Stillbirthlet is a collection of 43 prose miniatures of modest dimensions. The pieces – most of which are no longer than a single type-written page – link the narrator with several themes running through the book. The narrator is a young, married woman – by vocation and passion a poet – bringing up two small children and trying to reconcile her domestic duties with her literary work.
Bargielska strives to synthesise these two realities. On one hand she portrays the everyday existence of Justyna (her narrator and heroine), and on the other she draws out metaphors from the most ordinary experiences, interweaving them with dreams and fantasies. This first-time writer of prose is clearly searching for a distinctive literary form; she would like – one surmises – to organise the text in such a way as to talk about ordinary things in an original way.
The motifs cementing this collection revolve around the experience of pregnancy, giving birth, and motherhood. First and foremost, there is the title motif. Stillbirthlet (Obsoletka in Polish original) is a neologism coined by Bargielska and derived from a Latin medical term (“obsoleta” is a synonym for a stillbirth). In Justyna’s world the experience of losing a baby seems a central and critical one, a figure of loss in general. As such, it does not only represent a female or marital drama – but something more. Influenced by this experience, the heroine begins to pose fundamental questions: about the meaning of life, the concept of happiness and about her own identity. It should nonetheless be stressed that everything played out here is only hinted at, as it were, through fleeting images, reflections or fantasies. The events the main character participates in, the stories other people tell her, and all her individual experiences and reflections are “encrypted”, possibly through fear of their direct expression, but maybe owing to a conviction that what the author would like to communicate is inexpressible.
Translated by David French
Justyna Bargielska (born 1977) Poet, author of three volumes of poetry. She was awarded the prestigious Gdynia Literary Prize in 2010 for book of poetry Dwa fiaty (Two Fiats). Obsoletki is her prose debut.
I’d like to tell you about the last time I gave birth.
We set the date of my Caesarean section for 9 May at nine in the morning. It was fixed with the help of four calendars: mine, the obstetrician’s, the anaesthetist’s, and the press officer’s at the District Office. Our chief concern was for the date to agree across all four. It did, even though the previous day I’d had grave concerns in my – pardon my French – uterus that I’d break the agreement. But in the end I didn’t. I was supposed to hand in an entire job by the evening, and it was already half done (I’m a professional, after all), and that effectively inhibited my contractions.
On Friday morning, I got up at 1.30 a.m. and went to the bathroom to clean the grouting. Five hours later, my husband and older child got up, and we set off. We dropped our child off at the childminder’s on the way.
I was given a room in motivational orange, and a blue, appliqué birthing gown. I mistook my strange woolly-headedness for concentration, which emerged most apparently when, after a few friendly questions (HIV, Wassermann test, anti-hepatitis B test) the doctor asked, “Where was your last Caesarean done?” and I – after an interminably lengthy pause, during which I could easily have visited the star Vega, where I must originate if he was asking me questions like that, answered, “My abdomen.” The doctor looked enquiringly at my husband, who replied, “Praga Hospital.”
Then they came to take me to the operating theatre. They were unable to explain why I had to take off my knickers, but I decided to give in to their irrational arguments, because it may have been the last chance I had to give in to their irrational arguments concerning the removal of my knickers.
When I was on the operating table my gynaecologist said, “Oh, I’ve forgotten to examine you.” At this point, it turned out I’d already been in labour for quite some time, in fact I was nearing the end, it’s just I’d been distracted by the grouting and it had escaped my attention.
Then everything happened at breakneck speed: they got the baby out (looking like an raw sausage), took it to the next room to be measured, the paediatrician whistled to my husband to join him and the anaesthetic stopped working. I told the anaesthetist the anaesthetic had probably worn off, to which he answered, “What do you mean?” And that was the precise moment when I fell in love with him.
Then the paediatrician briefly came back with my husband to announce the baby’s length. “Fifty-six centimetres,” he said, at which my husband remarked the paediatrician must have got it wrong, upon which they disappeared into the other room again.
Then the anaesthetist, gynaecologist and midwife all left, having first said nicely, “Thank you.” “Thank you too,” I said.
And I was left alone with the other midwife; I in tears, and the midwife washing me. The tiles were a faded khaki.
Next time, I’d like to tell you about my cat Paweł’s fatal fall from the balcony.
My cat Paweł’s fatal fall from the balcony
Paweł had been with me and my husband from the start. My husband arrived with him and a shopping bag containing a toothbrush and other such things, and the question of whether they could move in with me. They could, and Paweł at that time measured between eight and twelve inches, with one moustache white and the other black. Paweł then appeared in various family photos until the last Friday in May, when he died after falling from the balcony.
My sister and her son had come to visit. I don’t blame her, because I now know that my careless subconscious killed Paweł, but to show the synchronicity I’d like to emphasise they had just come to visit and created their classic air-sign whirlwind, as my water-sign children and I looked on from the narrow border between indifference and a nervous breakdown. I had to open the balcony door to get some oxygen, and I have to admit it, and say I was beginning to lose control of the situation. And Paweł went out – we don’t know when – and fell – we don’t know when, but we do know on what – the concrete below. But I didn’t see it happen, so I searched for Paweł in the wardrobe, cursing because he wasn’t allowed in the wardrobe.
And then my husband came home from work and it became clear to us Paweł wasn’t around the place in the narrow sense – so my husband went to see if he wasn’t lying around the place in the wider sense. He wasn’t.
And then, a little anaesthetised by hope, we were standing on the balcony late that night after the children were already asleep in bed. We were saying that maybe Paweł hadn’t yet met his death if he had gone over to the adjacent balcony, to the neighbour whose wife and seven-month-old daughter had died in a car crash, because our neighbour’s window had been open for a while that afternoon, but was now closed, and he was hardly ever at home. I was always pleased he was hardly ever in, because I hoped I’d never see him. As soon as the previous owner told us about him at the notary’s office I didn’t want to see him. We were once getting the kids into their pram in the corridor and someone came and went into our neighbour’s flat, but my husband said it wasn’t him, because he was taller and a bit classier. But through the gap in the open door I saw some bags of sugar in the hall.
And we were looking down and sideways at our fairly new place and its bald patio, when my eyes alighted on a black patch, something like a rubbish bag, by the communal bins.
“That isn’t Paweł down there, is it?” I asked my husband.
“Course it isn’t,” he replied.
And the next morning he called me from work – he works in forestry land outside Warsaw city limits – and said, “Anyway, I buried him.”
Translated by David French