Poems & Essays

17 Dec

The Monkey Puzzle

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It’s our secret, I tell them. I love you both, but I just would have preferred you at different times. It’s the G-rated version, of course. The PG-13 version I say to my husband through gritted teeth at four o’clock in the morning.  I hate twins. There’s a more terrifying truth though, that I’m afraid to admit even to myself.

Amid this tangle of emotions and sleep-deprivation, I come across an inscription in a card written to one of my daughters. It’s a line from my favorite poet, Marianne Moore, and I wonder how it is, in all my years of reading her, that I’ve missed this poem:

“One is at a loss, however, to know why it should be here,
in this morose part of the earth–to account for its origin at all;”

Moore writes here of the Monkey Puzzle, a prickly, hardy South American evergreen. She dwells on its strangeness, trying to understand its shape, its context. She hints at how much we don’t understand about the world: “these woods in which society’s not knowing is colossal.” Why does any specific species exist? she asks. Why are there so many bizarre things in the world?

One day, well into my pregnancy, I realize that I don’t understand twins. Of course, I can comprehend the scientific explanations, but reading between the lines of the studies, it seems to me that the experts don’t really know why sometimes we drop two eggs, why an egg decides to split. We just do; it just does. The cosmos was feeling particularly efficient, perhaps.

I feel only relief when they were both out of me. Midwife after midwife asks if I’m going to attempt to breastfeed them both. I say yes, but really all I can think about is why my bowels are undulating just beneath the surface of my recently stretched skin.

I don’t immediately feel my heart living outside my body. I’m not overwhelmed with love. I don’t gaze deep into their faces. Instead, I question how a person is supposed to hold two babies at once. After the first sleepless night, I remember again that I need to punch everyone who responded to our news with “Double the blessing!”

Some evolutionary instinct seems to have taken over to compensate for my overwhelming lack of warm feelings. Someone cries, I pick up. My breasts are full to dripping, so babies feed. I eat everything in sight, desperate to fill up what is depleted every two or three hours by the pairs of grasping, smacking lips. When they latch on at the same time, I can’t help but think of Queenie at the local city farm, passed out in the corner while her litter of 13 piglets jostles for places at her swollen teats.

Later in her poem, Moore tries to understand this paradox of nature: that an object could be both uniquely beautiful and utterly repellent. The intricacy of the Monkey Puzzle draws one close, and yet its spiny branches punish any interested spectators. It has a fierceness, a hardness that rivals that of the animal kingdom.

“The lion’s ferocious chrysanthemum head seeming kind by comparison.”

Staring at a squalling infant in my arms, “ferocious chrysanthemum,” makes perfect sense. These creatures who so recently exited my womb are strange.  Soft and delicate; tyrannical and insatiable. They seem easy to love, and yet, every time, I am shocked at the feelings that can wash over me when I hear one cry, again. I don’t understand them, and I don’t understand myself.

But, I soldier on. The midwife compliments my calmness amidst the chaos of the early days, then she remarks on my easy chatter to the girls as I undress them for their 8-week weight check. You’re doing so well. But, she’s obviously never heard of Aristotle’s ethics of virtue by habituation. I hope that if I just act like I’m in love, it’ll happen. And in a real sense, I am coping. My three under three are fed, clothed, and rested. I’m not sure what more one can expect of a parent. But the midwife doesn’t hear this internal monologue – it’s too complicated to explain, and I’m afraid my apathy will slip out. Needs must, I smile wanly.

I avoid reading anything about maternal infant bonding because then I’ll have to acknowledge how disconnected I feel from them. I’m afraid of what it might mean. And, in reality, I’m not even sure what this bond is that is supposed to appear alongside a bloody placenta.I nurse, I rock, I change diapers. How am I supposed to manufacture tenderness, affection?

The midwife gives me the postpartum depression questionnaire. I know all the right responses, but I answer honestly anyways. She tells me what I already know: I’m not depressed. But somehow, I don’t feel better. The questions I really feared weren’t there: Do you love your babies? Do you wish that they weren’t here?

I wonder if the twins know. Can they see through my fake smile? Do they know that while rocking them I stare blindly at the wall, my brain racing: Will I ever sleep again? Will we ever be able to afford childcare? Will I ever go back to teaching? Will I ever fall in love with them? Will I ever want to just play, to just snuggle with them? Will I ever stop watching the clock while they eat?

I turn back to “The Monkey Puzzle,” trying to make sense of what is happening to me. Moore’s final comment on the tree notes its beauty clinically; its difficulty has been off-putting for her. She knows that it is beautiful, but not in the way that she is accustomed to think of beauty. She must work to understand it.

“This porcupine-quilled, a complicated starkness—this is beauty – “a certain proportion in the skeleton which gives the best results.”

At the hospital in the middle of night two I look at them, finally asleep, each tightly rolled in her swaddle. Less than 48 hours after birth I have trouble believing that I grew them both. It seems so alien to have had eight limbs jostling for space between my breasts and pubic bone. Their little faces are perfect; is this beauty, I wonder. But here, as well, there is a severity to the scene, two dark heads—turned slightly toward each other—floating against the white blankets.

At the end of Moore’s poem, it is no longer just the araucaria araucana, the conifer, that the poet seeks to understand. She has looked away from the spiny tree to consider our own place in the universe. She writes: “but we prove, we do not explain our birth.”

I think of the moment Frances was tugged out of my body. She was silent and stared wide-eyed at the doctors, her dad, and then me. She asked for no explanation, because there was none to be had.  She was just here. We don’t explain our existence; we grow into it, we test it, we claim it, we make it true. We have no choice over the facts of our birth, but what that birth comes to mean depends on us.

One afternoon a few weeks in, I have a particularly hard day. After a morning of crying, both girls are finally latched on, suckling away quietly. I’m afraid that I hate you, I tell them. Aloud, it sounds so silly, like many of our deepest fears. I try to be more precise. It might be that I don’t love you yet.Elliot looks at me out of the corner of her eye, and I realize that to them I’m still just a talking nipple. I try again. This is hard. This feels the most true.

I don’t know why I have twins, but I do. I don’t know that I’ll ever be excited by that fact, but maybe hating twins doesn’t mean I hate my daughters. They are both here, at the same time. Such is life. I won’t love them merely because we all shared such cramped quarters. I’ll love them because of who they are, because of who they will become.

Maybe I’ll fall in love in the middle of some night when a little head rests on my shoulder and a warm hand reaches around to play with the short hairs at the back of my neck. Maybe I’ll realize one morning when another tiny person greets me with an oatmeal-smeared smile that bonding isn’t something that happens to us. It’s something we choose. It’s something that I’ve been choosing by caring for these small humans, by studying their quirks, by not giving up, even when it sucked. And, maybe in that moment I’ll see that this—the messy confusion that is birth and pain and growth and life—this is beauty.



Marianne Moore, “The Monkey Puzzle,” Complete Poems (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, Inc., and Penguin Books, 1994).


Rebecca Card-Hyatt is an English teacher who is happiest when reading with a roomful of squirrely teenagers. After several years teaching in Los Angeles, she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland where she continued to teach English literature and writing. She now resides in Lüneburg, Germany with her partner and three young daughters.

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