The Last Poem I Loved: “Under the Maud Moon” by Galway Kinnell


A round-
cheeked girlchild comes awake
in her crib. The green
swaddlings tear open

I first encountered the last poem I loved, Galway Kinnell’s “Under the Maud Moon,” eleven summers ago, after a short trip to a novel writing workshop in Iowa City. Ostensibly, I had gone to the workshop in Iowa to work and to workshop my first novel, but I was there just as much in order to escape, to hold on tightly to my desire to write fiction in the face of my recent realization that in going to law school, I might actually have to practice law to make ends meet.

There was a cornfield alongside the road to campus, and it was exciting to me to hear the buzz of the cicadas, a small sign I was far away from my real life in Northern California. In this new environment, all possibilities were opened up to me. On the third day, another writer from the class picked me up. Ani di Franco was playing on the tape deck. He asked what I had recently read that I loved—Don DeLillo and Jeanette Winterson— and mentioned that Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares was one of his favorite books of poetry.

Attraction to the writer rather than intellectual curiosity motivated me to buy the book when I got home. I read it—or more accurately, swallowed it whole—in a one-room cabin in Berkeley at the edge of Tilden Park, near the home of a flock of goats. The sun was setting, it was dinnertime, and there was no food in the cabin, save a couple of overripe bananas. Once I started, I couldn’t stop reading the book. It was raw, graphic, soul-shaking. Although I’d been reading and writing verse-like words since I first learned the alphabet, and in spite of the fact that I believed parenthood was far off, reading “Under the Maud Moon” and “Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight” made me feel I was reading poetry for the first time.

These poems seemed to speak of a world different from mine, a law school student nannying for a wealthy family and daydreaming of becoming a Bohemian instead of a lawyer. Yet Kinnell’s world, full of nature and spirituality, did not feel fictional. It felt more real than my own—terrifying, dark and emotionally astonishing things happened. And with its peculiar line-breaks, I sensed something living stirring inside “The singed grease streams/out of the words, the one/ held note/ remains—a love-note/ twisting under my tongue, like the coyote’s bark/ curving off, into a/ howl.” Out of the words, the one—a howl.

Raving about how amazing The Book of Nightmares was, how I had never read before reading this book, I loaned it to a friend who liked it so much she never returned it. Meanwhile, I continued an email correspondence with the writer who had suggested Kinnell, a correspondence about literature that was far removed from my everyday life. A month later, 9/11 happened.

It is all over,
little one, the flipping
and overleaping, the watery
somersaulting alone in the oneness

It was after 9/11, after I read The Book of Nightmares, that I felt my own life become real in the way Kinnell’s poems were real. I started practicing law, had an abortion, wrote a book of poems and lost my mind. I became someone other than the girl who heard in the buzz of the cicadas the possibility of things; I discovered a reality in which certain possibilities were unavoidably cut off forever. I became.

The writer who had recommended The Book of Nightmares eventually moved to my home in the Bay Area. We fell in love and married last year and spent the first half of 2012 expecting a baby. At one of our childbirth preparation classes, our Bradley Method instructor suggested poetry as a way to relax. Even though I don’t think of poetry as relaxing, I was willing to try anything to have a natural birth and so we endeavored to find poems to read during labor. We practiced relaxation. Night after night, I curled up in a horseshoe-shaped pregnancy pillow while he recited from memory Robert Frost: “Whose woods these are, I think I know” and T.S. Eliot: “Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky. Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

We spent a couple of weeks in June bandying about suggestions for what we might read during what we thought would be the easier early contractions of labor. I said I wanted something emotionally significant to us in particular, not just as readers and writers, something we could later tell our daughter about in several years time.

To The Lighthouse came up, as did Twelfth Night from which we had chosen our daughter’s first name, but To the Lighthouse was checked out at our public library and I wasn’t sure Twelfth Night as read by a single voice would distract me from the pain. I imagined myself struggling to decipher the identity of the different characters from my husband’s voice alone.

At the forty-week mark, my cervix had not dilated, nor effaced one iota. I told my husband and family that I didn’t think the baby would ever come out into the world of her own volition. “Smart baby” my brother said, before returning to Game of Thrones. We scheduled an induction and were called into the hospital at midnight so that I could take a dose of oral prostaglandins. Although neither my husband nor I had read Kinnell’s poetry in the last few years, it was his New Selected Poems, which I happened to have lying around the house, that wound up stuffed inside the duffel bag we took to the hospital, along with several library dvds “for when we got bored”.

Her head
enters the headhold
which starts sucking her forth: being itself
clamps down all over her

I’m a huge fan of Kinnell. But I would not call him relaxing. I read his words to feel alive, to feel my mortality, to be overwhelmed. He is the sort of poet whose poems you can check your pulse by. It was 8 o’clock in the morning and I did not feel like reading Kinnell’s poetry or watching dvds. I could feel the baby just beginning her descent, pushing past muscle and heading for a closed door. Relaxation seemed an alien concept. And being was closing down all over me.

Gives her
Into the shuddering grip of departure

By early afternoon, my contractions were unproductive and the pain I felt I was
relentless. In my last ditch efforts to relax, I climbed into the shower and refused to let my husband take the hot water away. For almost two hours, I sat there sweating and shaking, watching my shadow on the tile under the fluorescent lights of the hospital bathroom. I was aware of the death of myself. Kinnell of course is referring to his daughter Maud, “somersaulting alone in the oneness” of a womb, but he could just as easily have been referring to me.

Even as Kinnell sees his daughter being born- “she skids out on her face into light”- he is aware of death, of his own mortality. And so it was with me. I felt the self I had been was no longer a viable one. Like my daughter, perhaps more than my daughter who once prompted was eager to exit my body, I was skidding into the light, dying a moment, and turning blue as a coal.

Finally, the terror of how much worse the pain could get caused me to get up from my footstool in the bathtub and ask the nurse to call the anesthesiologist. It was only after the epidural took away the pain that a wild euphoria came over me, a drugged, orgasmic sense of the vastness of the world. My water broke with a loud, frightening pop. I could feel the baby burrowing down hard, trying to get herself out of the womb so fiercely that I could not tell the difference between her pushing and my own. My daughter and I were about to be born.

Which is not to downplay the enormity of my daughter’s birth to her. However mystical her birth was to me, it must have been one-thousand-fold more intense to come out into the fluorescent lights of the hospital room. All wet limbs and black hair, she emerged with cocked eyebrows. She howled, and then nestled into my arms, looking around half-blind at this new wilderness for a short while before falling asleep in exhaustion.

It was the next day in the maternity ward, after I’d eaten my first real meal that my husband got around to reading “Under the Maud Moon” to me. I had not read it, nor thought about this poem in many years, and later I read it again by myself and cried over it. Those lines contained all the joy and anguish and enormity of the birth, all the things I could not articulate, all the things I wanted to articulate about how much we’d wanted this baby and what a long journey it had been from those cornfields to get to this hospital room with my husband, to this moment where I felt my life was finally real.

And in the days
when you find yourself orphaned
emptied of wing-singing, of light

When I was four, I used to play with my mother’s jewelry, particularly a pair of studs that looked like tiny cubes of rainbow light. I asked her once if I could have them. She said gesturing at her small box of earrings and necklaces, “Oh, when I die, all of these will be yours.” This thought of my parents dying made me burst into a strangled sob. “But I’ll be all alone. I don’t want you to die,” I said. And the only way I could stomach this terrible thought, probably the worst thought I had ever had up to this point in my life, was the relief of crying, the same relief I experience when I write.

My daughter is more than one month old now. I get the impression she cries more on most days than the typical newborn—far, far more than the three hours that is the standard by which colic is diagnosed. She has acid reflux, but I don’t think her scream can be attributed only to esophageal pain. It is an upsetting sight to behold her helplessness, her adorable round face with its huge cheeks scrunching up, her violet-black eyes shutting, her tiny nostrils flaring and her toothless mouth gaping wide. My husband has even compared her, to my dismay, to David Alfaro Siqueiro’s disturbing Echo of a Scream. We have been through a million ways to relieve her pain, none of which is a sure thing, and some of which have the potential to make her angry.

Among other things, my husband swaddles her in pink and blue receiving blankets. He makes a loud shushing sound that mimics the sound of my insides, which are as familiar to her as the wind and the leaves are to me. We turn on white noise from an app on my iPhone. We send her back for a few hours into the amniotic oneness, the noisy, dark dream from which she came to us.

Anita Felicelli's writing appears or is forthcoming in the New York Times, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, LARB, Juked, Kweli Journal, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Anita edits at the South Asian blog The Aerogram and is the author of Letters to an Albatross (BlazeVox, 2010) and other books. She was born in Madurai, but raised in the Bay Area, where she lives with her family. She recently completed a short story collection (Love Songs for a Lost Continent) and is working on a novel. Follow her if you like: @anitafelicelli. More from this author →