That

James Brown Click to read more...

BrownJames Brown’s fifth collection of poetry is Warm Auditorium (Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2012). His first collection won the 1995 Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award, and he has been a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards three times. He is the author behind a useful nonfiction booklet called Instructions for Poetry Readings and, in 2005, edited The Nature of Things: Poems from the New Zealand Landscape. James teaches the Poetry Workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University, and is part of the Writing Team at Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum.

That when Julie phoned, late at night, you cried out like a wounded animal.
That you crooned ‘No Julie’ and ‘Oh Julie’ over and over,
until the words caught up with each other and turned
from tigers into butter.

That it was only a month before the due date, so that in everyone’s head
the baby had already arrived and was sleeping peacefully in the blue bassinet
beneath the brightly coloured animal mobile.

That Julie knew something was wrong because the baby had stopped moving.
That the doctor said yes, something is wrong, the baby has stopped living.

That Julie had to carry it inside her for three days before they could induce her.
That she had to go into labour and give birth in the usual way.
That you were still to be her support person.

That, on the day, you went off into the impossible waiting,
then came home for dinner, eyes puffy and dilating,
until the second phone-call came.

That the labour went as if scripted:
‘Once things get going, they often happen quickly.’
That Julie was terrific and pushed the baby out.
That when it appeared, Zac said ‘It’s too quiet in here.’

That Julie held the baby. That she played with it.
That you and Zac held the baby.
That it was almost like a baby, except, you said afterwards,
it was so dead.

That, as requested, you took photos,
which would later show how dead.
That blueness.

That you went into the corridor to give Julie and Zac space
and, sitting with your cup of tea, you could hear
a heartbeat monitor from one room and,
from another,
Julie
sobbing and sobbing.

That you got home about 6 a.m., but still went into school and taught all day.
That Julie and Zac went home to their house filled with baby stuff and flowers.

That for you, having had two homebirths, it was the opposite of what a birth should be.
That your mind got you through it – shut out the word ‘macabre’ till later.

That it was the worst night of your life.

That the funeral was as can be imagined, so it was good to get out
to the tiny gravesides and feel the air sting our faces.

That the autopsy could find no reason.

That Julie’s best friend was also eight months pregnant,
and a month later gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

That Julie has a floppy mummy-tummy.
That she cried when she got her period.

That, for Julie, Milly-Rose had been alive in the world because
how can you blame the longing for a baby?


Note: I acknowledge Alison Townsend’s poem “What I Never Told You About the Abortion” in The Best American Poetry 2006, the form of which provided me with a way into difficult material.

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Discussion

5 Responses to That

  1. Chris says:

    this poem is disturbing, not only because of the subject matter, but because of the audible resonance of the unfolding tragedy. The repetition of the word “that” at the beginning of every line makes me think of the poem as marching relentlessly. I think the title is perfect not only because it is physically a part of the poem, but because it encompasses all the thoughts and moments into one.

  2. Nicola Easthope says:

    I am moved, immediately.

  3. Jillian Oyama says:

    This poem is beautiful and tragic. The repetition of “that” at the beginning of each line creates an almost rhythmic tone that keeps the poem going, even in the most depressing descriptions of the miscarriage. This is similar to how the people in the poem must continue on despite the horribly sad moments they must face. It also suggests injustice, in that Julie must wait for three days after she knows the baby has died, and then give birth in “the usual way” and that the “labor script” remains intact, despite the completely different circumstances from the birth of a live child.

  4. Sam O'Dell says:

    This poem is an intensely disturbing one, mostly because of the subject matter, but also because of the manner in which the poet conveys the horror of having a miscarriage, especially so close to the due date. The repetition of “that” at the beginning of every line draws acute attention to the poem’s rhythm and thus contrasts it with the broken rhythm of life, the baby’s still heart beat. Particularly unsettling is the thought of the mother having to carry her stillborn baby for another three days and having to go through the pain of giving birth all for nothing.

  5. Laura Berry says:

    Sam’s comment about the repetition of “that” and its reflection of the baby’s still heat beat is a really good observation. I am really moved by the idea of the baby’s funeral in this piece. When I consider the funerals I’ve been to, they have all been somewhat comforting in terms of being a “celebration of life.” Of course death can be terribly sad, but being able to recall happy memories of a person’s life can make it easier to manage. In this case, there is nothing to celebrate because the baby never lived a life. The death is tragic in every sense for Julie, as she had to go through the pain of giving birth knowing that she would not be giving birth to a healthy baby.

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