Birth Stories: Kendra DeColo’s I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World

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Birth is gnarly business. Many of the poems in DeColo’s new collection I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World dilate over the scene of birth and the weeks and months that follow, pinning us to the embodied experience of these labors. “My asshole will never be the same // after giving birth, not its shape, but its soul,” she writes. DeColo asks us to “[c]onsider // the bloody asterisk / of mucus plug” and the amniotic sac that refuses to break until she dances it to bursting. Her speaker describes how, postpartum, “the midwife’s hands trace the V // Where I fail to heal // Crooked and backlit as a pinball machine.” The author resists spinning the grisliness of giving birth into a romance cleansed of pain, and it is exhilarating to take a square look at the body in birth, “cracked open and uncouth.” As DeColo’s collection suggests, it is not necessary to vacate the physicality of the scene—”the damage”—for there to be romance, or redemption. For these were also always there, as when “cupping the dark / oil of [her] daughter’s hair // as she emerged,” the poet knows that she has “orchestrated [her] own / resurrection.”

These lines come from DeColo’s stunning poem “Why in Some Hospitals They Don’t Let You Hold Hands During Labor,” which perhaps best demonstrates the conjunction of body and spirit that appears across many of the book’s poems. In this poem, we are with the speaker in what Maggie Nelson, in her account of birth, has called the “pain cavern”—the very ripest part, in Nelson’s words, “the bottom,” a “reckoning [that] might also be called nine centimeters.” In the pain cavern, DeColo’s speaker crushes her husband’s hand and bites his knuckle as “excrement and buckets of ice // and a mirror someone placed / between my legs” enter the scene. At the bottom of the pain cavern, these so beautifully limned details of the body give way to something else—the “tearing open in every direction / like a star.” The speaker is both ruthlessly in her body and simultaneously elsewhere. As her astral grip would have “cracked // his carpals like a piano’s brittle keys,” she lets go, and lets go, and plumbs the abyss herself, and finds it to be exactly “where [she] needed to go.”

In addition to the poems directly on birth, postpartum care, and breastfeeding, there is a scattered suite of poems in the collection that do not start as poems about motherhood but swerve, associationally, into its territory, arriving there through allegory or image. “I Am Thinking about the Movie Con Air,” for example, gets us from Nicolas Cage giving a “ripped-up and dripping with fuel” stuffed bunny to his daughter—”the one good thing he has”—to the speaker’s reflections on the “swollen inadequacies” of her breasts, one of which has gone dry, the other of which “floods with music, soothing the vowel-starred tongue.” It is, the comparison suggests, the one good thing she has to offer. In “#Team Rat,” DeColo moves us from a dentist’s waiting room to viral YouTube videos of animals doing wacky things, to advice she once heard about possums—that if you find one dead on the road, you should reach inside to see if there are any living babies. These associative leaps bring us back to the birthing scene and repeat the image found elsewhere in the collection, of the speaker reaching into herself “to touch [her] baby / As she emerges.” The way the birthing scene rears up and repeats itself in these poems feels like yet another way—through form—to capture the transformative quality of birth and parenthood. Not only do these experiences refigure the body, they re-pattern the mind.

In “Love Letter with The Beatles, Lana Del Rey, and Julio Cortázar,” the experience of early parenthood makes its way into form in a different way. The poem is perhaps collection’s rawest; it is not only about the postpartum haze but feels written in and as the haze. Nearly the entire five-page poem is enjambed, with lines spilling from one to the next like a lexical waterfall. There’s capitalization but no punctuation as the speaker repeats the phrase “most like a mother” to describe moments when she feels confronted with this new category of being. In form, the poem is both manic and lethargic—a mirror of the postpartum experience of moving through sludge and flying on oxytocin. When the speaker stumbles into a tinny “lord I am so tired” at the end of a stanza, we can’t help but know it’s true. We feel it in the form.

There are poems in I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World that do not touch on birth or parenthood at all, and several of these are snapshots of a young speaker taking risks, big and small. In “Neruda, Maybe You Are the Reason Why,” the speaker lives abroad “hazardously // with a family who praise[s] // Pinochet,” the son of whom forces her to swallow a whole pack of birth control pills: “I bled for days // hitchhiked through the Andes // and tasted its green heart.” Likewise the poem “Seville” takes shape around bacchanalian images of drinking booze concealed in brown paper bags, chain smoking Chesterfields, waking up in a “shrine // of my own sickness,” and realizing a condom has broken. But even these poems take on new tones when read in the context of the collection’s penultimate poem, “There Is a Moment I Feel Free.” The freedom of the poem’s title is different from the adventurousness of the youthful speaker of “Neruda” and “Seville.” It is the freedom of being older and being “in love / with the life I’ve made // and car[ing] for it / no matter how reckless that is.” These lines make magic by changing the definition of recklessness. What could be more reckless, more frightening, more freeing than loving the little life you’ve made?

If you have given birth recently, as I have, you have probably heard the phrase “birth story,” or the narrative reconstruction of labor and delivery. When my birth doula came to visit me about ten days after I gave birth, she told me that birth stories can help give the experience coherence and meaning. I was extremely unsure of what had happened to me—I mean this in the most literal sense, as well as in the more figurative one—so it was helpful to piece together the events of my labor into a narrative, with an arc, with decisions that led one to another, with explanations for the injuries I sustained, with the most profound, and the happiest, of outcomes. In the months that followed, I found myself telling bits and pieces of my birth story to other new parents, but it was always new details that came slipping out—the hemorrhage that hadn’t made it into the initial draft, the broken coccyx bone we’d discovered when the pain wouldn’t go away, the baby’s jaundice. Their reactions, as well as their own stories, gave my story context and a frame of reference (Oh! So a hemorrhage is kind of scary? I didn’t know!), and this helped me, too. 

With this in mind, there is something that just feels existentially right about the way DeColo’s poems treat birth—or, the way birth ruptures her poems. The images intrude. The stuff no one talks about—”as when I would nurse my daughter / and a bloom of lochia unfurled / its salamander heart / beneath us”—keeps surfacing. There is always something new to remember. Some of it resists becoming elegant or even having meaning, let alone coherence. The poems in I Am Not Trying to Hide My Hungers from the World reveal “birth story” to be the container I suspected it was, with walls and limits, but birth is so excessive, so ultimately uncontainable by narrative. In DeColo’s poems, birth appears scattered, and it crops up, and it is grotesque, and it is glorious, and for all the language she’s found to let it express itself, nonetheless her speaker “would give birth a million times / over and not tell anyone about it / if [she] could feel that kind of way again.”

Lynne Feeley's work has appeared in The Nation, Lapham's Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in English from Duke University. She currently lives in New Jersey. More from this author →