Every Room in the Body records a fraught, high-risk pregnancy and the terror of living within uncertainty about your own body. After establishing an unsettled feeling in her pregnancy, Kerri French reveals something staggering in “Diagnosis”:
You’re told your baby will be
born but maybe not alive.
Suddenly, the speaker and the reader are thrown together into wondering and fearing. Will the baby live? Will she be made mother of a living child or a dead one? What signs should have been clear? What did she miss? All the ways that a woman wonders during her pregnancy, all the ways that hope can boost and betray come to the forefront as French moves through the agonizing months of trying to keep her baby alive and herself sane.
French breaks the book into three sections: Dwelling, Occupancy, and Domicile. The first section becomes both noun and verb as French confronts the diagnosis of intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), which she describes in her notes as “a liver condition that occurs in pregnancy and causes severe itching in the mother—particularly in the hands and feet—as well as increasing the risk of prematurity, fetal distress, and stillbirth.” As you might imagine, this idea of dwelling hits upon the consuming fear such a diagnosis would ignite, but French also uses it as an opportunity to enter the body as dwelling and residence, a place not yet home, but inhabited. “Feather, Nest, House, Home” begins with characters who will return—a family of birds outside the window of her new home. At first she imagines them lucky, but as her baby’s movements slow in the womb, the birds enter the house and flutter above her belly—
I lay down, their small wings fluttering
above the baby’s kicks until I grew
too afraid to ask them to leave.
In this second poem of the book, the speaker knocks around the house though she is assigned bed rest by her doctor. She already intuits some deeper issue with the pregnancy but cannot make herself still.
In “Occupancy,” the focus turns to the child occupying her body, and the demands put upon that body. As the book progresses, the poems each seem caught in their own moment of suspension amidst a long and terrible wait. French tries to understand the body by mapping the borders of baby and mother, the strange rooms of the body that hold a variety of futures. Water and glass return often as images that indicate transparency and boundary, often simultaneously. In “Residence,” she writes:
the leaves she chose for a bed,
an evening train leaving her to swim
the remainder. Here is a map
that multiplies her hunger. Here
is the sound where it all began.
Here is the noise behind the river—
a headstone of notes whistling below.
Here, water hides and reveals, brings her home and suggests other places she may be forced to inhabit should the pregnancy go wrong.
In the final section, “Domicile,” dreams of the child grow more insistent as the speaker imagines a future for herself with her daughter, a kind of home. Sometimes, she is planning for grief: “I built a headstone from baby blocks, / tiny letters stacked across the bed.” In the same poem, “The Funeral Year,” the grief redirects slightly. “I planned my own funeral instead of hers, / the map to the house swallowed through clouds.” Often, it is the fraught reality of abiding that hurts: in “34 Weeks,” she writes:
The waiting was like a dance
inside me, a gunshot fired
across a clear field
I remembered walking past
years before I knew
she may leave me.
It was easier to imagine her
standing on a platform
as a train approached,
the blame I placed
everywhere except myself
only a whisper of an engine
still not born, the doctors
standing on the track
warning Too late, too late.
The birds of the earlier section return again, only for the speaker to realize they are suddenly gone. They left behind cracked eggs and took with them their portent. The body brings milk, taunting the speaker—it is milk that may not be used. The tension remains until the book’s end for both speaker and reader.
Throughout the book, French’s lines are controlled, her images stark. They employ a kind of tensile strength, such that even when they are short, they feel powerful and deliberate as in the lines:
Afraid to fall asleep, you learn
that to wait is to mourn.
You learn to wait
is to hope, a different kind of disease.
Lines may stagger across the page, broken by white space, a kind of zig zag that emphasizes the quality of dreams in some of her more surreal poems. Still other poems use tight couplets to regain the control lost in the pregnancy. This tension reinforces the speaker’s plight.
Winner of the Moon City Press Award in Poetry for 2016, Every Room in the Body shows the many ways that pregnancy embodies a woman, makes her body foreign as a warscape and domestic as a tea kettle. Pregnancy forces a remapping, a remaking of the body and a woman’s understanding of her own body. French enacts terror in these poems—and hope.