I do not like to write about my adoption experience. It is essentially unexplainable, a paradox that can never be resolved.
I am an adoptee, born 1953 in a hospital for unwed mothers, turned over to the NY Foundling Hospital at the age of five days. I do not know if I spent any time with my birth mother outside the womb. I was given to my adoptive parents when I turned 6 weeks. I have a photo of them and me on the day they picked me up. My mother holds me, my father leans over delicately. They are beaming. I am so little and so wrapped; you can hardly see me.
My new parents lived in Queens, NY, were of Italian descent, Catholic. They had been married 12 years when I came into their lives. They had no other children then, but adopted a boy, who became my brother, about three years after they adopted me. I adored my adoptive family.
My father was the man Humpty-Dumpty needed. Here’s a story he liked to tell: He married my mother in 1941. They bought good furniture, perfect for their apartment. The war came, he went overseas for a couple of years, they put the furniture in storage, gave up the apartment. My mother moved back with her family. He wrote to her in code from the island of Morotai. Bombs fell every night. When he got back, they rented the same apartment, but one floor up. When the movers came, he just pointed: sofa there, end tables there, two lamps, dresser against the wall—everything back in just the right place. The movers were astounded; a magician had restored the world. Everybody needed this in 1946. I needed this story every year. It held me together. I didn’t know why. I had gotten the right father.
Later, though, my brother became a drunk and died young, and I became an artist. There was nothing my father could do about any of it.
I was a sad child, though I had almost everything, including love. I had a good smile, too. I always knew I was adopted. They told me, “Your mother gave you away because she loved you.” I liked to sit and look at how the walls met at corners. I played in the gardens of Oriental rugs. Being adopted did not bother me at all. I never thought about it.
When I was 11, I started my autobiography: “Not so many years ago, on Saturn, there was a horrid tragedy. I, Kana, lost my family, friends, everything I had…” The cause was a rocket attack from Jupiter, with which Saturn was at war. I found my family dead when I got home from school. The night after the bombing, “I checked into a small hotel, and in all my sadness, figured out what to do.” I would “go to another planet.” But first I had to navigate through “the most dangerous part of the journey,” the terrible encircling beauty of Saturn’s rings. And I had never really even been to a hotel.
My parents did not hold back. They were the kind of people everybody loved, not just me. But there were pressures like dogs that circled our perimeter. My grandparents thought adoptees might be “bad seed.” They worried we wouldn’t turn out well. At Sunday dinners, my aunts would argue about whether the other cousins looked more like one side of the family or the other. I stared at the silver coffee urn and watched my face distort and reassemble in its mirror. When Aunt Tessie died she left her bit of money only to the “natural” heirs.
At sixteen, being adopted bothered me a little. I marched up the steps of the Foundling Hospital to demand my “records.” They didn't give them to me. I looked for the black iron gate I had remembered from the past. How could such a tiny child remember? I can still hear the clang of it shutting. It hit twice before it latched.
I wanted to be real, like bread made at home. I wanted to have that smell, the one that made them all remember what they always wanted most.
When I was thirty, I “searched.” It took nine months from the first meeting with the Adoptee Liberty group to the day I had the letter in my hand: my mother’s last known address. In the third month, I found out my name, Michela Sullivan. I learned I was half Irish. In month six, I learned the time of my birth and I got my astrology chart done. I’m Pisces with the moon in Taurus. I discovered that my mother, Maureen, had been a nurse anesthetist, and my father, Pascale F., an anesthesiologist. I have never been interested in medicine.
When I opened the letter I learned that my mother had once lived just a mile away from where I was then living in Brooklyn. I walked over there and saw the name “Sullivan” still on the doorbell. I paced up and down the street. Then I went home. Weeks passed. One night my friend Ann came over, and she held my hand. I got drunk on scotch and smoked a pack of Salems and then I called the Sullivans’ number. I talked to one of my aunts, then another. I learned that Maureen had recently died, of cancer, and that she had never forgotten me. I thought it was good that she was dead, less complicated. I learned that she'd had three other children, and that I still had aunts, uncles, and cousins living all around me on Clinton and Henry and Atlantic. They gave me a necklace of polished hematite. They took me out to dinner, invited me to their homes. They offered photos. They showed me my Irishness. My eyebrows belonged to the Sullivans. I wore my hair up. I looked just like Maureen. I never tried to contact my father.
My parents understood. They fretted about whether to invite the Sullivan family to our house. I said I didn’t want to. I split into two. I never got married because I didn’t know whom to not invite to the wedding.
There is so much to say about love. I’ve been rattled to my core, put asunder, rearranged. Every day that could happen. I would not want to live without that capacity. I have always been afraid I would love someone more than they loved me.
In 1988, I traveled to California to meet my half-siblings and their father. Maureen had never told them about me, but they didn’t seem upset. They drove me from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe. I learned the wharf is full of chocolate, the lake is actually turquoise. We posed for pictures everywhere together. Then we fell out of contact for over twenty years, though their father kept in touch with me through notes and birthday cards and Christmas presents. He loved his wife, he kept her faith. I don't know why we needed twenty more years apart. We did not know what to do with each other. We were blood strangers. Now we are all back in touch and we are gentle about it, and that makes me happy. I adore my biological family.
When I returned from California, I told my mother my siblings had a swimming pool. She looked so sad. I didn’t care about the pool. I told her she was my mommy. I held her hand. A few months later she died.
After California, I didn’t bother with adoption anymore. Then it called on me again in 2003, when my father died. I learned that the Adoptee Liberty Movement Association—known as ALMA (soul!)—had been replaced by Bastard Nation. I held citizenship there. I saw that I could be a real bastard, deep in my soul. I read a lot of books and learned I had indeed been wounded, and that babies do remember. A figure came in a dream and removed a sword from my side, and I became unseparated.
I never had children. I didn’t really want them and there wasn’t room in my life. I’ve lived with my man for 24 years. We got married in 2010 and didn’t invite anyone. With this ring of Saturn, I thee wed. We have five cats. Last month he bought us clown noses, in the nick of time. There is more than one kind of rearrangement.
I recently dreamed, for the first time ever, about Maureen. She was right there and we gazed at each other. It was very simple. She gave me back my face. A few days later I felt my first real emotion toward her: anger. I thought, “So let there be anger.” I felt like God, I felt like my father.
One day I awakened and I said to myself, “I want to be with my real mother.” It seemed to be the want I couldn’t know I always had. I say it in the present tense, so I can stand with the girl I was, and because it’s still true.
Everyone in my adoptive family is dead now. During my father's long final illness he said two important things. Over and over he told me, “I love you with my whole heart and my whole soul, and everything I have is yours.” On the day before he died, I heard him testify to the youngest son of his lifelong friend, “I have always envied your father his family.”
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
In the space odyssey origins story I wrote as a kid, I decided to leave Saturn and “go to Earth.” It took me a while to actually get here, but I’m so glad I did. My poetry is, first of all, rooted in the earth. The earth tells everyone’s story, one of transience, abidingness, suffering, sorrow, connectedness, kinship, revelation. Adoption is just the fact of my particular fate and the point through which I enter and participate in the human condition.
I cannot imagine not having the life I’ve actually had, the loss it would have been to not know my parents and everything and everyone that being with them brought to me. And yet something was always wrong. And, compounding it, the wrongness was unverified, unspoken.
It’s only recently that I have written directly about adoption, yet I look back and see work suffused with creaturely longing and spiritual yearning for the “thing missing.” The yearning is part of what pushes me into art, but it’s ultimately mysterious. Language pushes me, too, and things that need to be said with great care. I write because I am a writer.
I was influenced early by classical Oriental poetry. In high school I discovered Ezra Pound’s translation of Li Po’s, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.” I recognized that Li Po’s subject in that poem was mine: pervasive longing in the midst of absence—and the almost unbearable beauty of the physical world in its abiding and transient nature. I felt the solace that exists in a miraculous world that does not actively console. I also discovered in that poem how words could be asked to convey what can’t be directly said. “The paired butterflies are already yellow with August / Over the grass in the West garden; / They hurt me.”1
This led me inevitably, but not immediately, to Zen philosophy. There is a famous koan: What is your face before your parents were born? This riddle, obviously, is not posed only for adoptees! I saw that the question is a human question, one that presupposes such a face exists, and implies there is an identity beyond identity.
I didn’t always, but now I cultivate a kind of neutrality in my work. I don’t want to occupy it with my opinions too much, though I rarely succeed. I want to become transparent so that the world itself can show forth—splendid or raw, passionate or smooth—not judged. I have to remain present, to abide in the fact of interconnectedness, the feeling of intimacy with all things. “All things” means all things: inconsolable grief, paralyzing fear, and furry rabbits. I learned that in the act of writing, “anything can step forward in you and you will not be hurt.”2
The irrefutability of interconnection is great news for an adoptee: kinship as large and unboundaried as Being itself! But at points I’ve wondered whether I breached the encircling rings of my boundaries too eagerly and early. More paradox. My poetics and my life want a big iron gate that swings open and shut easily.
Several who know my work have commented that my poetry seems to spring from my Irishness: its lyricism, sound qualities, playfulness, and language-pleasure are the evidence they cite. This tickles me, as I grew up Italian and knew nothing of what “Irishness” was. There’s also, perhaps, a melancholy in the Irish spirit, and that ethnic legacy underscores the personal sadness that can appear in my work. Loss was the breathslap I got when I left the womb. The first suck of air was the suck of impermanence. I don’t thoroughly trust Freud, but he said something about grief that feels true: “It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.”3
I have wanted to go beyond grief. As a spiritual being, I wonder if that is possible. As a creature, I’m not sure it is either possible or desirable. Grief can simply coexist with everything else that is.
Being adopted has given me the understanding that love coexists with complexity. I aspire to welcome complexity, to include everything in my work.
1. Lines quoted from “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” Li-Po, translated by Ezra Pound, as it appears in A Book of Poetry (revised edition), The Pageant of Literature series, Sister M. Teresa Clare, S.C. (ed.), p. 41, The Macmillan Company, NY, 1965.
2. Jane Hirshfield, retreat notes, Tassajara 2005
3. Sigmund Freud, Letters of Sigmund Freud, Ernst L. Freud, (ed.) p. 386, New York: Basic Books, 1975.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
The woman who invented velcro.
Five days old they peeled her
from her mother, gave her a crib
among cribs in rows. O babies
like corn or cabbage! Succulent
bodies about to be picked!
Having just been plucked
she knew that music. Call it a dirge
with a catchy hook.
The crazy old lady who swallowed
the fly. While she was sweet,
she lived the lie. But the mirrors
and the stomach knew; the
neighbors, and the envelopes
too. Something buzzed
at all her windows, was it
The aviatrix of the solo flight.
Too restless in the living room,
too pale among the blood. O the tiny cabin
smoothing over endless waves,
and the moon’s so-kindly face
ahead, ahead. She didn’t want
to disembark on the sudden tarmac.
The moon herself,
that half-hidden sister.
And she that launched the Voyager
to its eternal wander. The same
who thought to etch the glyphs
that might one day deliver it
to the next mother’s spiral arms.
Note: The Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were launched in 1977, with a mission to traverse the solar system and eventually enter and explore interstellar space. Each carries a gold disk etched with information about its origins, including sounds and images of life on Earth. Both spacecraft have passed through the termination shock, and are now in the heliosheath, a region at the extreme edge of the solar system.
My parents are dead. My children
are cats. My husband
My aches, my sex have turned
to devotion. The old well,
is it dry?
The future’s gone missing. My past
just runs back. I’ve never
I am lonely. God cries out.
One of my children
crawls into my lap.
Creation falls to me. Its vast taxonomies,
the drifts of my ancestors. Home
is the Nebula, grandfather crab.
Everything—is something else.
I am weary of the soul’s romance.
I want an ordinary road.
I am a gamer. I play
for an elegant win
on a checkered board. I long for
a well marked map. I wander
all the teeming pastures, but I dwell
in the vastness of grief.
I mourn my children, whom I didn’t bear.
I mourn my mothers, who died before they knew me.
I mourn my fathers, who loved me but are dead.
I mourn my brother, whose death brought me relief.
I mourn my youth, stitched to loss,
and my womanhood—eaten by my own false giving.
I keep a consolation—hope.
This, more secret than regret.
I spit at hope, that balloon, but I keep it.
Everyday in my pages, I mark down
the tiny amazements. Hope pats me
on the back,
keeps me supplied
with stories. Hope's heroine
wins in increments. She
drops her cloak. Light
blades from her shoulders;
she travels galaxies.
But Hope, your darling's heart
is thick with sorrow. It sponges
all the sorrows, even those of cats.
Your darling's heart is
dark, dark, and leaking.
This is what I must tell. After the work of a lifetime,
the help, the goodness of others, the sweet world
my heart is still broken, broken again.
“Famous Adoptees” and “Confession” appear in the chapbook, Requitements (Elephant Tree House, 2010)
ABOUT THE POET:
Rosemary Starace is a writer and visual artist who lives in Pittsfield, MA, USA. She is the author of the poetry collection, Requitements (Elephant Tree House, 2010) and co-editor, with Moira Richards and Lesley Wheeler, of Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-po Listserv (Red Hen Press, 2008), an international anthology. More of her written and visual work can be seen online at her website.