Poems and Science

"Cell Traffic, New and Selected Poems," by Heid Erdrich
“Cell Traffic, New and Selected Poems,” by Heid Erdrich

A Loft mentor and friend, Heid Erdrich, has written a book of poetry I love, called Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “Microchimerism,” which I reproduce (in part) below, with Heid’s generous permission. Read it, and then go read the entire poem and the entire collection. “Microchimerism” is just one of many, many beautiful poems by the smart, funny and very talented Heid, a woman who isn’t afraid to take on science in a poem.

I didn’t know much about her collection, Cell Traffic, until my husband and I, a few years ago, went to a reading of Heid’s at Common Good Books in St. Paul. My husband knows and likes Heid from my mentorship year at the Loft, but neither of us expected to be blown away by a poem like “Microchimerism.” You see, we’re both scientists by nature. Maybe more scientists would discover their inner poet if they read Heid Erdrich.

Here is beauty, folks: Nub of human, shell pink fingernail, whether you live or all unformed leave her body she will never be without you. And science, too: male fetal progenitor cells have been found, twenty years later, in a mother’s bloodstream. Meaning the cell exchange does not only happen when woman carries and delivers a child, but that the fetal cells entering a mother’s body replicate, form their own lines, and live–who knows where?–with her, perhaps forever.

A place where science, poetry and imagination intersect: Heid Erdrich’s “Microchimerism.”

Microchimerism, by Heid Erdrich

I
Nub of human,
shell pink fingernail,
whether you live
or all unformed
leave her body
she will never
be without you.

This, scientists tell us, is literally true:
. . . the cells from her miscarriages, her stillborns,
and all of her children . . . We carry them
for a lifetime. But the cells actually go both ways.

Nub of human,
your cells migrate,
are found at sites
hurt in the maternal body,
and in successive siblings,
even those you never knew,
even those who never knew you.
II
Nub of human,
shell pink fingernail,
she will never be without you.

Vivid dreams in her bed echoed,
a wall away and you felt her,
knew her wakefulness
through the quiet she maintained.

She knew it too and tried
explaining, “It is like she is in me,
knows my brain, and wakes me up
before she wakes.”

Darkness so soft she feels its nap
cushion her movements,
still she reaches you
just as your cries begin,
then you two are one again.

Or more correctly,
you never left:
your cells and hers
flowed back and forth—
blood river once between you
went two ways, scientists say:

The waves of fetal microchimerism
are just beginning to break
along the scientific shore…

Read more here, and for an excellent review of Cell Traffic, see this St. Paul Pioneer Press article.)

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