By Sarah Green
I first heard Lucille Clifton’s “the lost baby poem” when I was nineteen years old listening to some Napster download of a warbly and far away Ani DiFranco reciting it onstage: “the time i dropped your almost body down . . .” That year, although emergency contraception had recently hit pharmacies, a long holiday weekend in Ohio found me saved instead by a friend in my dorm who carefully counted out pills from a blister pack until they added up to the amount of ethinyl estradiol and norethindrone that would resemble a morning-after dose. To be clear, this was not an abortion. But I found myself thinking about the potential baby. I counted the months—it would have been a Pisces. I read Diane di Prima: “how am I to forgive you this blood? / Which was [. . .] to grow, and become a son?” Still, as I finished up a spring semester Incomplete and made an appointment to get on birth control, I knew I was lucky to be able to move on so smoothly.
Of two abortions she had as a young woman, Ani DiFranco—who would go on in mid-life to give birth to two children—writes in a 2019 LitHub essay: “I used to periodically count the ages that my first two children would’ve been if they had entered the world as such. [. . .] It was an exercise in the terrifying math of the near miss. Your life as you envisioned it could have effectively ended three, five . . . ten years ago. Just imagine. What kind of shell of your former dreams would you be now?”
All pregnancies involve a massive upheaval in body, psyche, time, and resources, whether or not they are planned. Even when motherhood is desired, it requires the sacrifice of possible worlds—possible selves—that cannot necessarily thrive in its constraints. It makes a difference if this sacrifice is by consent—if becoming a mother was one of a pregnant person’s “dreams.” If not, a clash arises like the one depicted in Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “kitchenette building” where a Black woman contemplates the viability of holding on to beauty and imagination and sovereign personhood as a mother. The noun “dream” is externalized here as an almost-tangible entity making its way through the obstacle course of poverty and homemaking. “[C]ould a dream,” she asks, “fight with fried potatoes / And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall [. . .]? / We wonder. But not well! not for a minute! / Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now, / we think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.” While readers can’t know for sure if this character chose to be a mother, Brooks describes her life path as “the involuntary plan.”
It is in part to honor the triumph of defying an “involuntary” trajectory of womanhood that Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” poses its title question. “won’t you celebrate with me / what i have shaped into / a kind of life?” the speaker asks, explaining the literal odds against that life: “everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” Note that while Clifton begins with the open, invitational question “won’t you celebrate . . . ?”, she concludes with the more intimate command, “come celebrate.” It’s as if Clifton is winnowing her audience, finding out who sees her survival as cause for celebration, and—once that’s been established— inviting those people to stay. Meanwhile, she’s celebrating more than survival. She’s celebrating the art and labor of dreaming and living—gestating and bearing—an original self. “[i] had no model,” she writes, continuing, “both nonwhite and woman / what did i see to be except myself? / i made it up.”
And it turns out that for Clifton, an essential part of shaping “a kind of life,” and an essential part of the exigency of self-preservation as a Black woman, is the option of safe and legal abortion. In “the lost baby poem,” poverty and the implied suffering it would mean for a newborn are deciding factors for the speaker’s abortion (“you would have been born into winter / in the year of the disconnected gas / and no car”), and she seemingly pleads for the absent baby to understand the context(s) of her choices (“if you were here i could tell you these / and some other things”).
This is a gutting, haunting poem, in which the speaker’s grief is clear (“the time i dropped your almost body down / [. . .] / what did i know about waters rushing back”). What’s also clear is her sense of guilt—not religious guilt, but a certain moral guilt that seems to be a byproduct of a strong sense of responsibility toward fostering Black life and aiding the project of Black nation-building in an America that (then, as now) commits structural violence against Black life. She pledges “definite brothers and sisters” to this “lost baby,” putting her very belonging on the line as collateral—“let black men call me stranger / always” if she doesn’t keep her promise to nurture subsequent Black children.
I am thinking now of these lines in Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Paul Robeson”:
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.
I am a white woman and I can say with certainty that left-leaning white women love to quote this poem. Brooks’ poem is a fierce, lyrical reminder of the truth— the emergency, even—of mutual aid. But how often are Black women included—by white women, by lawmakers, by pastors, by the Black men to whom Clifton’s speaker feels beholden—in this “we”? Maya Marshall’s 2022 poem “An Abortion Ban” articulates the many risks and costs of pregnancy for Black families:
A livebirth with a dead mother is a school lunch. A
stillbirth is a twenty-thousand-dollar bill.
A pregnant black woman is a dead black woman.
When it comes to Black pregnancy, there are the financial costs of school lunch and hospital fees—but there is also the significant risk of death. If “everyday / something has tried to kill” Clifton’s speaker, pregnancy could very well be one of those things. An April 2022 Centers for Disease Control study, “Working Together to Reduce Black Maternal Mortality,” reports that pregnancy-related complications are three times more likely to kill Black women than white women. According to a 2018 report from the National Partnership for Women & Families, “[h]ospitals that predominantly serve Black communities provide lower-quality maternal care, performing worse than others on 12 out of 15 birth outcomes, including elective deliveries, nonelective cesarean births and maternal mortality [. . .].”
Health disparities and structural poverty—not to mention the threat that one’s partner or child will be killed by police—all have dire consequences for Black pregnancies and Black motherhood. But add to these dangers, in a post-Roe v. Wade America, the additional unequal impact of potential jailtime for Black women seeking abortions. A 2020 report from the Sentencing Project relays the statistic that Black women—who make up roughly 13% of the general population—already comprise 29% of incarcerated women. Not only does the criminalization of abortion disproportionately punish Black women because of preexisting racism in the justice system, but also because such conservative legislation is more likely to be put in place in states where that injustice is particularly rampant.
Maya Marshall’s poem goes on:
An embryo is a fingernail.
A fetus is a jail.
The word apostrophe means two things. In grammatical terms, of course, it’s the punctuation mark indicating belonging. In literary terms, it is the mode in which a poet addresses an absent “you.” Clifton uses rhetorical apostrophe when she writes to the “lost baby.” She reaches out to that absence. She writes that absence a postcard: “if you were here.” Brooks heavily enjambs the posses- sive phrase “each other’s” throughout “Paul Robeson.”
Etymologically, there is a historical connection between these two kinds of apostrophe. A historical connection, you might say, between belonging and absence. Between Clifton’s “lost baby” and DiFranco’s former dream. The punctuation mark stands in for the loss of an “-es” ending that was once standard at the end of possessive nouns in a certain genitive case of Anglo-Saxon. Ethically, there is a contemporary connection. Acknowledging the truth of the claims on behalf of mutual aid in Brooks’ poem—every apostrophe ushering in accountability to community—includes acknowledging the times “we” (whoever “we” are) have failed to deliver it.
Some of the times we failed to deliver it, “something [. . .] tried to kill” a Black woman and succeeded. And yet we still want to answer Clifton’s question ‘won’t you come celebrate with me?’ To say “yes” to celebrating with Clifton’s speaker is not just to say “yes” to a woman’s right to choose; it is also to say “yes” to acknowledging the violence and threat of white supremacy as it lurks in the shadows of her speaker’s triumphant survival and of our American present day. Yes, we celebrate. Yes, we acknowledge.
Yes, we (try to) survive what we’ve lost.
Sarah Green is the author of Earth Science (421 Atlanta) and editor of Welcome to the Neighborhood: An Anthology of American Coexistence (Ohio University Press). She is currently at work on a second collection of poems, The Deletions. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.