a difficult birth

Posted by on February 25, 2014

Curtain of willow branches in Tennessee © 2014 Julia Mason Wickes.

A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998

by Gillian Clarke

An old ewe that somehow till this year
had given the ram the slip. We thought her barren.
Good Friday, and the Irish peace deal close,
and tonight she’s serious, restless and hoofing the straw.
We put off the quiet supper and bottle of wine
we’d planned, to celebrate if the news is good.

Her waters broke an hour ago and she’s sipped
her own lost salty ocean from the ground.
While they slog it out in Belfast, eight decades
since Easter 1916, exhausted, tamed by pain,
she licks my fingers with a burning tongue,
lies down again. Two hooves and a muzzle.

But the lamb won’t come. You phone for help
and step into the lane to watch for car lights.
This is when the whitecoats come to the women,
well meaning, knowing best, with their needles and forceps.
So I ease my fingers in, take the slippery head
in my right hand, two hooves in my left.

We strain together, harder than we dared.
I feel a creak in the limbs and pull till he comes
in a syrupy flood. She drinks him, famished, and you find us
peaceful, at a cradling that might have been a death.
Then the second lamb slips through her opened door,
the stone rolled away.

* * *

I found this poem here. I discovered this poet because I am reading a novel set in Wales and it is inspiring me to seek out Welsh writers. Gillian Clarke is the National Poet of Wales and so she seemed like a good place to begin. The book I am reading is How Green Was My Valley, by Richard Llewellyn. I have a sneaking suspicion that this book, although it won the National Book Award and was a bestseller in 1940, is not considered to be real literature anymore– or even popular literature–because it seems to be out of print except as an e-book. But I accidentally stumbled on a recommendation via a book board I follow on Pinterest and decided to order a used copy. I am really enjoying the book, although oscillating back and forth over how far to take it seriously and give myself permission to love it. Some of what it describes is so quaint that it is just hard to believe, and even the “troubles” and conflicts that come about seem innocent in a certain way. I have absolutely no barometer to gauge whether or not certain aspects, like the dialect, are phony or genuine because all of it is too far out of my realm of experience. My sense is that the story and the writing are truly great– or at least have many great moments– but that the book has probably been passed over and forgotten because it has too many passages that come across as trite and platitudinal. But who knows: maybe it will rise again from the dead.

In any case, I like reading about life in a quaint, pre-industrial village and I don’t mind the piety or the platitudes. It tends to break my heart, actually, because it presents me with a picture of so many things that are lost forever in a post-industrialized, post-post-everything society. I know that any idealization is simply the way we never were, and I am going to get scolded or scoffed at by someone for idealizing this past. These kinds of villages were the places of shaming, scarlet letters, homophobia, sexism, and witch burnings. I might very well have died in childbirth there as well. But there is still a part of me that wants to go back and take my chances in such a place, just so I can churn butter and know what it’s like when an entire village shows up to prepare and celebrate when a wayward son comes home.

But anyway, back to this blog post. I love the poem above by Gillian Clarke. Birth, death, and resurrection to new life– all happening with great difficulty and miraculous ease–which? That is exactly how life is and feels, literally and metaphorically.

If you want to use global and important things, you have the Irish Peace Deal or the impossible and tragic situation in the Ukraine this winter. If a small and inconsequential example is needed, a sheep in labor might be appropriate, or my own life could also offer an instance of how stones sometimes roll away, even in the most seemingly small and inconsequential situations. I strain inwardly harder than I ever dared, until one conversation or chance encounter acts as a catalyst. Then everything that was blocked and painful comes unblocked and flows forth easily and fast, turning out well and safe. I never really know how this happens, but things often do turn out surprisingly well after long stretches of angst.

Remembering that, I am trying not to worry so much, to relax, and, as naive as it really is, to trust. The older I get, the more I start to believe that nothing happens in this world easily, and that is just discouraging and a bummer. Why can’t things be easier? I don’t know how people grow old without giving up at some point; it’s amazing. But then it is true that miraculous endings are still always possible, and do keep happening, so maybe that is how people keep going.

There is a scene in Llewellyn’s novel in which the main character, a boy who is at the time about twelve, witnesses a woman in labor and giving birth from a hidden opening in the hovel where she and her impoverished family live. Before that time, the boy Huw is totally ignorant about the way that babies come into the world. He even thinks that the doctor shows up and somehow brings the baby to the mother. After he witness the birth he feels guilty and shocked. He runs away, feeling sick. His mother finds out and it is decided that his father will come up and talk to him after he is in bed, in that very formal and grand way that rites of passages must have happened in pre-industrial villages. I’ll conclude with Dada’s platitudinal speech to his son Huw (sexist language, naive capitalization, and all):

Listen to me. Forget all you saw. Take your mind from it. It has nothing to do with you. But use it for experience. Now you know what hurt it brings to women when men come into the world. Remember, and make it up to your Mama and to all women. And another thing let it do. There is no room for pride in any man. There is no room for unkindness. There is no room for wit at the expense of others. All men are born the same, and equal. As you saw to-day, so come the Captains, and the Kings and the Tinkers and the Tailors. Let the memory directs your dealings with men and women. And be sure to take good care of Mama.