The Creepy Plastic Baby Head of Magical Writing Mojo
Sheila Squillante | September 2018
Last weekend, my family enjoyed a night market in our Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill— a late summer evening with its requisite warm breeze and golden sky. Streets blocked to cars and lined with food trucks and vendors selling every kind of nosh and ware. My husband stood in line for chorizo tacos, my daughter got an Italian ice. I nibbled a delightful Syrian pastry filled with spinach and feta and my son sipped a Coke straight from the can. We had had a kind of rough morning—two kids heading into adolescence with middle-aged parents struggling to stay even half-way sharp and focused—so it felt great to wander together without aim other than satisfying small hungers and being out of the damn house.
Once her lemon Ritas was gone, my daughter’s main excitement turned to the pop-up booths. She lingered in front of each, complimenting the proprietors on their hand-sewn handbags, their artisanal soaps, their wooden toys and carvings. She had $7 in her pocket and she meant to spend it. We mostly followed her lead in and out of the white-topped tents down Murray Avenue, heading toward home as the sun began finally to set. After a while it looked like she wasn’t going to find anything, but then, on the last block, she swerved with an audible gasp toward the black tent—the one filled with goth clothing, anarchist symbols, and heavy metal jewelry meant for parts of the body expected and not. The women running the shop were like dark shining art pieces themselves, clad in the sort of textiles they were selling as well as tattoos and piercings covering most of their visible skin. My daughter set her sights on a silver choker necklace—one of the more conservative pieces on offer—and thoroughly charmed both women with her unabashed thrill of having stumbled into their shop.
As she modeled for us, she spotted a fishing line hung with accessories above the folding table. Dangling there was a necklace featuring a plastic baby head that had once belonged to a doll—the kind with lashed eyes that roll open and shut. These were open. Forever. Grotesque and gorgeous, the head was glued to a wire-wrapped disc, off of which further hung lacy ribbons braided with bones—the vertebrae of some small mammal. Rabbit? Rat? Squirrel? Now it was my turn to gasp.
“Mama! It’s Round Baby! You HAVE to get her!”
Round Baby is the name of the weird girl character at the center of my new poetry manuscript, which is currently out wandering the dusky streets of the book contest night market. The poems describe her as “mostly human, most of the time.” In some ways, Baby is my alter ego, the oddest and most powerful distillation of my shadow self. She scares the hell out of me and inspires me and I love her desperately. I have spent the last two years in her company, learning about her world, which both is and is not my own. I believe the book form of her is going to find a home sooner or later. (Did you hear me universe? I BELIEVE!) The bauble form of her found a home around my neck in the black anarchy tent that very night. “My mother is a poet,” my blond girl told the pierced women as I paid them. “Maybe if she buys this, it will mean her book will get published!”
My daughter is a deeply faithful person. She can cast quite a spell.
I am not, generally, a faithful person. Nor do I consider myself particularly superstitious. And yet, there sure is a part of me that has worried about spending too much time mooning over possibility around my own writing success. What is that? Do I really think I’m going to jinx my own book publication by just imagining it? By hoping? By daring to believe in its actuality and inevitability?
I’ve always thought of superstitions as, at best, silly, at worst, harmful and self-sabotaging. When I was young, I was married to a man whose Italian-American mother threw salt over her shoulder if she accidentally spilled some and who believed if we placed our shoes on the kitchen table it meant we were flirting with death. And then there was the thing about not complimenting a baby’s beautiful eyes lest the devil be called to look upon them. Il malocchio. The Evil Eye.
But I have allowed myself over the last year to indulge in a different kind of superstition. An opposite kind where you allow yourself to really go there. Not a curse or a jinx, you are instead manifesting your good intentions. Chanting a positive incantation! You are posting to your poetic vision board! Burning stanzas of sage! There you are, casting a healing spell next to your beautiful blue-eyed daughter inside a black anarchy tent where all manner of magic and mystery can happen.
I know pretty much what the acknowledgments page of this new, as yet unpublished book will read: “Overwhelming thanks to the editors who gave these poems their first homes, as well as endless love to Sandra and Joy and Paul and Dave and…” I can imagine the space my book launch will happen in (is the planetarium at the Carnegie Science Center available for booking?) and what kind of swag and snacks (Glo-sticks? Cicada carapaces? Funyuns?) I might provide. Cover art should be surreal like something out of Leonora Carrington’s oeuvre. Birds flying out of girl’s mouths. That sort of thing. I know all of this because I have conjured and composed and written out the acknowledgments several times over. I have bounced around ideas about my launch party with an enthusiastic friend who understands and encourages my eccentric vision and has already offered to help me plan it. I have seen my book in my heart and my mind.
I also know just what I’m going to wear: a simple black wrap dress with my knee-high Doc Martens and a beautiful, spooky, stuck-eyed, bone-shaking, weird-ass-baby-head on a chain around my neck. My facendo corna—yet another superstition I learned from my former mother-in-law. No forefinger and pinky rising from a protective fist, but Baby is still and always my amulet. My strength and unequivocal permission for optimism and belief in us both.