How I Became a Prophetess

Joyelle McSweeney
Image of COVID-19 virus. Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea

My first act of prophecy was to predict my own child’s death.

In her prenatal scans, Arachne had looked perfectly healthy, but when she was born, she couldn’t breathe. A chest x-ray showed white thick light instead of fat black air. Her guts had moved up to where her lungs should be. She was flown off to a NICU where she died. Uncannily, in the years and months leading up to her ill-starred birth, I had written a book called Toxicon, obsessed with the themes of toxins, contamination, gestation, mutation, a smashed delivery suite, and a “pulseless fontanel.” Arachne’s birth converted Toxicon from a book of obsessions into one of prophecies—and me into a prophetess.

And there, in the delivery suite, I was like Cassandra, the original prophetess, filling the air with my screams.

Let’s begin again—ab ovo, as classicists would say. From the beginning. From the egg. Arachne was born with an unexpected birth defect, flew off to a NICU, lived thirteen days, and died. But I survived, much to my regret. I returned to the house without her. I was recovering from a C-section and two weeks on my feet in the NICU, my brain continuously bathed in cortisol and florescent light. Now, crossing the ten feet from the curb to the door with the news of her death inside me was the longest and strangest voyage of return. In some ways I have never completed this crossing.

I wanted to write a book like a quiver of poisoned arrows.

Now, like Zeno’s arrow, I keep flailing and cannot arrive.

I spent a few months in a stupor. I would wake up thinking I was still pregnant, kept looking for the baby from the corner of my eye. But Arachne could not be retrieved, nor born a second time.

Instead, spring arrived.

I was furious at spring’s arrival: its wealth, its wetness. Floribund and moribund, its swollen river, its pink flowers spattering down.

The shock of this fury was powerful. I began to write.

I wrote a book called Arachne over just a handful of weeks, odes and elegies and forgeries and true confessions, and when spring was done, the work was done. I put down my pen.

The Rust Belt looks good in spring, even now, draped in that rotting garland. Runnels and rivulets. Each rill, its drill of pain.

And now, two years later, it’s spring again. This April I published the two books together,Toxicon and Arachne. The books belonged together because if Toxicon predicts Arachne, then it’s the catastrophe of Arachne that confirms Toxicon as prophetic. Perhaps prophecy is less an act of foretelling than of confirmation.

The book I delivered in the midst of this pandemic is thick and riven with biological catastrophes, supersaturated with viruses, gestations and mutations, police violence, ill-starred births and abundant, microbial growth: portent upon portent, star upon star. Though I had thought I was writing about my own pet topics and personal calamities, I was really attending, as a poet does, to a world rife with pain, contamination, and depredation. My poems stored these toxins in their soft tissues, harm stippling the catgut with which each sonnet is stitched. When those same chains of oppression and contagion erupted in a global pandemic and national catastrophe, my book itself seemed to erupt, retrospectively, in uncanny prophetic blooms.

When books of prophecy are opened, we discover what we knew all along.

This is also true of coronavirus itself. When the black boxes of the death tallies were first opened and the disproportionate effects of the virus on Black, brown, and native people and communities were first brought to light, the results were a punch in the gut—breathtaking, dismaying, shocking—and then not shocking at all. The destruction and exploitation of communities of color, the perceived disposability of many kinds of laboring bodies, as well as those too weak, ill or old to labor: these are the crimes our nation is built on, hardened into the structures of our politics and economy to this day. They underwrite the racial disparities in life expectancy, health outcomes, maternal mortality, lifetime earnings, policing and incarceration, voter suppression, and even access to food, healthcare, and clean air and water. Why should it be shocking to open the book of our present catastrophe and read the facts that were written there centuries ago?

It is the past, not the future, that prophecy brings to light.

What happened to Arachne was statistically unlikely but fate’s arrow still found its way across the cosmos to her impossibly small sac of cells. What’s happened to America under COVID-19 was statistically likely: it is America itself. Our future is our past. My prophecy, such as it is, is bound up in this doublebook, spills out and returns to it. Splitting and birthing. For me individually, under the brainblow of Arachne’s life and death, I can’t form something shaped like hope. But I can admit to curiosity, about nextness—next life forms, exchanges, translations, community configurations. I gaze on corporate platforms and can see the chains of knowledge and mutuality being recalled, reconfigured and communicated like flickering, seizing strands of DNA, kissing and splitting, riven with radiancy, mutancy, exuberance, memory, and copying errors.

Something’s there, right? Some monstrous, anachronistic nextness, a present moment pulsing with pasts and futurities, undead knowledges, arts and technologies, maybe lawlessly, collectively gestating itself, writing the book of itself, looking forward and back, dreaming, remembering. Will it arrive too late or right on time? This counter-catastrophe—will it gestate forever? Or can it be born?

Joyelle McSweeney is the author of nine genre-crossing books. With Johannes Göransson, she founded the internationalist press Action Books and teaches at the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame.
Originally published:
June 9, 2020


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