Vesper Vigil by Bronwen Tate
Published by above/ground press, 2016.
"You sleep, I sigh, we mingle breath like lovers –
I reach a stealthy hand, adjust the sheet.
Somewhere between sentiment and complaint
are words to name the child sleeping here"
So begins Vesper Vigil, a collection of sonnets which chronicle the last weeks of Bronwen Tate’s pregnancy with this perfectly succinct ambiguity – how it feels to be pinned down by what we love most. True to her intent, Tate records both the daily parenting of her young son and the approaching birth of her daughter without getting precious or irate. Instead, she employs a tenderness that seesaws between love and pain, gentle yet sore to touch.
“Will this lumpy baby ever come out?”
Owen considers, replies “I don’t know”.
So we measure days in peaches, bruises,
bruised peaches, it’s the body that chooses."
Tate explores the fragile limits of our bodies – how we feed, grow and injure them – within the framework of domesticated routines that gauge her excruciating wait. Every seemingly casual digression probes one of two spectres, the impending pain or joy. They’re a package deal, of course, and her bittersweet tone acknowledges it. Like the development of a fetus, these sonnets mature in nerves that feel deeply rooted thanks to the sing-song rhyme scheme. Each page can encapsulate hours or weeks. Her choice of form allows that compression rate without sacrificing a fluid rhythm, though – as is common with the sonnet – rhymes occasionally raise an eyebrow. (Did she really play disco, or does it just rhyme with San Francisco, etc.?) In any case, by the time she’s admitted to her hospital room, the anxiety and loneliness of third-trimester pregnancy is palpable:
"I’ve taken Misoprostol, Cervidil,
now sitting, watch contraction numbers rise,
one hand to hold the heart monitor still,
slight lag between the pain and peaking highs.
We left with early fog but found no bed,
paced corridors and watched the shifting crane,
took Owen to a playground, sat and read,
called only to be postponed again.
At two at last they showed me to my room,
this prison of uncertain duration,
can’t leave these walls till baby quits the womb,
perch on window bench, await dilation.
Alone now, I breathe through pains, try to sleep.
The road to you be gentle, dark, and steep."
Reading the above selection, I realize how little I’ve contemplated the psychological effects of pregnancy and childbirth. (Just analyzing Tate's thought that, once admitted, she cannot leave the hospital without first enduring an unknown pain gives my pulse a race.) As someone who looks in on parenthood from the outside, that’s my biggest takeaway from this chapbook. Tate manages to imbue archetypal family dynamics with a memorable dose of personal details, creating an unguarded glance at motherhood in transition.