Poetry: THE BURLESQUE OF MOTHERHOOD by Katherine Gaffney

While tapping into the playful and surreal, Katherine Gaffney’s poem illustrates the transformation of pregnancy while also negotiating what it means to “shape and ears” such a dance that makes the body fluid and magical.




On stage, there’s a body
++++that the woman keeps trying to scoop
up, like spilled water, the imagined milk
+++++++++that leaks from her

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++when she’s not looking,
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++when others are eyeing

++++++the gloppy pair of petals
+++++++on her chest. In it, she forgets

if it is she who is screaming
or the baby:

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++how the sounds reverberate
++++++++++++++++++++++++and blur across time and person.

On stage, I am the woman and nowhere
++++near pregnant but everyone tells me

+++++++++I have the shape and ears
for it. Everyone in the audience knows

I am not a mother but laughs along
with my physical charade.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++I am a charade with my set of two blonde doll
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++babies falling perpetually from my arms

++++++with their stuffed torsos and plastic skulls.
I work the stage to contain, like my body,

++++++my milk, the belief that I am
something other than mother. That this spectacle
+++++++++++++++++++++is both true and false is true. True in how unwound ++++++++++++++++++++I’ll be if and when the time comes. False
in that everyone, like a good audience,
says, yes, yes, I believe her,

+++++++++++even though they know the petals
+++++++++++++++are cow’s milk splashed onto the shadow
of my nipples off stage and the babies in my arms
came from a factory along with the bump
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++I have strapped over to my middle

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++and so we are in

the middle, waiting for the end,
++++++which I could say would be

+++++++++++in eight minutes to accommodate for the one
+++++++++++I’ve already taken, to make up for the nine

that map onto the human gestation
I mime, but we all know that nine

+++++++++++months is an approximation. Last week
++++++++++++++a girl backstage delivered

++++++++triplets at five months, how red and rat
++++-like they were. How we all buzzed around

+++++++++++to find a hospital to incubate them for the last three
+++to four. We say Day One is the zero hour and so begin

++++++++++++++++++counting life, but there are places where a baby
++++++++++++++++++is born at one. A being long in process, a reckoning

of time and wrong we sing is when it should go,
+++Praise your first breath, your newfound
autonomy, praise the separation of body
from body. Glory is your sound arrival

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++in this world. We all do the can-can,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++because this is burlesque and we can, lift
our skirts, and give a glimpse at the runway

+++of life, unless we are excavated, baby in the doctor’s
++++++++left hand, scalpel in right. The audience begs
me to say life hand as I begin the juggling

act where, at the final catch, I collapse,
+++++++++++but I say left and right and left and spill

++++++++into my puddle of motherhood.





Katherine Gaffney

Katherine Gaffney completed her MFA at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is currently working on her PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in jubilat, Harpur Palate, Mississippi Review, Meridian, and elsewhere. Her first chapbook, Once Read as Ruin, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

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