“My Aunt’s Abortion” Jane Rosenberg LaForge (BlazeVOX) – book review

Jane Rosenberg LaForge My Aunt’s Abortion book cover

There are no gory details, no polemic, “My Aunt’s Abortion” focuses on the aftermath and its effects on the wider family as well as the aunt at the centre of the book. The opening piece, “Narrative Reproduction”, gives some background. “My aunt was going to college to become a special education teacher. She wanted to work with learning disabled and developmentally delayed children, and was majoring in psychology. She never became a teacher, as was the case with all of her plans.” She seems to have been a woman with ideas but lacked the follow-through to make them actually happen. Her family wrote her off as the useless one. The abortion happened in the late 1960s in America when a committee of medical professionals had to approve the procedure and circumstances for approval were limited. The aunt was in her twenties, divorced and mourning her late father. At this point, family stories diverge. The writer’s mother claimed the “abortion was somehow botched, however, and she carried the fetus to term. It was stillborn.” However, after the writer’s mother’s death, her father claimed, “my aunt asked for money for an abortion. He gave it to her, during a secret meeting on a cliff road outside our neighborhood.”

Whatever the actual circumstances, there were complications, chiefly peritonitis and possibly painful ovarian cysts which led to the prescription of birth control pills to alleviate the pain. The writer states, “that my father’s version of events was so different than my mother’s, could mean that my aunt had not one, but two illegal abortions. I realize all this in retrospect, as I try to put all these disparate accounts together.” Pulling together disparate accounts is the theme in “Disclosure”,

“Of course this could all be fanciful,
what I’ve pieced together from vestiges
or trace amounts, without the substance
to build a body out of, but outtakes,
unguarded moments when parents believe
their offspring are incapable or non-comprehending.”

The fact it was not done legally meant the act had to be kept secret, its consequences brushed aside, or respectable explanations found for the aunt’s illnesses and conditions and children kept ignorant. But children grow up and learn how their own bodies work and start to figure out that some of the things they’ve been told don’t add up. Parents often do underestimate how much their children know or how much cumulative information has been overheard or unintentionally passed on.

The act is ripe for metaphor. The author, still a child, is learning about ferns both in school and from her father’s plants, “How My Aunt’s Abortion Was Like a Fern,”

“of my aunt who taught us
which shapes are most desirous:
heart for the face, almond for eyes,
thick width of the mouth,”

An aunt how knows how to make herself attractive and passes those lessons on to her niece who also,

“learned how the human
fetal position has been mimicked
by ferns, as if they were
also made in the appropriate
image; how the seemingly
impossible, a soft

The niece keeps a fern leaf nestled in damp paper towels for a show and tell at school and thinks it was similar to

“the likely sum total
of what my aunt
was given to deal with
the caveats that didn’t
come on the package
but should have been
understood, given
the unhygienic

After school, the mother tells her daughter to throw the fern away. It has served its purpose and need not be kept. Time to move on to the next school project. There are implications here that the aunt was also subject to the same “get rid of it, move on” attitude. The niece cannot ask, it’s a family secret, not talked about. The sense of shame keeps the questions unasked and is successful in keeping the aunt from talking about her experience or how she felt about it.

The collection is not just about the aunt. Observations of an ageing father are centred in “Reception” where TV satellite dishes pop up everywhere in her New York neighbourhood,
“the outer borough equivalent of kudzu”. The poem notices her father’s

“hearing aids followed the shape of wasps’ bellies,
heavy with wood, or the venom pumped into
arbitrary victims, the receiver species with
three fine bones and a gathering of hair,
lambent with sound, and shivering.”

The hearing aids have a purpose to help recreate the sounds the ears have lost, just as wasps use wood pulp to create nests. But wasps also sting and hearing aids don’t fully reproduce sound: they can distort sound or emit static and similar electronic noise which hampers rather than helps.

Back to the central theme and a group of poems explore the aftermath. In “After the Abortion: Construction”, where a new apartment block is being built, its bricks a

“buffed off-color, like the underside
of human tissue rubbed raw
as if someone was searching
for a virgin organ. My aunt,
recovering, tried a similar tint
on her lips and nails; like the bumpy
matting beneath the carpet.
It showed itself sometimes when
we vacuumed, suction against
the fibers and plywood,
just another secret, like me
in the adults-only building,
to be kept from the landlord.”

A layering of secrets to be kept within the family. Secrets not just being hidden from external parties but also between family members. The aunt can’t narrate her experience. The children can’t ask questions. Life goes on as if nothing has happened, but there are consequences, nonetheless.

Although there is no suggestion the aunt’s situation had any bearing on it, the niece’s parents divorce. In “After the Abortion III”, the niece watches her mother,

“She took up hobbies, old obsessions,
what my father couldn’t tolerate
because it was disorganized, frivolous:
clutter like her parents had collected.
She filled what had been my bedroom
with model trains, board games, doll houses,
books and cash registers, adding machines,
erector sets, cast metal cars, miniature airplanes.
In the hall closet she compiled
a collection of vacuum cleaners.
She had her best friend photograph her
vacuuming the desert, that first weekend
they went away without their husbands,
because some dust
never settles.”

The objects seem to be a journey from childhood toys to financial concerns that then reverts back to childhood with models of transport. There’s a sense of instability, a clutter instead of items that are cherished and cared for. The unsettling feeling continues with the vacuum cleaners and the over-the-top photo of cleaning the desert. Although the mother’s earlier attitude towards the aunt, the school project, was discard and move on, it seems the mother herself is stuck in a pattern of moving on without understanding her past, dooming herself to repeat her mistakes.

The final poem, “Hamsa” sees,

“My aunt spent hours arguing
with my father over the first woman
school board candidate, yet within
she kept something small, even inarticulate,
like a squirrel or sparrow our mother told us
never to touch for fear its offspring
would be forever marked. Perhaps
if my aunt had opened her fists as
she asked for help, shown her skin
to be the flawed, natural mechanism
it was, she wouldn’t have been labeled
as the freak she is known as, but instead
another child in the grip of the gods.”

It’s a reminder of the limited roles women were permitted in the public sphere. How politics, laws and education developed by men excluded and restricted women. It’s a world that encourages women to not reveal their full selves, to keep something back because that’s something they can control and have governance over. Here the poem acknowledges, that had the aunt been able to be honest about her termination(s), she could have had support and assistance that were denied her.

This is a timely collection as women’s rights are being rolled back and not just in America. Jane Rosenberg LaForge has created an empathetic collection that explores and questions attitudes towards women’s roles and the lack of control and autonomy women are granted even over their own bodies. Readers are left to speculate whether the aunt never became a teacher because she could no longer stand to be around children or because her chronic conditions, the consequence of not being able to access proper healthcare, prevented her. Either way, a life that had purpose became one without. And the consequences reached far beyond one woman.

“My Aunt’s Abortion” is available from BlazeVOX.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Featured in the Top 10 Poetry Review Blogs on Feedspot.


One Response to ““My Aunt’s Abortion” Jane Rosenberg LaForge (BlazeVOX) – book review”

  1. Poetry Blog Digest 2023, Week 6 – Via Negativa Says:

    […] Emma Lee, “My Aunt’s Abortion” Jane Rosenberg LaForge (BlazeVOX) – book review […]

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