IVF as Folklore: How Poetry Can Reclaim Maternal Selfhood

By Laura Seymour

Leaflets and other official sources of information about IVF refer to it largely in biological and medical terms: the surgery, the laboratory, the ‘procedure’. But the ways in which men and women introspect IVF do not tend to take this purified medical form, where the body, or the self, is seen as a totally surgical, medical entity. Though often encouraged by the media to view medical evidence as the most objective way to see themselves (as diseased, as at risk, as ‘due for a check up’, and as bearers of symptoms and other medical signs and meanings), healthcare and fertility treatments are also experienced as affective, political, economic, historical, ethical, psychological, and aesthetic. This blog post is partly a recommendation of an incredibly beautiful book, and partly an exploration of the way in which that book’s language-use exposes the intertwining of science with the social and personal that IVF involves.

Julia Copus’ new book, The World’s Two Smallest Humans (Faber and Faber, 2012), which is currently on the shortlist for the prestigious TS Eliot prize, shows how poetry can help to think through IVF as a multi-disciplinary phenomenon. In Copus’ poem sequence entitled ‘Ghost’, the speaker recounts her experience of IVF, emphasising the incongruous, sometimes claustrophobic, medicalised settings in which she finds herself having to interact with people (however friendly) she half-knows. Copus’ poems recapture this experience from the viewpoint of an emotional, rational, ethical, human subject. They often have a sense of healing, of using poetry to reclaim experiences which at the time were abruptly medical, not personal enough. The poems redefine the medical setting, blending and tangling the technologies and discourses of surgery with those of folklore and emotion.

In her poem ‘Phone’, for instance, the speaker is told that she has seven embryos available for implantation, and pointedly uses traditional folkloric imagery as a counterpoint to what is often seen as its polar opposite: the latest developments in science:

Seven’s a very good number,

the voice goes on, as if it were only referring

to the lucky number of folklore and romance –


seven brides for seven beaming brothers

instead of a fragile clutch of embryos,

their fine net veils lifting in the breeze

The way that Copus allows the folkloric image of ‘seven brides for seven brothers’ to seep beautifully into the image of the embryos in the laboratory is typical of her poems’ powerful blending of different conceptual categories. She creates a yearning, proleptic suggestion of the embryos already grown and ready to marry in their ‘fine net veils’. At the same time, she registers the incongruity that her embryos are outside of her womb before they have been born, amplifying this by suggesting that they are even outside in the open air, affected by a ‘breeze’. Copus mingles the practices and discourses of medicine with more commonplace imagery of fertility, too. In ‘At the Farmer’s Inn’, she describes IVF as a form of harvesting:

the seed, the eggs

they harvested at noon with the consummate needle,

drawing them off like tiny, luminous pearls

from the sea of her body

And yet these ‘pearls’ perhaps indicate a harvest more costly than that which occurs almost unthinkingly with the seasons, and one which is more difficult to attain. Imagery of the female body as the sea is not new, and yet it seems new when Copus evokes it, because of the ways in which her poems re-invent the landscape, that which is ‘outside’. For the speaker, in undergoing IVF, her reproductive processes are expanded far beyond the limits of her body, to laboratories ‘fifty miles from here’ (as she puts it earlier in ‘At the Farmer’s Inn’), and to other people’s hands. As with her vision of her embryos left in the great outdoors with its ‘breeze’, the speaker’s imagery of her body as a landscape (here, a sea, elsewhere, she is a constellation, or experiences ‘the quiet expanse of bed like a field behind her’) arguably reflects this expansion of her privacy into a wider realm.

Rather than being a jumble of human limbs, making babies for the speaker is a somewhat post-human process, where limbs jumble with limb-like, quasi-human medical instruments. ‘Inventory for a Treatment Room’, for example, describes this mix of technology and humanity thus:

A lamp on a long, extend-

able limb;

one purple treatment chair, whose empty

purple arms reach out

for her

The lamp has a limb (which cranes and extends, with a subtle formalism characteristic of Copus, across the enjambed line), and the chair reaches out to hug the speaker (perhaps the shortening of the lines, with a similar attention to form, suggests a drawing-close, a hug). Technologies interpose between humans, as well as kindly support and become a naturalised part of the speaker’s reproductive processes. This is somewhat of a preoccupation of these poems. ‘The Enormous Chair’ evokes the fantastic positions in which reproduction can be achieved with another mix of humans and implements. The eponymous chair seems a normal chair:

except that it’s purple,

except that it’s the size of a house,

except that instead of arm-rests

there are leg-rests…

she’s invited now to recline

legs akimbo

But Copus’ greatest re-envisioning of the medicalised self through incongruous metaphor is arguably that which gives the collection its title. In the poem ‘Egg’, the speaker compares her embryologist to:

one of the girls

serving on the bakery at Sainsbury’s –

except instead of iced buns she is carrying

the world’s two smallest humans, deftly clinging

to the edge of her pipette, the brink of being.



Laura Seymour is a third year Shakespeare Studies PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London and currently holds the Louis Marder scholarship at Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Her poems appear in several magazines (most recently ‘Iota’), her first collection of poems is ‘Herb Robert’ (Flarestack, 2010), and her collection due in early 2013 is entitled ‘All the metals we tried’.