Running errands and catching up with podcasts on Saturday, I had the pleasure of revisiting Katie Manning’s “What to Expect” via an episode of Poetry Unbound (from The On Being Project). In it, Pádraig Ó Tuama showcases just how smart Manning’s poem is as it confronts the accumulation of stresses in What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
Expect dance workouts and death. Expect diving, Doppler, driving, and dromedary droop. Expect embarrassment. Expect electric blankets and equal employment. Expect eyes and facials. Expect failure, fantasies, fast food, and feet.from Katie Manning’s “What to Expect”
Using select items from the index of that infamous pregnancy textbook, the poem makes clear that those pressures are mainly external (societal) and often gendered (“equal employment”). They are impositions placed upon she who would dare believe she can bring new life into the world and trust her own competence to take on everything that means. As Tuama says, “I think Katie Manning is saying that not only is your body considered public property when you’re pregnant, also your behavior.”
“What to Expect” is one of my new favorite list poems (you can read it in full in the podcast transcript).
First, I love that it calls What to Expect When You’re Expecting on its shit. (If I remember correctly, there’s a section on poop.) And yet — I also identify so clearly with the poem’s (and the book’s) anxious hopscotching.
Second, I admire the texture and sounds Manning achieves with the repetition of the directive “Expect” and the alliterative quality of the listed items (arranged alphabetically like the book’s index). There’s also lots of assonance throughout, and I particularly love how the long “i” interrupts a pair of short “i” sounds here: “Expect ribs, ripening and risk.” The effect is a ripple I process like notes on a scale.
A “do, RE, do.”
A down, UP, down.
A wave I ride.
The sensation matches the content of the poem.
Its surprises bob up like rubber duckies released from a small fist at the bottom of the tub.
The What to Expect book was required (well, “expected”) reading when I was pregnant. I consulted the text many times, bringing to it some of my natural anxieties and finding in it some answers. However, I also found in it many new anxieties to worry my pretty little head about.
Bright yellow flashes of panic bursting from below the surface.
One of the great shocks of pregnancy and parenting for me was the constant monitoring. How they tallied progress. How they scanned me. (Some scenes were pictures are from the inside, which was scary enough. Others scenes were recorded by total strangers in the gory grocery store checkout line.) I was always watched.
The level of surveillance was stunning, and I’m so fascinated by what Tuama describes here about the shared roots between “inspect” and “expect.”
The word “expect” comes from Latin, and “spect” means “to look at.” When we think of “inspect,” for instance, it comes from the same root as “expect.” And it comes with the idea of awaiting or anticipating. And listening to the 63 “expects” in this, I think we’re drawn into a rhythm and a certain sense of being forced into an imagination that might come from other people, and a societal imagination.Pádraig Ó Tuama discussing Katie Manning’s “What to Expect” on Poetry Unbound
That “societal imagination” told me what I needed to do. It assumed compliance would be forthcoming. It drummed its fingers on the table.
It eclipsed the voice inside me that knew what I needed for the work ahead.
Of course, that voice — at least mine — hadn’t actually been asked what I needed in the first place, and Manning’s poem has a thing or two to say about that. She strips the title of “when you’re expecting” to make the expectations applicable to everyone. She uses the rest of its words against it. She documents a litany of human experiences and arranges the possibilities in a way that’s satisfying to her.
Do. Re. Do.
As a brand new empty nester, it’s an interesting time for me to be reminded of a pregnancy book, though I’ll allow the cliché and admit something is being born, a squirmy little thing I can’t yet know. Except that certainly it’s a phase of life in which I’m not surveilled in the same way. I move now toward an Age of Invisibility.
Parenting is less visible now, too.
A wave I ride.
Already, motherhood occupies a different kind of space. The color guard and horns have marched off the field. Only the drums — only the bass drums — remain. In slow intervals, the mallet strikes, its blows present as a heartbeat but not as obvious or as easy.
Once, the babies pushed so hard against the diaphragm it could barely move. Now, it has almost too much room, its vibration a jolt. The flag at my center snaps. As though gust. As though hold on tight. As though brace your core.
I feel the punch of the task I was given.
Expect ribs, ripening and risk.
For me, this empty nesting is taking a strange form by coinciding with another big shift: full-time co-habitation with my partner. Unpacking boxes and filling new spaces is also a kind of nesting.
And I don’t know what to expect.
The difference this time is that I’m writing the book. Literally.
I’m writing about and through my personal experience of moving in together and including info on the societal expectations/judgments around co-habitation (things like “living in sin” and “marital bliss”) and some details about its economics/trade-offs. It may prove to be fascinating only to me, and that’s ok.
I asked myself what I needed right now, and I listened to the voice that answered.