Hello again. It’s been many months since we were here together. But I have mapped a new short essay, “Yield” by Jolene Mcilwain in CRAFT Literary. It’s five-ish paragraphs, I suggest reading it before diving into the maps.
I was looking for something short when I happened across this essay. A pink SpeCtra pump whirring beside me as I read the opening paragraphs of several essays. This essay starts with the sentence, “I could not milk.” It feels like there’s a verb missing, right? “I could not produce milk” or “I could not summon milk” or “I could not find milk” or “I could not drink milk.” Each one of those setting us immediately into at atmosphere—doting mother, exasperated farmer, lost in the grocery store, allergic. But no, this essay starts with, “I could not milk.” It feels wrong to the ear. In a mad lib, it would sound unnatural. This is so eerily purposeful, the essay works as a tension point between natural and artificial. (I’ll talk about this more later). And the power of the opening paragraph is that it moves through a spectrum of extremity.
The opening gives us that first sentence that feels strangely incomplete, a sentence that makes a person cock their head to try to figure it out and then it moves through questions more and more concerning. “Was it…” to “May have been…” to Maybe it was…” and each of these heightens the tension. The first question references medical terms, “oxytocin, prolactin, beta,” then it’s heightened in the second sentence by the “morphine drip" and the word “trigger,” and finally, we get a long sentence with “blood spilt” and “bespattered” and “no foreign objects” and “abrupted” ending with “…where my son had once swum?” And these questions, while seemingly more disturbing, jostle the reader between oppositions, the natural to the artificial in a repeated cycle. Natural: milk, oxytocin, prolactin” artificial: “morphine.” In the next sentence, natural: blood, artificial: x-ray machine, operating room, hemostat, sponges, needles. And finally, natural: placenta, son” to “culled within hours, had I been a cow,” when she’s unable to perform the “natural” function. A human response that is, for me, somehow both natural and artificial.
I want to talk about the word “culled” a little bit in this final sentence of paragraph one. It means to be “selectively slaughtered” in today’s terms, but in the Google archaic definition means “picked.” And maybe it’s my brought-up-Catholic brain (a great example of how we saturate whatever we read with our own framework), but “picked” immediately makes me think flowers, sex (virginity: deflowered), plucked. I would argue that I’m onto something here because later, paragraph two, ends with the word “sinful,” which to me, offers a nod toward place, but it feels like a mirror to that opening paragraph as well, the relationship in Christian religions between creation, sex, and sin. Of course in a pregnancy, a birth, postpartum there’s sex. We don’t often see it in the writing of these scenes, but it is no less always there—the closed door part of the whole story. The word “sinful” is also used after her describing her father’s “skimmed the cream off the top” and how precious he handled the milk, “he dared not to spill a drop.” There are implications here about purity and sanctity and safety (that are overwhelmed by the intensity of the first paragraph). There are implications about moving from a woman who just gave birth and can’t milk to cows and the dearness with which their milk is handled.
The second paragraph is interesting because it opens again with something that feels like insider language, “Cows out the road milk for four or five years…” Again, the sentence structure is baffling. I tried to look up what “out the road” might mean, but its slang I don’t recognize. It gives a compelling outsider feeling to the essay though. And in this paragraph, there’s a ton of anthropomorphism, which I think the writer wants us to feel. She says, “Their calves are taken away”—the language of “taken away” when she could have said “removed” or even “moved” but “taken away” implies a feeling much stronger than both of those.
There are also several timings and ages within this paragraph. “Four or five years” to “lifetime daily yields,” calves are removed, “after twenty-four hours,” and she learned about the calves “when I was ten.” With that age, we enter a memory that lasts the middle of the essay, of her and her father at Cooper farm.” At first, I thought adding her specific age in this memory was just specificity, but then I started thinking about it in context—young girl (10) with her father milking a cow, at a farm with “father-and-son farmers” and again, the implications. This idea of “picked.” This circling the expectations of women, in metaphorical comparison to cows via the first paragraph, yes. BUT also that though there are different timelines in this essay, the feelings produced in the narrator (and reader) are ongoing—it is the same learning, the same story with new context for this ten year old girl and postpartum mother.
(Side note: David Naimon has this episode of Crafting with Ursula with Karen Joy Fowler, where she talks about her lifetime argument with her father of whether animals could feel—highly recommend. You can listen here. This essay made me think of it).
The third paragraph feels in direct, purposeful contrast to the first. It feels like the first paragraph is saying “trauma” and the third paragraph is saying, “but look how easy.” It starts with her and her father “placed three quarters wrapped up in a dollar in the can by the sink” and ends with “white liquid pay.” The commodification of this “I could not milk.” We get the crickets saying “teat, teat, teat, teat”—which I love, what a delicate move. While there’s beauty here, it feels like the whole scene of her ten year old memory is being overlaid with the postpartum hospital memory—a veil. Her father whistles. (The whistling really knocks me out, I’m not sure why, other than that tension—whistling is for strolling, for easy, for sing-song, and against the trauma of that opening paragraph, I feel a fury). The carts slurp. They “say goodbye to the father-and-son farmers in coveralls.” There’s something Shakespearean in the father/son and father/daughter dynamics at play, but Mcilwain doesn’t untangle it, which I appreciate. The way this memory gives the allusion without adding it as a knot to the essay’s branching. Flash essays have to choose their knots wisely.
The second-to-last paragraph introduces a cow with Mastitis who is being milked, and a row of other cows in the parlor, the machines sucking in chorus. And between this and the final paragraph paragraph, there’s a question, separated by white space, “Better to milk to something other than your young or never to have milked at all?” This question is doing so much! First, in the world of Tennyson & Hamlet, it makes space for bodies who can birth. We spend so much of this four paragraph essay on a man’s stage, and suddenly we are witness to a post-labor woman taking stage. Mcilwain also uses “never” four times in this final scene at the farm. It feels like a hammer, the four versions of “never” in contrast to the “teat, teat, teat, teat” of the crickets, it’s powerful.
And then the final paragraph, we get all this duality between it and the opening paragraph. We get it straight in this final paragraph, “I was the cow” instead of the metaphor throughout, which kaleidoscopes and remakes each paragraph that comes before it. It does though, give distance to the narrator then and the narrator now—was. She does it with her son as well, “My son was a calf stripped away…” It’s actually the first time in the essay that I noticed it was in the past tense and the double past tense of flashback. The was feels so much more powerful in these final direct lines, and the essay feels closer in that first scene. Maybe because in the first paragraph we’re in-scene, rather than in meaning.
“Blood spilt” in paragraph one, and “all that trauma may have spilled inside me” in the final paragraph. We get “milk replacer” in the final paragraph against the “taken away” in the early paragraphs. And the final sentence, “My lifetime daily yield: none.” If she was the cow, she would have been culled—that’s what rings for me here. It’s not a judgment, it’s a sort of fact of the essay, which makes that final “none” hollow a reader out. All this, so much blood, so much never, and the result is still none. And then the double meaning of the title, she “yielded” a child—all this including her son coding and getting a pump attached to his foot vessel—and still none. It imbues so many questions on this idea of “the natural way of things.” Who’s natural?
I have goosebumps.
Other reads if you enjoyed this essay:
Jolene Mcilwain has a story collection forthcoming from Melville House, Sidle Creek
A Woman Is a Woman Until She Is a Mother by Anna Prushinskaya (MG Press, essays)
Send Me Into the Woods Alone by Erin Pepler (Invisible Publishing, essays)
Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss by Gayle Brandeis (Overcup Books, essays)
Guidebook for Relative Strangers by Camille T. Dungy (W.W. Norton, essays)
Brood by Jackie Polzin (Anchor Books, novel)
The Long Devotion, edited by Nancy Reddy & Emily Pérez (UGA Press)
The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling (Picador, novel)
Tender Hooks by Beth Anne Fennelly (W.W. Norton, poems)
Amazing mapping, and the essay was so intense. Great read.