[Curator’s Note: Penny Callan Patridge wrote a book, THE PEOPLE THEY BROUGHT ME: poems in the adoption community, which happens to address the three questions asked by POETS ON ADOPTION (albeit in a slightly different format from the typical PoA contribution). With her permission, we feature four excerpts from her book.]
I. For My First Mother / Catherine in Cheyenne
For My First Mother
No photograph but a dream
brought me your face.
We were in your living room
which was also a kind of shop
where you sold furniture.
It was in front of the fireplace:
this chair which I can still see
along with your face. It was
mahogany and wine red velvet:
Days after the dream
I still know
that I was to have it
and think I can after all
if I can translate.
I think it was good love
your arms binding me
your face smiling and I was
unsure afraid embarrassed:
I was new.
And if an old woman knocked on my door and called me
Dorothy, it would be like a river rushing backward
to rejoin the water with which it had risen in mist
and settled on leaves upstream
before coming down in separate drops.
It would be like a movie running backward
me moving backward through it blindly:
I would have to learn you by smell
and touch, like a baby, before
I could finally see your face.
Picture in a magazine:
the adopted child of (someone)
and me wondering if just somehow
the other mother might see it: me
wanting to get myself into the paper.
I have written this, you see,
to push myself out
toward some meeting with you
if you are ready
if you’re still there.
Catherine in Cheyenne
This may be my most magic poem in that it really did push me out to meet my birthmother. I had briefly tried to find her in my early twenties. That ended with a social worker’s insistence that I would not want to meet the woman who had given birth to me, because it would cause her too much pain.
In my late twenties, in my own pain about infertility, I decided that if my children were not going to look like me, I would try to find someone who did in my original family. So I searched, on and off, for two and a half years. It was often hard to take the next step. It might lead nowhere. I would get discouraged and put the whole thing aside until the not knowing became too hard again.
Then came a dream that brought my birthmother into focus like never before. There we were, face to face for the first time, even if it was “just a dream.” She was smiling and completely reassuring that it was all right to have found her. When I woke up, I was desperate to hold onto the new “reality” this dream had brought me. It was hard to believe I could have produced this dream, even unconsciously. It must have come from her!
I tried to write down every fragment of the dream I could possibly remember. Its two main images were my birthmother’s face and a lovely rocking chair she was giving me. It was a nice big, comfortable rocker that would have held me, rocked me, comforted me. I got obsessed with the chair for awhile and imagined combing antique stores to see if it just happened to be waiting for me to come buy it. That would confirm the “realness” of the dream. But what if I had to settle for one that wasn’t mahogany? Wasn’t a rocker? Wasn’t upholstered in deep red velvet? Would I settle for something less? In the end, I realized that the face and the chair were symbols of the same thing: the gift of my birthmother’s welcome. I gave up on the chair and went out to find the face.
Meantime, I worked and worked and worked on the poem. I’m going to quote William Butler Yeats here, because years later, when I read the following, I knew just what he’d meant.
My friends that have it I do wrong
whenever I revise a song
should know what issue is at stake:
It is myself that I remake.
No question about it. While writing “For My First Mother,” I was remaking myself. I was spending days pushing myself out, or giving birth to a me who could confidently move out and not only find Catharine but also be up to facing her.
And only a few weeks after I had the dream and wrote the poem, I was calling her. I was hearing her say, “Oh, I knew this would happen. Would you like to come visit me?” Three weeks after that, I was pulling up in front of her house in Cheyenne.
What link is there between having the dream, writing the poem, and finding my birthmother? Did I have the dream because I was ready to find her? But if I hadn’t grabbed onto it hadn’t worked on the dream/poem as hard as I’d ever worked on anything, would I have gone on to find her?
If the poem made me brave, I was not very brave with the poem. In the three weeks between finding and meeting Catharine, I sent her “For My First Mother.” But I actually wrote to her not to make too much of it.
Why did I belittle its importance? I was probably protecting both of us from how badly I wanted Catharine to like this poem, to “get it”—and of course to like and “get” me. And she followed my lead (unless I was following hers in the no-nonsense, Western way she spoke). Neither of us ever mentioned the poem again!
If I could speak to Catharine now, I might ask if we could talk about the poem I had written right before I found her. Do you remember what you thought of it? How you felt when you read it? I was afraid I would scare you with how much I wanted your welcome, your acknowledgement. I might also have been scared of having “to learn you by smell/ and touch like a baby before/ I could finally see your face”—of going back to the baby me.
Had we talked about the poem, we might have gotten closer than we did in the fifteen years we had of knowing each other. But I think the poem expressed something I wasn’t up to saying—nor she up to hearing—in person. “For My Mother” thus served a much more typical purpose for a poem than to help find a lost person. It helped me say something the only way I could.
II. New Legs / Nina Giving Birth Under It
I choose grief
that takes you
Like when Charlie said
it must be hard not
to know the person
you were born to.
And off I swept
both hating him
and loving him
for saying it.
Thrashing upstream in
anger to come
against the bank
to climb out
on new legs.
Where would I
but for that river
and these new legs
from Nina Giving Birth Under It
“New Legs” was written by request. The director of an adoption agency in California had heard me read my poems at the Open Adoption Conference in Traverse City, Michigan. When her agency was planning an issue of their quarterly magazine to be entirely from the perspective of the adopted, she called to ask if I would write a poem for them, maybe about one of the seven core issues of adoption.
I liked the idea of an adoptee issue of a magazine. It’s a good thing if we grow up hearing about our adoption, but that is necessarily from someone else’s point of view. One of the most important things we ever do as adopted people, I think, is to learn to tell our stories from our own perspective. I liked that some of us older adoptees could serve as models for doing this. And it was time for other “players” in adoption to hear more from the adopted.
The seven core issues* were developed as a way to talk about issues common to all sides of the adoption triad: the adopted, their birthparents, their adoptive parents. And the seven issues I had to pick from? Loss, rejection, guilt and shame, grief, identity, intimacy and control.
I chose grief because I had a story I needed to tell about it. Twenty-five years earlier, my friend Charlie had said something that spun me around like a leaf in a stream. His response to hearing I had been adopted was to say, “It must be hard not to know the person you were born to.”
Such mixed feelings about his having said that! Why hating Charlie? Because if what he had said were true, it was scary. I didn’t know if I could bear never knowing my birthmother. Nor did I want to go through life with the disadvantage, the blindedness, of not knowing her.
Then why loving Charlie? Because as hard as it was to hear what he said, it felt true. I was grateful that someone in this world wasn’t afraid to say it: It is hard not to know the person you were born to. My joy, my gratitude, my relief in having this acknowledged was probably what let me give in to the grief.
Grief is so paradoxical. We have to let it sweep us off our feet—thrashing upstream in/ anger to come/ swirling down/ in sadness—if we are to end up more oriented in our lives walking on our own two legs. Losing control to gain control. The river metaphor just popped into my head to help me make sense of this paradox.
Here is another paradox: “New Legs” was written by request. I got a long distance call and agreed to try to send something by a certain date. In the end though, I don’t think any poem of mine has come from a deeper place. I’m glad I got to go there.
(* The seven core issues of adoption were first presented by Deborah Silverstein and Sharon Kaplan (now Roszia).)
III. Another Pinocchio / My Funny Florentine
the girl was wooden
with so many strings attached
she was good good good
but that's about all
so the way for
her to get real
was to go out and find
her own blue fairy
in a small round woman
(her eyes were blue)
who said I knew
you would come
I just couldn't
see you before
or I would have
had to keep you
and the girl in this
blue eyed mirror
that held her
and held her
could see and feel
her own fingers
My Funny Florentine
I met Anna Gennie Miliotti at a conference near Disneyland in Southern California. I wish I could say that I went on the Pinocchio ride with this Italian from Florence, but I think it was closed for repairs. And I can’t really say I met Anna simply because of my Pinocchio poem. It’s more complicated than that. But the bonds between Anna and me certainly include Florence. That’s where the Italian language came from, thanks to Dante Allighieri. That’s where I studied it myself when I was in college. Florence is also where Anna was born. It’s where Carlo Collodi was born and where he wrote about Pinocchio. It’s where Anna and I have done two bilingual readings, the ore recent one just down the street from where Collodi grew up. I’ll get back to that.
There are many things in the Pinocchio story which adopted people find interesting. There’s that unforgettable representation of being caught in a lie. There’s the lonely old man who wanted a child. There’s the child who isn’t real but wants to be. There’s the woodenness, the strings, and the pulls between needing to be almost too good and needing to try being bad.
What matters most to me about the Pinocchio story is transformation. A puppet goes from being numb and dumb (no feeling, no voice), with strings attached (someone else pulling them), and not a real boy . . . to being real. I sensed a similar transformation in myself after I found my birthmother. There was more sensation in my body (that I was aware of). There was a feeling of my life now being in my own hands. And it felt as if, after dangling in some kind of unreality, I had ground under my feet. I am not saying I shouldn’t have been placed for adoption. I am convinced that was a good thing, under the circumstances. I just felt so much more real without a painted background hiding things behind it. Now I had a real background!
When Anna and I met near Disneyland (and again a couple weeks later in Traverse City), we were both writers, we were both adoptive parents, and she could speak enough English and I enough Italian that our conversations could rock back and forth between the two languages. Soon we were translating each other’s poems. “Another Pinocchio” was the first poem of mine that Anna transformed into a poem in her own language.
The first time Anna read “Un Altro Pinocchio” in public was in Parma, home of parmesan cheese and prosciutto. She was giving a talk to 300 adoptive parents, and she ended with her translation of my poem. By the time she got home to Prato (half an hour north of Florence), Anna had an e-mail from an adoptive mother who had just asked her oldest child about his favorite storybook character. This woman was amazed (che stupor) when he had immediately answered, ‘Pinocchio.” She now hoped her whole family would be gently (piano piano) unhooking strings.
The first poem I translated of Anna’s was “Nadezhda”—the name of her daughter Dasha’s birthmother. Anna had taken Dasha back to Russia to see where she had come from and many poems came from that trip. Later, Anna wrote a young adult novel about the experience, alternating the voices of an adoptive mother and her daughter. It has been quite a best seller in Italy—28,000 copies in the first year alone. During my most recent visit to Anna, I translated three chapters of The Me I Don’t Know (Quello che non so di me) so Anna’s agent can try for an English edition.
When Anna and I are together, we laugh a lot. Anna likes to enjoy life. Like many Italians, she loves good food. She tends to exclaim a lot over food, whether she has cooked it herself or is in a lovely restaurant overlooking a distant landscape. Anna loves to be dramatic. After we did our first reading together in Florence, she told me my Italian had never been so good and that I had learned Italian forty years earlier just for this one evening.
We have had great adventures together. We took a train from Albany to Kansas City for a conference of the American Adoption Congress. My bunkbed in our sleeper car was so tiny I couldn’t roll over. We made a pilgrimage out of Dublin up to Brugh na Boyne. WE twisted our hips to thread ourselves down a dark passage into the prehistoric past inside a mountain. The next day Anna drove us down to St. Kevin’s monastery in Glendalough, while I read poems to her by Seamus Heany and Eavan Boland, my favorite Irish poets. I may have ancestors who were in Ireland a thousand years ago, but Anna is sure she was in Ireland herself in another life.
Last May, Anna picked me up at the Pisa airport and drove me to her second home—this one in a medieval hilltown called Roccatederighi. Two days later we were on a train to Florence, me still copying Anna’[s translation of some of my performance piece, “Pandora Out of the Box.” Organized by Anna, and hosted by Libri Liberi (Liberated Books), we were giving a joint reading in a children’s theater next to a garden behind this fabulous bookstore. On an outside wall of the theater was an original Andrea del Sarto fresco. Inside the bookstore was an exhibit room for illustrations for children’s books. The current exhibit had to do with children all over the world liking Pinocchio. Then I was reading my Pinocchio poem right down the street from where Pinocchio’s author had been a boy. Grazie, Carlo Lorenizini (Collodi’s original name). Grazie, Vittorio and Elisabetta, owners of Libri Liberi on Via San Gallo. Grazie, Anna.
IV. Responding to a Poem by Mi Ok Bruining / Me and Mi Ok
Responding to a Poem by Mi Ok Bruining
This Korean-born adoptee
is translating herself
back into Korean
so she can greet her omoni
and even if only in fantasy
feel she is getting across.
This Korean-born adoptee
once hated this white bread
But Mi Ok, even though
I had no ocean or border
or linguistic barrier
to get across, I was
still trying to figure out
how I’d been translated.
If I grant you many differences,
will you grant me this one
sameness? That we are not
as much from either side as
we are those who translate
are those who are translated.
Me and Mi Ok
Maybe a dozen years ago, I was standing outside the Food for Thought Bookstore in Amherst, Massachusetts. My eye had been caught by an anthology of writing by feminists of color. I went inside and asked if I could take it out of the window.
Soon a poem had taken me off a shelf. No longer in the store, I was now a Korean-born adoptee trying out some of her birthmother’s language as a way of getting back to the woman herself. “To Omoni, in Korea” might have reminded me of my own poem, “For My First Mother.” Each of these poems was a bridge built to take the poet back to her original mother—and even if only in fantasy/ feel she is getting across.
But I was also remembering the poet herself and her anger. Mi Ok was once in the audience as a I gave a presentation at a conference. I was looking at how the memoirs of bicultural people had helped me look at my experience as an adopted person. I had found mirrors of my experience in Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory, in Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, in Paul Cowan’s Orphan in History. I felt I had learned from these books (and others) about taking back a lost part of yourself and integrating it back into your life.
To Mi Ok, I might have had losses through adoption; but they had not been increased exponentially by the additional losses of country, culture, and language, or by the additional burdens of racial difference and racism. I had not grown up as the only person of my race in my family and my town. I had not been asked by photographers to open my eyes “wider,” as one of Mi Ok’s poems recounts. I know Mi Ok’s anger during the workshop was less about me than about how little she felt understood in terms of the isolation, the dislocation and the differentness she had experienced in her adoption,.
It was my happening upon Mi Ok’s poem in Making Face, Making Soul that returned us to conversation begun two or three years earlier. I wrote “Responding to a Poem by Mi Ok Bruining” and sent it to her. She wrote back. In fits and starts, we have been in communication ever since.
With Mi Ok’s permission, I once proposed to our mutual social work alma mater that they publish “To Omoni, In Korea” alongside my poem responding to it. Those poems together in the school’s journal would have made our conversation public again (like our exchange at the conference) , and I thought this would be a provocative and educational read for social workers. Because my proposal was turned down, I now wish I had suggested pairing “To Omoni in Korea” with “For My First Mother.” At least that would have shown two adoptees both moving toward their birthmothers—one in a combination of English and Korean, the other in the language of dreams.
About ten years after I wrote “Responding,” I wrote another poem with Mi Ok in it. In “The Adopted Woman Reads an Obituary,” I was again connecting thoughts about a multicultural person—in this case Czeslaw Milosz, the subject of the obituary—with adoptee experience. The following stanza is one of nine:
I can’t even read the Times
without musing adopted.
Like the death of Czeslaw Milosz
who did translation
but thought you could write true poems
only in your other tongue.
So where does that leave the
adopted who come from Korea
but grow up in English?
Can your mother tongue be
your adoptive mother’s tongue?
Isn’t Mi Ok Bruining
a powerful poet in English?
But look how she incorporates
Korean. The adopted can
surely appreciate this
mixing of two mother tongues
more than anyone.
Mi Ok responded to my obituary poem by sending me a fable she had written about an Irish-American adopted by Asians. This twist to the usual transracial adoption story still leaves me relatively speechless. Is that because it forces me (Irish-American, no less) to imagine myself growing up with Asian parents? Is it because I read this fable partly as the European-American mother of an African-American son? Am I vicariously overwhelmed by the task Mi Ok has taken on: overturning what people are used to, widening their mental horizons, helping them see things in completely new ways, helping them see hard things? Yes to all that and more.
I have apologized to Mi Ok for my silence, but I am sure Mi Ok knows silence can have many causes. Applause, for example, can be merely polite while a silent audience can mean a spell cast that no one wants to break. Silence can mean a nerve has been touched. It can mean awe. On the other hand, if my ongoing conversation with Mi Ok has taught me anything—yes, and if poetry has taught me anything—it’s that words we don’t have today may still come to us over time. So we can keep responding to each other.
ABOUT THE POET:
Penny Callan Partridge says, “I grew up as an only child in a closed adoption. After high school, I was an English major at Stanford and then a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria. Encouraged by an aunt (now a hundred years old!), I went to the Smith College School for Social Work to become a clinical social worker. My first husband had been my teacher there. He was a widower with a little girl, whom I adopted.
“Not long after that, I co-founded Adoption Forum in Philadelphia. That was in 1973. In 1976, I met my birthmother; and in 1980, I became President of the American Adoption Congress. In 1986, another husband and I adopted our son in an open adoption. Nathan has grown up knowing his birthmother and brother.
“Meanwhile, I had always—even before I could read and write—liked poetry. This was helped by my adoptive mother's obviously relishing it as she read or recited it to me. But my mother was enthusiastic about a lot of things. It was poetry that reached out and grabbed me. I was close to sixty before learning that, through my birthmother, I am probably related to the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh.
“Poetry has connected me to myself and, especially, to my experience(s) as an adopted person. It has also connected me in amazing ways to other people. I tell some of my best stories about this in THE PEOPLE THEY BROUGHT ME. As someone who spent the first weeks of my life with no mother there, I am very grateful for this community we've been building for anyone affected by adoption.”