Rachel ZuckerRachel Zucker

Working Note

In labor with my second son (my first labor without an epidural) I lost all modesty for the first time since my girlhood and went to a place I never knew existed. The pain of the contractions eclipsed everything around me, erased my sense of relatedness, and stranded me in a space of complete “I.” At the same time, my physical body became a process rather than subject and was not then subject to the rules of feminine propriety or vanity. I was an “I” without self-consciousness, perspective, language.

For months afterwards I was agitated and disturbed by the experience — I felt changed (not only by the monumental arrival of my second child) and yet unable to articulate the exact nature of this change. One day I tried to “make sense” of the journal entries I wrote in the days and weeks after the labor and ended up with an eight page poem, “The Woman in Street Clothes.” As the months went by I returned to the poem — editing where the writing seemed weak or careless. I ended up with “Either all I or None No Matter Is, Is” which felt finished. But it bothered me that in the finished poem I had lost so much of the confusion, the frightening shifts of consciousness, the out-of-controlness of the experience. Also lacking was the insatiable desire of a new mother to tell her birthing story which begins almost before the afterbirth is delivered. The poem was at once too clean and too legible. So I went back again to the big mess to exhume a truer version of myself in labor. But by then my son was 10 months old, and I had told and dreamed the story of his birth hundreds of times and long ago fallen in love with him. The attempt to make a narrative out of experience that is stripped of narrative, context, point of view is critical to the process of healing, because it is too frightening to remain in that location of perfect “I.” Perhaps there is no true version, no adequate representation of such an experience, no right dose of narrative. Still that moment of utter “I” exists unchanged though buried within me — a wound or fissure that compels me toward another telling.

Final note: In “Here Happy is No Part of Love” I refer to a concept in Jewish mysticism called Tsimsum which attempts to solve the paradox of how God can be everywhere and at the same time have space to create the world. The idea is that creation is made possible when God contracts. I remember thinking, between contractions, about Tsimsum, how in the rendering or rending of human life the self blinks, shudders, for an instant is crushed to almost nothing.



Either All I Or None No Matter Is, Is

— wants to but peels each sanity

“go through”
women say: “circle of fire”

And though fear a pure thing is not acceptance.

I swear I say I have no hold myself captive
someone: “this is”
          she says “crescendo”
the syringe then as if disco or strobe it my god muzzle
inside molten, a clear view: no overpass this monumental this



but would not move.
“Circle of fire” they say.
Something — the room —.

her hand strongly on the side rail.

        Listen, listen to me, she says.


The midwives call it “crescendo”
without it impossible but how is
                                how I?

presses into        [template]


          the want to wish to —
is not easy to shake off

Now this second son I never dreamed fills something unasked
see how his eye on me, even shut, my breathing measured, meted

and I want
but cannot start out only to end up
day and day and night go by without I
          (that room bed up and down, hands, knees)
what I lost there what I got

and to ask if I am happy is —
here happy is no part of love

Here Happy Is No Part Of Love


she is not          (in the end)          denatured          (but begins to)
like acid           body away some under, subjacent revealed
a catalytic sizzle, substance dissolved solvent picture the sky with atomic bomb cloud suddenly black, blank then

Someone shouting,                   (a woman) she

            “go through”     “circle of fire”
“through go”    though death go-go-go she says breathe


            I — oh no what is that I collect and try I —
                        lift want to set down but in parts
                        pieces no longer I lift want to stop
                        sit down lift I want       burden
                        burden burden burden             breathe

Organic: I cannot move.

A woman, some screaming — they say less screaming — breathe! they say — she wants to say
I am but is not hears screaming is that her? what is that fire? peeling each sanity: every skin,
bone like bark stripped off a slender branch inside screaming picture cardiac smooth “you
             must breathe”

                                                but who? and how to with all this screaming



my body opens-in one cannot witness                         is



At some point I started begging.

Each time in that place thinking “I must tell them” thinking “the difference between saying and thinking is they can’t hear me,” and would say, “I can’t do this” then would sink again drowning again desperate.

Decisions were made in both places drowning and living and a woman sent out for Demerol. It was long and I went back and back and back to the place I swore I could not go. Before I knew I was there again. It came to me, became me.

And here she was fiddling and fixing the I.V. bitter, chiding, I’d used my strength to say “enough!” “We hear you” they said, “we’re helping.” And a woman was sent for Demerol (it had been fluid). Oh I was faché and told them, told them off but the place came to me and I could say nothing.

No position, no angle, “way to manage.”
Someone said “this is the crescendo” and I thought:
fuck fuck fuck fuck, fuck-you.

then: the syringe

In snapshots — as if a disco ball or strobe light here is the syringe and I.V. suddenly tired — snap-shot: hope, rest,              I want to...        but
                                                                           a muzzle descending.

“betrayal” was not a word or thought had no words snapshot: [I will die]

And everywhere an explosion I am inside myself which is molten clear view: there is no help shade overpass. Monumental desert. This “I will” and “die” though fear a pure thing is not acceptance.


Behind the curtain of Demerol which made them suddenly impervious to my suffer unlike anything and made me incoherent scream no sound to say this ocean you have poured over me is not cooling down this one bit drowning but only some plankton morgue you thought would shut me up -

                                                they said circle of fire so many times it seemed stupid I had no choice but burn and burn and then something ungodly —— what was that?

                                                                                    someone said, I see it
                                                                                    someone said, crowning

             An explosion that would not move.

No space between from creasepleatwhimper.

Circle of fire, they say.
Push, she says.

Something —— the room — shifting —— -

                                                                            “...get the doctor.”


[           ] is faster than I can recount what I saw was strobe again blinking series of frames in their faces and bodies a sudden new weather in the room people moving, pressing a monitor to my side and a woman rushing in in street clothes everyone else in scrubs the room moving alive around me as though they have forgotten I am here dying and no one saying push it is over I think I am finally dying I think...

                (“get Dr. Mondoni” )


“LISTEN TO ME,” she says, (a woman’s eyes and mine I think she seems to be speaking as if to me how lovely to meet such a woman looks like my midwife my husband holding my left leg just like he did for my first child and who is that stern woman purse tight across her chest like some pageant ribbon or breastplate) “you MUST push”

and I know this is not the circle of fire.
is fire. Out of, chaos.

— Perhaps a woman wrote the image of god contracting to create the world before she died as Rachel died in labor with Benjamin she named him Ben Oni son of my mourning a midwife herself perhaps she knew she would not breath this fire as they tended and she screamed how Jacob had the nerve to change the name to son of my right hand -

They lower the side rail. They fumble.

And the woman: get Dr. Mondoni! someone pushing in a baby warmer I think my husband says “the head” I must push I must I hear a hot sound inside the body, a moment liquid/vapor— Stop Screaming someone says and I realize for the first time I am screaming not pushing I try to scream thinking push I try to push thinking no screaming

you —                  must —                     she says

and I did did not want to die I did and feel a ripping deep turning something in what should be out this is not the circle of fire something else this is in in in a burrowing when nothing left to burn

                                        and the baby slides



“The truth is I did not want this baby though beautiful it almost kills me and bleeding waiting I am not safe even my bedroom ipso facto the post partum a nest like a bird with only plastic or glass slivers to build with makes one sit gingerly alive I’m not safe here there was I know technology for this for even a woman with one young child married and wealthy who wanted more but not so soon but how can we have everything I thought it’s not my place to make this absolute fuck you to whomever sperm egg zygote (God?) I can handle this but cannot, barely not, rock/rock and cover my breasts on fire with chilled cabbage leaves these monstrous bosom-rocks with carelessly cut-out holes for these huge bruise-colored nipples...”

is not a metaphor for is



When they brought the baby his was my own face.

My face, survived.

Is he OK? I said a hundred times is he? where is he? why is he? yes, they said he is. He is. They just want to — he is, they said. Beautiful, they said. Big! they said. Your husband weeping.

The face of course it is not yours, perhaps the Demerol, but that moment and even after when your husband said what’s his name? and only my own name came to mind.

Yourself divided, severed,        everyone smiling.


5am, snow, a low mustard light.

“dying is better than this I must but” someone says in your voice that no one hears

             Birthing is no — metaphor?

Lest the suckler hunger. Least.

bones under the bedclothes suffer. I every day age three and don’t recall

but there is that sharp taste again like the smell of by-products, a released consequence

The smell, the mess, the literal place, on all fours like an animal— you remember nothing.
And too much.

And am I now one with other women? hardly           except perhaps my shattered
      this and this happened then           this     the is               so now you know

everything — in and out of the room see a body splayed and naked giving up — and you?

I’m sorry but there is no new place for anyone to touch me.

Bio: Rachel Zucker is the author of Eating in the Underworld, a collection of poems forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. Her poems have appeared in various journals including APR, Barrow Street, Colorado Review, Fence and Volt as well as in the anthology Best American Poetry 2001. She lives in New York City with her husband and two sons where she edits Boomerang! A Contributors’ Journal. “Either All I or None No Matter Is, Is” also appears in Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing and is dedicated to Lynn Chapman, midwife extraordinaire.

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