So, I Lied: The Chapbook as a Coherent Container

Cover of So, I Lied: The Chapbook as a Coherent Container

At the end of August, my friend Sarah drove me to the hospital. I had fierce abdominal pains that would not leave—a crocodile with its teeth around me. I’d left the elderberries I’d harvested the day before on the kitchen counter in a paper bag. By the time I came home, the bag would be stained dark purple from berries that burst.   

 “It’s probably nothing,” I said again as we drove. “But just in case.”

“Yes,” said Sarah, “just in case.”

We walked into the ER waiting room, and the nurse greeted us, “Hello, what brings you here?”

I opened my mouth to speak, to say, I have this pain, but instead I started to retch and fall towards the gray carpeted floor, and someone was holding my elbows, sliding a wheelchair behind my knees to catch me, and putting a bedpan into my hands, saying, “Here.”  

I could hear Sarah’s voice nearby, telling the nurses about the pain, and then we were in a little room. The nurse was moving me onto the bed, but oh the crocodile bit harder every time they moved me and wouldn’t they just leave me, wouldn’t it just stop.

Then I was in the bed, shaking under the rough sheets, and Sarah was next to me. There was a nurse, explaining that they thought maybe I had appendicitis.

“We’re going to give you fluids and morphine for the pain.”

“No,” I said. “No morphine.” I wanted every bit of my mind to get me through this, to get me out of the hospital.  

“No morphine?” The nurse raised his eyebrows at me. “On a scale of one to ten, how bad is your pain?” 

“Eleven.” I tried not to pant. Talking hurt. Breathing hurt. Anything that moved the middle of my body, where the crocodile had its jaws, hurt. “Twelve. I’m so cold.”

“I see,” said the nurse. He wrote on my chart. He slid the needle into the pillow of my inner elbow, took a blood sample, and clicked in the line for the fluids. “I’ll be back.”


As a young poet, I was told that the word “stanza” was Italian for “room.” It actually means something closer to a “station” or a “stopping-place.” A group of words as a little holding space. A poem, too, is a container, and from there, a collection of poems is a container. We use them to hold images, experiences, questions. Sometimes we use them to hold what we ourselves cannot anymore.

When I began assembling my first collection of poems, a chapbook, I had over a hundred poems to choose from. They all felt connected. Like most poets, I have my obsessions, my landscapes (internal and external) that I return to again and again. I wasn’t sure how to narrow it down. I looked at pages and pages of my own words, moved them around on tabletops, but didn’t feel the magic of a collection.

Chapbooks are very small containers—traditionally between 16 and 32 pages. I’m a fan of tiny things, a fan of the creativity and surprises that arise under constraints. But how was I going to choose so few poems, from among so many?


The nurse brought back a stack of thin white blankets, and Sarah piled them onto me, one after another. I was still shaking, so Sarah went to the car and brought back a lumpy gray wool hat and put it on my head. The nurse brought a chalk drink so they could X-ray my appendix, and I did this new job dutifully, watching the clock and taking sips every fifteen minutes. Sarah dialed the phone for me to call my new lover. We had only been together for two months. His voicemail answered.

“Hi,” I said.  “Um, I’m in the ER, and I don’t know what’s wrong but can you come?”

The hands on the clock kept moving. I tried not to move. Breathing made the pain sharper. If I could just stop moving at all there would be only a simmer of dull pain but breathing brought new shards each time. My shoulder throbbed now, too, and I couldn’t understand why my shoulder hurt. The lover called back.

“Hi,” he said, “I’m at the tea house, I can’t come right now, I’ll come as soon as I can.” It was evening now, the clock said, and I remembered it was Thursday. He played music at the tea house on Thursdays, and tonight was their “cd release party” which just meant they had a cd to sell if anyone sitting and drinking tea wanted to buy it. In other words, he could leave if he wanted, if it was important. I didn’t want to cry in front of Sarah, so instead I said, “Ok,” and hung up.

A female doctor came in and asked Sarah to leave.  

“Did you know that you’re pregnant?”  the doctor asked. I shook my head—no, I began to shake it and the pain reminded me not to move so I only moved my mouth a little to say, “No.”

“We can’t give you an X-ray now, since you’re pregnant, so stop drinking the chalk.  We’re going to get you down for an ultrasound before they close,” the doctor said and hurried out.


Poetry collections are often assembled around a common theme, or from poems written during a certain time period. When I assembled Rupture, I had been writing poetry for nearly twenty years. I printed out my poems, marked them with colored pencils according to themes, sorted them into piles, arranged and rearranged them. I was in a chapbook class with Tiana Clark, and I had to have a manuscript together at the end of our three months. I had to choose. The chapbook demanded that I did not just choose the poems, but that I decide how to choose.


I called my lover again and told his voicemail that I was pregnant. His voicemail said nothing.

Another nurse came and maneuvered me into another wheelchair. We went down the hall, down the elevator, down and down to a little room where the ultrasound tech was waiting.  

“Ok, honey,” the tech said. She had soft gray hair and a soft voice, and rosy cheeks. She looked like a grandmother in a fairy tale, not someone working in the basement of a hospital.  

“We’re going to get you up on this table, and then I’m going to insert the ultrasound wand.” The tech kept talking as she and Sarah and the nurse half lifted me onto the table, and Sarah kept holding my hand.  

“This is going to hurt, honey,” the tech said. 

I didn’t think it was possible to hurt more, but it was. It was possible for the pain to be the only thing in the world, for me to not be able anymore to feel Sarah’s hand or to hear the woman’s gentle voice, until it was done, and they were lifting me back down into the chair, my mouth clenched around the taste of the chalk drink.

Back upstairs, back to the room with my stack of blankets, and now the doctor came, with a different ultrasound tech, looking at charts together down by my feet.  

“I’m going to lift up your gown,” the doctor said, exposing the skin of my belly.  

“Does this hurt?” the doctor asked, pressing down with three fingers just below my ribs, and although I thought surely there was nothing left of me anymore to hurt, the pain exploded, taking my ability to see for a moment, and I cried out.

“Yes,” said the doctor, nodding at the tech, who walked quickly out into the hall. The doctor turned to me.  

“You have a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. The egg got stuck in your fallopian tube after it was fertilized, and split open the tube. You are bleeding internally, and that is the pain you’re feeling. We need to operate, remove the split tube, and stop the hemorrhaging. You can choose not to have the operation, but you will bleed to death.”

It was after midnight now, the clock said. It had been hours since I had called my lover, hours since the tea house had closed. He wasn’t coming.

“Ok,” I said.  “Yes, I’ll have the surgery.  Are you going to take out my uterus?”

“We shouldn’t need to,” said the doctor, looking at the clock on the wall.  “I’ll try not to. Ok, we’re setting up the surgery room right now, I’ll be your surgeon and we’ll be back for you in a few minutes.”

The doctor left and now someone was crying. I was crying. I asked Sarah to text my parents, and tell them what was happening, and to text my lover. The nurses came and wheeled my bed down the halls to the surgery room, nearly running. The lights in the surgery room glinted off the tools laid on the metal trays. Don’t look, I told myself. You’re going to wake up from this, you’re going to wake up.  

“Count down from ten for me,” said the anesthesiologist, pulling the mask over my mouth and nose.

“Ten, nine,” I said, then I wasn’t anymore.


Phillip Brady, in his essay, “The Shapes a Bright Container Can Contain,” says that “novels saturate us,” even as poets. The goal doesn’t need to be to write a novel in verse, Brady says, but “to suggest the feel and breadth of a novel, and in doing so allow each poem to be read in its own eternal time and infinite space.”

Tiana Clark had our class read multiple essays from Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems, edited by Susan Grimm. None really resonated until I read Brady’s.

In fiction and memoir classes, I attempted to write about my experiences from a few years before, when I had both a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and an abortion in less than twelve months, and the breakdown of that romantic relationship. I had written and written, but it had never quite worked, first person, third person, or second person. Fiction or nonfiction. 

I had also written poems about that year, and as I spread my color-coded poems out across the floor and moved them around, and moved them again, I began to feel, more and more, that I did not want those poems touching the other poems. It wasn’t so much that I chose those poems instead of my other poems. It was that I didn’t want that relationship getting mixed up with or confused with other loves. I wanted it contained. I wanted those poems to have, as Brady said, their own time and space, and I decided that within the chapbook’s container, I could shape the story.


After the ruptured ectopic pregnancy surgery, the lover drove me home and stayed with me for a day. Then he went back to his apartment. It took me weeks to be able to lift anything heavier than a cup of water. I had lost a pint of blood to internal bleeding and the surgery. It would be years before I could stay up past nine o’clock without feeling like I had the flu the next day. 

Almost a year later, I was pregnant again. I had two children already, with a man I was in the middle of a long and painful divorce from. My lover had an ex-girlfriend he was constantly fighting with, and they had a daughter who he only saw on the weekends. My body still felt train wrecked by the ruptured ectopic pregnancy. It was June, the wild rose was blooming again, the pink smell coming through the windows on the breeze, bizarre and improbable against my grief.

Neither of us said even once, Let’s have this child together. When I tried to talk about the pregnancy, the lover sobbed and moaned without words. After weeks of being so tired I could barely go to work and so violently nauseous that I could barely eat, I told him I’d made an appointment. 

I’ll drive you to the clinic,” he texted back.

  I wasn’t sure I wanted him with me, but I wanted him to have to be there.  He hadn’t been in the ER for the ruptured ectopic pregnancy. I wanted him to have to do this, to care for me. I thought it would heal something between us, to do it together. 

When it was time to go, my lover was crying. 

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I’m letting it out now because I know I need to be strong for you after.  I was just sitting here imagining throwing a baseball to my son. I just realized how much I want another child.”  

He was sobbing. I started the car. He had promised to drive me, but we had an appointment to keep. 

I said, “You are a clueless fuckhead.”

I said, “You need to be supporting me right now, when I am terrified about everything that’s about to happen. I am afraid of people picketing the clinic. I am afraid it will hurt. I am afraid something will go wrong. I am so nauseous I can barely drive this car, can’t you tell? And you also need to support me after.”

No, I did not say any of this. I was exhausted. I had tried and tried to explain myself to him. I said nothing.  I drove, and he cried. 

It was a gorgeous day, the sky brilliantly blue, the breeze soft in the peach trees, just beginning their season of growth.


Once I made the decision to use the chapbook as a space to hold the story about the ruptured ectopic pregnancy and abortion, I was able to set aside most of those hundred poems. I had around twenty, still, and many pages of prose about the same experiences. I brought those poems to workshop, and I began to think about that year as a story, not just as terrible things that had happened to me. What did the reader need to know? What was true for the telling of the story, even if it wasn’t exactly how things had happened? What had I still not said?

As I pulled the poems together, there were too many stories, tangled together. There was the lover, the ex-husband, the new lover I had now. There was the surgery and then the abortion. I didn’t want the chapbook to start with a flow chart, a cast of characters. I had tried to talk about the ectopic pregnancy and this new pregnancy with my lover so many times, had tried to explain what it was like for me, and it had never worked. I refused to repeat my pleading explanations here.

So, I lied. I told the truth.


Phillip Brady, in that same essay, said, “the overall effect is to present an imaginatively coherent world.” The more I worked on these poems together, the more I understood about creating that coherent world. Explaining both a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and an abortion was too much in 25 pages. I made them into one loss, one grief, one splintering. It wasn’t true to the facts, but it was still true

When I had written about that year in fiction and nonfiction, I had gotten stuck each time on trying to tell it right. Trying to explain all of it. As I was writing this essay, I happened to be in a poetry class taught by Dorianne Laux. Our last day together, she said to the class, “The lower case ‘t’ truth is the truth of our life. The upper case ‘T’ is the Truth you want to write.”

I chose with Rupture, and here again, to give up on telling the truth, lower case t. I could never tell it just right. I would settle for telling what I could, which has turned out to be more.


My lover stayed in the waiting room and clinic staff walked me to a back room so I could change into a gown and wait my turn. I wrapped the floppy white fabric around myself as best I could—there were no ties or fasteners. There was an older woman waiting there already who looked as tired as I felt. A young teenage girl with swooping eyeliner came in next. We all sat silently. I wanted someone to say something. I tried to smile at the woman and the teen, but not too big a smile, trying to somehow capture You’re going to be ok and also What a shitty crazy thing this is, right?

The teenager looked stunned under her eyeliner, numb. She did not smile back.  

The nurses called us in, one by one. They led me to a chair like a dentist’s chair, held my hand and talked to me about Harry Potter. A female doctor sat by my feet. The doctor didn’t say anything, intent on her work.

“This is the worst part,” the nurse said, “you’ll feel a lot of cramping now.”

There was the sound of a machine pumping, vacuuming. The pain was the pain of my most intense labor cramps, all at once.  

Then the nurse said, “You’re done, you were so calm and brave, were you doing meditation or something?”

No,” I said, startled that I could feel so terrified yet look so calm, “I was just . . . breathing.

The nurse helped me up, half lifting me into a wheelchair and wheeled me into the recovery room. My legs were shaking as they helped me into another reclining chair.  

“It’s a shock to your body,” a new nurse said, “rest here.”

   She handed me saltines and ginger ale. The woman in the reclining chair next to me began throwing up into a bedpan.  

“That’s alright,” a nurse said to the retching woman gently, patting her. “Let it out, you’ll feel better.”  

I closed my eyes tightly, feeling my own insides twisting, not wanting to vomit, or to faint, which seemed equally likely. My lover was in the waiting room, with me, not with me. I slowly ate one cracker, two. I sipped the ginger ale. They brought in the teenage girl, her face several shades paler.


After the ruptured ectopic surgery, which saved my life, I got my first tattoo. I had wanted one for years but been nervous about choosing something that would be on my body for the rest of my life. After nearly dying, I was a lot less worried about that. I got a line from an Indigo Girls song on the inside of my right arm, one that wasn’t completely true for me, but that I wanted as a reminder. “Not afraid to tell,” it reminds me, as I type, as I wash the dishes, as I pull off my sweater.

As I assembled the poems for Rupture, I went back through old drafts that had never quite clicked, through five different poems that were all trying to talk about the same thing, and I salvaged what I could. I took the one line that sung, and I made it a title for another poem. Or I took an image from one poem and used it in another. I sewed the seams tighter and tighter, holding the story together in a way that made my experiences, my completely chaotic and incomprehensible experiences, into a story that had happened to me in the past, a story that could be told. I had been unable to explain my story to my lover. I wanted to at least try to tell it to myself.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in her essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” posits that instead of story as a weapon or a battle, a story is a container—a carrier bag. You might wonder why I’m talking about fiction again, since Rupture is a collection of poetry, but Le Guin’s words have stayed with me through the years. All writing is meaning-making. 

Books, and words, Le Guin says, are containers, “holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.” Novels aren’t the only containers. Poetry collections, and poems, are containers that hold things in relation to one another and to us. They are separate, as I wanted these stories to be held apart from myself, and they are, forever, in relation to me.


I wanted to tell the stories of what had happened to me, not because they were my special stories, but because they were not that special, actually. One in fifty pregnancies in the US is an ectopic pregnancy, though I had never heard of them before it happened to me, despite having two living children and one miscarriage. The symptoms resemble menstrual cramps, and often occur before you know you’re pregnant. There are 600,000 to 900,000 abortions in the US each year (or there were, before the overturn of Roe v. Wade). 

I wanted to be unafraid to tell. And I also truly wanted to never touch these memories again. I had broken up with that lover and eventually had to block his texts. When I posted about my own experience in support of Roe v. Wade, near the anniversary of my own abortion, he messaged me and said, “Thank you for remembering.” 

As if the abortion had happened to him, to his body, not mine. As if it was his story, and I was just a bystander. I blocked him there too, I had ended the relationship, but I couldn’t and didn’t want to erase that part of my life or the art that I had made from it. I didn’t want to be defined by only those events, but I also wasn’t willing to invisibilize them.

The chapbook offered me a vessel for claiming these stories, for relating to them as best I could at the time I wrote it. Long before I knew the poem would become part of a collection that contained these experiences, I wrote “I gather and weave / what protections / I can — yarrow, knot-/ weed, wild rose.” I was training as a folk herbalist in the years before and after my abortion and ruptured ectopic pregnancy, and the wild plants I learned about and harvested were often in my poems. Yarrow, used magically, helps with boundaries and with protection. Rupture is itself a spell of binding–to keep these stories, and to keep them contained. 


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