A Failure to Launch


Content Note: This piece contains stories about miscarriage and infertility and may be sensitive to some readers. 

On March 31st, 2009, at three o’clock in the morning, I gave birth to my son; eleven years later, to the day, my second book, Letdown, was released just as the pandemic chased us all into our homes where many of us read little but the news and recipes for no-knead bread. In between the last day of March, 2009 and the last day of March, 2020, my son grew not so much like a weed—a simile that implies burgeoning with little effort—but more like something tended in a greenhouse where the gardener must pay constant attention to soil quality, watering, sunlight, and feeding and where the gardener must talk the plant into reaching beyond the rim of its pot. In 2012, my son was diagnosed with epilepsy. In 2014, my son was diagnosed with autism.

Letdown speaks of this journey from birth to symptomology to diagnoses to acceptance, but lest a reader mistake the title as referring to disappointment in the child I was blessed with, the book offers a double narrative. In 2012, I also experienced my first miscarriage; in 2014 I experienced my second miscarriage. Thus, as I was negotiating the new normal with a neurodivergent preschooler, any chance for a second child was twice bled from me. Letdown, therefore, is about begrudging acceptance and about what kinds of negative capabilities shape gratitude. There is also a third narrative woven into this book, and it explores the effects of these intimate traumas on mental health.

In 2016, as I was grading student essays in a Starbucks, I experienced what I can only describe as fetal movement. If you’ve ever felt it before, there’s no mistaking that quivering, that feeling like a cat squirming around inside a velvet sack inside your womb. Likewise, a few days later, I felt it again—a turning. By Christmas I believed I was pregnant despite menstruation and my advanced age. My belly swelled, and I felt near constant movement in my uterus. I combed websites to find stories of women who didn’t know they were pregnant until they spilled a fully-formed baby onto their kitchen floors. I convinced my husband and best friend that I was, against all odds, pregnant and far enough along that I could feel my fetus flexing her limbs. It wasn’t until my legs were in the stirrups at the ER, until the ultrasound tech grew uncomfortably quiet—her vaginal wand probing for signs of life—that the illusion was shattered. It turns out I was in the ER because I was sick. However, I was so sickened by desire that my subconscious built a feedback loop between mind and body, each telling the other I should be with child.

The subconscious is like an exterminator that will burn your house down to get rid of mice or like an aunt that tells you the best way to keep a man is to make him jealous, which is to say well-meaning but extremely misguided. In mental or emotional crises, a mind can flip the temporary insanity switch as a means of preserving long-term sanity. I should know. According to the DSM-5, pseudocyesis is defined as "a false belief of being pregnant that is associated with objective signs and reported symptoms of pregnancy, which may include abdominal enlargement, reduced menstrual flow, amenorrhea, subjective sensation of fetal movement, nausea, breast engorgement and secretions, and labor pains at the expected date of delivery." For a month, then, I harbored a ghost in my womb until she was exorcised by scientific fact.

Emptied out of all possible chance for conceiving a second child—assisted reproduction off the table—the book came together. Letdown pulls together pieces written about my son, about miscarriage and infertility, and about my brush with mental illness, and it was born on March 31st, 2020, because that’s how we sometimes speak of our artistic output. That it is born. That we pour so much of ourselves into it we understand it as living and breathing and of us. I started to understand this book of mine as a surrogate for the second child I could not have. I guess you could say it was my consolation prize, and when it was unboxed and glossy in my hands, a literal baby gleaming up from the cover, I imagined how this story of mine, this intimate, often unspoken of, narrative—could fall into the hands of readers and be their consolation. I saw us all knitted together by our shared trauma and, therefore, no longer alone with it.

Which, of course, returns me to the reality of now—in our homes, struggling to maintain enough of an attention span just to manage the day-to-day, though I may be guilty of cognitive egocentrism here. I just know that instead of being able to use my lockdown time diving into the books stacked on my nightstand, I have spent so much of it pinballing around my house that I went back on my antidepressant, which was prescribed after my second miscarriage, to help modulate my aimlessness. Lest I think it’s just me—is it just me?—on social media I see voracious readers ask others whether they’re still able to concentrate, preoccupied as we all are with COVID numbers and the added, overlapping distress of an election year, the election in question more gravid than any we can recall in our own lived histories.

Moreover, countless writers with books out this year desperately hawk their wares or lament in their posts about the works they have poured themselves into and which have not captured the imaginations of the readership they dreamed of. There is no fault in these books. They are gorgeous testaments to the human experience and made of words lovingly threaded together well before we even heard the words “corona virus” uttered. It’s just that the readership can’t read the way it used to, or it focuses on works by authors who have already been tested and approved by gatekeepers. There’s no one to blame. In a normal year, we read a hundred books, in a pandemic year, many fewer, which means more vetting.

Of course, it’s easy to lay the blame on the pandemic. It’s just as likely, I suppose, that any number of these 2020 books would have slipped through the many porous cracks that cross our paths as we navigate the literary landscape. And yet, when I have reached out to publishers—my own and other small poetry presses—editors have confirmed what I suspected. According to Dennis Maloney, the founder of White Pine Press, which has been publishing books since the mid 70s, in the early months of the virus, most bookstore and libraries were closed, which resulted in a decrease in sales. Though many have since reopened, sales are still below last year’s average. Going into the fall, White Pine has reduced print runs to reflect the reduction in sales. Additionally, the other area that particularly affects presses like White Pine is that authors are unable to do reading tours or visit colleges, and even though some have been able to harness online readings, which does provide an outlet, it doesn't result in many sales, as the books are not present, so to speak. 

Rebecca Hart Olander, the publisher at Perugia, confirms this. Sales are down, she says, and even though the press made it to AWP last March, COVID was just ramping up, so the crowds were much smaller, which meant fewer sales at the conference. Additionally, the press didn’t get to attend any of the local book fairs that would be held in normal years, and like with White Pine, their virtual events haven’t been generating many sales.

For my own book, I can’t say that it would have fared any better in a “normal” year, but it feels better to blame it on the virus, because though Letdown has been reviewed, and though reviewers have said thoughtful and kind things about the book, it does feel as though this book of mine has not emerged into the light, has not really been born after all. I suppose, if I want to be dramatic about it, even, I would say that my pandemic book about birth and loss, the one meant to be a stand-in for the second child lost three times over, ended up another ghost baby. Even now, a stack of them is gathering dust on my own shelf, because I have no hustle left, and the book still has no reviews on Amazon.

This, of course, is where I return to the concept of gratitude and how I must practice it every day as a yogi goes through her asanas. I am alive and my family is alive, though we all contracted the virus, and words still, reliably, try to make meaning of the absurd. What consoles, in talking these things over with friends, is the understanding that writing—the process of—is where the most satisfaction is to be found. The pandemic isn’t over yet, and books continue to be released: publishing must go on. Many of the authors who have released books that have not launched in the spectacular sense are moving on to new projects. I know I am. Even this essay meant to lament is bringing me pleasure because I am making something again. Likewise, my ghost baby/ghost book helped me heal in the penning of it. If writing can be talking therapy—self to self—then the five years spent writing that book were five years of working through overlapping hardships. Thus, even if the book has failed to launch, as I may claim, it is a testament to the concept that writing can save a life. It saved mine.        

Sonia Greenfield is the author of two full-length collections of poetry. Letdown, released in March, was selected for the 2020 Marie Alexander Series and published by White Pine Press. Her collection, Boy With a Halo at the Farmer's Market, won the 2014 Codhill Poetry Prize and was published in 2015. Her chapbook, American Parable, won the 2017 Autumn House Press/Coal Hill Review chapbook prize. Her work has appeared in a variety of places, including in the 2018 and 2010 Best American Poetry, Antioch Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, and Willow Springs. She lives with her husband, son, and two rescue dogs in Minneapolis where she teaches at Normandale College and edits the Rise Up Review