I wanted to see her look like a watermelon, make herself an amazing mother shape.—Barry Hannah, “Testimony of Pilot” (From Airships)
It begins with desire. “I want,” says William Howly, thinking of himself. But he is not alone for long. Desire needs its object, and here Will’s gaze falls upon Lilian Field, his friend Arden Quadberry’s possibly pregnant girlfriend. He’s not covetous, though, so much as curious, and a little bit fatherly in the way he watches over Lilian now that Quadberry has headed off to the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Will’s attitude, this wish to see Lilian pregnant, isn’t a bit what we’d expect from a first-semester freshman, and that surprise is part of the pleasure of the sentence. When Will searches for a way to describe pregnancy, we’re reminded of his demographic. Watermelon-like is language belonging to a young man of the rural south. It’s a little bit crude, and certainly not flattering (though accurate in its suggestion of size and encumbrance). But there’s also something of the flavor of summer in Hannah’s choice, something sweet and innocent, which seems poignant as our protagonists face the uncertainty of adulthood in the Vietnam War era.
Hannah doesn’t stop here. As Will continues to consider Lilian’s possible pregnancy he finds that there is no likeness like enough. The thing must be admired for itself: “an amazing mother shape.” This phrase manages to encompass all the shifting parameters of pregnancy, the varieties of shape and experience available to women. And something else quite wonderful is at work in the words: Hannah acknowledges Lilian’s agency. She isn’t looking like anything now, she is making herself into something new. When she transforms, she will be the author of her own metamorphosis.
Had Hannah stopped at the comma, our sentence would have remained nothing more than a young man’s momentary figuring of pregnancy in the dude language of melon sizes. If we only had the second half, its transcendent bent would have seemed baseless. nstead we watch Will’s mind travel from the prosaic to the epiphanic, a believable leap because isn’t this so often how our own minds work? We try to say the thing we mean and we say it crudely, but if we keep our eye on Lilian a moment longer, what we see inspires a deeper sentiment. By the end of Hannah’s sentence, Will’s focus has shifted away from himself. He stands in awe, not even so much of Lilian herself, but of the way new life can enter into our warring world.
When the backdrop is Vietnam, we can’t be expecting a blithe conclusion. But for all that, reading “Testimony,” I’m never disheartened. Because the vigor of Hannah’s sentences suggests to me the same thing that this particular sentence does: there is hope for us, in the generative power of the human mind, as there is in that of the human body. At last, and overwhelmingly, I find myself gazing in awe at this amazing sentence shape, pregnant with implication.
Kate Brittain holds an MFA from NYU and lives in Brooklyn with her dog, her bicycle, and never enough books.