In today’s ORIGINS, Jessica Pierce talks about the inspiration for her poem “A Visitation.” which appears in the summer 2013 issue of jmww.
This poem began when I lived and worked in Guatemala from 2005 to 2006. I felt incredibly at home there, in large part because of the way women welcomed me into their worlds. They would strike up conversations with me at the market, on the chicken buses, in the streets. I worked side by side with women who were vivacious, exhausted, joyful, in mourning, but all of them wanted so much to share their experiences as women with me. I was young, only 25 years old, and I laughed when they gave me family planning advice, which always always always came down to, “have one or two children, no more. No more.” This was in sharp contrast to the family planning advice freely given to me by men (in taxis, in coffee shops) which came down to, “have as many children as possible.” And as I watched more closely, I realized that so many of the women I knew were defined by their relationship to men and children, and I was amazed by the amount of need thrust upon them, day after day after day. But I couldn’t figure out how to write it. I managed lines about softening flesh, strange light, but couldn’t get much beyond that.
The bits and pieces stayed in my journal when I returned to the United States, and within months I had repacked my bags to move to India with my husband. We spent most of our nine months in Kolkata, and those months included summer—120 degrees, 95% humidity, endured with at least 17 million other people (give or take the daily influx of men, women, and children from rural India trying to make it in the crush of city life). While I was so lucky that, once again, women took me under their wings to help me navigate my way through the miasma of a new place and culture, I had a much harder time recognizing myself there than I had in Guatemala. Part of it was the unique nature of urban living (there are only 14 million or so people in all of Guatemala), part of it was the more limited role of women in public life (which wasn’t as apparent in cities like Mumbai, but which was still how the more traditional Kolkata operated), part of it was the damn, incessant, inescapable heat. I dug out my poem from Guatemala and tried to bring in the heat and the desire I had to escape the complications of carrying a woman’s body through a place where I felt so dislocated. But I couldn’t get the pieces to fit.
Back home, those pieces became touchstones for me. I returned to them time and again, as I settled into life as a teacher and wife and then mother-to-be. Being pregnant brought with it a rush of memories of my childhood, of being so sure in my small self, but also of those moments when the world struck me dumb. I remembered running though a clearing in the forest around my home when a plane flying what felt unbelievably low shook the air above my head. I threw myself to the ground, unabashed in my fear. I also collected as much as I could about my ancestors—French-Canadians and Irish Catholics who worked in factories and as stone masons—laying the stories around me as talismans of protection, of strength, of perserverance. I was in early labor for the last two weeks of my pregnancy—I would have hours of contractions, and then they would disappear. I didn’t understand why my wide-hipped, strong-thighed body couldn’t do what it was supposed to do. Eventually, after our baby’s heart-rate dropped in utero, my husband and I decided to go with an induction. The nurses thought I was a bit nuts, but I refused the epidural, and as I pushed and pushed, I thought of how my body finally made sense, of all my child was about to know, of how ready I was to know my child. And then she was in my arms. And weeks later, when I started digging through my journals and poems again, those pieces finally fit.
Jessica Pierce has worked as a farm hand, file clerk, bicycle mechanic, and teaching poet. After taking up space everywhere from the San Joaquin Valley to Arkansas to Boston to Guatemala to India to Oakland, she now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, a sitar player, and their two-year-old daughter. As the lead teacher and language arts teacher at an alternative school outside of Portland, she works with high school students at risk of dropping out. Her work has been published in Painted Bridge Quarterly, the Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine, outwardlink.net, The Times of India (Kolkata), and the Northwest Review, which nominated her for Meridian magazine’s 2007 Best New Poets anthology. She’s had the privilege of studying with Rosanna Warren, Dorianne Laux, Pimone Triplett, Sam Witt, and Jorie Graham.