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Homage to Mistress Bradstreet / John Berryman

Since we're nearing Mother's Day I thought I'd post this extraordinary section of John Berryman's 1953 sequence. Ann Bradstreet was the first significant poet of the early Puritan settlement of New England in the 17th Century. Berryman retells her life in his highly pressurised yet intricately patterned verse. These three stanzas give voice to Ann giving birth, in advanced age, to her first son Samuel. Simon is her husband. And Sarah refers to the biblical Sarah who also gave birth late in life.


So squeezed, wince you I scream? I love you & hate

off with you. Ages! Useless. Below my waist

he has me in Hell's vise.

Stalling. He let go. Come back: brace

me somewhere. No. No. Yes! everything down

hardens I press with horrible joy down

my back cracks like a wrist

shame I am voiding oh behind it is too late


hide me forever I work thrust I must free

now I all muscles & bones concentrate

what is living from dying?

Simon I must leave you so untidy

Monster you are killing me Be sure

I'll have you later Women do endure

I can can no longer

and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me


drencht & powerful, I did it with my body !

One proud tug greens Heaven. Marvellous,

unforbidding Majesty,

Swell imperious bells. I fly.

Mountainous, woman not breaks and will bend:

sways God nearby: anguish comes to an end.

Blossomed Sarah, and I

blosssom. Is that thing alive? I hear a famisht howl.

I've never given birth. And neither, obviously, had Berryman. But I can almost feel the bone-cracking effort of labour in this knotty poem. But I'd love to hear from any mothers who have had the experience if it is a male fantasy of birth or something intensely imagined?

I have so many candidates for best line - "unforbidding Majesty", "it passes the wretched trap whelming" and "everything down / hardens I press with horrible joy down" - but please share yours...

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4 comentarios

Yes. Reminded me of a difficult birth of my son who lay back to back .yes..pain like a cracked wrist...but not over in one never forgets but this was a sharp reminder...

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patti G
patti G
22 feb 2023

Why is it that babies always seem to want to begin their entrance into this world at an unearthly hour. My first born started his debut at 3am ! I have never felt such excruciating pain and yet there is deep joy and affection for this tiny mite's arrival, even though it feels like you're giving birth to an elephant. I remember feeling quite apprehensive about now being responsible for this little human. Thankfully, he survived my dubious skills as a fledgling mother.

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Gill Jewell
Gill Jewell
21 feb 2023

You’d think after 33 Yrs one would forget the birth experience? Nope ! This brilliant poem brings it back & so important to remember. I remember my amazement that upon leaving hospital I gazed around the bustling street, clinging to my new bundle of ‘joy’, thinking - EVERY person’s mother has done this & most women lived through it. How amazing- that one actually can survive ( silly me not opting for drugs lol) Alastair I hope you realise you will get lots of birthing stories lol- I ran a group for three years after giving birth called “ Mothers & Others” to share birthing stories lol. Gay men were ( are) superb parents. One fella at the birth …

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Contestando a

What a beautiful reply. I am now so painfully connected to that Ukrainian woman. But I -like you after birth- am in awe of all women who go through that experience. And I’m always asking my female friends who’ve given birth to go through the experience in great detail. So bring on the labour stories! Thanks for writing Gill

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