“Theodicy” by Grace MacNair is the winning poem for the 2022 Emerging Poet Prize, selected by Safia Elhillo. We’re honored to share this urgent poem as well as an interview with Grace about her work both on the page and beyond it.
I’ve heard many times throughout my life that a good ending should feel both inevitable and truly surprising, and I maybe never fully understood that until reading this poem. It covers so much ground but with such stunning economy. I loved and trusted the unadorned language, which makes me think of Baldwin talking about writing a sentence “clean as a bone.” The vividness of the images was emphasized for me by the straightforwardness of the diction, and the effect was like having this poem injected directly into my heart. —Safia Elhillo, guest judge
Yesterday I overheard a woman speak of Mary,
specifically her eyes, always cast up
toward the angel or down toward the baby,
how she never looks at you straight —
a posture I’ve assumed myself,
a posture I’m trained to watch for.
About our bodies, strangers in white
deliver the news; in some places, the only option
is the option Mary had.
And Eve? She didn’t ask for death,
only knowledge, but death is what god gave her
and what he gave his son.
Last week I stood in front of Alice Neel’s Well Baby Clinic.
Grotesque mothers juggle infants, metal beds askew.
Clad in white, a nurse towers over a woman with bloodied nipples.
A doctor holds what looks like a diaphragm in his skeletal hands.
On Neel’s lap, a ghostly alien. When people would mewl over little kids,
I just wanted to paint them. I should have had some birth control thing.
Neel had a nervous breakdown, attempted suicide by eating glass.
Once I wrote out the Lord’s prayer, added an r to father.
Farther. God as distance makes sense.
Distance can describe space, time,
disposition — realms in which violence lives
concrete, unseen, inextricable.
Years ago I watched a woman who’d impaled herself
with a sharpened stick collapse to the hospital floor.
Two days on an oxcart. Hysterectomy.
Blood poisoning. She lived but barely.
Years later, an American senator speaks on rape:
The female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.
Interview with Grace MacNair
by AT Hincapie
AH: Part ekphrasis and part criticism, your winning poem “Theodicy” makes direct reference to Alice Neel’s Well Baby Clinic, where “grotesque mothers juggle infants, metal beds askew.” How do you see this homage to visual art informing the written word, or how might this kind of ekphrastic voice give context and clarity to your own observations?
GM: The materiality of visual art helps me discover language, clarify emotion, and explore my subconscious. “Theodicy” is my attempt to tell the truth about what Neel and so many others experienced, and what I’ve seen and experienced in both my personal and professional life in support of reproductive health. Lucille Clifton spoke to the importance of this when she wrote “…poetry teaches us that everything is connected…There is so much history that we have not validated.”
A therapist once theorized that the severe insomnia I suffered until about two years ago was a symptom of my inability to express anger. When I first stood in front of Well Baby Clinic I was overcome by a sense of rage and claustrophobia. In “Killing Plato,” the poet Chantal Maillard (translated by Yvette Siegert) said that she writes “because someone forgot to scream/and now a white space/exists inside of them.” This white space haunts me – it is an absence created by rage, and from what I know of Neel I think it haunted her too. Well Baby Clinic vehemently rejects its placid title and portrays a disturbing power dynamic. A white-clad nurse expertly holds the only calm baby in the room, a moment of quiet disquiet amidst the clinic’s chaos, while a doctor with well-defined features balances a cervical cap* on his skeletal fingers just out of reach of a woman with a vandalized face and bloody nipples.
This power imbalance is a recurring theme in my poetry and in reproductive and child health. Between 1927 and 1928 when Well Baby Clinic was painted, Neel was living in relative poverty and receiving healthcare from free/low-cost, desegregated clinics. These clinics disproportionately subjected Black women to invasive and humiliating STI tests before providing them with care. Neel herself was screened for syphilis via an excruciating and debilitating spinal tap. In 1927, Neel lost her first child to diphtheria, which by that time mostly affected people who lived in under-resourced conditions. Well Baby Clinic sharpens all this history to a point. To write successful ekphrasis, Mark Doty says that writers must “see beyond the art and say what it means to them…take us into the work in a way we don’t expect.” Neel’s work helped me to describe a white space inside me that was in need of language, especially in light of current events.
*correction: in my poem, I described the cervical cap as a “diaphragm.” This is a mistake and an anachronism. Diaphragms were not invented until the 1940s!
AH: Similar to descriptions of Alice Neel’s painting, this poem also emphasizes religious iconography through visuals of Mary and Eve, and even reworkings of language in the Lord’s Prayer, where “God as distance makes sense.” What relationship do you find between faith and healthcare, and how might these images and traditions influence the speaker’s mindset in this poem?
GM: Religious iconography and references make their way into the poem by way of my upbringing in a rural, evangelical Christian household with limited access to education. As a child, I was obsessed with how a perfectly good and omniscient God could coexist with evil. When I was nineteen and living on a commune in Switzerland, I began studying theodicies that attempt to explain this question. For example, Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress and mystic, proposed that the ecstasy of the second coming would be felt when God finally explained what the fuck he was thinking. The line “God as distance makes sense” is me time traveling back to my younger self who once agonized over Christianity’s gaps in logic. Prior to becoming an atheist, I’d begun to believe that God must only exist in absentia.
At this particular moment in history, the relationship I see between faith and healthcare is highly fraught. Despite many notable exceptions, there’s no denying that Christianity used and still uses healthcare as a will to power and a form of biopolitical control. One needs to look no further than colonial medicine, missionaries, and government reliance on religious charity to supplement an inadequate health care system. America’s war on reproductive health is built on decades-long campaigns by Christian nationalists to gain legislative, judicial, and political power. This effort extends globally. In 2019, the Trump administration blocked Title X funds from reaching domestic and global clinics that provided abortion information. The woman in my poem who nearly died of a botched abortion lived in Malawi, which retains one of the most restrictive abortion laws in all of Africa: a 1930 penal code that criminalizes anyone who has an abortion, unless their life is at stake, with 7-14 years in prison. It’s worth noting that the British brought Christianity to Malawi in the 1880s, and that Malawi did not achieve independence until 1964. In 2021, Malawi’s parliament withdrew an abortion bill that would have legalized abortion in cases of rape and incest. A Catholic group that opposed the bill with donated funds from the US claimed victory.
America’s pro-life movement continues to rely on bad science and specious theodicies (“God uses evil for good,” etc.) to force people to carry unwanted/unsafe/nonviable pregnancies to term. I recently learned that in 1994 Joe Biden wrote: “Please don’t force me to pay for abortions against my conscience.” By “conscience,” he meant Catholicism. I know my answer to your question must make me seem anti-religion, but I’m not. I find many aspects of religion to be edifying and profoundly consoling, but like anything powerful, it can be unpredictable and dangerous.
AH: A recurring theme here comes from measuring and observing time across generations and across disciplines–from religious, artistic, medical, and even political perspectives when “Years later, an American senator speaks…” Can you speak to your perspective of the progress that humans have made over the thousands of years that are traced in this poem? Is it possible that our generation could hope to achieve what our mothers have worked toward?
GM: I wish the poem traced progress, but I’m not sure it does. If anything, it highlights centuries of various countries, powers, and cultures failing to provide people with bodily/reproductive autonomy. The comment that ends the poem was made in 2012 by former Senator Todd Akin. Prior to Akin, several Republican politicians made similar claims. James Leon Holmes, a former federal judge in Arkansas, claimed that “Concern for rape victims is a red herring because conceptions from rape occur with approximately the same frequency as snowfall in Miami.” Stephen Freind, former Pennsylvania State Representative, said that “when a traumatic experience is undergone, a woman secretes a certain secretion which has a tendency to kill the sperm.” These arguments are reminiscent of the medieval theory that conception was only possible if orgasm was achieved, and since a physiological pleasure response was (incorrectly) assumed to be impossible during an assault, pregnancy invalidated rape.
I’m grateful to be surrounded by people who are fighting the good fight, committed to recognizing and unlearning patterns of harm, and helping me recognize these patterns in my own life. But truthfully, I don’t know where our generation is headed. In healthcare, I regularly deal with men who are intent on exerting control over the bodies of their partners and their children. Many of these men identify as feminists. I think the power that reproductive bodies manifest—especially before, during, and after birth, and while nourishing another human through bodyfeeding or other acts of care—triggers many men to act in insidious ways even if they claim to know better. Meanwhile, our country is being run aground by people who blatantly oppose science, the environment, and basic human rights. It’s bleak. I hope we can achieve a future in which survival is possible.
AH: Maybe the answer to this problem comes in service to others, which is something that has become an important part of your life and career. How has your work as a teacher and health care professional been influential to your writing?
GM: While I’m deeply passionate about healthcare and the opportunities for direct action it provides, writing poetry is how I cope with the world and find joy. Teaching inspires and deepens my work as both a poet and healthcare professional. Nothing is more fulfilling than learning alongside others, whether I’m teaching poetry, clinical skills, or mentoring practitioners in my field. Again and again, teachers have appeared in my life at just the right moment. Their wisdom, guidance, and kindness have sustained me. “Theodicy” belongs to a body of work that’s grounded in my study of women’s contemporary and historical experiences as medical practitioners and medical subjects. The poems are meant to teach, incite, and viscerally disturb the reader in the same ways my work in healthcare teaches, incites, and viscerally disturbs me.
AH: In regard to sources of inspiration, how has your work in translation influenced your personal writing, perhaps from your time with the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference?
GM: Right now I’m working on two projects involving forms of translation. The first project draws on the lives and archives of midwives who lived between the 4th-century BCE and the 20th-century. Although I’m not literally translating their work, I am writing poems that draw on the records they left behind. I’m currently at work on a book-length poem called “I Tarried All Night.” The poem is an episodic, fictionalized retelling of the life of an 18th-century midwife named Martha Moore Ballard whose uncommon literacy allowed her to keep a consistent yet cryptic diary from 1785 to 1812.
The second project is an unconventional translation of poems by the 20th-century Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. I’m not the least bit proficient in Russian, and the project strays very far from literary translation. I went to the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference with some trepidation about whether or not my project was permissible. To my relief and delight, many people were having rich and generous discussions about unconventional approaches to translation. I’m grateful to Madhu Kaza who introduced the term “transcreation” in her lecture. According to Madhu, “transcreation” is an Indian term that describes an approach to translation that “is not extremely concerned with accuracy and fidelity” to the original text. I now use this term to describe my translations of Tsvetaeva’s work. Tsvetaeva was openly queer, intensely passionate, and politically complex. My poems investigate her fraught relationship to caretaking and motherhood and her drive to prioritize poetry above everything else. Of translation, Tsvetaeva wrote: “I tried to translate, but decided—why should I get in my own way? …The result was I rewrote it.”
The Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference was everything I hoped it would be and more. I love reading work in translation—it’s how I’ve discovered many of my favorite authors, and I find it to be one of the best ways to jump-start my own writing. Spending time with and learning from professional literary translators was a dream come true.