“Wet Nurse” – Mary Jean Chan

Image: Day 288 – how many sweets in the baby bottle?, posted at Flickr by Steve.tothe.j under a Creative Commons License.

What feeds on us may redeem us, may cause us to go hungry. In Mary Jean Chan’s “Wet Nurse”, a woman nurses a baby who is not her own. Her child has been consigned to the indifferent metropolis, “ninety-seven days and eight hours since / the city swallowed my flesh and blood, / leaving behind a carcass of memories.” The poem makes it plain: the wet nurse has forsaken her own child. The poem leaves you to draw your own conclusions, doesn’t attempt to school you in notions of good, or bad motherhood. What’s more vital to the machinery of this poem, which is at once both subtle and brutal, is that every baby needs feeding.

There’s more than one child in this poem, of course. There is the child fed by the wet nurse, beloved and born into a large family. This baby doesn’t mind the difference between suckling mother, and mother who goes out into the streets to preach the gospel. As the poem declaims, quietly-wisely, the girl-child sees no difficulty in embracing two mothers. Then there’s the ghost baby, the abandoned one the wet nurse cannot outrun, the one whose breathless lips brush against her nipple, in tandem with a gum-and-spittle clasp. How this moves me, chills me to the sockets of my hair. Not because it’s a horror story, but because it’s true.

The density of pain is compacted, stirring like waking fish under the thawing ice of Chan’s poem. The language used here is economic but expressive, and everywhere there is liquid: wrists are cut to leak forgiveness; freed nipples spray tributaries down skin. Crack the surface of “Wet Nurse” and what flows forth is a breathless mirror of love and loss: the poem places it there so we might see ourselves in the brittle, reflective glass.

Read “Wet Nurse” here.
Mary Jean Chan‘s first full length collection is forthcoming in 2019 from Faber & Faber.

This is the sixteenth installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.

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