Sunday, April 10, 2011

Choice Among the Goddesses, or How I Finally Wrote About My Abortion

Here is a guest post I wrote for Ruth Ellen Kocher's very fine blog Aboutaword, which I wanted to share also with you, dear loyal readers of American Witch. . .
My book  Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams came out recently and now I am doing readings and a blog-tour about the book--(there's even a Facebook group started by the press where you can share experiences and get updates on readings and performances of ATG).  The book has a unique structure; it intertwines an epic poem and a poetic opera libretto that tell the same story in narrative and dramatic form, spiraling around each other if you read the book straight through.  You can also read one side of the page only as an epic poem, the other only as a poetic libretto.
I am having an unusual time publicizing this book for several reasons. I’m still figuring out how much to sing and how much to speak when I perform, with or without musicians.   Also, the tangled history of writing the book, described briefly below, sometimes makes it feel like I’m living in two or three decades at once.  The main reason, however, is the abortion.

The book’s only review so far (by Jane Galer, in Coreopsispoints out that Among the Goddesses “might be the first opera about abortion.”  Even when I first conceived (pun intended) the poem around twenty years ago, I knew that an abortion would constitute  the climax of the action. I had not had an abortion. But I still felt it was the most important theme I could write about.  I wanted to help create, or express, a spiritual basis for reproductive freedom:  not just a tolerance, but a reverence for women’s ability to become pregnant and the consequent power that has always lent us over human life and death while a baby is part of our own body.

When I started writing Among the Goddesses, I had not had an abortion.  But eventually, in fact, I did.  I became pregnant by accident, at age 44 with two carefully-spaced children including a 1-year-old baby, a struggling marriage, financial challenges, and three demanding careers.  I agonized over the choice, and my husband and I finally chose abortion as the best course for our family (afterward, I was interviewed for Jennifer Baumgartner’s wonderful film Speak Out:  I Had An Abortio; someone has posted a brief excerpt of the interview here.
I am a deeply spiritual person who finds life and death intense and almost unbearable mysteries.  It was impossible for me to think of an abortion as a purely physical act, “just like going to the dentist,” to quote Maude’s daughter on the 1972 TV episodes which seem to be not only the first but possibly the only positive depiction of abortion ever broadcast on U.S. network television.  And it was equally impossible to take the only other choice offered by mainstream culture: to frame my abortion within the values of a male-centered, judgmental religion based on the dualistic denial and transcendence of death.   It was a no-win dilemma.
After the abortion, although the epic poem was finished, I pulled it from its scheduled publisher and began another decade of work on the project.  I wanted to add to the story’s mass without diluting its archetypal force.  Over ten years, I turned the epic poem into an opera libretto, put the two side by side, and finally interwove them, finding, in that new and spiraling shape, the kind of repeating, archetypal oral tradition I had been looking for. Just before the book was published, I added as an appendix the most personally revealing piece of writing I have ever published:  a ritual I wrote for my family to heal ourselves when it became clear that believing in a spiritual context for abortion was not enough.  We needed to act ritually on that belief as well, in order to fully enact the abortion and also to heal from the pain created by the mainstream no-win dilemma.  The ritual had worked, freeing me to move forward in peace with the book and my life, and I wanted to share it with others who might finish reading the book and wonder about a possible next step.
At the launch of Among the Goddesses at the AWP writing conference last spring, given Red Hen Press’s two-hour challenge to sell as many copies as I possibly could because otherwise I’d have to bring the leftovers home in the suitcase I’d already stuffed to overflowing with other people’s books, it was hard to have any doubts about the book’s future. “It’s the feminist epic of the 21st century,” I told anyone who would listen.  “Isn’t the cover gorgeous?”  (it is).  A lot of people listened, and I sold 60 copies in two hours.  People loved the title, and several told me that goddesses are “coming back” now.  They also enjoyed the epic-libretto format.  In fact, in a van on the way to the airport, several writers cooked up a plan for me:  I would travel the country performing benefit performances of the book with local musicians, for birth control clinics and feminist groups.  What a great idea!
But even if I do a traveling musical tour, even if the book bears on a living moment and a contemporary controversy, it remains timeless in the same way as my other poetry.  In the final analysis, isn’t it in the timeless realm that I want it to live? This is the way I’m used to thinking about my poems.  A poet for as long as I can remember, I’ve given readings for many hundreds of people, and I’ve read to a dozen.  I’ve published in magazines with huge circulations, and magazines with the teeniest of circulations.  And it’s all been fine to me; it hasn’t really mattered.  All my poetry has been written for the eyes of the Muse and the future.

Greek Goddess Demeter
But this book is turning out differently.  I never anticipated, when I added my personal post-abortion ritual as an appendix at the last moment, that because of that action, the whole thrust of the book could change.  All along I had known there was a lot at stake for me. As a woman, I wanted to create a spiritual context in which the deep, free, and responsible choice for my own abortion in my own body could be recognized as part of a greater sacred whole.  As a citizen, I wanted to feel I was helping tip the culture out of that no-win dilemma which undermines female-centered spirituality and, thus, ultimately, women’s capacity for full self-empowerment.  And as a poet, I needed to ground the most dramatic theme I could imagine in the most charged imagery I could conjure.

Now that the book is out, I’m beginning to learn more about what’s at stake for others.  At a party last week, I met a women’s studies professor who told me that two students had come to see her the previous week in agony because they felt they needed abortions, knew that was the right thing to do, yet had no spiritual context in which to conceive of doing so. She said she would shareAmong the Goddesses with them, not only for the poem (these were girls who don’t normally read poetry) but also, or maybe even more, for the appendix at the end.

Sumerian Goddess Ianna
The more I notice the rollback of women’s reproductive rights and freedoms (like today’s news of the closing of a so-called loophole for rape victims in Indiana, or the shocking attempt to defund Planned Parenthood as part of the federal budget agreement) and the closer my own daughter and her friends get to the age of sexual activity, the more it matters to me that this ritual is out there, that people have a concrete, physical model for a new approach to abortion.  (I'd also like to mention, and thank, and recommend, a very wise and useful book that helped me get to the point of realizing I needed a ritual: Peace After Abortion by Ava Torre-Bueno. 
In the final version of the poem, the poem’s heroine, Marie/Lily, receives guidance and company from the goddesses Demeter, Kali, and Inanna—all balancers of life and death, as goddesses tend to be— as part of her journey of self-determination, which takes her through a symbolic mythic abortion and out the other side.  Only many years after that experience does she finally have her baby, and when she does, the baby is welcomed into a community she has helped to build and never could never have dreamed of, the first time she became pregnant.

Hindu Goddess Kali
After twenty years of gestating this odd and fully-formed newborn young adult, 
I need to acknowledge that it’s here, it’s come out, it’s been born—and like any newborn, it has a life utterly its own ahead. I find myself mystified and surprised when I think about the future of my creation and the new world into which it has emerged.  I’m surprised at how central that abortion ritual feels to me, like a seed, or a baby, cast out on huge, dark, unknown water in the boat of this strange book, Among the Goddesses.  And I’m mystified as I wonder what their fate will be.


Ms. said...

How brave you are. This is a service to the whole community of women worldwide. You are a gift. All love and blessings for you and your family, which includes every woman, child and man with access to your wisdom and generosity. i, an elder now, way past that prime, am encouraged by knowing that women like you are in the world, active, talented, strong and loving.

Annie Finch said...

Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! (: It provides light for me to move forward.

Ms. said...

I know you most probably know this poem by a favorite author of mine, but it's recent air play in her voice on the radio in celebration of National poetry month, and your own excavation of your past reminds me of I am printing it for all to share who may not know Adrienne Rich-

"Diving into the Wreck"

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I ham having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Phecba said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Annie Finch said...

Thank you! i am involved in writing a memoir now which is very much concerned with excavating the past in a more general sense too--so this is extremely timely for me, and I'm sure many readers will appreciate it also!

Joshua said...

The book is very powerful, Annie, and I was glad to read what more you say here about its history.

After you and I last saw one another, I read the bulk of the book aloud to myself when I was home alone. In the thrall of all those dactyls, I heard a humming, an awakening of the hive.

However important the book is and will be in providing for women a spiritual context in which to consider abortion, I think the book can and will create such a context for men as well, especially men who need the goddesses more than they know.