This paper was presented as part of the 2022 Conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, as part of the reading "Writing Resilience: A Reading by Neurodiverse Writers," organized by Larissa Shmailo.
The definition of fitness in genetics is to reproduce successfully. I have no genetic fitness. I did once: my genetic material was carried by my sister’s daughter, my godchild and niece, Irene, whom I raised and let down. She committed suicide at the age of 35. She was a psychiatrist who knew pharmacology well and a determined individual who said that if she were to kill herself, she would do it so that no one would know. And, so she did.
As a young woman, I seemed to want to get pregnant pretty badly. I had many boyfriends and did not use birth control. Mentally ill and quite alcoholic, I had three abortions, two by a kind brilliant father and one by either of two men, a pockmarked writer or a mediocre bassist. It never occurred to me to tell the kind brilliant father, with whom I had a long-term relationship, about the pregnancies; my mother said he would not want to know and I accepted that. It turned out she was right.
I had a complete nervous breakdown at the time of my third abortion, with a vivid hallucination of a brown, curly-headed fetus, the subject of my poem “Abortion Hallucination”:
A vision of a snake with glowing red eyes
formed by the light of garbage trucks and screeching new cars
driven by men who had once bought me dinner
then hated me when I didn’t want to fuck them twice.
Carlight passing late at night on a street of an ugly
precinct lying deceiving the unwary who think it leads home
It is late so dark it is almost light that time of night when
the light hits the metal and the glass of summer windows left ajar
make me want something someone I don’t know who
The metal gate to the yard refracts this message via Queens boys who
drive too fast too late at night refracts this message to the window where
I watch from the couch
In the corner of the basement where my father used to lie I
Watch, interested, as the snake
grows larger and more menacing I am
taken slightly aback but remember him remember that I like
handling snakes and smile
and as always he softens grows smaller
becomes a hippopotamus I have won again I have stared him down
made him warm
and the Nile gives up its life to me
animals carnivorous and calm come home to me
two by two
I watch for the longest time
until the largest fills the window with his face
black as light
for this man’s baby for this man’s baby for this man’s baby
came the flood.
I contented myself with being my niece’s crazy aunt, and she idolized me as a child. Later, as she saw my feet of clay, the hero worship ended and she became more distant, going about med school and being married and becoming rich. Around then, in my thirties, sober and functioning on a successful med combo, I saw I might have the chance not to totally wreck a poor child’s life. I had an intense desire to have a child. The problem was that I would need to come off my teratogenic medications. I tried: I was stark raving mad for three years until I finally gave the idea up.
I became more committed and involved as a poet and sublimated my reproductive instincts. And there was still my niece, brilliant and successful. Until the call in the middle of the night in October sixteen years ago from my sister: “Lora, Irene is dead.” Dead. I was sober and I couldn’t smoke, but my sister and I hit every IHOPS in the suburbs of San Francisco, eating ourselves into a coma during the funeral and the wake. I gained 50 pounds that autumn.
My pen doesn’t flow for Irene – the ink drips slowly and meagerly, like clotted blood. I am aware that I am not her mother and don’t have a mother’s right to grieve. But I can still feel her tiny hands pulling on the hairs of my arms as I cradled her infant form to sleep, can remember baptizing her, remember telling her the plot of Hamlet when she was five, watching her read all of Dickens (why Dickens?), hearing her call out “help me, Mama!” during a brutal depression, seeing the cut marks on her teenaged wrists.
Aerial View of the Rockies
The gods like to trace their fingers in the world;
like leaves from a primordial tree, landforms
bare their veins. Clever of her to suicide this way
leaving no one but me to know. Impassive as
the dead face she wanted no one to see, clouds
hide rigor in the lines, purposeful or not, below.
In winter, sunrise looks like sunset in this distant
land, soon to be nearer, nearer, soon.
Near the end of her life, my mother, given to bursts of anger, carefully prepared and delivered a measured speech to me and my sister, to each of us separately. She quietly and sincerely stated that if she had it to do over, she would not have had children. It was important to her that her daughters know this. I thought for a moment that perhaps she was consoling me for my childlessness, but that would have been another woman, not my Mama.
I have no nuclear family now – Mama, Papa, my sister Tamara, and my niece and godchild Irene are dead. I quickly sold the family home last year, but am haunted by it in my dreams. And I have no fitness, no genetic material except my cousins’ daughters, bright, pretty, too distant for me to care. I have buried everyone, and have no one to bury me; I counted on Irene for that, and she would have done me proud. But I suppose when the time comes, I won’t be in the condition to mind.
Larissa Shmailo is an American poet, novelist, translator, and critic. Her poetry collections are Medusa’s Country, #specialcharacters, In Paran, the chapbook A Cure for Suicide, and the e-book Fib Sequence. Her latest novel is Sly Bang; her first is Patient Women. Shmailo’s work has appeared in Plume, the Brooklyn Rail, Fulcrum, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, the Journal of Poetics Research, Drunken Boat, Barrow Street, and the anthologies Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, Words for the Wedding, Contemporary Russian Poetry, Resist Much/Obey Little: Poems for the Inaugural, Verde que te quiero verde: Poems after Garcia Lorca, and many others. Shmailo is the original English-language translator of the world's first performance piece, Victory over the Sun by Alexei Kruchenych. Shmailo also edited the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry and has been a translator on the Russian Bible for the American Bible Society. Please see more about Shmailo at her website at www.larissashmailo.com and on Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larissa_Shmailo.