The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Splitting the Milk by Shin Yu Pai

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Sunday morning before
my son stirs, I divide
the milk for banking

bag seven ounces
for the ice box put
aside a shot glass full

for an offering


in one temple’s ritual
re-enactment milk

is flushed down a drain
water returning to water –

hundreds of school kids
on a ferry boat drowned

when the ship went down

a white line of lanterns
coiling down a river

single wave forms
going back to sea

inside the ceramic
bowl a jizo sits

awaiting activation,
guardian of lost

children – picture
a puja, a milk bath

a cleansing

ceremony centering
on feeding the spirit

a paper stand-in
for the unborn

baby – without a body,
what kinship looks

like when there is
no way to nurse

the human form reduced
to diamonds and triangles

cells dividing


black marker outlining
lifelike features

the lips of a hand-drawn
face, grow translucent

when touched by dampness
feeding the baby a metaphor

I fold an ordinary leaf
baptized in a bottle of milk,

cup the edge to a corner
of the figure’s mouth

thinking of how my body
has sustained the life

of my infant son each
day since his birth

I feed the doll three times,
when Kort touches its face,

the dummy slumps forward


the effigy is burned
before its ashes

are scooped up, entombed
inside the buddha

some parents
undertake action to

lay the spirit of the unborn
babe to rest – to stop

the spirit from disturbing
the sleep of a younger

sibling, Tomo is our second
child, when we leave

the building he can’t stop
wailing, sleeps deep

that night as the dead


when he turns to face us,
the priest showers handfuls

of paper flowers, raining
down above the heads

of my boy, my husband,
& me, sakura petals or moth

wings, an explosion
of blossoms marking

the moment of release


the cleric’s robes conceal
the cremation from view,

flint striking steel
paper ignites into flame

the burning body banished
from sight a plastic spoon

scoops out remains

in pregnancy, a healer once
warned avoiding violence,

coming into contact with a corpse
I stop watching the evening

news: turn away from
police tape & bloodied

rolls of gauze staining
the concrete at Third & Pine


my body hemorrhaged
for twenty-eight days,
this slow letting go

the Swedish midwife,
described the expulsion
of tissue as a medical

event, a process
no worse than a “heavy
period,” the blighted ovum

versus a life cut short
babes, aborted fetuses,
sucked out in the same

breath put alongside
the choice to take an untested
drug meant for ulcers

to rupture the uterus


I dress the jizo
in a red cape &

felt hat, tuck
handwritten messages

from his father & me
into the inside of its coat

a week earlier
I am flippant when

I tell him to write
a letter to our “dead baby”;

at the last minute
I question both

his salutation & sign off

anxious he’ll find
the task uninspired

before the mizuko kuyo
I spy his note inside

the jizo’s box, next to
a toy top, a box of rice

candy saved from our wedding
nine years ago, sweet,

comfort to offer a child
unfolding yellow paper

to read in my partner’s
precise hand, “Dear Baby,

I am sorry I was not
more welcoming – may you
find the love you need”

your father
your mother


Shin Yu Pai-1 Kelly OShin Yu Pai is the author of several award-winning poetry collections including AUX ARCS(La Alameda, 2013), Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), Sightings (1913 Press, 2008), andEquivalence (La Alameda, 2003). Her prose writing has appeared in Thought Catalog andInternational Examiner. She is a three-time fellow of the MacDowell Colony.

Author photo by “Kelly O. / The Stranger.”




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