As if to say
here is the only thing
I know how to do.
All the animals
emptied, there is just
a body, occipital ridge
tight from sudden impact,
years of carrying healthy
humans. I picture my
skeleton, frayed and
yellowed but still
surrounded by white
light, oceans of purple.
I no longer see the bones
inside those I love. I
strive to stay still with
the wetness of their eyes.
I strive to touch the
animals that live
outside my frame
when they wake in
the night forgetting
how to breathe.
There’s no secret to it,
just the hand
and they begin
to calm. To let the
beasts that reside
inside retreat, to
let the small body
be just a body.

Caitlin Grace McDonnell was a New York Times Poetry Fellow at NYU where she received her MFA. She has published poems and essays widely, including a chapbook, Dreaming the Tree (2003) and two books of poems, Looking for Small Animals (2012) and Pandemic City (2021) She lives with her daughter and teaches writing in New York City. 

Guest Editor Hyejung Kook’s poems have appeared in POETRY MagazineDenver QuarterlyPrairie Schooner, Glass: A Journal of PoetryPleiades, and elsewhere. Other works include an essay in Critical Flame and a chamber opera libretto. Born in Seoul, Korea, she now lives in Kansas with her husband and their two children. Learn more at her website.


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