The word letdown refers to the onset of lactation in mammals, a physiological response that binds mother and child. As Sonia Greenfield writes in poem #36 of her third collection, Letdown, it also means “disillusionment, discouragement or disappointment.” Greenfield builds on these definitions as the narrator confronts both her son’s autism diagnosis and her own loss of fertility. The brilliance of Letdown stems from its unremitting honesty and intimacy as it plumbs the dichotomy of love and loss.
Greenfield creates intimacy by addressing these prose poems to her son. She speaks to him even in utero, imagining his tapped-out message “against my carillon of ribs” and calling him “sweet convict . . . already perfectly pitched and articulate” (#3). She uses the intimate tone throughout, though in the turbulent middle sections of Letdown—which detail her son’s high fevers and infections, his hospitalizations and diagnosis as well as her own multiple miscarriages—her language of intimacy is interspersed with the clinical language of medicine, creating dissonance. In #27, for example, “Your Psychological Evaluation” introduces a list of descriptors from the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and concludes with the diagnosis of “Autism Spectrum Disorder.” In #23, the narrator comforts her child, the reader and herself by translating gliosis as “Little scars. Little scares.” She even tries to make the procedures playful for her son: “Look, now you get to become a robot.” This painful juxtaposition of clinical and intimate language climaxes with an exchange between mother and child: “Okay, tell me how old you are again. You said, Free.”
Greenfield weaves such playfulness and normalcy throughout the narrative. She includes stories “about a small fish fighting back and Harold’s purple crayon drawing the world right where he needs it” (#12), the fun of a carnival “punctuating your dusk with delight” (#18), and the quiet view of Christmas lights on a neighbor’s house (#15). Readers hear more of the son’s voice. “Being patient is not available,” he says in #54, and channeling Joni Mitchell, “Mama, I want to drink a case of you.” The little boy emerges as a unique and interesting individual preparing the reader to agree with the mother/narrator when she says: “When I think of spectrum, I think of light” (#44).
In large measure, Letdown is one mother’s fierce insistence on this “light” and normalcy. Diagnoses and statistics, she says, do not tell the whole story. In #40, she spins the notion of scientific explanation with her own bit of algebra:
Miscarriage happens x percent of the time in women over forty, x percent
of children have an autism spectrum disorder, older women are x percent
more likely to have a child like you. They assign you an IQ of x. You count
in x different languages.
She ends with a note of frustration and her signature wordplay: “Sometimes x equals why.” She also again juxtaposes statistical “truths” with more emotionally laden language, a kind of head/heart dichotomy that emphasizes the human experience. For example, #39 offers a kind of totaling up, particularly about her miscarriages:
When it’s bad, I say my payment has been you—perfect, flawed you—
and the bright cabochon of blood dazzling red on the toilet paper in the
light from the bathroom window a week after testing positive with what
should have been your sister or brother—five conceptions, two abortions
one live birth.
Greenfield also contrasts the clinical term “pseudocyesis,” false pregnancy, (#48) with more human, even wistful language. She describes her hope of being “with child” (#46) and calls the fertilized egg “just a whisper of maybe” (#47), “a speck of desire embedded in blood.” Ultimately, she translates “pseudocyesis” to “Ghost baby,” a term that functions as a powerful image, linking the ghost babies in the New England graveyard in #1 with the “Angelitos” (deceased babies) at the Day of the Dead Festival in #46. Indeed, Greenfield weaves the theme of lost children throughout her own story: a friend’s son who went “into the woods” and “never made it back” (#21) and an autistic boy whose body is found in the East River (#29).
The penultimate poem (#63) of Letdown embodies a kind of quotidian happiness, embracing a “monotony of sunshine” and a “simple rolling forward of our years.” But the poet, while “basking in this everydayness,” will not allow the reader to forget her own knowledge of loss nor the fact that all of us are vulnerable. The final vignette of the collection (#64) presents a conversation with a photographer about to shoot a portrait of the narrator’s son. As others have done (#37), the photographer seems to offer clichéd comfort to this mother of an autistic child: “We all have our crosses to bear.” Yet, when the speaker asks the woman if she has any children, the answer is a chilling reminder of the graveyard in #1: “I had a son, but he passed away.” Despite ample joy and warmth, this intimate memoir ends with another loss and “a small curl of smoke” that “ghosts” into air, an image reminiscent of the narrator’s “ghost baby” (#48) and the ever-present possibility of loss.