Pushcart 2014: David Hornibrook, “The Ultrasound” (Poetry) from Dunes Review, June 2012

Luís Calçada: Binary Black Hole (illustration)

Luís Calçada: Binary Black Hole (illustration)

A landscape contorts before them, a universe
                expands, contracts, I can’t tell which.

Turbulence within a cloud of space dust
                causes a knot to form, the dust around it

collapsing. My eyes cannot escape
                the motion the monitor reveals,

or is it
                just the wand

brooding over the face of the water.
                The hot core at the heart of a collapsing cloud

will one day become a star.
                After a while everyone leaves us alone.

Several days later one of the women
                returns. Her gaze attends

to the space around us. She asks
                for us to step out into the hallway.

We don’t know how to get there.

I read this poem right after reading Jessica Wilbanks’ essay “Father of Disorder” in which she uses thermodynamic principles to examine the emotional landscape of her family. Here again we have the illumination of emotion via science: a couple’s reaction to an ultrasound in pregnancy, via the ultrasound image itself, compared to the image of a black hole, in a nice melding of imagistic layers.

The poem starts out in a doctor’s waiting room with him and his wife, and some musings about black holes before moving to the lines quoted above.

I’ve never been pregnant, never wanted to be pregnant, never even been in a close relationship with someone who was pregnant, so I’m a bit out of my element, in an experiential sense, here. That’s the time to ask questions: is he talking about an impending miscarriage or birth defect? Is this an unwanted pregnancy, and the decisions that await them are overwhelming? Or is the speaker just that shocked at the idea of impending fatherhood and all the miracle-of-life stuff (forgive my cynicism, my new neighbors have a super-screamer of a baby and I’m a little tired of the miracle of life these days. How do parents manage at all without losing their minds?).

I get the sense the woman in the poem is considerably pregnant, rather than awaiting her first ultrasound, from the waiting room scene:

                                        .…my wife
                is tired,

doesn’t want to read magazines,
                shifts in her seat…

That seems like someone who’s physically uncomfortable, perhaps from mid-to-late-term pregnancy, rather than someone excited, or even unhappy, about the possibility of being pregnant. And if she is upset about the idea, no explanation for that is given, which would be an odd choice. I think this places the timeline in later pregnancy.

The line “brooding over the water” brought me to the creation story in Genesis. What is commonly translated as “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” in the second verse, just before “Let there be light,” can perhaps be more literally translated as “…the Spirit of God brooded over the waters.” The generation of the universe, the generation of life. The wand brooding over the pregnant belly – another nice play of words, “wand”, wind, spirit, breath of God – taking it back? Or creating a sense of wonder? Yet the father-to-be describes black holes as “holes so deep that nothing, even light, can escape.” This does not sound like a happy reaction.

Some of my ModPo compatriots have had more experience with pregnancy than I; yet they had questions as well:

I wonder whether the mother has to remain in the hospital for a few days to see what will happen. It does sound as if there is a big gulf between the two of them and the staff. The man, the writer, sounds completely at sea with the situation, whatever it actually is. I am guessing the mother is far more educated about pregnancy and the various technical terms, while the father has no idea of the possibilities and the words to describe them.
The phrase ‘We don’t know how to get there’ is the most ominous of the lines you have shared.

I have to say, I’m probably coming at this from a much different and likely a much more personal place than I would be normally. Our eldest daughter is what we casually refer to as “ten months pregnant”…
I went back and read this excerpt again and honestly cannot tell from this whether the woman has delivered, miscarried, or is about to do either…I guess I better try and get hold of the whole poem before I make any more determinations.

One of the limitations we’re facing in discussing these poems is that, when text or reading isn’t available, others must rely on excerpts I have selected. I have on occasion flagrantly violated copyright law myself, but I’m not going to involve the ModPo message boards in anything that could do damage to the learning community that’s been created there. We manage in spite of limitations.

I went back and read the poem after a break of a few days to confirm it was about pregnancy at all; there are other reasons for ultrasounds, and if I’ve learned nothing else from the two Mathematical Thinking MOOCs I’m currently taking, not to mention from reading all the possible interpretations of poetry I’m encountering, it’s to consider all possibilities. But the imagery is clear, and early in the poem, the speakers wonders what it’s like to “enshrine a life.” Could it be, then, that at the outset, there is ambivalence about a pregnancy, but when it comes down to it, they find out which way their hearts are really set?

So we’re left with a bit of a mystery, around a poem that itself deals with the ultimate mystery. I wonder if that’s a coincidence.

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