Welcome a Revolution

Joyelle McSweeney

I heard you gave birth, that you named your kid for a star, but here you are with a beret, in charge of this cadre, and herding us into the basement of our building to be registered, photographed, and given new jobs to support the revolution.

It’s pretty funny and you look great. You just gave birth but your skin is as supple and your eye is as bright when I saw you at that party in February and you were six months pregnant, shiny hair, high heels, aqua scarf that matched your eyes, skin-tight black jersey dress hugging your “bump”. Now even though you’re running the show in the basement I’m close enough to you to see the wrinkles around your eyes and I wonder again how old you are like I did at the party and whether it was hard for you to get pregnant let alone get in charge of a cadre.

I think maybe you are going to get tired of me acting like friends with you while you’re ordering everyone around. I’m not sure yet what kind of revolution this is, nor is anybody else. Is this the kind of revolution that likes or doesn’t like intellectuals? And for how long? The only history I know is literary history and that does not have a nice story to tell about intellectuals and revolution. I wonder what to tell the guy with the computer when I do get to the front of the line and he asks me what I can do, what I can do for the revolution. That guy wears a trench coat and non-descript collared shirt and khaki pants, he looks like an IT guy, which is a kind of intellectual, I guess. He may actually be the guy who ran the tech at our Obama office last summer. Having tech in the Obama office gave us an invaluable, glamorous, indefatigable feeling, as we were told and believed that John McCain had no tech in his offices, even though our office was in Mishawaka, Indiana, a place that in no respect could be described as glamorous but in fact was the nadir of glamour, could strip a star of its glamour, just by sulking nearby.

The skills I can give the revolution include: writing, teaching, editing, and performing. Is that going to work? Good enough? Should I just say no skills, request training? I can’t even cook, I can’t watch babies or keep my car clean. Will you blow my cover? What answer do you want me to give?

The line is long and I’m at the end of it so I have a long time to think about the right answer. Because I feel so collegial with you I can’t keep my mouth shut even when you’re addressing everyone else in the basement. “I’m just excited about the career counseling!” I quip to the crowd, my neighbors, who laugh nervously. You also kind of laugh, but not deeply. How shallow or deep does it need to go in? Is laughter like a needle that can inoculate you, make me safe for you to have around? Is this that kind of revolution?

My mom is also here holding my baby, who’s not really a baby anymore, she’s two. If my mom’s around I don’t look after my baby too much. I wonder what my mom thinks of my baby-minding skills. Well, I don’t have any baby-minding skills. I have art-making skills. Last week I did an art project with my baby instead of turning on the TV, which was like my new year’s resolution for Spring. We dipped colored tissue in glue and stuck it to a card. It looked pretty excellent, like a garden, but when I put it on the wall she freaked out. ‘No painting!’ she whined until I took it down. She rejected the art we made together.

So where’s your baby? I want to ask you but I don’t. I want to joke, having a baby is like a reverse amputation, it’s like a graft, like a protrusion. When I was a kid my brothers had these soldiers cast in some kind of metal, probably lead, they had a seam down their legs where they were made in the mold. That’s what having a kid is like. Not the seam, but the soldier, made of toxic, and soldered to your mold.

Anywhere you turn they’re lined up on the sill of your line of sight, with their sights on you, blocking your view.


I don’t say this because it’s not strictly true, I don’t see your baby anywhere, and I can only see my baby out of the corner of my eye in my mom’s lap wearing a dirty white shirt and no pants.

I know, it’s bad the kid has no pants but we had to come down here like immediately and what was I supposed to do? The revolution turned out to be like a tornado, for a couple hours we saw it coming, then it came, then we had to go down in the basement. It must be a pretty intense revolution if it has cells and cadres and chains that reach all the way out to Indiana.

And you look so glamorous here, again dressed in black, with your mascara and lip gloss, glowing like you’re still pregnant, packing us all in, ranking and organizing us, and no baby in sight.

Everyone’s staring at me, I feel like, because I’m not taking care of my baby, so I go over and grab her and plunk her down in a corner where all the other babies are playing with toy cars, toy trucks, toy motorcycles. Every one of these vehicles is plastic and red. Is it that kind of revolution—red? Or—plastic? Or—interested in transport?

When I saw you at the party I wasn’t drunk despite my best efforts. You looked so glamorous, you and your husband had been in Mexico and were buying a house in Chicago, he was receiving serious accolades for a new project based on erasure, but your own project was even more interesting, a stack of index cards with typewritten mottos, which were piled on a pillar in a plasticine box and were taller than a stack of Russian novels, already.

Text was something that could be erased or accrue, and it was really a material thing after all, and you could see it build up over time like a coastline, or ebb away, and there were kelp forests, deep water trenches, feeds of cool fresh water that mixed up the bios, a shipwreck, canneries and hotels and motels and whore houses and strip bars and family aquariums that made a go of it and flourished for awhile and fell into disrepair on the edges of it and finally sunk into the water itself to be reclaimed by the kelp forest

was literature

in so many words.

Now I look down and that kid from school with the stringy blonde hair is about to bite my kid’s arm in a fight over a toy so I pour my water on her head, and her mother comes over and grabs my wrist, and I pour out the rest of my water by accident on the floor, and now I’m worried, because how long are we going to be in this basement I should have saved my water. I look over and my mother is clutching a bottle of water and watching me, so, ok, she’ll give that water to my kid before she drinks any herself, so I know the water thing is covered, I also look at you and you’re drinking from a bottle of water and you hold your lips back a little bit so as not to get any lip gloss on the mouth of the bottle. I can see there’s some flats of tiny water bottles behind you like at a youth soccer game. Are there oranges, too? Are those for the hundred or so of us down here or just for you and the cadre?

This does not appear to be an environmentalist revolution.

I knew your husband first, before I knew you, and actually before you knew him, I don’t remember not knowing your husband, I can only imagine all the shit he’s talked about me over the years, he’s an inveterate gossiper and I love to hear gossip, though then I wonder what kind of gossip he’s going to spread about me, of course I assume I’m boring, have nothing gossip-worthy for him to spread, but that’s what everyone thinks, and my life is hardly perfect, for one I’m a failure as a mother and everyone knows that, partially because I tell them. Are you going to tell him, later, how uncool I acted at the revolution? Because I have been acting very uncool since this whole thing started, I agree. I was certainly acting very uncool at that reading party, you were amazing, magnetic, your bangs made a kind of shelving and I remembered how you had gone to a residency in the Canadian mountains somewhere, its name was onomatopoetic, I asked you, but I couldn’t remember the right onomatopoeia, how was Wham, I asked, or Oof, is it, and you said gorgeous, gorgeous, I got nothing done but it was gorgeous.

I remember once we stopped to have lunch at your apartment while you were at work and we went in your husband’s office, which was long and slim like a laundry closet or something, and we watched a little animation piece he was working on for a local band’s video, which must have taken a ton of time and what’s worth more, time or money? and I saw these books on anxiety disorder tucked up among his art books, so then I didn’t know what that was, research for a project he was working on or did he have anxiety disorder, and he had photos around of when you two went someplace grey in the off season, Nova Scotia, but you didn’t do any Elizabeth Bishop tourism, but the whole thing is Elizabeth Bishop tourism, stand with your toes in the marl and have a drink, the shoreline torn open by the storms like a fish’s gut, noone could breathe inside this root cellar, sorry, wrong poet, wrong flavor of dread.

It is getting hard to breathe inside this basement, psychologically, at any rate, though I can hear a motor and the electricity is on and the airconditioning is keeping us cold as a catch, on ice, for what purpose.

Then I feel so bad for my kid and I take her in my arms and try to hold her close which she hates, she stretches her jaws to bite my shoulder, which she learned from that other kid, so I crouch down and release her and she toddles over to my mother.

You wouldn’t know it, I say to you in my head, but at night she insists on me, she rolls over in her sleep and hooks an arm around my neck and knocks the air out of me, or if I’m sleeping on the floor next to her, she dive bombs from the bed to my chest, she lands on me heavy as reality and wakes me out of whatever dream I’m having, of an aerial bombardment or a revolution or whatever.

Your head turns back and forth, memorizing the crowd. Now I remember when your husband greeted me at that party and said, ‘How’s having a kid?’ and I said, ‘It sucks, don’t do it’ and he said, ‘You know we’re expecting, right?’ and then I glanced over and saw you looking so beautiful in your blonde hair, seablue scarf, bump, and etcetera.

We both laughed as if it were an urbane exchange .

An urbane exchange does not a revolution make. Or?

Once when we were students you said you wanted to write poems like the Sonnets to Orpheus. Or was it the Duino Elegies? Either one seems a bit far fetched, not just for you but for anyone living in this century. Can you have a Rilkean revolution? Are you one of those instructors who assigns Letters to a Young Poet to your undergraduates? Who promotes the apprenticeship as a pedagogical mode?

The revolution is about apprenticeship, that much is true. All revolutions are pedagogical, that much seems sound.

Everyone is stepping into a little glassed-in office to give their information to the man with the computer, several at a time, they can’t seem to restrain themselves, and really you’re being pretty lax, and why shouldn’t you be, we’re not exactly an ornery bunch, women, children, older and younger men, none of us conducting our lives with much of a sense of purpose, most of us just anxious to see how this revolution is going to turn out, what is going to come next, and we’re happy we’re not out there in the elements being exposed to whatever was in that milky rain that showered the crowds we watched on TV. It put those kids to sleep right in the stadiums, and the cameras didn’t stay on them long enough for us to know if they were going to wake up. Maybe the camera crews also passed out, they weren’t in their bio suits just to cover the graduations that were naturally happening across the country this May weekend. Harvard, West Point, The University of Maryland, community colleges alike were hit with this milky rain that panicked those of us watching at home and caused us to just pull back and stay inside and out of it, out of it.

When you arrived to take charge of us, to tell us our part in it, we were relieved.

Finally I manage to get close to you and lean with my elbows against the wall. “I just can’t believe you’ve been part of this revolution and having a baby at the same time! How long have you been involved in this?” I ask you.

“Eighteen months!” you say laughing.

“I just don’t know how you get it all done! I’m so impressed! And you look great, I’m jealous!” I say, and mean it.

“Thanks!” you say. “But I’m still so fat, that’s the one thing.” Up close you look not quite as slim as usual, but, I know, the weight doesn’t come off right away, and actually you look nice this way, you definitely aren’t now nor were you ever fat, with your cheekbones and tiny ankles, I tell you.

“How old can your baby be, anyway?” I ask.

“Five weeks!” you practically squeal. Your lips are this gorgeous color like where liquor and liqueurs meet in a glass, and one of them is fruit, and I never order those, because all I can see when I look at that drink is spill.

“I love your lip gloss!” I say.

But what I mean, is, I love you! I love this revolution!

Joyelle McSweeney is the editor of Action Books and teaches at the University of Notre Dame. Please apply to get your MFA there. 'Welcome a Revolution' is the title story in a collection of linked stories in various b-movie genres which take as their starting point the night-terrors of motherhood in the post(?)-apocalyptic setting of northwestern Indiana. Her books include the novels Flet (Fence) and Nylund the Sarcographer (Tarpaulin Sky) as well as two books of poetry from Fence.