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Poetry | Salpingectomy

That evening I met Anna Brennan*

she was celebrating the removal of her fallopian tubes.

—Jack Lindsay, The Roaring Twenties

 

‘Raise a glass to absent friends!’
with a swish of blonde
with an actual wine glass raised
to show my bare arm’s slope;
and I lean back, so they draw close,
a stage-murmured disclosure:
the word’s round fal-lope
along my tongue.
Men draw back, bodies rigid
in their stools; the women, forward
for gossip or to bask
in the boldness
of my moment.

Raise a glass to the too-young man
eyes swallowed by his black hat’s brim
who’s found the perfect pinch of salt
for his memoirs.

*

There seems to be no mention
in any piece of writing
or any primary source
on Anne

of her undergoing surgery
in the early 1920s
outside of Jack’s nine words.

*

The removal of fallopian tubes
or salpingectomy
is distinct from tubal ligation;
but who knows if Jack knew
fallopian tubes from ovaries,
uterus, or his own big toe,
let alone what fate
Anne said they met.

            *

Gynaecologist Norman Haire
active between the wars
said female sterilisation was
a major operation,
necessitating two weeks
in bed.

Whether Anne’s fallopian tubes
were crushed between forceps
tied with catgut
divided and lodged in the abdomen
cauterised with electric current
or simply cut away—
before keyhole procedures existed
her belly was sliced down the centre
prized open and stitched shut.

What bed could Anne have slept in,
with a healing wound
and a high risk of infection?
In a dank bedsit in Darlinghurst?

In the bush-surrounded house,
hours from a hospital,
of the family who threw her out?
In the upstairs room
of a grog-house
on a surplus army cot?

How many weeks, stitches, bedsores,
how many pelvic pangs did she shake off
to climb the stairs
to some damp studio party
to celebrate?

*

The Sydney Morning Herald
reported on a woman
who was, at 22 years old,
carrying her third child
all three conceived in spite
of contraception

who could not find a doctor
to perform tubal ligation
in case, later on,
she changed her mind.
The article is called

  It’s 2016
and women in Australia
still aren’t allowed
control of their bodies.

*

What spell could Anne have cast
on the early 1920s
to make her own fallopian tubes
disappear?

When the Family Planning Association,
once the Racial Hygiene Association
was the Racial Improvement Society
(until 1928)?

When those with the power to control birth
had a different twinkle
in their eyes.

             *

 The legality of sterilisation
in 1920s New South Wales
was undefined

the only discretion in the hands
of individual doctors.

 *

Tiarne Barratt argues
that while public consideration
of sterilisation
took on a decidedly eugenic focus

… tubal ligation
and vasectomy
had an equally complex
and parallel history
of voluntary reproductive control

that while organisations and doctors
who performed these operations
may have been eugenicists

patients’ motives were their own.

*

The RHA’s Sydney Clinic only opened
in 1933 but from the start they argued
that any person
with hereditary defects
had the right
to readily accessible
voluntary sterilisation.

            *

perversions
alcoholism

insanity
drunkenness

tuberculosis
prostitution

 were, in the 20s,
sicknesses, unfitnesses to breed:

to do so would lead
to race suicide.

*

We don’t even know that Anne’s procedure
was contraceptive in intent.

Salpingectomy is indicated in cases
of ectopic pregnancy;
eggs trapped
in sticky fallopian cilla
ruthless, lost.                                                           

Gonorrhoea, chlamydia
miscarriage or abortion
can spread bacteria, pelvic inflammation

scarring     pus     bleeding    
painful sex     infertility.

We don’t know what Anne wanted or got
but we know where all roads led.

*

The longer you read about Anne
the stranger it seems
she escaped institutionalisation

no tubercular sanatorium
no Sydney Hospital ‘locked ward’
for female VD patients
no prison.

Take ‘Ada’, a mother
in interwar Melbourne
committed due to
puerperal insanity.

Therapeutic abortion was performed
and sterilisation was performed
by removing a portion of both fallopian tubes
… after proper consultation
with [her] husband.

She was discharged
never did the dishes
incinerated her husband’s best suit
and told him that her wound
is healed on the outside
but not on the inside:
she was re-committed
she was twenty-eight.

*

What if every scalpel
bears the ghost-intentions
of every man who ever
made the cut?

What if the asylum’s walls
are inside-out.

*

There is a version of this story,
a Ballad of Anne Brennan,
who outfoxes men in lab coats
and the Church’s threats of hellfire
to assert dominion
over her own flesh

            there’s a version
            where Anne’s access
            to safe and total birth control
            was traded on some level
            on her status
            as race-traitor

there’s a version where Anne
puts a festive face
on a painful medical horror

but there’s no version
                                    that stands out
from any other

 

there’s no story
                        but snippet
                        in the voice of Jack’s
                        animatronic Anna

a metallic quality
            to the recording

and there’s a million stories’ guts
glowing in the dim light
of this Anne-shaped incision.

 

 

Notes:

*‘Salpingectomy’ is taken from a poetry manuscript on the life of Anne Brennan, a bohemian figure and daughter of the poet Christopher Brennan. She was christened Anna but referred to by most peers and historians as Anne.

This poem draws heavily on Stefania Siedecky and Diana Wyndham’s Populate and Perish: Australian Women’s Fight for Birth Control (1990) and Tiarne Barratt’s Master of Philosophy thesis, ‘Contraceptive Sterilisation: A History of Tubal Ligation and Vasectomy in Twentieth Century Australia, 1926–86’ (2015). Italicised text is sourced from these works, including Barrett’s quotation of Norman Haire. The Sydney Morning Herald article referenced in the poem is Clementine Ford’s ‘It’s 2016 and Women in Australia Still Aren’t Allowed Control of Their Bodies’ (24 July 2016). The details on ‘Ada’ are sourced from the chapter ‘Ada’s Story’ from the doctoral thesis ‘Maternal Insanity in Victoria, Australia: 1920–1973’ by Dr Alison Watts (2015). The opening epigraph is taken from a manuscript copy of Jack Lindsay’s memoir The Roaring Twenties (published in Life Rarely Tells, 1982), held by the State Library of Queensland.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Rebecca Cheers is a writer, poet and Masters candidate at QUT. Her work has been featured in Voiceworks, Queensland Poetry Festival, Yarn Storytelling and Anywhere Theatre Festival, and was recently anthologised in The Conspirator.

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