a essay excerpt from Issue 34.1

Metamorphosis: Six Studies

by Eleanor Stanford

after Maria Sibylla Merian

What’s your urgent charge, if not transformation?
—Rainer Maria Rilke

1. Ornate lory on branch of peach tree

After my second son was born, I slipped into a severe postpartum depression. I remember nursing the baby, staring blankly out the window at a cold gray April that refused to warm.

My best friend, who was living on another continent and whose first baby had been due the same day as my son, had lost her child suddenly—a full-term stillbirth—without explanation. I felt both lucky and ungrateful, unable to appreciate what I had and unable to console my friend.

There was a peach tree outside our bedroom window that, despite the cold, spread its fragile petals over the narrow city street.

One day, I watched a small green parrot land on a branch. It must have been an escaped pet; as far as I know, there are no wild parrots in Philadelphia. But in my melancholy state, I just stared, barely registering the strangeness. I saw it as a sign. A sign of what? I can’t remember now. Surely something dark. Dislocation? Alienation? The embattled natural world and its inevitable destruction? Something like that.

Later, I saw a reproduction of a painting by the seventeenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian: Ornate lory on branch of peach tree. I felt an uncanny flash of recognition when I looked at it, this precise rendering of the beauty I had been unable to see when it sat in front of me.

Trichoglossus ornatus: His feathers are neat arcs, like the translucent curves of keratin I bit from my son’s small fingers.

Every little thing became a symbol for a larger failing: the white thrush on the baby’s tongue, laundry piling up, the tiny socks, so ridiculous, so heartbreaking.

It’s difficult now to remember exactly what it felt like: the desperation at being unable to sleep, the sudden flashes of anger—mostly directed at my husband—when anything didn’t go as I had intended. Which, with a newborn and a two-year-old, was most of the time.

Eventually the cloud lifted, the strange hormonal weather system shifted and moved on.

Eventually the spring warmed, the pale blossoms turned into soft downy fruit.

Still, it took me more than a year to feel fully like myself again. And yet my husband and I both wanted a third child. Even after R’s harrowing first year, we wanted another one. But we were both apprehensive about what might happen.

I sometimes think we moved to Brazil when our third son was ten weeks old as a way to escape this possibility. I wanted a baby, but I couldn’t bear another first year—the sleepless haze, the desperation. It was as though we imagined that by transplanting ourselves, we could elude this possibility, as though the foreign soil wouldn’t allow the depression to take root.

It feels shameful, somehow, to admit this. That it was not just adventure that we wanted, or for our children to learn another language and culture, but that the kernel of our desire was escape.

Maria Merian traveled to Surinam in 1699, at the age of 52, to draw and catalogue the exotic species she found there. But her ornate lory was painted before this expedition. She drew it from a specimen she saw in Amsterdam, in a scientific collector’s “cabinet of curiosity.” Despite the lifelike pose, the staring eye, beak poised as though to squawk or speak, the parrot was stuffed, long dead.

What did Merian think about as she studied the lifeless assemblage of bone and feathers, the scaled claws, as she placed him on a branch of Prunus persica, a temperate tree not native to the parrot’s tropical home? Was she beginning to imagine the journey she would undertake, the curiosity and desire that would pull her so far from her own origins, to the strange and beautiful continent, the magical, impenetrable landscape that would be her destination?

…and you can find the full essay in Issue 34.1.

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