Every Generation Battles Its Own Doom
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Self-Portrait with 80’s Trash
We’ve ruined the planet, I say as I drive my daughter to piano, remembering
my sister and I fighting about who sat in the front seat
in our rusted car the color of menstrual blood where you could watch the road
through the floor, fighting for the chance to choose the music
on the tape deck, and then I see it: island of plastic bags the size of Texas
I’ve read about, but this time: 8 track players, rotary phones with blank faces,
an IBM Selectric, floppy disks each the size of a man’s open hand
about to slap a girl. That’s my childhood, I’d say, on the tour of my life,
as the girls and I drive through my past, along the Gulf,
watching chrome and bad plastic floating in too-warm waters.
Meanwhile I’m still fourteen in New Orleans and a man drives a truck
alongside, keeping pace with me, as I walk faster, truck the color of green
hospital scrubs, man calling out, over and over,
Hey, baby, do you want a ride?
I want to tell my daughter about the suicide pills—
when in the car, on the way home from school, she explains
seventh-grade science. She says proudly, nuclear fission,
and we both agree: it is a beautiful phrase.
She names isotopes. Uranium-238. She explains
a nuclear chain reaction and I remember my first week of college,
when students in the mailroom gave us ballots to vote:
Should the university health services stock suicide pills in case of nuclear war?
Student organizers insisted we should have the option to die.
Suicide after a nuclear war would take on a whole different context than it has in this life.
Cyanide was the poison. I imagined us, seventeen-year-olds, lining up to drink a vodka-
colored poison from a shot glass, then one by one, dropping to the ground.
A student said he would vote for the referendum “just as an idea—just to put the word
“suicide” beside “nuclear holocaust.”
I could only imagine it as a scene from Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar, my favorite book at
thirteen. I would swallow the pills as Esther Greenwood did and secret myself
away, in a cellar or somewhere beneath the earth, where no one would find me.
To put the word beside: daughter death war
To put the mother back in the girl’s body
in the car in the mailroom on the college green
in the cellar
I used to think motherhood was the gradual extinction of self because I knew nothing
about extinction and I had a new baby and I wanted to be alone—and putting the baby
down early meant we are burying her in the dirt, we’re tumbling her small body in an
empty grave, she’s a swaddle of cotton, deep into the ground, the place she’ll go years
from now though she doesn’t know it and I can’t bear to think of her death, and although
I strive to keep the knowledge of my death from her, though she knows, she knows, and
as she gets older, she brings it up, especially at bedtime—