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.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
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
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
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).
ABOUT THE POET:
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.