A stout bomb wrapped with a bow. With wear, you tear. It’s true you sour or rust. Some of us were sure you’re in a rut. We bore your somber rub and storm. You were true, but you rust. On our tour out, we tore, we two. You were to trust in us, and we in you. Terribly, you tear. You tear us. You tell us you’re true. Are you sure? Most of you bow to the mob. Strut with worms, strew your woe. So store your tears, tout your worst. Be a brute, if you must. You tear us most terribly. To the tomb, we rue our rust and rot. You tear. You wear us out. You try your best, but we’re bust. You tear out of us. We tear from stem to stem. You trouble, you butter me most. You tear, but you tell us, trust us to suture you.
Harryette Mullen, “Ectopia”, Sleeping with the Dictionary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
© 2010 by the Regents of the University of California. Published by the University of California Press.
I like this poem because it deceived me not once, but twice. At first, I thought it portrayed a relationship which falls apart after a betrayal. Lines such as “some of us were sure you’re in a rut,” in which “rut” has sexual connotations (to copulate, to be sexually excited) seemed to point to this direction, as did lines such as “You tear us. You tell us you’re true. Are you sure?,” which appeared to illustrate the case of someone who, despite his\her promises, tears the relationship apart. This explanation did not, however, seem very persuasive: why would betrayal be wrapped in a bow? Perhaps clarification of the poem lay in Mullen’s book, Sleeping with the Dictionary, in which the correspondence between words and poems appears to be problematic. This would explain lines such as “You were to trust in us, and we in you. Terribly, you tear. You tear us.” To a poet who, in a way, relies on language and needs to trust in it to be able to write, “tear” could refer to one’s (in)ability to tame the words in a poem, which would be why, despite the fact that the poet trusts the poem and vice versa, this would not be enough.
However, both these readings ignore the title, in which interpretation for the poem is only half-concealed, as if it were a riddle. “Ectopia” points to an ectopic pregnancy, a case in which the fertilized egg implants in the fallopian tube or somewhere in the abdomen, instead of heading up to the uterus. Such pregnancies require emergency treatment and are always terminated before reaching their end, which is why the first line is “a stout bomb wrapped with a bow,” to which follows “With wear, you tear,” alluding to the possibility that, if the pregnancy progresses, the fallopian tube may be ruptured. But “rut” is also a variation of “route” and, more importantly, according to the OED, it meant “to beget a child”, which further helps to prove this reading of the poem.
In “We bore your somber rub and storm”, the verb points to the bearing of a child, which was being bore through the child’s somber rub, a word which illustrates two things which move or cause to move to and fro against each other with a certain amount of friction, i.e. mother and child in conflict. In the line “It’s true you sour or rust,” sour alludes to something which has gone sour in taste, but which has also become disenchanted, while “rust” also points to a colour and to the degeneration of something, of the baby. The reader then discovers that on “our tour out, we tore, we two,” which could indicate the rupture of the fallopian tube or an early abortion. Notice how in this beautiful line “we” and “we two” are repeated, mother and child together, while “Terribly, you tear”. And this is unexpected, they were to trust one another, they existed as a single entity, but were also separated when the embryo tore both of them. The woman speaking asks the baby not to display his misery (“strew your woe”), to keep his tears, he can do his worst and be a brute, but he is leading them to the tomb, to rue and rot, being torn apart from cell to cell. He wears them out, and tries his best to persuade her, but they are bust. This extraordinary poem thus describes the conversation between a mother and her baby, not only an ectopic pregnancy, but also the baby's and the mother’s utopia in which all could go well, that for a moment they were not away from each other.
Maria Sequeira Mendes
Maria Sequeira Mendes is a professor at the Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon, and collaborates with Teatro Cão Solteiro. She wrote for the first time about poetry at primary school, but the composition had spelling mistakes. It was then she promised she would never write about poets who used difficult words to copy. This has proved to be a difficult oath to live by.