Fiona Benson, author of the brilliant Vertigo & Ghost, and tutor of the Poetry School course Writing Childhood, Writing Parenthood, presents an unmissable Poetry of Parenting Playlist.
Kathleen Jamie, ‘Ultrasound’
This gorgeous, unsurpassable sequence in Jizzen (Picador, London: 1999) travels from ultrasound (‘Second sight / a seer’s mothy flicker, an inner sprite’) through the ‘difficult giving’ to ‘the first / sweet-wild weeks of your life’. It ends with a prayer: ‘this new heart must outlive my own’.
The first poem of the sequence is available here.
Lucille Clifton, ‘the lost baby poem’
I love this poem about an abortion for its mighty love, its pragmatism, and its courage. The speaker would have been unable to care for or warm the baby – a winter of ‘disconnected gas / and no car’. The baby would have been a painful sliver of ice, impossible to hold. ‘you would have fallen naked as snow into winter’.
While the poem acknowledges the impossibility of this baby, it also grieves: ‘if you were here I could tell you these / and some other things’. The last stanza is incredible – a promise and a raising up, but also a kind of a hex or self-curse: ‘if I am ever less than a mountain / for your definite brothers and sisters / let the rivers pour over my head’.
The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 (Boa Editions, NY: 2012) is necessary reading for – well – everyone; but you can hear Clifton read ‘the lost baby poem’ below.
Anne Bradstreet, ‘Before the Birth of One of Her Children’
This poem by Anne Bradstreet is a loving, conditional farewell to her husband on the eve of her labour. The poem asks that, if she die, he ‘look to my little ones, my dear remains’. Death in childbirth was commonplace – and, chillingly, still is in countries like Mozambique, which has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. We are so damn privileged.
Read the poem here.
Fair Mary of Wallington (Childe no: 91)
Folk songs, popular ballads, lullabies… fabulous sources of female lore and poetry. They resist academia in part because of their burgeoning versions; as an oral form there is no defined ‘text’. They fascinate me – women have been illiterate for so much of their history, and yet women’s words and songs have survived in these communally owned ballads. So many of the ballads address lovemaking or rape, forced marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth
Fair Mary is the eighth of nine sisters. The previous seven have died in childbirth, and she pleads unsuccessfully with her mother not to be married off to meet the same fate. She is ignored, and inevitably dies in childbirth. One version has ‘the scobs was in her lovely mouth / and the razor in her side’. This understated version performed by Cath and Phil Tyler breaks my heart.
Karen McCarthy Woolf, ‘The Registrar’s Office’
An unbearable poem of grief; both the poem and its speaker are high and rapid, pumped with the human hormone oxytocin. The speaker’s baby was stillborn, but “I’m loved up like the other mothers”. The poem is hectic with grief and emotion. There is an intense, brief focus on Lydia, the kind registrar. The last lines conflate the sense of the speaker’s own grief and loss and the fact she deserved a living child onto Lydia’s deprived working space. ‘[I]t’s not / right, she’s a good person with / a good heart, she should have a window.’ Somehow that line break between ‘not’ and ‘right’ is throat-tightening, agonising.
I recommend Karen McCarthy Woolf’s book, An Aviary of Small birds (Oxford Poets, Oxford: 2014); you can listen to ‘The Registrar’s Office’ here.
June Tabor, The Cruel Mother (Childe no: 20)
I can’t resist another ballad. This one tells of a woman who gives birth alone in the woods and then kills her new-borns with a penknife, to ‘pass’ as a virgin maid again. She then encounters some children, and addresses them winningly, only to be rebuked; they are her children’s ghosts.
I love this incredibly sensitive version by June Tabor; its sympathy and sadness sing out. Tabor’s version makes me think of Seamus Heaney’s masterpiece ‘Limbo’, which shares both its agony and its evocation of purgatory.
Sylvia Plath, ‘Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices’
This radio poem, set in ‘A Maternity Ward and round about‘, is a masterpiece. FIRST VOICE is playfully, hugely pregnant: ‘When I walk out, I am a great event.’ She submits to a hospital birth, ‘Swabbed and lurid with disinfectants, sacrificial’ – I love that ‘lurid’, the yellow of iodine. In labour, she is terrified and ridden, ‘dragged by the horses, the iron hooves’. Finally she meets her ‘blue, furious boy’ and love asserts itself: ‘His lids are like the lilac-flower / And soft as a moth, his breath.’
SECOND VOICE begins her miscarriage in an anonymous office space – something that resonates terribly with my own first miscarriage, which began when I was “temping” in a strange office. ‘When I first saw it, the small red seep, I did not believe it.’ The poem registers the speaker’s pain and frustration (‘I have stitched life in to me like a rare organ’), her dreams of massacres, and her repeated failure to conceive as the moon ‘drags the blood-black sea around / Month after month, with its voices of failure’. Yet by the end of the sequence the speaker has found courage and hope: ‘The body is resourceful. The body of a starfish can grow back its arms’. The sequence as a whole ends with her voice, and with hope: ‘The little grasses / Crack through stone, and they are green with life.’
THIRD VOICE is pregnant but not ready to be a mother – ‘and the face / Went on shaping itself with love, as if I was ready’. She gives birth to a daughter, and is compelled and caught at and wounded by the baby’s need for her, ‘Her cries are hooks that catch and grate like cats’; ‘Scratching at my sleep like arrows’. She must leave her to ready, adoptive parents: ‘She is a small island, asleep and peaceful, / And I am a white ship hooting: Goodbye, goodbye’. Leaving, she is a wound, and undoes her daughter’s fingers ‘like bandages’. At college, she both heals and continues to hear her daughter’s voice in bird-cries. Her ending is ambivalent; she is enabled but grieving.
You can find Plath’s radio poem in Faber and Faber’s Collected Poems; alternatively you can listen to it here.
Sharon Olds, ‘Her First Week’
I wish I’d been able to find a recording of Olds reading this poem. I love how she reads, her dry matter-of-factness and beautiful tone and pacing. I adore this poem and would give my eye teeth to have written it, or any of The Wellspring (Jonathan Cape, London: 2010).
The clearness of its gaze is incredible – I love that simile of turning the baby, of how the baby would ‘tumble / over part by part, like a load / of damp laundry, in the drier’. It brilliantly and beautifully reckons with how awkward first-time mothers often are with their tiny new loves, how frightened to hold them: ‘I was afraid of her neck, once I almost / thought I heard it quietly snap’. And Olds’ gorgeous ending, the speaker holding her daughter ‘like a loose bouquet’ to her stretch-marked breast: ‘I / felt she was serious, I believed she was willing to stay.’
The poem is here.
Odetta, performing ‘All the pretty little horses’
Like the popular ballads, lullabies exist in many different versions. Many of them weave a tender, intimate harmonic space – I’m thinking of ‘The Miner’s Lullaby’, for example, which contrasts the soft, warm, safe world of the infant and its mother (coorie doun, coorie doun, coorie doun, my darling – ) with that of the father mining in a dangerous ten-foot seam.
‘All the pretty little horses’ is different: disturbing, subversive, excruciatingly tender and moving. It is thought by some to have originated from the old horse ranches of America; it promises a baby that when they wake they will have ‘all the pretty little horses.’ The song then moves in its second verse to sing of ‘way down yonder / in the medder [meadow]’ where either a lamb or another baby is crying for its mother. This baby is unattended – different versions have flies, birds and butterflies troubling its eyes. The song then returns to its promise that when the child wakes it shall have all the pretty little horses.
Peter, Paul & Mary and Laura Gibson have gorgeous versions, but Odetta’s version to me is the most powerfully compelling. It has the baby of the second verse in the field with ‘birds and flies pecking in his eyes’. The song here is strongly committed to remembering slave-mother history, in which African-American women were forced to take care of their owner’s children whilst their own were neglected. Other slave lullabies testify to the slave practice of leaving children tied up in a thorn bush to keep them safe while their mothers were forced to work. Again, a song retains unwritten histories of the illiterate and oppressed.
Julia Copus, ‘Pledge’
I can’t find audio for this gorgeous poem, the last in Julia Copus’ sequence ‘Ghost’, so you’ll just have to buy the book, The World’s Two Smallest Humans (Faber & Faber, London: 2012). ‘Ghost’ is a cycle of poems about IVF treatment – every poem is an incredible masterpiece – and ends with this gorgeous lullaby, both for the child who did not come, and the one who will. The music of it is song-like, soft, gorgeous; its tone muted, drowsy and tender. Unforgettable, and also, somehow, an indivisible whole. I can’t quote from it, because I’d have to quote the poem in its entirety….
Joanna Baillie (1762-1851), ‘A Mother to Her Waking Infant’
Baillie’s wonderful poem speaks across the centuries with a gloriously recognisable portrait of mother-love. It’s adoring, witty and warmly observed. The child cries and is beguiled by ‘rattled keys’ (nothing changes) and of course, laughs ‘when thy friends are in distress’. I remember falling over badly when my daughter was about eighteen months old; I cried, she laughed her head off. Even when the speaker turns serious and tells her infant that she hopes he will care for her when she’s weak and old, the infant is distracted by ‘the sweepy spinning fly / upon the window’.
Baillie seems to admit early on in the poem that the world will not believe her subject grand enough, or worthy of a poem (‘Poor helpless thing! What do I see, / That I should sing of thee?’) Yet she simply cannot help herself, and the loving particularity of her poem makes this a thing of enduring beauty and belies the world’s opinion.
It shames me that poems about parenting and babies fall in and out of favour, and that poems of the domestic milieu can still be belittled. Human life – tenderness – matters.
Read the poem here.
Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah, ‘Daystar’
Thomas and Beulah is one of my most-loved, most-thumbed books. I could have chosen several poems from this (or from On the Bus with Rosa Parks for that matter) for their gorgeous renditions of pregnancy and motherhood. I have gone with ‘Daystar’. I love how she renders the feeling of compression, of needing a space of quiet and nothing, amidst the busy turmoil of childrearing. How small and necessary that breathing space is. I love how the daughter’s voice intrudes, and her sense of entitlement: ‘And just what was mother doing / out back with the field mice?’ But I also love that this is a holding place of restoration and imagination – Beulah answers that she was ‘building a palace’. And later, it is somewhere she can return to imaginatively for refuge from Thomas’ unwanted attentions. A palace indeed.
Liz Berry, ‘The Republic of Motherhood’
Another poem I’m profoundly jealous of! I love its knife-edge aliveness to the physical hardships and deprivations and insanities of motherhood. ‘I soaked my spindled bones / in the chill municipal baths of Motherhood, / watching strands of my hair float from my fingers’. That image conveys so much of the shock of alienation and cold, exhausted trauma of new motherhood. The old self falling from you with your own shedding hair. I relate profoundly to its heartfelt rosary – ‘Our Lady of of the Birth Trauma, Our Lady of Psychosis’ and its prayer ‘in the Chapel of Motherhood […] / for that whole wild fucking Queendom, / its sorrow, its unbearable skinless beauty, / and all the souls that were in it.’ AMEN. You can find the poem in Berry’s gorgeous pamphlet of the same name, or here.