James by Lise Gaston
2021 CBC Poetry Prize winner
Lise Gaston has won the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize for James.
You can read James below.
This work contains details of pregnancy and child loss
This city's occasional snow demands we slow down
five minutes more out the door into its muffling
unexpected crush. I have been slowing since July
since the small pulsing furl of him stopped in me.
Name chosen in a sunlit instant stunned with weeping
in the hospital room, only one heart left beating.
A boy the doctor tells us, right before
numbing my belly, before the still unwritable scene.
We had been saving the surprise, assuming
a whole lifetime of gender.
Back in the birthing suite this bardo of his body stilled
but still inside mine, the choice comes quick as all other
unchosen in those cruel bright hours between losing him
and losing him: between diagnosis, black and white
and relentless, and the long push that brings him
into this world, to exit him into this world.
I first float Cedar, the room holding us, the only
reality I can render, also that heady warmth —
then James, your middle name but not on our optimistic list,
wary of vulgar variations. Now he will never have
a nickname we cannot control. Agreed in a moment then
a sound quickly foreign in the social worker's mouth,
she's trained to name what's already lost before
he enters here. The name of a chance
(everyone thought he'd be a girl) now written
on the certificate of remembrance,
the hospital bracelet never meant to fit, all the bits
of paper they give us because we cannot keep
what counts. You steal the tape measure that held
each inch. The sky's off-white as a page.
Medical instructions: take it easy,
no swimming: that last too late, came after
I had dipped my bleeding body
in the ocean to remember the sweet swell he made,
loss traced in salt. We thought he left
this world unmarked save the trace of ash, footprints
inked and smudged and rushing their way somewhere else.
Time rolls out like the tide. Small drawers
of his imagined future shut. Two months old today,
I would have shown him his first snow, the quiet light.
My reckless imagination. We didn't consider
how this name would be with us a lifetime longer
than his, just ended: the name my mother will
have tattooed on her calf, the name my sisters
will remember to say, the name on donation slips
in memory — The quick hot guilt that rises now
when I think how swift we were in naming,
how incapacitated. But when his soft and silent
body arrived into this unsafe world, feet curved —
unwalkable and perfect — he looked like his name.
Read the other finalists
- Onion by Mia Anderson (Portneuf, Que.)
- Untranslatable by Adriana Oniță (Edmonton)
- The Morgue in my Tears by Bola Opaleke (Winnipeg)
- Addendum —"Flora of a Small Island in the Salish Sea" by Alison Watt (Nanaimo, B.C.)
About Lise Gaston
Lise Gaston is the author of Cityscapes in Mating Season, which was named one of the 10 must-read books of 2017 by the League of Canadian Poets. Her other recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brick, Canadian Notes and Queries, the Fiddlehead, the Malahat Review and Best Canadian Poetry in English. Gaston lives in Vancouver.
The poem's source of inspiration
"In July 2020, my husband and I found out at a routine ultrasound that our baby would be stillborn. In writing of an experience that was and remains overwhelming, I focus here on the aspect of naming. How do we choose when all the imagined, excitedly discussed names were attached to the expectation of a living child? How do we choose a name when the first person we will tell is the social worker who is giving us a list of funeral homes? We named him quickly, in the midst of grief and shock, in the short hours between his death and his birth.
"This poem is about that moment, but also what I couldn't realize until after: that naming has a surprising permanence to it, even while his existence felt so impermanent. It was a choice that has gone beyond the day of his birth and death, when we couldn't imagine even how our own lives would continue outside of that hospital room. We will carry that name with us; he will always be our family, our firstborn."
The winner of the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.