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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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