Two Poems by Jan Beatty

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


I woke bloody
from snorting heroin,
     rocking myself skinless, the veins in my neck
              and my pink eyes speedballing blood

Shooting up words like all addicts do:
I never did heroin/I only snorted it
I never did crack
I just free-based the coke I had

Getting clean a bigger mindfuck:
/they said
/good/ they said
let go/

They wanted blood for their spiritual path
and I wanted to please, but inside I was granular,

and I woke wanting frenzy —
having never been trained in the sweet goodnight

When you ask yourself who’s the animal,
who’s the killer —
just know they taught us to drink the blood
of a man nailed to a cross. when we were children —

and so fuck it.
fuck sweetness, just fuck it
and every other misguided bedtime story,
I skinned myself down/
to my own idea of bone/

until the song and the gearshift became
my only true loves —
shooting up words to stay alive,

everybody wants blood — it’s just where and how
you want to give it


miraculous how you can buy a thing like that



This preface is excerpted from the introduction to Beatty’s nonfiction working manuscript, "American Bastard” and is not part of the poem. I asked Jan permission to reprint this specifically as a way to inform both the poem and the reader:

Of course, there are many decent, loving people who adopt. My adoptive father was a great person who I loved fiercely. Although adoption stories can be necessary and moving — this is a book (American Bastard) about being a bastard — what it means, what it feels like as a primary, life-changing loss. There’s an insidious, deep-seated problem with the way that North American culture conceptualizes, talks about, and enacts adoption. The conventional story seems to be one of compulsory gratitude and luck. The propaganda goes something like this: rescuing this baby/child is an amazing, spiritual thing that the adoptive parents are doing, and the adoptee must be forever indebted. It’s a one-dimensional fiction: no nuances, no complications, and especially no questionable motives.

As an adoptee, one must address the notions of real and unreal, since her history, name, identity has been erased. She has been plucked, not chosen, from another place. Money and governments are involved. A sale has been made.

An adoptee finds home outside of the body — since there is often no physical face of the
birthmother and birthfather, no “blood of my blood” with which to bond. Even in the case of “open” adoptions, the adoptee inevitably suffers great displacement and a sense of betrayal and grief. These feelings are alive in the body, but not always clear in the conscious mind. 

The bastard knows that the culture of North America has a fixation with the sacredness of the “mother.” The giving, loving mother is the last frontier of critique. Obviously, not all adoptive mothers are good people; all women who give birth “naturally” are not saints. It’s essential to allow mothers to be human beings with strength and bravery — and also women with flaws, challenges, and bad intentions.

The culture’s unwillingness to complicate the idea of motherhood and adoption places an untenable burden on all “mothers,” casting them into a savior role that is impossible in its requirements. And unreal. The bastard knows in her body that the real/unreal are mixing here, and she finds herself in a strange and shifting land.
What is the adoptee to do with all these lies? When the culture systematically erases the identity of its citizens — and calls it “love” — we’ve got a problem.  As the writer Ursula Le Guin says, “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”

In the life of a bastard, the dragons are everywhere.

—Jan Beatty, American Bastard


miraculous how you can buy a thing like that

maybe you wanted a baby.            to care for, love.
maybe you wanted it to come
from your own body.
make a family            live that picture perfect life.
to be a mother and now your body
            not cooperating.
or you want to help the world,            find and love a baby who needs a home.
not overpopulate.         give of yourself.            service
and sacrifice            were always important to you.

                                 maybe you traveled across the world to find this baby.
or maybe tried artificial insemination, freezing embryos, paying a surrogate so
that it could still be “yours” (look like you). maybe adopt an embryo — one of those
magical “snowflake” babies. or you’re busy with your job and didn’t want to ruin your
body with pregnancy. maybe you’re adopting to save your marriage. i don’t know you.

            maybe you’re a good person.

you said it was the answer to your prayers.             god had blessed you with a baby
                         that you swear was yours.                 you said that.
even looks like your husband, partner, girlfriend.                miraculous
               how you can buy a thing like that.

            maybe you wanted to give it back the next day.
started secretly hating
                                 how it reminded you of your body, empty.

everyone saying how lucky, how it’s even better
than having your own because you are saving this child.
                       everyone is lying.
            maybe you love it, maybe you love it.

why didn’t you go to therapy to deal with your loss?

not the informational adoption meetings,
            but the digging deep to see
            what the hell you are up to.
to see that this baby is not yours,
will never be yours, that you
            can’t go out and buy a baby like a new car.
                                 what are you thinking?

that you could tie it all up with a bow?
you’ve erased a baby human to make yourself happy, to fill
                     a hole, to do a good deed—at least own it:
                     it’s for you.

maybe the kid will turn out, not become someone you can never love. you are stuck
with it now.
when you bought the baby, nothing was the same.

at least the child is better off. a safe place to live. a past erased. no way back home.
maybe you’re a good person. maybe you’re a good person.
at least the child is better off.
maybe not.

Photo of Jan Beatty

Photo of Jan Beatty

Jan Beatty’s new book, Jackknife: New and Selected Poems, will be published in January, 2017 by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Other books include The Switching/Yard, Red Sugar, Boneshaker, and Mad River (Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize), also published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Beatty hosts and produces Prosody, a public radio show on NPR affiliate WESA-FM featuring national writers. She worked as a welfare caseworker, an abortion counselor, in maximum security prisons, and as a waitress for fifteen years. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University, where she teaches in the MFA program.

Recent work has been published in Poetry, Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, and The Great River Review. Poems have been published widely, in places like Court Green, Columbia Poetry Review, Indiana Review, TriQuarterly and Gulf Coast. Jan's most recent book, The Switching/Yard, was named one of ...30 New Books That Will Help You Rediscover Poetry by Library Journal. Her work was also named in The Huffington Post as one of ten women writers for “required reading.”