BOOK REVIEW / From here to maternity: 'The Virago Book of Birth Poetry' - ed Charlotte Otten, 6.99

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The Independent Culture
THEY didn't include childbirth in the old Eng lit canon. The other eternal verities, yes: how we live in or leave the world, but not how we enter it; love, death, even children once they'd grown up a bit, but not babies being born. Twenty years ago, the only regular anthology piece on the subject was a couple of stanzas from 'Homage to Mistress Bradstreet', spoken in a woman's voice but written by John Berryman and happily conflating sexual ecstasy and labour pains as only a non- participant could:

No. No. Yes] everything down

hardens I press with horrible joy down

my back cracks like a wrist

. . . I can can no longer

and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me

drencht and powerful, I did it with my body]

One proud tug greens heaven. Marvellous,

unforbidding Majesty.

Swell, imperious bells . . .

Is that thing alive? I hear a famisht howl.

You can explain the dearth of birth poetry in various different ways, pragmatic or paranoid as you wish. Of all human activities, childbirth is the one in which the principal actors are least equipped to provide eye-witness accounts: the baby can't remember, the mother mostly doesn't want to. Happiness writes white; so do post-natal depression and exhaustion. There were taboos once, as well: Charlotte Otten, the editor of this anthology, remembers a time when women were 'mildly embarrassed by their pregnancies', and, though avid to talk to each other about their labours, would never have thought them something of which they could write: too shameful, too intimate, not to be exposed to 'the harsh world of male publication'. Otten speculates (here comes the paranoia) that women might even have 'felt victimised, and victims rarely contribute to their own powerlessness by telling the world about their humiliation'.

Otten thinks things changed because of a poem by Anne Sexton called 'In Celebration of my Uterus'; others might look to the feminist movement, Our Bodies, Our Selves, the National Childbirth Trust and so on. Whatever, childbirth is now a fit subject for poetry and here is an anthology of poems about that 'exclusively gendered experience' shared by women between 12 and 59.

Some marvellous poems are included. Few have written better on the subject than Sylvia Plath, who can express joy without gushing ('love set you going like a fat gold watch'), and brilliantly describes the strange separateness of children even in their first vulnerability and dependence: 'i'm no more your mother / than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow / effacement at the wind's hand'. Helen Chasin, her 'public seam stitched back into secrets', decides that 'this ordeal has almost nothing to do with love', while Linda Pastan reflects that 'babies should grow in fields', to be 'picked and held / root end up, soil spilling / from between their toes'. Then there's Sharon Olds, mimicking the baby's sliding-out through enjambement and raiding a fridge of metaphors:

the limbs

compressed close to the body, the arms

bent like a crab's rosy legs, the

thighs closely packed plums in heavy syrup, the

legs folded like the white wings of a chicken. . .

Olds aside, the anthology is short of poems that are messy with blood and vernix: there's plenty after birth, but little afterbirth. Some will be relieved to hear it, but this lack of physicality makes the book oddly flat and abstract, as if the suspense and intense pain of childbirth were impossible to convey, or any impression beyond simple triumphalism a betrayal of the experience. Miscarriage and abortion bring out darker and more complex shades of feeling. Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia McCarthy, Mary Gordon and Anne Sexton ('somebody who should have been born / is gone') write well on the subject, and M Z Ribalow is wonderfully angry at the man who talked her into a termination.

Not all the men here are cast in such unflattering light: though Charlotte Otten is right-on and New Ageist, and cheekily includes more of her own poems than anyone else's, she allows men into the maternity ward, if they so choose. Some of them don't choose: C K Stead is the old-style guy pacing 'the frantic corridor praying', Seamus Heaney is squeamish (half-fainting when the 'little slapped palpable girl' is handed him), Peter Dale is sorry, darling, but work means he's going to be elsewhere when his child is born. Male attempts to empathise are even more embarrassing, whether those of Robert Pack ('Something in me has always known, / my dear, I was a woman once') or Richard Jones, whose partner's miscarriage is chiefly important, it seems, as 'revealing / all the things I'd done / that can and will be used / as evidence against me'. Solipsistic sod.

In an anthology largely composed of British and American poets but also including Jamaicans, Australasians and Koreans, Shelly Wagner comes up with the most arresting image:

The crown of the baby's head

opened my body

like a camera lens . . .

I am a camera. But women in labour can't be expected to hold the camera steady. Despite the many good photographs in this anthology, at the end birth remains as mysterious, overwhelming and indescribable an experience as ever.