Poetry: it inevitably relates to -- among others -- identity, history, culture, class, race, community, economics, politics, power, loss, health, desire, regret, language, form and genre disruption, love ... as well as the absences thereofs. The same may be said about Adoption.

Saturday, April 23, 2011



These children are not mine. They are the children of fellow workers in the disability rights movement (such as Not Yet Dead and ADAPT). I called their parents sisters and brothers since I became seriously involved in the movement at the age of 19. Therefore, it follows that their children are my nieces and nephews. A lot of these children have been adopted.

First, there was Nigel, a now handsome adolescent who starts middle school next year. His parents both have disabilities. His mom has epilepsy and had a stroke when she had an operation to regulate her seizures. His dad had osteogenesis imperfecta, a disability Nigel shared with him. Nigel also has cerebral palsy like me and a bunch of mental health concerns and learning disabilities. But he's an absolutely fabulous little person who is not so little anymore.

The second big adoption in my life was when my good friends Kevin and Karen adopted a little girl named Dominika. She has Apert syndrome which means that she has craniofacial deformities and some hearing loss. Her mother has a mobility impairment and her father has hemophilia and HIV. Dominika may look different but I still think she's beautiful. She had her fifth birthday around Christmas and I sent her five dollars in a card and a purple butterfly shirt. My favorite thing about Dominika is that she's absolutely the most femme person I know, even for a five-year-old.

The final adoption that I was involved with was when my friend Laura Hershey and her partner Robin Stephens adopted a 13-year-old girl named Shannon. Robin has cerebral palsy and Laura had spinal muscular atrophy and was/is one of my poetic idols. Shannon has various learning disabilities and is in special ed, but she works hard and her moms and I (as well as anyone who knows her) know that the educational system is vastly underestimating her.

Shannon and her Moms Laura Hershey and Robin Stephens

Thing I remember most about my friends' adoptions was that it took so long. It took months and, in some cases, years. I think the waiting was the most painful part. I was overjoyed when I could just be the honorary auntie without worrying that some stupid court would take them back into an unsustainable situation.

Someday I hope to graduate from the role of auntie to the role of mom. When I am a mom I will probably adopt as well. But motherhood requires a lot of work. Before I do that, I need a job that pays more than freelancing does. I need a partner. I need a house or at least an apartment that is not subsidized, because too many creepy people live in such places, and my home has to also be on a good bus route. For now I've just decided to keep working at it and to be content with being an auntie.



The adoption experience has affected my poetry because it has taught me that there are more important things in life then whether this particular editor likes your poetry this month. In short, it has given me badly needed perspective and made me a better poet in the the process.



This poem was written shortly after I found out that my friend Laura Hershey, and the mother of Shannon Hershey-Stephens, had died.

Word Failure

What do you say to a 14-year-old girl
whose Mom died
the Friday after Thanksgiving
when she’d only been “officially” her child
since the 21st of June?

Even someone who earns
her living making words fit
lacks the ability to answer.

I’m afraid
they didn’t cover
this in honorary auntie school.



Martina Robinson loves being honorary auntie to the slew of kids her "brothers and sisters" in the disability rights movement have adopted from far and wide, and plans to adopt children with disabilities one day.


Friday, April 22, 2011




In the fall of 1996, my father Philip Adams, after sixty-some years in the practice of law, took his last case to court. And as he had done so often before, he took us with him, my sister and me. At ninety, he was going blind: this time we drove him. Otherwise, it was very like the trips of our childhood, when, in his continuing quest to file a case in every county of California, he’d delighted in showing us small towns with dusty courthouses, sitting on benches waiting for the couple to come, the judge to come, and after, the fun part, waiting for the milkshake to come. Courthouses almost (I see now) coeval with him: born in 1905, he had witnessed more than half the history of his beloved native state.

The day was perfect, the fine fall weather of the last weeks before the rains come, warm but not hot, already cool in the shade. I remember he took his jacket off, his white shirt resplendent beneath one of his signature bowties. We reached the Placer County Courthouse, and, for one last time, waited for the woman who’d brought him here—his excuse, his affair—the nineties version of a drama begun at birth, when his mother had had him, a late child she didn’t want.

Oh how he turned that one around, finding mothers for thousands of children, children for thousands of women like the one we met that day. She’d cared for the baby since birth—no waiting rooms for him—this was merely the final formality. The judge on his dais looking down, the courtroom dark and cool, empty except for us. Adams, party of six, your adoption’s ready. Adams, party of thousands…

For forty-some years, I went along for the ride, taking for granted, as daughters do, that gravel voice, those deepening eyes, the stack of papers his hands caressed, one more baby placed. He was a man from the age of baseball (one of his clients was Willie Mays), always in search of home. That he found it so many times astounded him, too. Mister Adoption, some liked do call him. What a lucky bastard, he’d say of himself. Unwanted to start with, blind at the end—what a lucky bastard.

After he died, after the voice, the eyes, the hands were gone, I almost understood. I’d taken for granted, as daughters do, those golden afternoons, those women, those babies, him in his bowties, starched shirts. After he died, I could see it at last, how perfectly he’d placed me.




A year or two before he died, my father—on one of those too-rare evenings in his apartment that remain magical in my memory—my father stood at his mantel and told me a story, a story from that long-ago time, the thirties, when my parents were married but childless, before I was even imagined, much less conceived. How he and my mother were traveling the state by car—then a fairly novel thing to do—investigating insurance claims. How following one such sojourn, they returned to find a friend mysteriously vanished—nowhere to be found, no forwarding address.

Over the next few months, putting the skills of his insurance work to use, my father finally found her. In that long-ago time, the thirties, a woman pregnant without benefit of husband was a woman to be shunned and shamed. In obedience to this ancient ethos, his friend Phoebe had take refuge four hundred miles away without a word to friends or family: he found her in that ambivalent institution, a home of unwed mothers. As he stood at the mantel I saw that even sixty years hadn’t erased his astonishment at this.

Let me say my father worshipped women, certain women, women, I suspect, on the model of his mother, towards whom he felt, I see now, an abiding love—and an abiding guilt. A woman ahead of her time, she attended college in his long-ago time, the eighties—the other eighties. She had become a teacher, and when my father was conceived (and he was definitely not imagined, only conceived), dear me, the pregnant teacher had to go. On her deathbed, she pointedly informed him she wished she’d never had him. In that long-ago time, the oughts—the other oughts—his pregnant mother fled with her preacher husband from the Deep South to the still sleepy town of Los Angeles—ironically, the city Phoebe led to three decades later.

And when they fought, my dad and his mom, she’d threaten to take him to the orphanage, drop him off. He’d pick up the phone. Give me the number, I’ll call right now! Ah yes, the orphanage.

So—how much of his mother, and of himself, did my dad see in Phoebe as he crossed the room to look her in the eyes, to say, in his gravel voice, Why the hell didn’t you say something? You know we would’ve helped . . .

As he struggled to hide the astonishment so evident still as he talked to me some sixty years later. An epiphany for him, I think now: so this is what happened to women who didn’t go to college—even to those who did.

My dad was a very private man. What I say here of him and his mom is my version of a story he never in fact told me, one I only intuit from fragments, bits and pieces glimpsed and guessed at over the years. Only after his death did I learn his parents had eventually divorced; only when I was ten or twelve did I learn, entirely by accident, I had an uncle, the older brother he’d never talked about.
                                                                               Oil Portrait of Philip Adams

And yet—is this perhaps why I write about him, as him even: the blank page I can spread dreams out on, making up a life where none was given me, inventing new pieces to the puzzle that easily fit the few he left lying on the table.

Out of that incident—out of that epiphany in Phoebe’s eyes (and is it pure coincidence that phoebe means moon and is a name of the goddess of love?)—came law school, private practice, and, ultimately, a lifetime’s work in adoption, including the invention of what’s now called “open adoption”—what was long called baby-selling, baby-mongering. And out of the magic of that night, that telling, came a collection of poems, an attempt to render some of the sharp ambivalences he spent his life on the edge of—knife-thrower he was. Life-thrower he learned to become.



four prose poems excerpted from


Sits on the broad bench outside the courtroom, sunlight on marble assumes an angle he recognizes by hour, by day of the year. His client’s shoes click down the hall. Well, at least she’s satisfied.

He’s happy to help them, he’s only a hired hand. The judge a woman, too. He saw them take each other in, saw it leap from one to the other, that spark, that understanding that meant his case was won. All he’d done was show up. All he’d done was pull the right name out of a hat.

Got to get up, get down to the county clerk, file the papers, proof of the prize he’s won. Or if not won, then—accepted, yes, as this marble accepts—as the months accept him, November, December, another new year.

Half the judges women now, more of his clients win the case for him, he had forgotten how hard it used to be. How the judges chose to keep the baby, cut the mother in half.

None of his business who wins, who loses, he’s only a hired hand. Have briefcase, will travel, have babies, will bargain, have cock, will come . . .

Harry, you’re too old for this. Shakes his head, pushes against the bench, slowly stands. Damn, his leg’s gone to sleep on him. He can get himself down here at dawn, can’t seem to keep all the parts assembled, ready to run. The only body he could take to court, his own. Grips his briefcase by the handle, pushes off from the bench. Rubber shoes make no sound. Or something so faint he strains to hear . . .

Pulls in a broadcast, his first wife’s sister, far off, faint but clear. Harry, she’s saying, don’t let me lose this one. Don’t let them take him away!

Stops, shakes his leg to get the blood going again. Hasn’t heard from her in, God, forty-five years, back before—before women kept babies, before the babies grew up, pulled over their dresses the robes of a judge. Came back to demand their mother’s name. He hobbles on down the corridor quiet as Sunday morning, Olivia’s sister recedes. How had that case come out? Feels the blood fall to his foot. Oh yes, she died.

Stops, studies the shafting light. Olivia’s sister, Deborah? No, Dotty, Dorothy Anne. Took the kid with her, too. A case everyone lost. A case where he’d taken sides.

Tried to get her to give him up.

If Olivia ever knew—

If Madeleine knew—

That’s the trouble with wives. And still he volunteered for number two.

Hell, what could Olivia do to him now, she divorced him centuries back, that sister took his secret with her, baby found dead with no father to speak of, no father at all. Yes, yes, the judges in those days cut the woman in half, kept the baby, kept the baby— The blood falls into the floor, he finds himself sitting on the briefcase, breathing hard. She’s stuck in his head now, can’t get out, Harry, don’t let me lose, don’t let me lose!

The blood falls all the way down, he sees the dead boy hobbling towards him, naked, bloody, the cord uncut, hanging down like a tail. Like a finger pointing, reaching to touch him, let the spark leap.

Demanding his father’s name—

Hears down a tunnel the briefcase slipping, sharp shoes clicking, the voices of the congregation of this stony church. Amen, they say, amen, lift him up on the altar, white sheets, white lights. God comes by, has his mother’s eyes.

God, he says, please, I don’t want to lose this one.

In those days you just couldn’t get an abortion, hard as he tried. You had to find other ways. You had to hire the baby out, make him a hired hand.

He gets a broadcast, Dorothy’s—Olivia’s—no, Madeleine’s face, the umbilical cut from her eyes.

No tale left to tell—

That was before, before—

No feeling, just pictures and sound. No feeling ever, at all, just seeing the places the blood has failed him, moved on. His body asleep for forty-five years.

Cut him self in half.

God, he says, please, I don’t want to lose—

No case left to win.


Turning the paperweight in his hands, he walks to the window, looks out at his piece, his patch of the city, his quarter section of sky. Venetian glass, as he remembers, the paperweight one daughter gave him, or was it his second wife?

Leaning back on the edge of his desk, he remembers the days when moments like this were rare. White reef—most of it dead or dying, only the tip alive—the rest of the city has grown up around him, filled his windows higher and higher, cut off the sky. The paperweight catches the light, turns it liquid in his hand, everything wanting to pour except what holds everything in. The city grows, proliferates, while the ones he waits for, sets his bait for, recede, endangered species once so plentiful, stone winning out against sky. He turns, goes back to the chair his second wife bought him, or was it Lorraine when she retired after—Jesus, thirty-some years? He pushes the button just to see that somebody’s there, but the voice is never the one he wanted, hers. Now they come and go once, twice, three times a year: Yes, Mister Bishop, I’m here, right here waiting for you. What is it you want me to do?

He doesn’t know anymore, only sees he can’t do it alone. Baited the hook so long ago he’s almost forgotten how. Then the judges had to go and make it legal, imagined their bellies full under their robes, growing huge, breaking, releasing the fish to wiggle and squirm on the bloodied table, have its brains, Jesus, its brains beaten out.

No, no. The women he waits for come in clear as glass, he sees the goldfish caught in the bowl, they want to release it alive. He provides an empty vessel, bowl no fish can come to swim in, empties the one out, pours her into the other, steps aside. Weighted himself, he keeps the bodies from blowing away.

Pokes at the books on his desk, the ones he’s had too much time to read. It tugs at his eyes, the irony of it, nine men in black tipping the bowl back, letting the goldfish go free. Now he practices that skill he hates, waiting for a woman to open the door, walk in with that weight down deep in her belly, that patch of sky in her gaze. He feels himself rising, she sets the hook . . .

Hauls him at last into air . . .

He glimpses weightless sky . . .

Born for a moment, alive.


Catches the bus home, first time in years. Even at this stop, almost the start of the line, it’s already full, he’s lucky to get a grip on a pole. As the bus pulls back out into the traffic, he feels it in his knees.

Needs no maps any more. He could close his eyes and announce each stop like the black bus driver, tell this crowd which cross-street’s home.

Of course, they’d want it in Chinese . . .

Already crossing Grant. Bad enough his car’s in the shop, bad enough clinging to a greasy pole, at least he’ll be home before dark. Grant, Grant, wasn’t there something—oh yes, they still call it Dupont. Dupont, Dupont Gai. Yes, the white folks changed it after the Civil War, the Chinese chose to leave it the same. Grant Street, Dupont Gai. His one word in Chinese. Didn’t it have another meaning, gai? He grips the pole trying to think back thirty years. Egg, yes, that’s it, egg.

One town, two tongues, one street, two different names, two different meanings for his one Chinese word. Of course, he only remembers even now because it was Dorothy’s married name. He’d called her Dupont gal as a joke.

The bus begins to climb, he feels in his fingers, his knees, gravity shifting, that plumb line arthritis makes him acknowl-edge more and more and more. When did he last take this bus? Back in Dorothy’s day? Now it’s electric, takes these arrogant hills Dupont laid out as a salmon takes the falls. He remembers when they had diesels on the route, how the driver would chase the passengers off, climb the steepest part empty, stop at the top where the passengers, puffing, got back on. Seems so primitive now. He remembers—

Someone touches his shoulder, he turns, a young man offers his seat. Even as his voice says no, his knees accept. He doesn’t choose much anymore, more and more he accepts.

Remembers when the Chinese stopped right here, bailed out of the bus en masse, a changing of the guard. Now the singsong continues all the way down the other side of the hill.

Suddenly he feels old. The young man’s staring out the windows, he wants to tell him, Listen, I was like you not so terribly long ago, not so terribly long— Little bastard, someday you’ll be like me. Believe it or not. The boy turns, their eyes meet, he’s reaching forward, the boy’s face fills with surprise. He’s standing, he has him by his hair.

The boy cries out, bats at his head like chasing an insect, the bus begins to fall. They both lurch forward, Chinese split like water before them—the men short as women, the women dressed like men—he finds himself on the floor, the young man’s knees against his. The young man’s groin—

Hey man, you’re fuckin’ crazy! He’s up, he’s kicking him in the belly, Chinese voices rise. Suddenly he feels dead, newspaper headlines flood his head, Old Man Beaten On Bus, Young Man Charged With Crime. Witnesses Do Nothing To Stop A Shocking Death.

All right, break it up, that enough. I said, that enough! He opens his eyes. Hey, ol man, I think the next stop yours. Ain’t gonna have this on my bus, okay? A big black hand descends, he accepts it, suddenly feeling white. Jesus. It’s enough to give a guy the bends. Dupont guy, Dupont gal . . .

The bends, I said, he says to the big black face, sees he’s forgotten to make the connection, it’s the nuthouse now, for sure. My street? he says thinking at last. I want Scott, this is—

This here cab street, man. I done call you a cab, okay? Sees the young man over his shoulder, sees he’s the criminal here. A cab? But—feels his knees accept. I got a schedule, man. The black hand shows him the door.

He swims towards it, water filling his eyes. Suddenly feels alive. Sorry, he says, as he passes the boy, catches his gaze once more. The young man shakes his head. Suddenly he feels thin as an eggshell, Atlanta waiting for Sherman to show up, take her down. Dorothy filling the tub, preparing the baby—God damn it, the baby

Hey, man! I got a route!

To drown.


Hasn’t combed his hair all day. Look at that cowlick. What did his clients think? That cabbie must have laughed at him all the way home.

So what, he got a good tip.

Some things more important than how he looks, like—well, how far he can see. That case last week, the husband fighting to take the damn kids from the wife. How many months listening to him, over and over, the story sharper and sharper, case like a—like a fattened fetus preparing to be born. How he’d coached him to push. Only to see, as they stood in the hallway waiting to go to trial, something in his clients’ eyes that told him this fetus was stillborn, he didn’t want the damn kids at all, he only wanted his wife.

His life back whole, not cut in pieces, Solomon’s choice. He wouldn’t have seen that before. No, he would have kept pushing, that lost look in his client’s eyes would have meant only he’d lost.

As it was, he told the poor bastard to stop. Right there in the hallway, going to trial at last. Or no. Saw his client had already finished before the trial’d begun. Saw he saw himself letting go, two men in the hall of that echoing courthouse, one weeping hard.

One with his cowlick untamed . . .

Funny word, what did it come from? He’ll have to look it up. Arranges his shirt on the hanger, his tie on the rack another client gave him in thanks. Some guy—oh yes, some guy he’d helped adopt just after he’d lost his job. Back in the forties, no, maybe the fifties, when you weren’t allowed to be unemployed. Had him dress up when the social worker came to inspect, loaned him his briefcase—oh, that had been fun! As she came up the walk all prim and proper, his spiffed-up client would stroll out the door, calling See you honey! I’m off to work! Or he’d just be coming home.

What does it matter his cowlick defeats him, those workers beat it down with their eyes. Like his mother, the one he was lucky to keep. Not be put up for sale to the highest bidder, the man with a briefcase, a job, a wife.

Well, he’s had a moment or two. All these years telling his clients what to do—what to wear, how to speak—accepting their gifts as though—as though— Every year for a dozen years, one guy sent him a tree. A Christmas tree, twelve, thirteen, fourteen feet tall. Jesus. Shipped it down on a truck, a damn thousand miles, fresh cut.

In the mirror, his cowlick stands straight up. The one boyish part of him left. Every inch of him gnarled and wrinkled, every joint stiff, still his cowlick bounces, dances on his head. Lie down, he says to it, like a dog, the one he couldn’t have. His brother allergic, his mom only too happy to have a chance to resist.

No pets, no adoptions for him. The irony of it. So he spends his life helping lost others take lost puppies in.

Lost lives . . .

Cowlick babies they try to beat back with a comb, fit to a different head.

He’d played his part, cut them off at the roots, shipped them a thousand lives away. The parents sent tie racks, trees. He hasn’t heard from the kids. Maybe some day, one’ll walk into his office, curse him or thank him, more likely ignore him. All she’ll want’s her mother’s name. He’ll play God once more.

He might retire as father, as lover, he can’t retire as God.

Cowlick babies need their cowlick God . . .

That name flaming out of his mouth as the hair flames out of his head. Leans into the mirror, sighs. Some priests have a tonsure, he has this.

Oh Mama, I’ve done a few things worth pushing for. I’ve helped people be born. Puts his pants aside. What could be better than that? Fixes his eyes where the cowlick leaps from his head. It’ll lie flat when I’m dead. Takes in the face she gave him so long ago, gift he denied once, tried to send back, learned at last to take. Yes, Mama, yes. It’ll lie flat when I’m dead.




Yes, yes indeed, here we are—and here’s the menu at last. Richard, last Tuesday night you were here in a minute. Now you know I pride this place for its service. It’s one reason we’re—I came here tonight. So I certainly hope you’ll—

Listen, their fish is fine, but I’d order the lamb chops if I were you. In fact, I guess I’ll get them myself. And maybe a—marguerita? Or no—that’s a little too, well, unorthodox, really, even for me. Did they tell you I run the branch—well, of course, you know that. You know—everything, don’t you, you and your snoops!

They were, let’s be honest. Snoopin’ around, sniffin’ my life out, like pigs after—

Okay, okay, you’ve come a long way—what did you say, Oregon? Washington State? I mean, San Diego’s a world away from that. I should know. Made the same trip myself. Well, at the branch—at the branch, they wouldn’t go for that— margueritas and lamb chops! Oh, I’ve got a—reputation, you know, a repu—


You think you’ve come a distance to see me here, I want you to know I’ve come a lot further even with my bank just two blocks over, even with—

Yes, Richard, thank you, I’m getting the lamb chops, please. You know how I like them. No potato, the salad, yes. And oh, a Scotch. No, make that a double tonight. You know, tell Joe what I get when I’m hunting big game.

That salad you ordered isn’t the best. Their cook’s kind of—spotty. Sometimes I think he’s back in the kitchen making, you know, hanky-panky with— Really, he’s best with meat. Now. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way . . .

Listen. The job at the bank? Running the whole damn branch? They gave it to me on my first application. I mean—

Oh yes, thank you Richard, this’ll be fine. You even remem¬bered my favorite—condiment, yes. I have this weakness for ketchup, he lets me indulge it, brings it in this so no one need know. He’s sweet, for a fag, don’t you think?

Oh, I can tell. Look, you can see it in his— You have to keep your eyes open, have to be—

Anyway, they wanted somebody sharp. They wanted some¬one hard-headed, hard-hitting, I want you to know I’m doing quite well by myself. I’ve got—I’ve got my girls—every year they get younger, more—outrageous, but I make them toe the line or they don’t last long—you better believe it—they don’t last long with me. I got the job on the first application. Course I’d been there twenty years.

Don’t you know all about it? Don’t you have dates of birth and death, dates when I moved, dates when the bank moved me? Didn’t they give you all my secrets, all the way back to—

To you, I said. To you.

Birth and death, yes, death. Why not? You know everything else. Who takes the garbage out, who brings it back in, who— You think you know more about me than me, you think— Listen, the day you were born was the day I died for you. Why don’t you let me rest in—

I said—oh nevermind. Even the lamb chops are off tonight. The cook and the counter girl must be having a gay old time. Yes, yes, a gay— Just tell her to watch out she doesn’t get—

Listen. In my time, that’s how it was. You played around, you paid. You gave someone up, they didn’t come knocking, they didn’t—

No, let’s not bury it. I buried myself by myself. Who gave you the right to dig so deep, rob me right out of my tomb?

Yes, buried. You think you were abandoned? Well, I died. Died. Moved to another state, another climate, took another name.

None of your business why! And if you think it was you, let me tell you it wasn’t. The name I use is none of your business, none of your—yours or your spies. You know, in banking, they make it illegal, this kind of thing. We’re more careful with credit than the courts are with people’s lives.

Well if the courts didn’t help they sure didn’t stop you, did they, darling, you or your spies. But I don’t—quite frankly, I don’t have to put up with this. I only wanted to let you know—let you see for yourself I’m not old and decrepit, in fact, I’m fine. I eat in this place once a week by myself, bring clients to lunch here—you see how they know me, respect me, know I take care of myself. What’s it matter what name—

Oh, nothing, nothing. Now where can Richard have gone. I want him to bring us the check. That double was—weak. I’ll have to speak to Joe.

Joe, I said, Joe, the bartender here. You’re kind of jumpy, sure you had sufficient to eat? Like I said, their salads are—spotty, you can’t be sure what you’ll get. Sometimes they’re skimpy—just lettuce and peppers, maybe a carrot or two. Then sometimes—

How would I know who you look like or don’t? Who do you think I am? Or maybe, go on, ask Joe, Joe’ll tell you, Joe knows everyone, your father, your mother, your—

You know what? You kind of remind me of the girls at the bank. The young ones. The tellers, the proof operator punching her buttons like you seem to want to punch me. You want a history, a past? You’re barking up the wrong—

Listen, I’ll only say this, you got from me what I got from my mother. Listen. I left home for good at fourteen.

What do you mean, I know, I know? Who do you think you are? Snooping. Spying, that’s what I call it. A woman’s not safe anymore. What makes you think you look like me? Listen, this whole thing’s one long lie. One long—

Do you have a brother? What kind of a question— Didn’t your spies, don’t they have all the answers? Just like—Joe over there. See his answers lined up behind him, ready to pour? Oh, that reminds me. Richard, excuse me, can I have another? This one’s really driving a bargain, this one’s a wildebeest. Thanks. Didn’t your spies, your—fairies tell you everything you wanted to ask but were afraid to—afraid to—

If they want to tell you you have a brother, who am I to gainsay them, I’m the last one to know. When did you say you were born?

That kills it, then. One long lie. I was in—I was in—

Well, all right, in Washington State. I was there once, it’s true. Got out fast as I could. Soon as I found out there was anyplace else to be. But that has nothing to do with you. I built my own life, don’t you go snooping, sniffing around, like I was gar¬bage dumped on the road. That’s one thing I want clear from the start, clear. But I will show you—look, where are they, God, everything cuddled up in this purse, it’s the one place I can’t keep organized. They’d have a field day, my girls at the branch, if they ever got a peek inside. Here they are, here now, look at this. This is my foyer—picked that paper myself. I’ve got a reputa¬tion to uphold after all, a repu— That? Oh that’s Peter, my cockatiel, my—pet. Had him for fourteen years. This is the kitchen, that’s Tiffany, that lamp, picked that one up oh, ages ago, for a song. Now you’ve got to pay when you find them at all. You’ve got to search them out. I’ve become kind of an expert at it, if I do say so—

How can you say that? Objects—even art objects aren’t people, they don’t care if you come snooping—

You did, you did! Calling up the power people, telling them you had to know where I lived because—because, don’t deny it—because I was old and decrepit, old and decrepit— Yes, yes, I’ve got my own spies, since you started calling, pestering me. I mean, it’s been a lesson in self-preservation, or should I say, self-defense. How did I know—no, listen—how did I know you wouldn’t show up just—two blocks over, walk up to one of my girls, tell her your my—your my—daughter, for God’s sake, when everyone there knows I’ve never been married, thinks I’ve never— For God’s sake, you want me to tell you I was thrilled when you called, I’m thrilled to be sitting here waiting for Rich¬ard, or Joe, for one of my girls to walk in and see you, ask who you are? I wanted to give you—I gave you life, okay? I admit it. Now you can leave me with mine. Now you can leave me—

Yes, thank you, Richard. And please bring the check. No, this doesn’t go on my bill. I’m paying for it right now. Oh yes, I’m—

Look at these credit cards, just take one look, I’m a woman with a reputation, got a whole damn branch on my first application, I’ve made a name for myself, one I don’t have to share with you or anyone else, not my father or yours, my mother or—

So she’s dead, so what? I left as soon as I—forty-five years ago, since the day I—since the day you—

You want a brother? You want to know if you have a sister? Can’t you see you’re trying to get them free? Can’t you see you’ve got to—pay—

Listen. You feel you’re the scratching post, I’m the cat, you’ve got it backwards. You’ve been sinking your claws in for months. Ever since that letter, out of the blue, ever since your spies poked around in the garbage, found me out. A woman’s got a right—God, if a woman hasn’t got a right to her past, she’s got no rights at all.


Your past, your past! All right, I’ll give—no, it’s your future you want, don’t you see? Now, I’ve had a heart problem since—oh, eighty-two, nothing major, a murmur I take these ridiculous pills for, then—oh, a broken leg back in—sometime in the sixties, that doesn’t affect you anyway. At least, they never said it was a congenital weakness, but who knows? No allergies I know of—though I can’t stand dogs. They make me kind of itchy inside. That’s about all. And if you don’t mind my asking—it seems you’re bound on telling me anyway, so I might as well ask and get it over—what did my mother—what killed her off in the end?

Oh really. Cancer of—

Well, I’ll be. Damned if that isn’t how I’d always thought I’d go.

Listen, you feel sick, please, not on my lamb chops. If I’m making you feel like that, please, do it on your side, I’ve got a—reputation, they know me here. You, you’re a stranger, they’ll never see you again. Nor care. If I’m lucky, I won’t either, agreed like a fool to see you at all. You know why I did it? I was afraid. Afraid you’d—who knows? Waltz into the branch like you waltzed into my life, step on a few more toes.

If you don’t feel I’m responding right, then I must have been right to let you go. Maybe—you made a mistake, you and your spies. Maybe you won the battle, ended up losing the war. Ha! What do you say to that? You thought you were calling the shots! You thought you’d left me weak and wounded long ago, but no, no, you got it wrong, you left me stronger! After I got through with you, I made a life for me. It turned out you were an aberration, a detour, a debt paid off. Paid off! You know what that means?

A lot of people don’t. After you I owned my life, I don’t owe it to you or anyone. In the bank they call it redeemed. After you, my life was—redeemed. I don’t have to show you my cockatiel, don’t have to talk to you next time you call.

Cockatiel, honey, not cockatoo. They’re really quite different. Though you probably think he’s a cockatrice! Born on a dung¬hill, hatched by a snake. You probably think I’m—

Yes, Richard, thank you. Yes, it was lovely, but I’ll just have a chat with Joe. Please bring me my coat at the bar.

Yes, the young lady’s related—distantly. She hoped I could give her some news of her mother. It seems she—vanished some time ago, nobody’s seen her in years. Her mother and I were—friends. But I haven’t seen her myself, so—

Oh I don’t know. Some things turn out to be for the better, when at the time you’d never think they would. Maybe she trav¬eled to Borneo, or became a nun, or, who knows, joined the Army and practiced saluting till some big gun shot her down. That’s it, some big shot—gunned her—

Listen, you’ve got your own car, right? Well, I certainly hope you’ve also got your own life to drive back into, because I can’t say I want you in mine. It’s enough trouble keep¬ing a cockatiel, enough trouble keeping me. Nothing personal, you understand. It’s just the way it is. All right? Just the way it is. That’s what they told me way back then, here I am parroting it back to you. If I had chosen differently then— If I’d had a choice at all—

Well, I guess this is good bye at last. Listen, I kept my promise, I met you here, now I hope you’ll keep yours. No more midnight phone calls, no more snooping around in the trash. Okay? Okay? Good bye!

But here we are, yes, here we are, you growing small and—smaller in Joe’s old mirror, clinking the car keys in your hand, heading back out to the life I gave you, me with—me with Joe’s answers keeping me going until my mother gets her revenge, oh yes, her— Really, you don’t see it, you’re still an infant, a—newborn baby, you can’t see the choices I have to live with, the faces I have to face. With you I’m a girl with a—reputation, without you I’m not, it’s as simple as that. With you I’m stuck with a mother who should have given me up, a father she trapped into staying by having—by having me. You can’t see it, think you need snoops and spies, you’re still a kitten can’t open its eyes, can’t see what it is to see. I’d stay and lick you if I still had a tongue, if my dad hadn’t come by with his tongs, his—tongs, torn it out by the roots. Jesus, Joe’s answers got me in trouble, got you into me, what am I do¬ing here still? Why can’t I give him up as I gave you up—or tried to. Like giving up mirrors. Like giving up breathing. Redeemed. Re¬deemed. Like giving up—like giving up—like—giving up.


It’s you, I say slowly, turning away, letting the host seat us back in one corner where no one can see us, hear what she wants me to say. How have you found me again?

She doesn’t stop, doesn’t blink for a moment, moves in. Mama, Mama, froths on her lips, white water, need—

I pull my lifejacket tighter around me, reach for the rudder, that old water breaks and breaks, the cliffs of her gaze match mine. No, no, I murmur, coming into the calm of a pool. That’s the one word you mustn’t say. No one calls me that—

She thinks I’ve stopped bleeding, hates these words, this tourniquet over the wound. I hate her thinking she knows which way the river runs when she’s never been on it before. I want to tell her river is stone’s rejection of water as these mirrors reject the light. Why did I come here tonight? Why did I meet you at all, mama, mama wet on your lips, that—hunger down deep in your eyes—

I am not one to feed or comfort, I stand at the tiller where the sky keeps falling, I can’t abandon my post for a minute, for you. You can’t seem to see. That—hunger fills you, brims over like wine—

As his white water brimmed into me—

We drift. She picks up a fork, takes a stab at her salad, my meat grows cold on the plate. Why did I come here, give in, let her drag me kicking and—

The waiter brings wine, I ask for the check, can I give you a ride home, she says. Doesn’t she see how there’s no sky between us, no way out now but through the rapids, old water broken long ago, only now bringing its cold baptism, its—bringing her body up to the surface, up to—

I flash my cards so she’ll know I don’t need her, I’ve put her behind me, shut the door. Why is she knocking now—

Forty years later, spilling red wine on the life I fought for, raised up without her, hard enough raising myself. Now she in¬sists, rattles the knocker I never oiled, puts her old key to the lock. Why does it still have to fit?

Outside the restaurant, air, the cool spaciousness of night. We walk to her car, my heels clicking like hammers, like—why can’t I let her in? She climbs into her cockpit, I ride shotgun, I’ll shoot down her Daddy when he comes, or—give it all away. Please, isn’t there someway to give it all—

She asks to meet Peter, my cocatiel, the one thing left me mine. Now the heat rises, the stink of sulphur, the egg she was, the woman she somehow became. No, No, I sputter, the words hard as hammers, I’m drawing the line, I’m drawing—

Open the door where river and shore meet, where I can abandon ship. Listen, I hiss, sinking fast, don’t call me, don’t try to take over my life. Yours was an accident I refuse to let ruin mine. I see you drifting, rudderless, riverless, sucked up by a sun I provide no shade from, high on the mountain with that one beak stabbing, stabbing, releasing a river, an infant, a newborn river of blood.




Brushes her hair back, looks at me.
Why would you want to search for your
mother? Your mother had two kids,
gave them both up.

Yes, I think, but you had

Stands at the stove where the burners
hiss, pouring her coffee, his cocoa, my milk,
laughs a little, turns. Look at the three of us,
every one different, opposed. You want to haul in
a fourth? What makes you think she’ll fit?

Sits in the front seat, Dad drives. Arranges her hair
in the rearview mirror, catches my gaze
from the seat behind her, the old wound rises,
baby unborn, unconceived.

In my dreams,
I see there’s another,
dark body matching
mine, a shadow across her
keeping her from me.
I can’t reach
the light—

Why do you want to hurt me,
she says, unspeaking,
pouring cold soup
in mismatching bowls.
You were supposed
to be the solution,
not part of the problem
yourself. I grow colder,
study her elbows, her
knees, that place in the middle
I couldn’t come from
if I’d tried, where I failed to be
human, fully tamed,
where the blood, thinning out,
cut off, raises its shadow, its
single, insistent


You open the door just a crack,
unwilling to let me in. Why
do I stand here, ready to cry,
wishing you’d shut it again?
I have gone from door to door,
seeking that one live gaze
which abandoned mine—

Cold lights, the cold severities
of fish, we luminesce, caught
in the hall, the mahogany cave.
Icicle, moon, we move net
by net, raise hair, scaled
memories, eyes—

You are the one I’ve come so far
to see, bony body peeling to ash.
Yours is the cell, split at the root,
whose dark bars bound me
to air. Now you unwind me name
by name, I confess the crime—

It is mine, this salt, this
boneless voice ballooning
by night. You raise one hand
to your face, your knuckles grow pale
on the door. I am the crack that cut you
in two, the live half that you left
for dead, the dead half that grew.

Notes to Poems:
The Whole of Harry is a book about the poet's father.

The monologues were derived from stories heard at various conferences on topics including searching for birth parents.



Born and reared in San Francisco in a Victorian mansion her father liked to call Mad Manor, Kate Adams has been writing since the age of twelve, when her first short story came to her, filling page after page of a very surprised notebook. On this she bases her claim that her writing syndrome was juve­nile onset. She titled it portentously: “Chained To Eter­nity.” On this she bases her con­tin­uing sense that she writes for eter­nity. A year later, in the haven boarding school became for her, she wrote a poem, “Brief Candle,” which she has de­scribed as “not bad for a first try.” That first try was written in blank verse, pointing to a proclivity for formal structures still dominant in her work. Some two decades later, on January 25, 1979, she awoke from a dream to scrawl a poem on the back of the pro­verbial envelope (now framed and hung on her study wall). She began a daily writing practice now continued for some thirty years.


Sunday, April 17, 2011



This many years on—our daughter is now 11 and we adopted her just before her 1st birthday—my adoption experience has foreshortened. It is no longer about the reams of paperwork which I am thankful my husband largely handled; the prickly interviews with social workers; the months of waiting to hear. Nor is it about that packet in the mail with pictures we scrutinized of our daughter “at play.” That worried expression, her tremendously expressive eyes, I’ve seen them countless times now, but then, there was nothing, nothing I could do to reassure her that we would be there soon, and in that searing in my stomach I found I was already a parent.

From the beginning, I understood my experience of adoption as the experience of a miracle, albeit a worked-for, bureaucratically enabled miracle. it made me a great believer in fate. Not in that ‘fate is always good’ way or even in the sense of ‘it all comes out right in the end’—for who, even in the euphoria of good fortune, can see the world and truly think such things—but still, in fate: a mystery even at the heart of bureaucracy. For if it was bureaucracy and misfortune that brought us together, the love experienced in coming together is profound beyond any rational explanation.

In the end, my experience of adoption is also not about race, nationality, class, genetics or any of the extra challenges adoptive families negotiate. It is simply about family. About the reality that families are made in different ways but that once they are made, that’s what you are to each other. My experience of adoption is a blessing.



When my daughter was younger I wrote a small handful of poems based on the experience of adopting—“Wind Above the Weather,” about my feeling of being connected to my daughter, through meditation and prayer, before we met; “Birthstone,” about going to her orphanage; “Report,” about the first night I slept with her in my arms; and “From the Other Side of the World,” a meditation addressed, mother to mother, to her birth mother. In other poems, such as “Vapor Trail” and “Narcissus” it is a component. But the poem that means the most to me in terms of the mystical profoundness of the experience is a poem called “Timetable for Birds.” It is a poem that mulls over a birding schedule annotated with actual times of arrival and departure, something like an airport’s display, as a way of obliquely addressing the question that interested me most at the time: when would my child, who would be born so far away, arrive both into the world and to me. The poem ends by addressing the child:
And you? Will your arrival, your crowning
be clocked? A penciled note, a bracelet

of red thread twining your fledgling wrist?

The reason that this poem took on a special meaning for me is that later, when I found out when my daughter had been born, I realized that her birth took place during the week I had been writing this poem. That conjunction of timing, that synchronicity, still seems to me a benediction.

Now, it is not so much adoption that has changed my writing, as how parenting itself has changed my habits. Getting up early to write first thing, snatching time, becoming a better manager of time. Learning to do, to be, more than one thing at a time. In our family life, adoption is an accepted, understood, discussed fact, of meaning and importance, but not of elevated status. It is part of our daughter’s story, her history, but does not define her. It is how we came together but not what binds us. Until that changes for our daughter, until her needs and desires and understandings bring us to a different relationship to it, my guess is that adoption will be a dropped thread in my writing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                     Author photo by Jane Bernard




Each morning I eat an orange
from the bagful given us
by the head of the orphanage
and still the bag is full.

Afternoons on the tour bus
you sit in my lap and sleep
or cling to my garnet necklace
biting it with all four teeth.

Out the bus’s window
the bicyclists of Guangzhou
balance boxed refrigerators
and crates of live hens

above their back spokes.
Look ma, no hands
another new parent jokes
as he refocuses his lens

to catch a trio of girls
turning perfect cartwheels
before they begin to squeal
and mug for the camera.

A cluster of girls that age
and one albino boy
posed for their pictures
that day at the orphanage.

“Welcome American families”
the chalkboard read.
These are our best babies
your father overheard

someone say in Mandarin
as you were carried in
and I shot out of my seat
to take you from your “auntie”

and hold you close.
You were wearing layers
on layers of clothes
topped by bulging overalls

and pink appliquéd
white cotton shoes
too small for your toes
but soft and delicate.

Yours. And you mine.
Under close-cropped hair
your big eyes took me in
with a glint of recognition.

Then, after an exchange
of currency and gifts,
everyone stood to watch
the new mothers change

their babies’ diapers,
the adolescent girls
and the one albino boy
just outside the door

sweet enough to forgive
the inexplicable slight
that none of us had come
to take them home.

Tug, tug all you like,
my darling—tug till you’re back
asleep, tug in your dreams,
start tugging again

the minute you wake—
no matter how hard
you tug, your birthstone
necklace will not break.


The articulation of my bones
a bird’s, I woke not just not knowing
where or who but what I was:
my opened arm a wing in which she rested,
the two of us fuscous and fused
in the feathery half-dark
until that consciousness that’s always
roving, testing, that’s roving now,
striving to assemble an accurate report,
probed further into the feeling
and found me made of string and straw,
bits of silky floss licked together,
a nest shaped to fit her unfledged shape,
an account of ourselves I accepted
until daylight pried apart the louvers
and I discovered myself fingering
the soft stubbles of her shaven hair.

From the Other Side of the World

As I walk back down, the wind in my ears, oceanic,
is louder than the sound of it riffling the grasses.

No wild flowers this year, only wild fires.

In my head, the crunch of gravelly sand under my boots,
wind stream, some nursery rhymes, a memory loop:

pacing the length of the hotel room in Guangzhou,
rocking her in my arms, kissing, murmuring, cooing.

At the arroyo’s mouth, in the new leaves
of the unburnt cottonwoods, the wind sings even louder.

When I experienced for the first time the storm
of her crying, I knew with a mystic’s clarity

that everything I had ever felt, or anything she or I
would ever feel, she had felt already, and so had you,

and I, once, all of it there from the beginning, engulfing us,
our subsequent feelings only riffs on that immensity.

Crossing the plank laid across our acequia,
coming to our field, still ringed with the twisted spines

of burnt trees, still strewn with cracked-off branches,
I understand that clarity as a mother’s, not a mystic’s,

for it brought with it a task—to ensure that she
could support such intensity and not be consumed.

Under the char, new grass, brighter green than before.


We’re always the last in the neighborhood to hear things,
our house set back from the road, our adobe walls thick.

By the time sirens and the acrid smoke woke us,
neighbors were already out in our field, shoring up dirt

and beating back flames with the flats of their shovels.
When Arthur went to join them, I stayed with Sarah.

We’ve named her Sarah. I know you’ll never read this—

how could you? how would you come across it, it’s not
in your language, which you might not even read, and then

how would you know it was written specifically to you,
not to some other of the thousands of mothers that year

who left a newborn where she could be found,
at the foot of a bridge, in front of an old people’s home—

but I’m impelled to write you, as though even unread
a missive can transmit—transmit what? Assurance

of the well-being of your daughter who is our daughter?
Still a baby in her crib, she hates loud abrupt noises

but slept through the sirens, the frantic shouting, choking
stench. Once or twice, I ran out to gauge the wind-whipped

course of the flames, but from behind our courtyard wall
saw only an eerie orange glow before rushing back in

to check her breathing, the clear ponds of her fringed lids.


You can see that the fire’s force created
its own countervailing wind in the s-pattern

of burnt and unburnt grasses, of trees blackened
and toppled near trees standing green. Flushed

from the marsh, two ducks preened, buoyed
on an incinerated tuft. Black spiders scurried

like a living network of exposed nerves
over brittle swaths of ash and untouched pasture,

exhumed debris, flung empties. The convoluted
conception of fate I developed ‘waiting’ for Sarah

had nothing to do with charting or justifying
the coincidence of suffering and good fortune,

it evolved from imagining that what would happen
already had, so that envisioning her in my arms

I could work my way back to when she was
in a particular crib in x row of a particular floor

of a certain orphanage and know that baby
the one I hold now, thus the one meant to be ours,

since once something has happened it becomes,
de facto, your fate. Like the flicked cigarette

that ignited the marsh; like the marsh itself,
still wet under the cattails’ candle stubs.


At my whistle, Raz lifts his nose from snuffling,
trots over, sits for a biscuit, accepts the leash.

A Husky mix, most nights he guards her door.

A typical Southern beauty, Arthur’s uncle from Beijing
calls her, though about this we know next to nothing:

not whether she was born in the village of your birth,
or whether, pregnant, you traveled south to escape

scrutiny; not whether you were waiting for a son
or already had one. Was her father your husband?

Easy to posit what’s beamed across the world,
the country’s story, on girls whose own stories

flicker and pulse like the cursive of those fireflies
we chase through unmown fields in early July

before fireworks start, just to feel the buzzing
in our hands. This year, for a week, news crews

with nothing better or worse to cover parked
their satellite dishes in the burnt grass to monitor

the smouldering ashes. Finally, I told them to leave.
Who are you? they asked, thinking it pueblo land.

Make peace, I’ll tell her, with what you can’t know.

For now, love suffices, love eager to suppose
she couldn’t be happier with anyone else, even you.

Carol Moldaw's poems were first published in her books So Late, So Soon: New and Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2010) and The Lightning Field (Oberlin, 2003).



Carol Moldaw’s most recent book is So Late, So Soon: New and Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2010). She is the author of four other books of poetry, The Lightning Field, which won the 2002 FIELD Poetry Prize, Through the Window, Chalkmarks on Stone, and Taken from the River, as well as a novel, The Widening (2008). Through the Window was translated into Turkish and published in a bi-lingual edition in Istanbul as Penceredon/Through the Window; her work also has been translated into Chinese and Portuguese. Moldaw is the recipient of a Lannan Foundation Marfa Writer’s Residency, an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize, and her work is published widely in journals, including AGNI, Antioch Review, Boston Review, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, FIELD, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Parnassus, Threepenny Review, and Triquarterly. It has also been anthologized in many venues, including Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, and Under 35: A New Generation of American Poets. From 2005-2008 Moldaw was on the faculty of Stonecoast, the University of Southern Maine’s low-residency M.F.A. program, and she has conducted residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, taught at the College of Santa Fe and in the MFA program at Naropa University. Moldaw lives outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and daughter. For the spring of 2011 she is the Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Writer-in-Residence at Hollins University.


Friday, April 15, 2011



I am a very lucky woman in the reproductive sense because I have been able to control my reproductive life more fully than many women before me or even across the planet today. Birth control was available to me to avoid pregnancy when I didn't or couldn't choose parenting; I had three children biologically, two by C-section and one by VBAC; my tubes were tied in my first marriage to avoid more pregnancies; in a second marriage, I was able to choose surgical reversal; when that didn't work, I used reproductive assistance technologies; and when that grueling process failed, I was able to turn to adoption. It is not lost on me how very, very privileged I am. And I might seem greedy. I had three children already; why want more? And I am greedy, I suppose, for love, and I adore children, and though I am a deeply busy person (who isn't these days), my parenting is a central element to my identity. Perhaps no other role, and no other love, is as important to me.

When the decision was made that my husband and I would adopt, we did our research and joined a program, waiting for our match, but something intervened, and though I hate to sound overly romantic, it seemed like fate. During our wait, I spent hours on a site called Rainbowkids looking at children all over the world in Waiting Child Programs. A Waiting Child is one who, for a variety of reasons, was not considered immediately adoptable. One day, my daughter's photo showed up, and a bolt of adrenaline ran through me, the hair on my neck standing up, and I knew this was my daughter. This is an unreasonable thing to say, and I recognize that, but it is how I felt. By the next week, we had changed programs, and within six months, we were in Taiwan, and my daughter was in my arms.

Though this sounds sentimental, it is not. My daughter's birth conditions were not easy, and though I won't share those details here as her story is her story and not mine to share, I was keenly aware of the loss she was starting her life with as well as the loss her birth mother and grandparents were going to bear. In Taiwan, there is a great deal of family information given to the adoptive parents, and I have photographs; I have detailed records. My gain, my new love, came out of deep pain from these people whom I have real faces and names for. They are, in some ways, like lost family to me, as well as to my daughter, and a connection across the world that floats under the surface of my days.

Within a year, we found ourselves adopting again, very much to our surprise, another waiting child, a boy also from Taiwan, also with great needs and a story that breaks our hearts. Each of our adopted children came home with health issues that needed to be addressed, but our little boy came home with surprise issues that took almost two years and hundreds of doctor and hospital visits to resolve. It was a gauntlet and tested our family, and yet today, these two have blossomed into creative, communicative, charming, warm, funny kids, one in kindergarten, the other in first grade. Their older brothers tell me their views of the world have changed, widened, but also deepened, how they stand up when people in their age group make racist remarks, how they didn't know they could love these two so much. The racial element of our family's make-up changed our neighborhood as well, with many, many neighbors flocking around us in support. The sense of joy this seemed to provoke in people around us was stunning, and to see my older boys stand for inter-racial acceptance in ways they might Never have had to is an added bonus.

And yet, it has very little to do with anything on a day to day basis. My five kids are just my five kids, each with identity issues, temperament differences, unique fears, talents, tendencies: hostages to fortune, as Francis Bacon wrote, and it is my job to try and help each one of them face their individual shadow side—for all of us have a central wound from which our lives take shape (I am thinking now of Edmund Wilson's The Wound and the Bow or of Carl Jung or even of Lorca's duende)—and learn how to survive their own suffering and nurture their special qualities.

In my mind, the need for a child—any child—to have an adult who does not try to live through them, but who focuses on being a benevolent and predictable constant around which they can discover themselves is utterly and absolutely more important than whether the parent looks like the child or echoes political, ethnic, or national sameness. To those who argue that trans racial or trans national adoption harms children or is a kind of colonial kidnapping, I would say they are privileging elements of human identity over the core needs of human development; to those who would say intra racial adoption is better than trans racial adoption, I would ask how they feel about same gender parent couples; I would ask how they feel about other segregationist policies. To those who think what a family looks like is more important than whether a child has a family, I want to ask, are you kidding? You walk away from a child without a family and tell me they are better off in (even the best intentioned) institution than in a home with consistent and loving adults.

No, I don't think adoption is easy or simple, and yes, I think my kids have wounds—and some people talk about studies of trans nationally adopted post adolescents (twenties) who are depressed and have identity issues. Show me ANY twenty-something who doesn't have these kinds of issues! It is the nature of that stage in life, and as the parent of a 17, 19, and 21 year old, and experienced professor of first and second year college students, the argument that adopted kids have more struggles with adulthood transitions than the general population seems laughable on its face.

Wisdom is hard won because it is not easy. Becoming a whole person is the job of a lifetime, and we all have challenges. In that sense, this journey toward self actualization and understanding is at the core of my artistic effort, my own dance with the demon, my shadow, my wound. It is wounding to be a parent, to be alive to the constant fear one has for those "hostages to fortune," but life requires risk and bravery if it is to be lived fully. This is what I tell all my children: I can not protect you from the circumstances of your own life, but I can model for you how to survive it.

When we were adopting, the adoption agency asked us, as they ask everyone, to become more conscious of the race and ethnicity of those in our lives even suggesting "pick a Chinese doctor," "cultivate Asian friends." Nope, I said, I am sorry but I will not select people based on their race, but I will actively bring artists, poets, and writers into my children's lives because that is what their Dad and I are. My kids, the big ones and the little ones, will know many kinds of people, first based on their character and art, their openness, their personal beauty something that shines from within, perhaps from the dark wound at the center of themselves, the thing that makes them uniquely them, and that is where compassion comes from. In our house, compassion has many faces and shades of skin, many politics, many bodily conditions, and ages, and sexualities.

This is my experience of adoption: it widened my view of the connectedness rather than separateness of us all, and it makes me exquisitely grateful and also very, very humble, because I am a lucky, lucky woman who is rich in love.

Laura with two of her children



The Flags We Raise

“He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” Francis Bacon

Named after his Dutch grandfather, Ruth, pronounced root,
whose name was changed by an Ellis Island gatekeeper,            Rutger
has no freckles or pale skin, but black on black eyes
slanted and long-lashed,
hair that swings with its own smooth-cuticled weight.
It could have been different genetically:
before the Chinese, the Dutch colonized Taiwan,
then called Formosa, where my son was born,
and so he could have had something of that other land in him,
the genes of his adopted father,
but instead his face is round like an islander’s,
with a graceful flat nose—you’d think Polynesian
before Chinese (that might be the biggest legacy
the Dutch left Taiwan: encouraging Han Chinese immigration,
and later, it seemed reasonable for China’s government
to relocate itself there.)

Today, whose land this is is still a question,

but whose child this is is not:            Ruth, who traded his name
for the possibilities of this place,
had a daughter, who had a son, my husband,
who claimed            this boy            in a country            that understands

nuance and complexity            in ways the West does not,

and can also claim the way this boy
and his mottled background changes us:            where once our ancestors
visited and stole, today—though some declaim
this is another kind of stealing—we surrender
to a rainbow’s soft demarcations into colors
outside of history or place. When I say Rutger,

I hear Kuan Lu.            When I say Kuan Lu,            I hear

beautiful boy.            When I say beautiful boy,            a flag

is raised            in my chest            that belongs to no country,
but the one all hostages to fortune live in,
one with no borders,
which can not be escaped from,
and of which there is no government,
only taxes,            death,            and
what pleasures we steal along the way.



Laura McCullough has four books of poems including Panic, winner of a 2009 Kinereth Gensler Award, (Alice James Books), Speech Acts (Black Lawrence Press), and What Men Want (XOXOX Press), and her chapbook, Women and Other Hostages, winner of a Flip Kelly Award, was published in the Gob Pile Poetry Chapbook Series (Amsterdam Press). Her interviews, essays, and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Writer’s Chronicle, The American Poetry Review, New South, Pank, Contrary, Diode,The Painted Bride Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, and other journals. She is the editor of Mead: the Magazine of Literature and Libations and is editing an anthology of essays by contemporary writers on the poetry of Stephen Dunn.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011



What are you?
Why is your last name Dobbs?
Where are you from?
Where are you really from?
Where are your parents from?
Where were you born?
Why do you speak English well?
Do you speak Korean?
Have you returned to Korea?
Have you found your real parents?
Do you want to find them?

Until my mid-twenties, I answered nameless strangers who asked me variations of this litany trying to guess my race and to reconcile my name and my face. How I answered the first question— What are you? — determined the next question cascading toward "my adoption story." The stranger leaned in listening for tone. There were only two options, bitterness or contentment, and the stranger’s moral depended on my morale, which he seemingly detected.

Sometimes I would cut to the chase and impatiently say, "I'm adopted." The stranger would nod, as if she understood, or if she was Asian American, she would do the same and look away, as if our conversation ended because I was no longer there.

Why was I constantly explaining? Perhaps I was accustomed to the gaze and the role of polite conversation piece. After returning to Sand Springs from my first year at college, I was stunned to notice how many people were staring at me while my family ate sandwich plates in Denny’s.

During graduate school, I read Trinh T. Minh Ha’s Woman, Native, Other, and I began to slow down the moment between the stranger and me to reflect on what it meant to repeat the same story over and over again to satisfy yet another stranger's insistent curiosity. It was not a conversation between two persons. It was a compulsion—the stranger could not stop herself from asking. And what if I have questions of my own?

Why are you asking me?
What is it you want to know?
What is it you really want to know?

But this isn't about you. It's about this thing between us— your gaze and my narrative exhaustion. Please stop tiring me out. Please stop asking me for my story in variations of the form— multiple choice surveys, oral histories, or IRB approved analyses— because the questions are the same. Please do your research first by reading adoptees who have published prose and poetry for over 50 years and linger over Jane Jeong Trenka, Kim Suneé, Astrid Trotzig, Jackie Kay, Jan Beatty, Thomas Park Clement, Mihee Natalie Lemoine, S.K. Chae, Lee Herrick, Sun Yung Shin, Lisa Marie Rollins, Shannon Gibney, Thomas Marko Blatt, Maja Lee Langvaad, Kevin Minh Allen, Them Averick, Eva Tind Kristensen, Liberty Hultberg, and Katie Leo— just to get you started. You should also look at the critical work of adoptees such as Tobias Hubinette, Marianne Novy, Kim Park Nelson, Jae Ran Kim, Elise Prebin, Kimberly McGee, Liz Raleigh, Nate Kupbal, Kit Myers, Eli Park Sorenson, Kim Su Rasmussen, Kim Langhrer, Tammy Ko Robinson, Boonyoung Han, John Raible, Anders Riel Mueller, Hilbrand Westra, Aino Rinhaug, Daniel Schwekendiek, Jenny Wills, Indigo Willing, Susan Harness, Dominic Golding, and more wonderful writers who are adopted of which this is a partial list. There are so many writing and publishing all over North America, Europe, Korea, and Australia!

Not what but wherefore your questions? I'm tired. Like you, I’m grouchy when I’m tired. Let's chat about something new to refresh the story although— I know, I know—reiteration re-inscribes and signifies a new subjectivity, and adoptive kinship follows blood’s syntax. That's how an adopted child learns how to assimilate among strangers: She is now your mother. Say “mother.” (Mother. Mother.) He is now your father. Say “father.” (Father. Father.) This is a fork. (Fork. Fork. Fork.) The mouth shaping around mother, father, and fork holds them until they become natural/izing. That’s always the story. We've been here before by rote:
She forgets because she is learning a new language and is deprived of the privilege of a mirror.

Six months later, he can recite the grammar that makes her feel like a forever mother and him like a forever son for a charmed life.

What else is possible for us in this moment when you are a stranger to me?

Viewing a Picture of Her New Family (Source: Stars and Stripes)

How might adoption not require the shattering of a mouth and the bordering of lives separated by distances? How might privilege be shared with mothers and fathers for a village kinship? How much does a child cost? How might that money preserve families? Why assume my mother was a teenage victim of a rigid Confucian society? Why can't I imagine my father beyond shadow? Why is it more painful to talk about my father? Why can't I have my story? Why aren't my records available as PDF copies, and why do I have to pay over $900 for them in agency post-adoption fees in addition to the cost of airfare, food, and lodging?

What am I? Where am I from? Where are my parents from? Why can't I find them?

If, as Sandra Patton says, “Our struggles for social meaning occur in narrative form,” then what to do when the narrative is stuck? How might we enliven it by rerouting feeling back to lives who have been rendered invisible and so make ourselves visible through conversation with theirs?

How to talk with ghosts? Beyond some awkward dance of identities, to imagine my mother and father is to refuse to participate in their social deaths and to demand meaning for us as a family and for myself as their daughter. Critics have called this imaginative work children's fantasy, but it is more than that. It is a child's attempt at humanizing her own body and the bodies of those to whom she is connected.

Yet why is the adoptee always a child?

An adopted person becomes a poet by necessity when sketching a self-portrait. The struggle that John Ashbery dramatizes resonates with the ghost captured in the glass: "The words are only speculation / (From the Latin speculum, mirror): / They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. / We see only postures of the dream, / Riders of the motion that swings the face / Into view under evening skies, with no / False disarray as proof of authenticiy. / But it is life englobed."

Even if all I am saying is a convex-shaped dream, it is the shape of the dream that matters and its vector. Why dream in the direction of sawdust, mannequins, or ghosts when I am a ghost to my mother and father in Korea, who speculate on my life over there and in a language that I cannot read just as they cannot read these words in English?

Sash drawn and locked— pane bordering one darkness and another thickened by adoption estrangements. How might we pierce this night?

Eastern Social Welfare Society Adoption File #1514 (Source: Author)

It is all an experiment in probability: Infants do not remember, and so are more adoptable than toddlers who have learned language. Yet an infant learns language through his body— how a body is touched, how it is abandoned. He instinctively roots for his mother's breast whether she will feed him or not, whether she is constructed or not. This is his first language regardless of blood, milk, ink, bleach, or gasoline.

Then he learns not to root and to be silent despite hunger.

If as Anastassis Vistonitis says, "memory is the mother of us all," then how can erasure be a mother to anyone? This is an injury beyond the metaphorical orphaning of all poets who "seek and cannot find the meaning of the music." What of a commitment to the lives who pulse underneath reiterations of silence (unknown, abandoned, X, ___, n/a) that lead to a forgetting as normal as breathing?

What is this white space beyond racialized symbolism? No more scrim. How can I feel through this erasure the touch of my mother and father who I refuse to forget, even though I cannot find them, because to do so is to give up hope and to reiterate their social deaths?

Eastern Social Welfare Society Adoption File Room (Source: Author)

I am not committed to the elegy, although I am drawn to its belief in simultaneous dimensions figured as heaven and the living. But I am not looking for angels, demons or changelings. I don't need to ask if there is life after social death. After all, I am living it in my mother and father's lives englobed wherever they are and however they are in Seoul, Busan, Wonju, Beijing, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, or somewhere else beyond the charted diaspora.

Where is the horizon? Birth mother. Birth Father. Omoni. Aboji. Omma, Appa. And the names we don't say because it's so natural to be next to each other, to summon one another through our gestures.

I am committed to renewing measure.

엄마, 아빠, my most intimate strangers, we are here in our bodies breathing together, and this too is an uncounted yet life-sustaining prosody.



My Name

“Maids, matrons, widows, mix their common moans;
Orphans their sires, and sires lament their sons.
All in that universal sorrow share,
And curse the cause of this unhappy war:”

—Virgil, Aeneid (Trans. John Dryden)

Swaddled one
for whom others speak and seal treaties

Kicking, cries in hunger, craps standing up

Soot, river clay, yellow turning leaf—
land carved for saints’ missions

Veined knowledge, torque of blood’s whispers
searching and searching

Student passing notes in her native language
anagrams of teacher’s grammar

Secret mirror
shard slitting the hand that drew me from the stream

Shackled before Troy’s gates
widows scratching their cheeks
so no Ithacan chief will desire them

New citizens purchased by love—
most effective assimilator

Muffled by tuberculosis
My name is Heathcliff, gypsy and breaker of horses


I tire of the image. I want to forget it

           properly buried in the pine forest, reclaimed by grass

I tire of all this seeing

           that’s not seeing a head turning on the rifle’s mouth

turning its pus swollen eyes toward the wind

           escaping mountain trees, ruffling the soldier’s red hair

As he raises his rifle toward the trees, the head spins in four directions

           shock the birds hear. The birds scatter

arching their dark backs, a cry snapping through their necks

           lifting up as one to the sky faraway from the forest

where the soldier stares into the sun’s black eye

           he can still describe as an old professor smiling at that distance

his hands again cradling the rifle’s head

           in the photograph, held up for his students to see

what he remembered that day— mud, the enemy, thirst, this—

           no one can identify or bring home to bury. This is his image

the birds, raising their black fiery wings, cannot read

           cannot forget the smell of rotting flesh, ricochet

wind from the sun, wind driving them from that tree

           flared in the sun’s center to this— his eyes peeled back

blinded by Time’s shuttered lens cutting his chest

           lipless grin, hands at attention

holding an act of attention for this—



Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the author of Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press 2007), which received the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award, and Song of a Mirror, a finalist for the 2009 Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook Award. Her poems, essays, and criticism have been published widely in North America, Europe, and Korea. Currently, she is assistant professor of English and directs American Race and Multicultural Studies at St. Olaf College and also serves as education and outreach director for Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK). She is working on a second book of poetry and a book with the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association about unwed mothers’ realities. www.jkwondobbs.com


Tuesday, April 12, 2011



I was adopted at six weeks from Catholic Charities in Baltimore. My brother was also adopted from them at that age, four years later. I met my birth mother once, just after my son was born in 1997. She has since died. I never had the chance to meet my birth father. After carrying his phone number around with me for years, the night I finally called turned out to be the night of his funeral.



Like many poets, I am interested in the dynamics of connection and disconnection. I find resonances of this fundamental tension in the natural world and among people. Perhaps had I not been adopted, I would still have been drawn here, but I believe that issues of belonging and betrayal, so tied to connection and disconnection, hold powerful sway over my emotional and creative life because of my experience of adoption. Adoption doesn't surface in the poems, per se, but these themes surely do.



“The Persistence of Memory”

While time unwinds beside the window,
no boat floats by, not a soul or a saint in overalls,
not even your father, graying and swollen.
There are rules here.

You close a door, lie down.
You sort word from word, spare no one.
The baby who rises from the river turns away,
lured by no more than leaves falling softly to the ground.

She drifts through the mist, lies down
on a mound of soft earth, plump and satisfied.
You are not her.
You stayed caged, learning

the alphabet of abandonment.

(Author's Note: "I have been using a 40 word meditation another poet shared with me from a workshop with Carolyn Forche, so it's her prompt. I got a postcard of a painting called "Freud's Dream" from my psychoanalyst and a series of poems has begun to emerge. This is one of them which seems at home at Poets on Adoption.")

Update: And then, I read Nick Carbo's poem, "The Number One Song on the Day I was Born was 'Oh, Pretty Woman' by Roy Orbison," and decided to write about adoption head-on, using the hit song as prompt, to make my way into the poem. Thus, "Lawrence Welk," below. Thanks, Nick.

Lawrence Welk

I romanticize the 60s: sexual liberation, flower power, passive resistance. I think bell bottoms. I think pot brownies. I think anti-war protests, headlines spewing signs of progress: Kennedy sworn in, rocket ships in orbit, the pill mass produced. I think the countercultural moment of the century spawned a revolutionary gestalt that, having been all my life the black sheep, the mis-fit, the leftie among rightists, I count as my birthright. Then I look up the pop chart topper for 15 February 1961 and discover, not Elvis, not Ray Charles or Orbison or even Dion but, at number one on the day I was born, Lawrence Welk singing Calcutta -- a schmaltzy, eerily familiar tune that loops along, accordions swelling and shrinking, high-heeled, lip-sticked women la-la-la-la-la-la-ing, cocktails sloshing, the 50s hanging on. And, yep, I think, isn’t that the year your birth mother, cowed by catholic aunts and a devout mother, didn’t keep you, didn’t even look, likely, at your face, knowing, as all the women in her life intoned, she was not fit to mother, having dumped her baby’s father, i.e. my father, soon after getting, as they said, knocked up, and having, soon thereafter, married a man with a heroine addiction and no interest, as my mother, the one who raised me, stressed, in some other guy’s baby.



Giavanna Munafo holds an MFA from the University of Iowa (poetry) and also studied writing while pursuing her BA and PhD at the University of Virginia. She has taught writing since 1985 at various colleges and universities, including the University of Iowa, the University of Virginia, George Washington University, and Dartmouth College. She currently teaches in the Women's and Gender Studies program at Dartmouth and at the Writers Center in White River Junction, VT.


Monday, April 11, 2011



I was given up for adoption in 1966 in South Africa. It was complicated because the apartheid policy was at its height and I'm biracial. Finally I was adopted at 9 months by one of the anthropologists* who had examined me. They wouldn't tell me that I was adopted till I was 20 years old.

Under apartheid people of colour were ruthlessly segregated.

While I'd previously written about adoption, I never wrote about being adopted in a literary language until 2005 when I was in a mentorship with a British poet who encouraged me to write about my experiences. Since then I have made two collections of poetry, made contributions to many other anthologies, written and performed two plays. I feel strange about being a writer and having this story. I wrestle with accepting the fact that part of why people read me is because of the life story, not some soul-searing, undeniable magical talent. :) I guess it's also about one's ego, which is not one's identity, but when you are writing about this painful material sometimes we lose sight of the boundary, not that it's a clear line like on a map but on the ground it does look different, the ego and the identity.

After being told the truth I spent the rest of my life getting used to this weird situation (among other things) with its duplicity and deceit and its good intentions and its jealousy and its ineffable love.

As part of my healing journey I have explored notions of identity through the lens of African traditional belief systems. Daily I confront all the separate selves created by the different acts of naming: the name my biological mother gave me, the subsequent name given by my adoptive mother, the names of my biological parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. This is my compass.

My full name is Tandy Jane Alcock Amamoo Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. But you can call me PhilYaa :)

Footnote *:
Curator's Note: I don't know why it took a few days for me to be struck by PhilYaa's use of the term "anthropologist." I thought she might have meant to say (medical) "doctor" as medical examinations are not unusual during adoption proceedings. To my follow-up query, she replied:
The examination was not a medical one but a racial one if there is such a thing. The mad science of apartheid needed anthropologists to decide what a person's race was. The pencil test was often invoked in cases where the race of the baby or child was not clear. Physical anthropology was considered to be more scientific because it dealt with empirical physical data and was considered therefore neutral,

In my case they couldn't decide definitively on my race and felt that because my mother was Australian, my father was likely to be an Aborigine. In this case, they could not allow me to be adopted in South Africa because the political dispensation of apartheid believed that culture was genetic and every culture had its special strengths and weaknesses. This could go on for ages but...



I can’t separate the two. I became a poet because there was no other vessel that could contain the intensity of that moon on the water loneliness and that crying at the beauty of the sunset gratitude for life itself. When I was told the truth I was unable to write for quite a few years. Then I tried to write plays and stories about it but the prose suffocated me and drove me into reams of self-justification which were convoluted and unreadable. I won a mentorship where I had to produce 6 poems every 6 weeks and under the guidance of my mentor John Lindley I found a number of poems about adoption lying around my mind in undiscovered drawers of experience. Poetry allowed me to enter the emotional context of what the adoption meant to me, and gave me words for that experience. I owe poetry my entire writing life: in fact, my life. The first part of my life was in silence with the occasional shout, scream or snippet from the radio. I am still reconstructing.



Warning: Adopting a Dragon can be Dangerous

Please adopt me.
I'm asking you to co-opt the
question-mark. Make it yours.

Please give me your name.
Take me from my wilderness, and tame
my howling frame, remove my parasites
and feed my starving shame.

I am just passing through your home.
My roaming spirit seeking shelter,
but be warned, Samaritan: I am never
your subject, I am always
my own.

I will learn to submit to your syllables
and laws: I will contrive to
defend your cause
for my survival. But be warned:
listen to the whispers of my rebellion
you may lock me in a frilly room
and make me write your story a hundred times but
one day,
one day
I will leave
to find my own.

And if you fear my origins
and your imperial decree
will not release me
I will declare
a war of liberation
and perhaps you will think I’m ungrateful,
and I’ll do it anyway.

I will stage a coup.
I will hold you hostage
in your palace and
turn your guards against you.
I will light a fuse and then
leap out of my sweet
little-girl borrowed bedroom window,
wearing a garland of ammunition
and an AK.

I land on an abandoned station
with a faded name I can’t read,
with rusted rails carrying ghost passengers
to an unknown destination,
with benches, termite eaten to filigree;
a fake snakeskin suitcase on the platform:
bulging with
a creature
trying to settle,
this I know
is my

I lay down my gun and bullets.
From here I’ll end the revolution
rebuild my state
revise the constitution
devise new institutions.

But then
the suitcase
open at my feet,
blister my combat boots,
and I stand, scared, wringing my hands,
saying sorry, sorry, sorry, I didn’t know
I promise you I didn’t know
that I was a dragon,
trying to pass as
a human.

The imperial palace
smokes up the horizon
unable to reply: somehow
I am satisfied:
now that I know where everything is.
now that I now what I look like.
now I know why I was
always on fire.

Repeat after me

Life is a language lesson: we try to discover our names.
The adopted child invents her history: the only way to become is first to be.
We create a shape that then starts to fall apart.
I am a brown land, an incontinent continent, secreting pearly musk and ribald rivers of blood.
What I am called is not who I am: a name is a fence around a field of nodding concepts, rich wildflowers, some of which sting and others smell like heaven. I am more than all of this: I laze under fluffy clouds, drinking deep sips of the sky. Whirlwinds and floods toss my hair and irretrievably alter my features. I have not charted all my latitudes yet. Many systems exist on me, subsist on the spinning energies: forests of language, biospheres of sense and sensibility, people lost and people discovered. Artefacts are buried in me: once I unearthed a decaying trunk filled with illegible scrolls that disintegrated as soon as they came to light, their origin a mystery, leaving me guessing again. I am excavating my frozen tongue, my intimate civilization. As I discover it, it starts to die; in the ruins, inscrutable roots. As I write I dissemble, make my self, unmake my self:

a mussel spurts ink
ancient walls collapse into
the infinite sea



Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – (1966- )
Studied journalism with the hidden desire to be an actor, she took herself to the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris. She worked as an actor for two years and then Bell’s Palsy sent her towards writing as an alternative career. She continued to participate in street theatre and went to school to learn scriptwriting. She worked in scriptwriting for TV for eight years and in 2005, won a mentorship with English poet John Lindley through the British Council/Lancaster University’s distance learning scheme “Crossing Borders.” She wrote Where the children live (a two-hander play) which was the runner up to the best writer award and won the audience award at the National Festival of Play Readings. before publishing her first collection of poetry Taller than buildings (2006), which was followed by Original Skin (2008), a one-woman play based on her life story. She contributed to the anthology of South African birth stories, Just Keep Breathing, published by Jacana with her story “A thousand births” (2008) and won the Writing Beyond the Fringe/de Buren competition with her short story “The day that Jesus dropped the ball” (2009). In 2010 she released her second collection, The everyday wife and co-edited an anthology of African poetry translated into Mandarin. She was editor of the South African contribution to A megaphone, a journal initiated and edited by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young out of Mills College. Her work is in anthologies and journals from Poui to Edinburgh Review, and the online journals The Canopic Jar, Shine and Incwadi. She is working on a very long memoir/poem which has been optioned by a documentary film producer and performing poetry and engaging with other transracial adoptees in South Africa.