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 Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Pleiades, 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.