I was 17 when my father said,
You are like her,
and handed me a biography of Sylvia Plath.
Yes, she and I had both pulled poems
like deli tickets from between
our ribs, had both slouched at the counter
of suicide and ordered up our demises.
Did Dad mean it as a consolation, this notion
that artists are destined to suffer? That I would
one day retire my heavy skull into a gas oven,
meninges bursting with unspent words?
At 18, I was bereft of gas ovens, but had a prescription
for Carisoprodol with aspirin. The ER nurses
defended the sanctity of life by licking their teeth
and sneering at me. The psychiatrist knew his statistics,
of course. I was female—less likely to succeed if I tried
again—so he filled my belly with charcoal syrup
and sent me home on the city bus, deafened by tinnitus,
sprinkled in broken capillaries, a madcap human cupcake
in a butter-coloured, vomit-soaked shirt.
How to survive when your brain is the worst
kind of liar? I tried. The designer tessellations
of pharmaceuticals did nothing but tie thick knots
in my dreams; nights, I swam with manta rays, gave birth
to lifeless babies, clawed at my own voiceless throat
while demons approached from behind. My illness
treatment-resistant after medication nine.
Counsellors fed me stones to try
to weight me to the world, smooth, curved
strategies and insights. Only
over and over, I lifted off: shopping for rope
at Canadian Tire, staring down from the highest bridge
while the midnight current rippled by, a black banner
promising relief. I graced the air with a spray of pennies
as I drained myself into crimson, clot-filled bathwater,
then wore lines of stitches like barbed ants marching
shame into my palms.
Adopted, I didn’t understand my place
in the watershed of my ancestry—our tiny helixes,
broken-runged. A great-uncle who buckled
the house around himself like lamellar armour.
A grandmother who could have salted
a thousand codfish with her tears.
Her son, my birth dad,
Please believe, I didn’t know, I didn’t know
all this was so until after I had my own children.
At first the light was gold, translucent
butterflies fanned their wings
at the corners of our eyes.
Wise-faced, tiny-fisted, a shock
of dark hair, we gazed at each other
and the room slid away like velvet.
The birth had been hard. She was turned
the wrong way. And every time I pushed,
I heard her heart slow on the monitor.
After, my midwives showed me the placenta,
umbilical cord attached loosely at the edge
of the membrane, blood vessels
branching unprotected from the centre—
the easily-severed roots of a wind-torn tree.
Twelve years later, we would be back
in this hospital, two floors down, in a room
where drawstrings, nail clippers, and belts
are banned, where children are not allowed
to speak with each other just in case
despair is contagious.
I did not gift my daughter
a tragic biography, but sat
by her bed and fed her a river
of stones—smooth, curved
stories of ancestors, survival.
Tall, tall tales of luck.
from Rattle #75, Spring 2022
Tribute to Librarians
Catherine St. Denis: “I am a teacher-librarian, and I often ask my students to make connections between the texts we read together and other texts, their lives, or the world at large. I have not yet written about libraries or librarianship, but here is my ‘text-to-text’ connection: A poem is a sort of library, filled with the guts of language, stacked with colorful layers of meaning, and always striving to enforce an absurd attempt at order amidst chaos.”