Skein to Skein

by Charles Valle

Content Warning: Death or dying; pregnancy loss.

Minutes after we directed the doctors to turn off the ventilator, we knew our limited time with Vivian was ending. Certain moments remain a blur. The nurse disconnecting monitors and tubes, say, or swaddling Vivian’s lifeless body in the hot air balloon–patterned hospital blanket. Screen memories, perhaps.

Other moments remain quite vivid—the pathways to recall so well-travelled, they will be with me until my death. I recall the urgency of finding my camera to make sure I captured photos of my wife, Kathleen, holding Vivian for the first time. I recall the awkward transfer, the anticipation of what holding Vivian would feel like. And I held her. And I recall my surprise at how heavy 8 pounds, 3 ounces felt. Her full dead weight. Her head on the crook of my right arm. I recall trying to remember every feature of her face knowing I would never be able to hold her again.

While I was holding Vivian, a well-meaning nurse asked us if we wanted to have a harpist come and play in the room. I remember being so confused by the question. It was so far out of the possibilities we had been preparing for during the previous nine months. We had not considered that variable in the calculus of parenthood: a harpist playing in a cramped hospital room for my dead daughter. I may or may have not lost my shit at that point.

There were lots of other questions that day from the NICU doctors and nurses that I cannot remember responding to. I was clearly in some catatonic state. And, much as in the subsequent months after Vivian’s death, I recall watching people’s mouths move and attempting to process their words and, as if escaping my body, I would see myself attempt to answer. One of the questions concerned Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a remembrance photography organization, and whether or not we wanted them to take photos of Vivian. We must have answered affirmatively, because a week or two later we received black and white photos of Vivian—even more beautiful and heartbreaking than my jagged memories.

For months after, I would stare at those photos every day. At night when I couldn’t sleep, or staring out windows during work, daydreaming, the photos would haunt me and appear as if drawn by Caravaggio—severe contrasts of a fading reality with such a clear focus on the different parts of Vivian’s body.

My first attempts at writing about Vivian, and the grief work I was undergoing, were abject failures from a creative production perspective. Much like the initial impulse to find my camera and capture moments, my initial poetic instinct was to capture: the loss, the rawness of the trauma, the muddled mess of emotions that I couldn’t quite process, etc. The writing was therapy. My creative output consisted of fragments, broken lines, phrases unturned.

The years following Vivian’s death were, unsurprisingly, the most difficult of my life. Kathleen and I resolved to move forward. Moving forward meant integrating back into normal society—all the trappings and gestures of living in the United States during late stage capitalism. It meant negotiating the twenty-first-century spaces as a BIPOC poet: assigning, interpreting, and prioritizing meaning to the partisan theatrics, the accelerating wealth inequality fueled by Quantitative Easing, social media’s unveiling of racial injustices, the affects of disruptive technologies, the effects of climate change.

Moving forward also meant trying to have children again. We were very fortunate. We’d never experienced as much relief as we did when hearing the cries of our second child, Ivan. By the time our daughter, Olive, was born, our integration back into normal society appeared seamless. Most people had no idea just how broken we were.

Like most working poets, I struggle to find time to write. Scribbles on receipts, napkins, the marginalia on work notes, texts to myself, email drafts. The skeins of poetic fragments continued to pile up. In my upcoming book, Proof of Stake (Fonograf Editions), there’s a playful nod to Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-12 where I talk about my poetics of grief: “An integral / Lower limit memory / Upper limit intertextuality.” In thinking about grief and loss, I was always interested in the concept of displacement, area, and volume. Can we quantify grief? What are grief’s boundaries?

My personal experience with grieving taught me that my emotional responses occurred in waves. Similar to the stock market or equities charts, my grief would encounter resistances and supports. Up, then down, ad infinitum. There were long periods of consolidation. Supports breaking down. Higher highs. Lower lows. It’s maddening. It’s also completely fascinating to me.

Below is an excerpt from my elegy to Vivian. Knitting and weaving from various skeins, I ended up with a fifty-nine-page elegy that ruminates on a wide range of subjects, from the effects and winding paths of disruptive technologies, such as paper and cryptocurrency, to critiques and observations of art movements, diasporas, social unrest, and the history of the Philippines.

from Proof of Stake


And the portability of grief is such a wondrous thing
The transit so efficient
Every circumstance so easily succumbing
To tenebristic splendor
The unsettling realism of the eyes you never opened, Vivian,
The lifeless hand that could not grip my trembling fingers
Follow me across continents
From Europe to Asia, the dark
Background persists with single sources of light
Shining on different body parts
One day, it is your perfectly-shaped eyebrows
The next, the meconium spilling out of your nose,
Your mouth. I close my eyes in Cambodia and see
Your hands. I wake up in Iceland and the light focuses
On your chin, your lips. In Singapore, I burn incense
And imagine your voice. In the Philippines, I scatter
Your ashes on the leeward side of hope
And reflection, the prismatic nature of remains
Ashen and oaken, bits of bones
So far removed from any sense of
Purpose or structure
Mourning in residue
The structures of grief pressed
And dried. Textures so indecipherable
They disorient with ease
Emotional glyphs asperating sullied surfaces

Jareen Imam author photo

Charles Valle was born in Manila, Philippines, and immigrated to California when he was seven years old. He holds an AS in Chemistry from Saddleback College, a BA in English from University of California, Irvine, and an MFA in Poetry from University of Notre Dame. Since 2006, he has served as one of the Poetry Editors at FENCE Magazine. Charles currently resides in Portland, OR, where he works as a Change Manager for Nike as well as serves on the Board of Directors for the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC). His first book, Proof of Stake, will be published by Fonograf Editions later this year.

Top photo by Munro Studio on Unsplash