Sylvia Plath’s poem “Stillborn” (which appeared posthumously in 1971) describes the production of stillborn art and makes it analogous to a stillbirth.
The poet’s speaker laments, “O I cannot explain what happened to them! / They are proper in shape and number and every part. / They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid! / They smile and smile and smile at me. / And still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start.” The poem ends with what we can imagine as the writer staring at a page of words “proper in shape and number and every part” but somehow missing the vitality that makes them animated as art. As a result the poet can only wring her hands in anxious puzzlement: “But they are dead, and their mother near dead with distraction, / And they stupidly stare and do not speak of her.”
I don’t know if Plath ever wrote a poem about producing work that she believed was not stillborn but which others – an editor of a journal or magazine, say – did:
Dear Miss Plath,
Thank you for your submission.
I’m afraid, however, that your poem is well-formed but does not really ‘live’.
In that case there’s a different reaction related, I’d guess, to self-doubt (eg, “I thought it was good, but evidently it was not”) or doubt about the editorial reader and their ability to evaluate with any degree of aptitude (eg, How blind to good work is that editorial board?!?).
These musings are preamble, a way to contextualize the following story. It went through the usual writing and revising process, was sent out for publication, rejected here and there, revised further, sent out again, and rejected again too. From there it sat as an unopened file on my computer, invisible to everyone. I still like the story, though, and (unlike various editorial readers) consider it both interesting and artful. And so I will share it.
Oh, a bit of background. The story is set in southern Saskatchewan and is meant to align with the fictional world of Sinclair Ross, who was publishing stories in the 1930s and ’40s. To my eye his stories (such as “Cornet at Night”) often focus on youths and young men who struggle between farm-family traditions and their own desire for something…more. There’s nothing sexually explicit about them (that was a publishing impossibility then), but finding a degree of homoeroticism in them isn’t all that challenging. For “Oats” I made what was (again to my eye) couched and implicit in Ross’ stories much more direct. The result? Well, as I’ve already written, I like the story and am posting it here because I think it’s worthwhile. Hurray for self-publishing!
A typewritten bundle within one lot of personal papers belonging to the estate of the R— family that was recently sold by Dominion Auctions, the following papers were donated to the Winnipeg Historical Society. The Society subsequently brought the invaluable material to our attention. Reprinted by kind permission. [—Ed.]
November 7, 1938
Here at Q— — we were gratified to have received “Oats” and given the occasion to continue a mutually beneficial relationship. Regrettably, it behooves us to remark that “Oats” does not match the exemplary standards of your previous stories. If you choose to revise it for later submission, we urge you to consider the strangely rhapsodic tone associated with the unseemly bond between the younger man and the salesman.
Per instructions, we’ve enclosed the original copy of the story.
“Make hay…!” Hands clapped in quick succession, Aunt Ellen faced me with a halfhearted grin. Darting over my shoulders, her glance passed through the vinegar’d panes of the kitchen window. Dropping hints for me. I guessed she’d lift her eyes above her prized cherry trees, now finished for the season, and follow the rise of weatherbeaten scrub. Above that and on to the horizon, windblown parcels of green-gold wheat beckoned.
The great outdoors, a cornucopia of promise and wonders! With every fibre and despite a politeness nestled in her very bones Aunt Ellen urged me, her unexpected ward, to the back door—or front, which one didn’t matter—and toward fields, roads, paths, or alleyways. Bad enough that Uncle Bill’s sciatica had him dragging himself from room to room like the ghost of Jacob Marley and wincing as he asked for another pot of tea. Now a young man souring the kitchen, her sanctuary, with his moping.
With no telltale hands yet locked on her hips, I knew that if asked Aunt Ellen would protest. She had only my best interests in mind, she’d chirp, and, truly, it wouldn’t be long before clear, bitter morning drifts and white silent miles of empty prairie descended upon us and loitered for another sullen winter as we whiled away the months under a single roof.
Arms lifted and palms open to me, she resumed her smiling. “There’s no finer day to step out.” Recalling February—frozen dunes, boots pushing through fragile ice crusts, bundled layers that imprisoned every limb, and the quavering distant howl of a hungry coyote—I couldn’t debate the point.
Thirsty for a mouthful of water, I’d hoped to tip-toe into the kitchen and return to my room without drawing notice. With the school year—my last—ended I couldn’t make excuses about studying. On top of that, anyone acquainted with Aunt Ellen quickly came to witness mulish determination itself when she dug in her heels. At best, claiming I was reading (a half-truth) or napping (a fact) would firmly purse her lips and rouse a disappointed head shake.
The shadowed, downward cast of Aunt Ellen’s eyes gave me the idea that she’d now settled on her own ideas about my bedroom seclusion. A melancholic orphan, she’d believe. Cruelly cast adrift. Lonely and aimless as a cloud. An odd bird. Even before events—the house fire, my coming to reside with her and Uncle after the funeral, and our moving right into town to make visits to Doc Maclean less of a burden—she’d caught wind of her brother’s reservations. “A dreamer, cut from a different cloth,” when he was feeling generous. “Not a lick of sense,” “Straw for brains,” and “There’s not a drop of farmer in those veins” at darker hours.
I’d heard my father’s complaints often enough too. Tales about my getting lost and returning home delirious after a wintry search for lost yearlings and hiring a useless cornet player for stooking had been legendary at family Sundays, and damning proof that pharmacy, not farming, pulled at me from the future.
Swinging open the picket gate, I paused in a moment of indecision. Aunt Ellen would be hovering a half-step from the front room’s picture window, I expected, so I patted and checked my pockets. If only I could have dropped myself in my room—or on a street in Paris, London, or Peking—by magic.
Instead, one hand or the other.
Left led out of town. I could march on and on toward the Atlantic and see nothing but sun-cooked fields and the men working them. Right meant nowhere I’d never been. In town I’d return nods, and answer questions about Uncle Bill and the plans I’d hatched upon graduation. In the gaps of silence I would sense town wisdom that decisions mustn’t be delayed, responsibilities should never be shirked. These well-wishers would fear that in no time a layabout becomes a hobo riding the rails until a fateful misstep or a deadly cold snap. One of the ladies who stopped by for midday tea with Aunt Ellen might clear her throat and wonder how I was taking to my new situation. Behind her words, she’d pray I’d learned the lesson that in small talk the correct answer is always “Everything’s alright.”
Embroidering on the truth came easily enough to me, and “Alright” stood in the vicinity of fact. Still, a brand new sight or one that I’d not visited for awhile grabbed my attention.
Besides, Aunt Ellen put out plates of dainties for company after church service. I’d have ready replies for all those inquiring souls in rhinestone brooches tomorrow.
Gusting breezes and horse-sized eddies of dust raced past me on the outbound road. They’d have housewives at laundry lines on the opposite end of town grumbling in another two minutes.
I’d already been warm at the gate, and by the littered yard of the abandoned farmhouse that folks recognized as the town’s eastern border, I felt swelling gratitude for Aunt Ellen insisting on my wearing Uncle’s chestnut Trilby, which smelled earthy—of salt, leather, and hair oil. A size too big, it made me feel childish until the rivulets of sweat began.
A bare head under the blazing sun is a mistake, any kid knew that, and white streaks of cloud gave no relief.
Roadside crops, alkaline soil patches, and ditch weeds had me reconsidering my decision. In another hundred or thousand steps I could count on an identical view. Other than falcons far above, startled grouse, and a farmer who’d waved from his truck, I was alone.
I vowed to continue on for another half hour and turn around. After dawdling in town, I’d return to witness Aunt Ellen’s partial relief about having managed to salvage part of an afternoon with just one other body in the house.
I stood and then sat Indian-style dead centre at an empty crossroads. Flat on my back right here at night I could stare into the vast field of stars and glimpse eternal mysteries.
With gritty wind picking up, I shut my eyes. Beyond the prairie, each direction promised to eventually take me somewhere. The North Pole, land of wolves and Eskimos, or Antarctica, which could freeze a man into an icicle in a heartbeat. East and west meant cities, salt water, and ships after a time.
Feeling foolish—a young man resting for no reason in the middle of a road—I stood and brushed the seat of my trousers. Barring a diagonal trek through waist-high grain, four routes awaited me. I imagined clasping a willow switch and dowsing my way to treasure. Eyeing the homeward route, I veered right.
The panicked flight of two scaredy-cat grouse. Faint rustling—coyote? fox?—behind a fringe of wheat. A thunderous rumbling. My faith in dowsing’s power faded quickly and I wished instead for a pocket watch. Idly, I wondered about how many steps I’d need to take before speaking to another person. Cut into a dip between two fields the road was windless, a perfect oven in the scorching mid-afternoon.
Shielding my eyes, I turned toward engine noise and the spitting crunch of gravel. I waved as a car, a Buick, roared by and left me a fog of dust to breathe. I felt dry as a scarecrow.
The man behind the wheel slowed about fifteen yards ahead. Pulling over jerkily, he stopped for a second before weaving and straightening out as he sped up in reverse. Unsure of his ability to see me, I scurried halfway down the bank of the ditch. He braked exactly when the car’s front bumper met my straight ahead glance.
From my vantage point I saw whitewalls and black side panels frosted with dust. A hood ornament—chrome and shaped like a bullet frozen in motion—gleamed in the sun. The driver kept the windows sealed tight. A traveller taking a wrong turn, I figured. I’d happily take that over the next throttled squawk of a grouse.
We moved in the same instant. He pushed open his door as I climbed three steps out of the ditch.
Younger than Uncle Bill and trim the man took off his hat to fan his face; fingers raked unkempt hair the same rusty brown as my own. As though unaware of me and there only to stretch his legs he strode to the front. Resting his palm for a split-second on the hood ornament, he quickly backed away and grinned at me. “Sheesh, out here’s not a stitch better.” He flapped the front of his jacket and pulled shirt fabric away from his skin. “Hotter than Hades in there. It was either that or dust by the lungful and a plague of locusts. One of them rock and a hard place situations, I guess.”
“Vic,” he said, jutting out a steady hand. “You look too old to be a runaway kid. Too clean for a tramp. Sowing your oats, I’ll bet. What’s the story?
“No story. I’m Phil. You probably drove right through my home town.” I didn’t think of Aunt Ellen’s or Viewfield as home, not quite, but a green-eyed stranger didn’t need to hear that.
“Nope, I haven’t seen anything but that there since dawn.” The man’s sweeping gesture over his shoulder seemed dismissive, although I couldn’t fathom if he meant grain, farming, or the whole prairie.
“So, Phil, you’ve just picked up the habit of ambling along open roads to nowhere while the thermometer hits the roof?”
“I suppose so, something like that.” Vic’s jokey tone sounded couched. The words might hide within themselves a second, truer sentiment, as when Aunt Ellen promised “We’ll see” but in fact meant “Let’s drop the subject.”
“You’re a salesman, aren’t you?”
“Why’d you go supposing that?”
“My aunt says there’s a slippery line between salesmen and flimflam artists. They put you at ease because they’re buttering you up.”
“You got me, junior. Your aunt’s right, part ways at least. These days it’s life insurance. Before that… Well, let’s just say I’ve seen my fair share of rock and hard place situations. Farm folk! It’s like selling blankets in Hell. If I had a nickel for all the screen doors slammed in my face!”
As the outburst dwindled his grin returned. He parked himself against the wheel well.
I cocked my head. His Buick was newer than any truck or car in town. “You can’t be doing that poorly.”
“Long story, so let’s just say it pays to look the part.” He stood again. “Say, I need a long minute alone with Mother Nature, but if you want to take a ride, it’ll get you out of the sun for awhile. I can drop you off wherever you want.” He bounced his eyebrows up and down. “And I could use the conversation. There’s only so much you can tell yourself before the boredom sets in, right? Hop in.”
I twisted the door’s lever.
“When I swung right back there at the crossroads I’d hope for a break in the monotony, a patch of green with a tree to snooze under or a stretch of running water. Know of any swim holes nearby?”
“There’s none that I know of. Anywhere the land dips, there’s a trickle of a creek. Pretty much, anyhow.”
“Alright, ke-mo sah-bee, point the way. I’ll drive.” He wore a smirk comfortably.
We’d covered no more than ten miles but already Vic had mentioned his younger brother, the family success story who sold cars in Saskatoon, his parents’ impatience with the wanderlust of their eldest, and that coming home to roost might happen one day but Vic was also fine that it had eluded him for the time being. There are seven seas, he joked, and most everybody has settled for a water tap. He’d ridden the rails, spent a night or two in the country club, which meant jail, and worked for peanuts on a ship that docked in Portland, Oregon, where he’d gambled on a riverboat and had to work off his debt washing restaurant dishes. I had no way of telling if he spoke truth, lies, or something in between and I didn’t care. Rapt, I leaned against the door and watched him talk. Assured of an audience he kept his eyes on the road. He drove left-handed and ran his free thumb to and fro on the top of his thigh, I noticed, a nervous tic.
Compared to the worldly episodes of Vic’s adventures, the unbridled run of them, Aunt Ellen’s sensible nudges—teacher, pharmacist, banker—had the appeal of root cellar potatoes in May.
Edged with tan, deer-trampled grass and watched over by leaning clumps of saskatoon bushes the creek wasn’t much to look at, even during spring when water ran highest. Years of flow had managed to burrow out a pothole by a sheer bank at an elbow. I’d lowered into its coolness the year before; the water had touched my Adam’s apple. Today I’d have to dunk myself to get that wet.
We peered over the ledge.
“Not a swim hole, but that’s as good as it gets,” I said. I’d bicycled to the spot and thought of it as my secret oasis. To Vic, though, I guessed the stream, the opposite of mighty, would seem cut-rate, a pebble of glass being sold as a diamond.
“Hot damn, just what the doctor ordered.” Vic kicked off his shoes and loosened his tie. Unbuttoning his shirt, he stepped to the lip of the embankment and looked down. Backing away he hung the noose of his tie on a saskatoon branch and used another for his shirt. He crouched to yank off his socks.
“You’ll wreck yourself if you jump. It’s not that deep.”
“I hadn’t planned to. I’m no fool.” Thrilled as a boy and shirtless, he loosened his belt. “You’re not joining me? It’s just you and the sun above. And me, of course.”
Last August I’d plunged in without a moment’s hesitation. In the presence of Vic’s company I grew shy. “I gotta think it over.” More than the prickly heat under Uncle Bill’s hat and sweat running down my spine, I felt the momentousness I’d been thinking about at the crossroads, where each direction amounted to a wholly unique destination. My skin yearned for the pool but it also looked to me as a jump from one boxcar to the next must on a wintry night. Actions, Aunt Ellen declared for just about any lesson-giving occasion, have consequences. She gave few clues about how to pick the desired ones from the kinds anyone would hope to avoid.
With no further exclamations Vic trod along the shrinking embankment, arms out like a trapeze artist. After leaping on to a narrow tongue of gravel surrounded by water and comically playing up the sharpness of the stones, he made his way back to the pool. I sat above, swinging my legs. “Okay, cover your eyes if you’ve got a delicate nature.” Thumbs hooked in his waistband he pushed. I’d heard of “naked as a jay bird” and “naked as a jailbird.” Neither made a lick of sense to me, but that was Vic, except for his hat. He eased in, silent as a muskrat. Lifting the hat overhead he sank fully until I could only see only a sodden crest of hair.
Bursting through the surface he bellowed and slammed on the hat. “Feels like heaven!” He made the offer as though he was handing me an apple for free. Vic tilted the hat over his eyes and floated upwards so that I’d behold his nakedness. Beneath the brim, his smile made me wonder how anyone could summon the backbone to slam a door on the man.
Completely quiet, Vic might have been napping. He clasped his hat by the pinch and tossed it back. He sank again, turned a somersault beneath, and lifted himself to the dry grass. “And now, if we know what’s good for us, we’ll be on our way.”
We scrambled to the Buick, mindful of the heat and the lateness of the hour. Palm touching his seat, Vic moaned “Man oh man” and announced that he preferred dust and locusts over cooking like a soft-boiled egg.
“You’d best be getting home, I suppose.”
As I pointed out upcoming turns, he chattered. Hoping to lift my spirits or drag me into conversation, he inquired about plans, whether I’d visited a coast, or ever pondered stopping by in Saskatoon or Winnipeg. As I replied in negatives, the thought dawned on me that nothing and no one had chained me to one spot. I could catch a ship to Botany Bay if that’s what I truly wanted.
At the outskirts of town, I told Vic to pull over. Walking the rest of the way struck me as the wisest choice. With the onslaught of Aunt Ellen’s worries, I’d feel protective and tell taller tales than what I already had in mind. “Got all turned around out there” would match her expectations of me.
“Thanks for the hideaway, Phil. Now it’s on both of our maps.”
“Happy to help out.”
I waved as he barreled west. I couldn’t see if he gave one in return.
Aunt Ellen rushed in from the kitchen as I tugged off my sneakers. “Gee willikers, you must be dry as toast!” She thrust a glass of water at me. “I was starting to wonder what happened to you. It’s getting on.”
“Making hay…. You were right, it’s a good idea to get outdoors.”
“Glad to hear it. You’ll be surprised sometimes at what your old aunt can come up with.”
“I need to rest my eyes for a minute.”
“Alright. But not too long. We’ll have ham and navy beans on the back porch. Cherry pie for dessert too.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
She regarded me with a mother’s kindness.
Though I hadn’t been untruthful about my fondness of that summertime meal, already I was thinking about what the seven seas could offer a man such as myself.