Liv is pregnant. She is an artist, and married to Erland. She names the fetus, a boy, Ersatz (a replacement, a copy, a person not yet real?). This book-long poem, divided into short segments making up nine (month-like) chapters, reconstructs her pregnancy in words, often literally, using words-within-words (for instance in a section called "Proximity of Posed to Exposed"), echoing people-within-(pregnant)-people, ideas emerging from words, and life (and death) emerging from bodies.

The poem does not offer a simple coherent narrative, although it does follow the biological narrative form of gestation. Instead it circles around the experience of containing another person, and the dissonance Liv seems to find between biological and verbal or cultural creating. Liv's ambivalence about this tension is captured throughout the work, perhaps most notably in her exploration of a painting of the dead Virginia Woolf, the drowned body of a childless woman writer, now become "beached debris." The final part of the poem captures powerfully the experience of childbirth, and the afterword is in a new voice, that of Liv's son.


A rich addition to the literature on pregnancy and childbirth, not least because Rankine explores the fundamental problem of writing about such things in the first place: the way in which essentially corporeal processes and experiences may resist and even threaten language itself. The writing is strongly visual, many of the pieces carrying a sense of Liv's art (and Lily Briscoe's portrait of Mrs. Ramsay from Woolf's To the Lighthouse), and functioning almost like abstract paintings themselves.

The poem does not attempt simple coherence, and some readers may find its opacity and idiosyncrasy frustrating, but this may in part be the point. Rankine's Liv is not a writer but a painter; Rankine's poem is candid about the reductiveness of verbalizing what seems more fittingly painted or simply felt.


Grove Press

Place Published

New York



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