Toxemia of Pregnancy

There was the bed bent in half,
the needle in the wrist,

the crack of bathroom light under the door.
Your father tried to sleep in the hospital cot

while the nurse came in every hour
to watch your heartbeat scratch itself

on ticker tape. Seven months inside me,
you must have liked the sugary IV

for never had you leapt so much
as if to say, OK, let me out.

I lay in a body whose cells had blown apart
and watched the clock move towards eight

when the surgeon would come lift you
feet first into air-conditioned light.

I tried to imagine how your world
would open onto this–

and even then I did not know
what “this” would be.

It was later, when you lay, breathing hard,
like an animal thrown by a car,

that I knew what I’d done to you,
though you were the “big boy”

among the mouse-sized children
who would also someday go home.

Each night after all day in the NICU
the imprint of alarm bells kept ringing

inside me and I’d see that deep pit
in your chest gasping fast. On the third day

when I first held you
you seemed a little surprised

and you slept in the fragrance of my skin.
Little one, sweetest pea, I crooned,

too new for mothering to sing
any of the songs I had rehearsed.

How we all love beginnings best,
and there you were, learning to breathe.

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Joan Baranow is the author of the poetry books In the Next Life and Living Apart and two poetry chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in Pulse, The Paris Review, The Gettysburg Review, Blackbird, Forklift OH, Poetry East and elsewhere. She founded and teaches in the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Dominican University of California. With her physician husband David Watts she produced the PBS documentary Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. Her feature-length documentary The Time We Have presents an intimate portrait of a teenager facing terminal illness.

About the Poem

“This poem came from my experience of carrying my firstborn child.”


4 thoughts on “Toxemia of Pregnancy”

  1. Beautiful. Sweetest pea, learning how to breathe.
    This touched me deeply. As I await the birth of my grandchild – whose aortic arch didn’t form properly around day 36 or 37 gestational age.
    How I long to sing to him.
    I pray that when he is born, he will know how to breathe.
    I am the mother of 3 and the grandma of one…
    Luckily, I know how to.

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Call for Entries​

Pulse Writing Contest​​

"On Being Different"