with critique by Jendi Reiter
In my groins the fire of your passionate kicks
Still burns, though lifeless on my lap
Lie your little legs limp and still.
Last night I heard little footsteps on my wooden floor
They scurried through the open door and faded fast
On the wet wings of the monstrous darkness
Tailed by explosion of liquid light and thunder
That unnerved the firmaments and ripped my inside.
Now I know it was you leaving.
Silence sits so serene on your soft blue lips
That never learned to curse and lie.
Though you speak not I hear you loud
As I always have, when you flipped and tumbled
In your cozy water world deep in my belly
That became your deathbed.
What did you say you'd become?
A president, a preacher, pilot, piper, pauper?
It doesn't matter now!
I'm content to know you were here—one of us.
And in your still little veins ran
The hopes and dreams, the passion and pain,
The frailty and fear that make us human.
Copyright 2007 by Obed Dolo
Critique by Jendi Reiter
I chose Obed Dolo's "Stillborn" as this month's critique poem for its intense imagery and assured pacing. There is a wonderful strangeness to this poem that reveals the clashing spiritual forces contained in the child's death, without sacrificing the tenderness and immediacy of the particular relationship. Birth and death: so commonplace yet so mysterious.
I admired this poem's consistency of tone and its use of varied sentence lengths for dramatic effect. Dolo is not embarrassed to employ a prophetic voice worthy of his serious subject matter, and does not break the spell with interjections of casual diction the way a beginning poet might. Minor suggestions for the first stanza: I would change "groins" to the singular "groin" because that is the more common usage, and the unusual form of the word here is distracting. Instead of repeating "little" in two successive lines, perhaps use a different modifier for "footsteps" in the fourth line (e.g. "faint" or "light"), or none at all. The alliteration of "Lie your little legs limp and still" is effective, so I would preserve that instance of the word and replace the other one.
Elegies work best when they connect the commemoration of a specific person to broader insights about finitude, love and loss. Thomas Gray's famous "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard" still resonates with us today because its theme is the universality of death. Gray emphasizes how much is not known about the souls asleep beneath their humble markers, and we nod in recognition because each of us feels like that "mute inglorious Milton" whose significance is obscured by time and mortality.
Against this temptation to despair, the mother in Dolo's poem insists on the preciousness of her child's existence and his membership in the human family. Though he never had a life outside her womb, he was a person, not a thing. Her empathetic imagination turns an unnatural and grotesque object, the corpse of one who died before he could live, back into a baby. Stillborn is transformed into "still born".
In the first stanza, the dead child is alien, characterized in terms of his effects on the mother and the world. She does not yet perceive him as a person, but as a gateway for the chaotic swirl of spiritual power from which the individual soul emerges and to which it returns. He inhabited her body like a fire. Now his departing spirit is glimpsed indirectly, through the sound of ghostly little footsteps or the passage of the storm, which Dolo magnificently describes as "the wet wings of the monstrous darkness/Tailed by explosion of liquid light and thunder". The use of "tailed" instead of the more predictable "trailed" evokes the image of a dragon sweeping by overhead. After these long, action-filled lines, the terse declaration "Now I know it was you leaving" is stark and powerful.
This depiction of the world's darkness and violence sets us up to view the child's death in a new way, as an escape from the potential for misery and wickedness in every human life. "Silence sits so serene on your soft blue lips/That never learned to curse and lie." The mother turns away from the horrors of the first stanza and chooses to re-value both his life and his death. She finds herself able to be grateful for the Edenic existence he must have had inside her body, "when you flipped and tumbled/In your cozy water world deep in my belly," almost as if he were a pre-human innocent creature.
Where a lesser poem might have left us there, with a sentimentalized vision of death as sweeter than life, Dolo comes full circle to acknowledge the tragedy of wasted potential, as well as the tranquility of an unfinished life onto which we can project our own idealized vision of the future. "What did you say you'd become?/A president, a preacher, pilot, piper, pauper?/It doesn't matter now!" The mother acknowledges that the human condition is duality: "The hopes and dreams, the passion and pain,/The frailty and fear that make us human." Birth and death can each be a cause for rejoicing and gratitude, as well as a source of danger and fear.
Where could a poem like "Stillborn" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Eden Mills Writers' Festival Literary Contest
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Canadian festival offers C$500 for poetry and short stories (both genres compete together) by new, aspiring, and modestly published writers
Florence Poets Society Annual Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by July 15
Western Massachusetts poetry group offers $1,000 and reading at festival for unpublished poems up to 60 lines
Abilene Writers Guild Contest
Postmark Deadline: July 31
Prizes of $100 in a number of genres including rhymed and unrhymed poetry, short stories, articles, children's literature, and novel excerpts
This poem and critique appeared in the May 2007 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.