JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
“Wherein Proliferation is Explained to the Surrogates” in Iatrogenic: their testimonies by Danielle Pafunda
(Noemi Press, Las Cruces, NM, 2010)
Wherein Proliferation is Explained to the Surrogates
They tell us the cells will enter our reaches. From one
to another of our organs, lighting the succession
with their own gruel matter. Silt the perimeter, trench
the wire. From then on, they say, we will be free
from solitude. We will keep time with out own beating packets.
In the doorway, with pneumatic bunting and ribboned hiss,
the midwife made for ready. I was stood, readied.
In my stretch, I agreed to you, and in my stead. You were
Introduced. By the midwife. By the veins in her wrist.
By her avatar, the needle, and her gurney song low.
I can’t tell if Iatrogenic: their testimonies is a book-length poem, a series of poems, a serial poem, or some sort of hybrid. Virtually every titled bit has the word “surrogate” somewhere in the title. So I decided to take the first bit (poem?), because if it is a book-length poem, or a variant of such, I’d at least be picking up at the beginning, and as Maria sang in The Sound of Music, “it’s a very fine place to start.”
But wait. I can’t start there, I have to start with the title of the book, because there’s some sort of apparent aporia between “iatrogenic” and “surrogate”. I gather from a variety of online sources that iatrogenic means
o Etymology: Gk, iatros, physician, genein, to produce
o Of or relating to illness caused by medical examination or treatment.
o Referring to injuries caused by a doctor.
o Caused by treatment or diagnostic procedures. An iatrogenic disorder is a condition that is caused by medical personnel or procedures or that develops through exposure to the environment of a health care facility
o Induced inadvertently by a physician or surgeon or by medical treatment or diagnostic procedures <an iatrogenic rash>
I am led to think, then, that the testimonies that follow will related to unwanted “outcomes” of medical procedures.
So am I to believe, then, that the surrogates in this book are unwilling participants in the procedures, or, rather, that the outcome of surrogacy is unwanted, or, rather, that there are unwanted “side-effects”? These are questions that will have to remain open … But it does seem clear, that there is more going on here than the testimonies of women (I assume they are women – should I?) who have volunteered to carry others’ babies. In fact, I can make no easy assumptions re: what surrogacy means. Given this aporia-or-not, I can only read what I find on the page.
“Wherein Proliferation is Explained to the Surrogates”. I have already described why I cannot be sure who the surrogates are, or what they are being asked / forced / whatever to carry. The other keywords here are “proliferation” and “explained”. I initially assume that proliferation refers to the splitting of cells that leads from a fertilized egg to a viable fetus. And I also assume that the “explaining” is provided by medical personnel.
I need to interrupt my reading here to note that my grandchildren (triplet boys) are the product of IVF. So, perhaps what I know from that world is coloring my ability to see what is happening in this, the word of this / these poems. In any case:
“They tell us the cells will enter our reaches.” This, I take it, is the beginning of the explanation, or at least part of it. The cells I take – or took, on first reading, before I considered the title – to be fertilized eggs. But I can’t be sure what they are. Until proven otherwise, however, I am reading as if they are fertilized eggs. Our reaches, then, being the uterus.
“From one / to another of our organs, lighting the succession / with their own gruel matter.” I take this to mean that upon insertion, the eggs will pass through the vagina and cervix in order to reach the uterus. There light is provided by the “life” inside the cells, though I also think it’s a conflation with whatever “light” the doctors and/or technicians will use to implant the eggs.
See how bound my reading is to what I already know? This is somewhat terrifying. I mean, can we ever really understand what another is saying?
Deep breath. Onward.
“Silt the perimeter, trench / the wire.” I do not know to what these lines refer. Perhaps my reading so far is way off base. Perhaps not, though. This is somehow part of the procedure (which, I have already acknowledged, may not be IVF. Perhaps something other and ominous (even more ominous that fertilized eggs) is being implanted. Perhaps the surrogate is nt a human. Or, perhaps this is a way of metaphorically equating this procedure with standard external construction practices (“trench / the wire”).
“From then on, they say, we will be free / from solitude. We will keep time with out own beating packets.” Whatever has just been implanted (and I believe, for reasons that will become obvious in a minute, that we are still talking about fertilized eggs), will be intimately connected with the surrogate. If we are talking about pregnancy, this seems to go along with many women’s description of it.
Now we move to the second stanza.
“In the doorway, with pneumatic bunting and ribboned hiss, / the midwife made for ready.” At first, I was confused, I thought, what is a midwife doing here? I have never heard of a midwife implanting anything. I thought midwives delivered babies. (Note: Kathy and I had both our kids at home, and midwives delivered them). Then I thought, well, perhaps a lot of time has passed. Perhaps this is the delivery room, and the pneumatic bunting is plastic tubing delivering oxygen or somesuch, and the ribboned hiss is the flow of that oxygen. The bunting and ribbon indicates that, in hospital, during what should be a festive occasion, well sometimes this is as festive as it gets.
“I was stood, readied.” The surrogate is being positioned to deliver.
“In my stretch, I agreed to you, and in my stead.” By the dilation of the cervix, etc, the surrogate’s body says yes to the impending birth. It appears that it isn’t until this moment that the surrogate realizes that she (?) has now officially entered the great chain of life and death. I can think of two meanings of “in my stead.” First, now that the moment has come, the surrogate understands that there is no turning back, that she has negated her own drive to live at all costs by entering into this agreement. The baby will come, regardless of what it does to the mother. Second, the child is a replacement, in the sense that it is via new life that the species continues.
Perhaps this is the iatrogenic moment. Perhaps it is only now that the surrogate realizes that the medical procedure she underwent 9 months ago has a fairly large number of unintended consequences. Since it is a surrogate speaking, we can assume that one of them is not the common, “Oh, shit, now I have a baby!?!?! What do I do now!?!?!” But even without that, much has been done that can never be undone.
We come to the birth itself: “You were / introduced. By the midwife. By the veins in her wrist.”
But I think we must assume that not all has gone smoothly and well, because the last line seems to indicate that it’s not over yet. The introduction continues: “By her avatar, the needle, and her gurney song low.” I’m not sure quite what this means. Perhaps something is wrong with the newborn. Perhaps something is wrong with the surrogate … I just don’t know.
[Again, I must interrupt myself. “My” triplets were preemies. So they had IVs inserted immediately, and were whisked off to the NICU (neonatal intensive care). That is what I picture what I picture here. I fully understand that this may not at all be what the poet had in mind. But I can only go by reader response …]
It seems clear to me that my best chance of improving my understanding of this poem is to read the whole of the book.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an Afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.