Writer and past Going Down Swinging editor Jessica Friedmann reflects on birth, language, and the wavering world.
I’ve lost words.
Eighteen months ago I had them; neatly lined up in a vast internal storehouse. I love words – always have – and after finishing my thesis, a yearlong traipse through psychoanalytic criticism and its poetics, I found myself working with them professionally. I spent my days transcribing and editing articles for an interview magazine, and my nights reading submissions for Going Down Swinging. Three thousand submissions, give or take, in two months or so; I loved words a little less for a while, but they were still there, all of them, waiting to be called at will. And then things changed. I had a baby.
Within a few weeks of meeting my husband, we were already talking about starting a family. “There’s no rush,” people told me, over and over again, as though I were barrelling down a Cosmo-approved checklist (get married, have babies, spice up your sex life). We weren’t in a rush. We just felt as though our small family, however loving, was incomplete without a child. I longed for one, physically, with the kind of urgency and hunger usually associated with sad thirtysomething sitcom stereotypes. So after two editions of Going Down Swinging, four quarterly journals, countless discarded poems, I fell pregnant. And while I was prepared for a sudden blossoming – pregnancy is generative, after all – what I wasn’t prepared for was to pay for that blossoming in the coin of my own store of language.
As it turns out, it’s not unusual for pregnancy to steal whole chunks of vocabulary from you. It’s a temporary aphasia that people refer to as ‘pregnancy brain’ or ‘placenta brain’; catchall terms to excuse your new clumsiness, your inability to remember where you put your keys, your trouble finding the word for ‘yoghurt’. “The sour milk that’s not butter or cream,” I would say to my husband while he jotted down a shopping list. Or; “the word that means pedagogical but also bossy.” The things that you push to open elevators. The place you get coffee in the morning. The itch you can’t scratch.
I felt language leeching out of me with every developmental milestone the baby hit. I became deficient in iron (felicitations, feckless, fetish) and vitamin D (diagnosis, Dictaphone, drumsticks). I began to substitute words so seamlessly that I didn’t realise I was doing it; ‘sympathy’ for ‘symphony’, ‘monastery’ for ‘monetary’. My editor at work became adept at bending his brain towards my spoonerisms. My control over words felt like a monkey of barrels.
As I wound up my magazine work in preparation for maternity leave, I soothed myself with the notion that it was only temporary. Women give birth every day, I told myself, and most of them seem able to chew gum and walk at the same time. I had plans for freelancing, for finally dusting off my verse novel – for the writing that had been put on the backburner, quite deliberately, after I wrenched too much poetry out of myself during my degree and left a little shallow hole where metaphor and symbolism usually lived.
When I got home, though, I was tired. I bathed in silence on the couch, and watched my belly in quiet fascination as the baby turned, kicked, and jammed his little elbows beneath my skin. The baby didn’t need words; we were one, and happy to be one, biding our time in hibernation from the world until it was time to remember the phrase for ‘Caesarian section’.
I thought I would get my words back.
When the time came, though, I didn’t. It got worse. I sat in silence as people cooed over our little boy, feeling shell-shocked from the operation (breech, intervention, haemorrhage) and barely able to dredge up a cliché or pat aphorism. Things took a bit of a decline, and I stopped being able to read. And months go easily if you can’t remember which day is Tuesday and which day is Sunday.
When I turned up at the emergency room, ostensibly for a second round of post-infection antibiotics, I was barely able to speak. Words lodged in my throat, those basic short ones I could remember, but couldn’t find a way out. The doctor read a short list of questions, and wrote a scrip. Escitalopram oxalate (Esipram, Esitalo, Lexapro). And slowly the fog began to lift.
I was drawn, when writing my thesis, to psychoanalytic criticism, because of the way in which it built the world through language. Lacan and Kristeva and their gang all argued that our experience is mediated through thought, which is channelled through language, and thus reality is really a complex web of meanings, puns, and connotations. Lacan in particular enraptured me, with his tripartite order of the world: the Imaginary, the Symbolic, the Real.
In the Imaginary world, preverbal, meaning is fluid, and the self has no boundaries, merging interior with exterior without the constraint of self-awareness. It’s where my son resides, as he stumbles towards the Symbolic realm, a place where concepts solidify, words create boundaries, and babies become independent of their parents. It’s an order that is surprisingly sympathetic towards parenthood, though to the best of my knowledge, Lacan never dealt with the ontological fallout of childbirth.
Nine months after his birth, I am finally able to read again. The innate poetic impulse, the sing-song lullaby urge, I think has something to do with it. It’s impossible to talk to a baby without resorting to rhyme – I don’t know why, but it’s always there. Together we are cobbling meaning out of fragments, a skill I thought I’d lost along with my ability to find my own keys. And as my little boy yodels and shrieks his way towards language, I find myself more and more open to it myself, more able to grasp nuance and symbolism and ekphrasis and verse. There are things still frustratingly out of reach, but I’m more at ease with leaving them behind, because I am learning a new vocabulary.
It’s an aphorism, a pat cliché.