The Argonauts
Maggie Nelson
Since being pregnant is my favorite form of authorship, and since Maggie Nelson reveals all we need to know about bodies filling with babies, bodies reacting to being filled up with babies, outside people reacting to bodies filled with baby, babies finally being presented with what they call in the legal biz a "quit claim deed" . . . with all this you can guess that this collection of essays is obviously my pot of tea.

Get this for a plot: two women are living together, happily, in love, loving. Then one of them, let's call her "Harry," decides to go for an operation that will transform her into what he calls "a butch on Testosterone."

The other, let's call her Maggie, decides to get pregnant. So we get to follow the two of them through this transformation of bodies, all through the period of a year . . . and I cannot think of a more intriguing doubling, taking the chance, the scary chance, to radically change the body. The Janus Face, the Push-me Pull-you. The same body that we were handed when we first arrived, "given to the light" as they say in Spanish.

Harry reports with surprise that men, he learns, "are pretty nice to each other in public . . . always greeting each other 'hey boss' or nodding as they pass each other on the street" (and I'm hoping he knows that the nodding, the direct look into the eyes when you're on the street is a come-on for male gays). He also knows what it is like to have his driver's license scrutinised, the attendant looking at the "F," saying "This is her card, right?" and finally Harry says "It's my card."

    "It's complicated," Harry finally said, puncturing the silence. Eventually the man spoke, "No, actually, it's not," he said, handing back the card. "Not complicated at all."

And Maggie? She tells us that those who aren't in the know refer to the turkey baster. No, and no; nowadays, it's an oral syringe. But no matter what you call it, it's a cold-cold "cold catheter."

And in coming to term (nice phrase, usually used in the plural), there are some unexpected dividends.

It took her by surprise "that my body could make a male body." "As my body made the male body, I felt the difference between male and female body melt even further away."

She is also fond, as we have found many people are fond, of talking to him. She wants to let him know where they are, wherever she may be, he's right there, too, "spinning in the murk. Wherever I went, there the baby went, too. Hello New York! Hello bathtub!"

    And yet babies have a will of their own, which becomes visible the first time mine sticks out a limb and makes a tent of my belly. During the night he gets into weird positions, forcing me to plead, Move along, little baby! Get your foot off my lungs.

Since there were chances of some chromosomal problems, she had sonograms constantly, but points out that there is really nothing you can do at that stage: you are powerless.

    You must allow him to unfurl, you must feed his unfurling, you must hold him. But he will unfurl as his cells are programmed to unfurl.

And during a brief hospitalization, early on, with her a problem of bleeding, the doctor said of the "possible placental issue," "We don't want that, because while that would likely be OK for the baby, it might not be OK for you."

Stark, but one that is bound to turn up at times in those nine months. Him (or her) or me? One may have to go.

And Maggie is brave enough to write

    I loved my hard-won baby-to-be fiercely, but I was in no way ready to bow out of this vale of tears for his survival.

She acknowledges the extra irony, one that puts her even more squarely into a state, a state of war, with the die-hard antiabortionists.

It's tempting for me to go on and on with quotes. I will do with just a couple more. Good honest essayists are hard to come by. I can count on one hand those I will swear by: Mark Twain, Christopher Hitchens, Annie Dillard, Geoff Dyer, Virginia Woolf. (Woolf's book reviews --- reprinted several years ago by Farrar --- are the work of a writer's writer.)

Now, we have one more to add to our list, one who can write so winningly about the ballooning up from within, which only starts to stop with what some refer to as an infinity of agony . . . until . . .

    Then they say I can push. I push. I feel him come out, all of him, all at once. I also feel the shit that had been bedeviling me all through pregnancy and labor come out too. My first feeling is that I could run a thousand miles. I feel amazing, total and complete relief, like everything that was wrong is now right . . . And then, suddenly Iggy. He comes to me, rising. He is perfect, he is right. I notice he has my mouth, incredible. He is my gentle friend. He is on me screaming.

And, with that new freeing emptiness, she could float away, but finds parts of her sliding down,

    And the nice woman at the hospital . . . gave me a wide white elastic band for my postpartum belly, basically a giant Ace bandage with a Velcro waist. I was grateful for it, as my middle felt like it was about to slide off me and onto the floor.

Above all, and this was it for those of us who have gone through the same process, perhaps more than once:

    The Capaciousness of growing a baby. The way a baby literally makes space where there wasn't space before. The cartilage nub where my ribs used to fit together at the sternum. The little slide in my lower rib cage when I twist right or left that didn't used to slide. The rearragement of internal organs, the upward squeezing of the lungs. The dirt that collects on your belly button when it finally pops inside out, revealing its bottom --- finite, after all. The husky feeling in my postpartum perineum, the way my breasts filling all at once with milk is like an orgasm but more painful, powerful as a hard rain. While one nipple is getting sucked, the other sometimes sprays forth, unstoppable.
--- Pamela Wylie
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