Poetry Sunday: “lifeline,” Evie Shockley

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The Republic of Mozambique is a country in Southeast Africa bordered by Tanzania to the north, the Indian Ocean to the east, Swaziland and South Africa to the south, and Zimbabwe to the west. Explored by Vasco da Gama, it was colonized in the 15th century by Portugal. It became known for its repressive rule and contribution to the slave trade; about a million Africans were shipped out from Mozambique during the 1800s to French sugar plantations in Reunion and Mauritius and to Portuguese plantations in Brazil. [Source]

I assumed at first that Mozambique’s history of slavery was the reason for its inclusion in today’s poem, or that the story of the woman giving birth in a tree is apocryphal or an African origin myth. But then a little online digging turned up an incredible real-life story of a woman who, in 2000, actually did give birth to a baby in a tree she had climbed to escape floodwaters in Mozambique:

Rosita Pedro was born in a tree above Mozambique’s swirling floodwaters yesterday and minutes later, with her umbilical cord still attached, was winched to safety by a South African helicopter crew. . . . Her mother, 26-year-old Sofia Pedro, torn by labour pains as she clutched the branches where she had sought refuge, was exhausted and near the end when rescuers discovered her precarious perch.” [The Guardian]

A follow-up story published last year added dramatic photographs of the rescue and a few more details:

Torrential floods had forced the heavily pregnant Carolina Chirindza and other family members into a tree with no food or water. While clinging to its branches, Chirindza, previously named in the media as Sofia Pedro, went into labour.  . . . Her mother-in-law held a capulana (a long sarong) under her to catch the baby and prevent it from falling into the crocodile-infested waters. The baby was named Rosita after her grandmother.” [The Guardian]

The original story helped shine an international spotlight on an impoverished country overwhelmed by floods that year that killed nearly 800 people, raising millions of dollars to help victims and improve flood protections. The daughter, Rosita, sees it all now as no big thing, merely “relieved the public attention has faded” and enjoying “a normal life, focusing on her schoolwork,” and intended course of study in petrochemical engineering.

The poem, “lifeline,” is spare and lyrical, unrhymed and organized into five four-line stanzas (quatrains). I want to call it free verse, but the lines are too strongly metered (iambic pentameter) and their lengths too tightly controlled for that. There is no end-rhyme pattern, but you will find music in the assonance of end words in the last stanza (“in,” “ocean,” and “swim”), and the poem is rich with consonance. Consider line 17’s  “baying her and her baby,” consonant alliteration of initial -b sounds coupled with assonance of long -a sounds, and how wonderfully those tones mimic the howling of a hound, in this poem a metaphor for the floodwaters at the base of the tree.

Shockley is known for her mastery of and willingness to challenge received forms (and ideas), but her work is also known for engaging “subjectivity, the lyric tradition, and notions of place” as well as elements of myth. [Poetry Foundation] We see that mastery here, and also that interrogation of received form in the use of traditional quatrains, meter, and punctuation in the same poem that entirely avoids capitalization. Syntax is conventional but complex, with the subjects of the first two sentences (“woman” and “puddle”) delayed by opening participial phrases (“Wedged in the top branches” and “Licking the trunk”), and the subject of the third (“water”) buried at the end of stanza three and separated from its predicate by a hard stanza break. These syntactical moves have the effect of delaying reader gratification—we are held in suspense for a time, waiting for the rest of the sentence—to mirror the hard and patient work of labor going on in the poem’s story.

Besides the specific story it tells, the poem is more broadly about the struggle of the speaker to separate from her mother and be born as an individual, and of course, about the same conflict confronted by all mothers and daughters throughout time. The struggle is, the poem tells us, one that is never complete: “we . . . have been tugging at each / other ever since, tethered by a cord / that simply thickens when it’s cut.” The cord is actual and metaphorical—an umbilical cord, and also the emotional connection between mothers and daughters, and it recalls both the “lifeline” of the poem’s title and the tether line of the helicopter that rescued Chirindza and her child from the tree.

The poem’s trajectory is interesting, beginning with an incident reported in the news and then moving into the speaker’s memory of the story of her own birth in a yellow-tiled bathroom. Both involved a flood, actual in the first case and the breaking of perinatal waters in the second, and the word “diluvial” recalls another famous flood, the one in Genesis that destroyed the world. My internet research also turned up the interesting fact that Mozambique, now a tourist destination, includes a park that is said to be the last resting place of Noah’s Ark.

The poem’s next move, after describing the scene of the speaker’s birth and asserting that mother-daughter connections only strengthen after that birth, is to return to the image of the floodwaters in Mozambique, this time as a way of describing the turmoil that can characterize maternal relationships, especially when daughters are trying to forge their own identities (lines 14-16). The poem ends in a place of reconciliation and union, the speaker and her mother landing in the same “enduring ocean” that offers drastically limited choices for all women: “drink or swim.”

Expecting that last line to read “sink or swim” or “drown or swim,” I was delighted by the substitution instead of “drink,” a word that combines both “drown” and “sink” and is more resonant than either. A word like this that blends the sounds and meanings of two others is called a “portmanteau,” and other examples are “brunch” (breakfast and lunch) and podcast (iPod and broadcast). Drowning and sinking are not allowed as options in this poem, not for the mother who scales the tree nor for her baby, whose name she “vowed, would not be drowned, no matter how / high she had to climb.” The choices are to survive (“swim”) in the water or else to choose to take that water wholly in.

You can read “drink,” of course, as just another more visceral way to express drowning and sinking, but you can also read it as something giving women more agency and choice, an interpretation that underscores the heroism and resolve of the Mozambican woman who, seventeen years ago, climbed that tree. The water will not swallow her or her daughter; she will either rise above it or swallow it, and the emotional impact of this poem derives, at least in part, from the way it both presents the bleak narrowness of choices afforded to women and empowers women, in the end, to make the choice for themselves.


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