Elizabeth Alexander, “Baby”
K is eight months pregnant with our fourth child. She told me this morning that she dreamed the child came out as big our three-year-old son. She kept holding him and getting confused, wondering, “Am I holding the baby or C?”
K has specialized in bizarro pregnancy dreams ever since 12 years ago, during her first pregnancy, when she dreamed that she had given birth, and the doctor presented her with our first daughter in a casserole dish, tiny and smothered in enchilada sauce.
I thought that was pretty unsettling until a couple of years later, when I read Elizabeth Alexander’s Antebellum Dream Book as part of a graduate seminar on African American poetry. (You might remember Alexander from this.) Among other things, the book collects poems based on dreams that Alexander recorded while she was pregnant, Such as the following:
The doctor handed me a parfait dish
of melting pink and coffee ice cream
and said, “Congratulations! A girl!”
This bewildered me; I had not been
pregnant, but I kissed the dish and put her
in the deep freeze to see if she’d take shape.
I knew there was a baby in there somewhere,
her tiny arms and legs in vaguest outline.
The doctor frowned, then smiled again:
“Congratulations! A boy!” This one
had a mammoth head and a full set
of teeth. I named the babies Vincent and Louise.
Meanwhile, my father fluttered about
the room and discouraged visitors.
My mother-in-law said, “I made you turkey
breast and rice. You didn’t eat.” My husband
slept deeply on my brother’s bunk bed.
I talked about the dream and later thought
about something someone told me, that
giving birth is all about yourself.
I am formless and fanged, boy and girl both,
food and baby at the very same time.
“Giving birth is all about yourself,” and so, we believe, is dreaming. This poem is so similar to K’s enchilada dream, that I can’t help but wonder how many women dream that their unborn children are food. It would make sense, I guess, life growing inside your belly, some confusion between consumption and cultivation. But that’s all guesswork on my part.
I like how Alexander’s poem expresses the familiar anxiety that expecting parents have about the unknown. We’re experiencing that right now. It’s such a leap of faith to have a child. You don’t know what they’ll be like, what physical, emotional, or spiritual challenges they might have. How their personality will simplify or disrupt your family dynamics. Before the baby is born, he or she is more a mass of anxieties than a real person. That’s why I love it in the poem when she says, “I knew there was a baby in there somewhere, / her tiny arms and legs in vaguest outline.” As inchoate as it might be, the promise that there is a germinating human somewhere behind those anxieties is soothing.
I think the poem articulates something very particular to a mother’s experience too, which is the feeling of giving life and simultaneously being consumed and transformed by that little life. When she says, “I am formless and fanged, boy and girl both / food and baby at the very same time,” she is speaking metaphorically but also in some ways literally. I can only imagine the strange paradox of being two bodies in one. If she is having a boy, then she is literally “boy and girl both” for a time. And while she nourishes the fetus (and afterward) she is his food, and he is part of her body.
Finally, I like that the poem is funny. At least, I think it is. Something about that “mammoth head” with a “full set of teeth” captures how terrifying and alien babies are. They’re weird and gross in so many ways, even though they’re also beautiful and sweet. I especially love giant baby heads on floppy baby necks.
And always in these dreams, there’s a doctor who just takes everything in stride. “Ah yes, here’s your baby. She’s an enchilada.” As if it were the most natural thing in the world. The weird thing is, I remember K telling me about that dream, and mostly just feeling hungry.