A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998
by Gillian Clarke
At Easter 1998, three stories came together, and gave me the idea for this poem.
One is the Easter story. 2000 years ago Jesus was crucified and his body placed in a tomb with a big stone blocking the entrance. A few days later the stone had been rolled away and the body was gone. Christians believe he had risen from the dead.
A little history is necessary to explain the second story, the signing of the Irish Peace Deal on Good Friday, 1998. All Ireland used to be ruled by Britain. At Easter 1916 there was an event known as the Easter Rising, when a group of Irish rebels demanded independence from Britain. The event was celebrated in a famous poem by one of my favourite poets, W.B.Yeats. Southern Ireland was eventually given its independence, but Northern Ireland remained British. It has been a trouble-spot ever since. On Good Friday 1998, in Belfast, after years of bombings, murder and hatred between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists, they and the British government were on the brink of signing a Peace Deal.
The third story involves a 5-year-old pregnant ewe (female sheep) expecting her first lamb at any moment. Because she was quite old for a first lambing, we were warned she might have trouble giving birth. She was in labour. I watched her while my husband fetched a neighbour. Before he returned I had helped the ewe to deliver twin lambs. The poem began in my head as soon as the first lamb arrived.
How to read the poem for its content:
The first two lines introduce the ewe, and begin her story. You read that she is unexpectedly pregnant for the first time. The next four lines introduce the other two stories: Good Friday, and the Irish Peace Deal. This establishes a connection between the stories.
The scene is set in verse 1: The planned celebration must wait. In the barn the ewe is restless.
Ask yourself who ‘we’ are? Whose voice tells the story? Which news are we about to celebrate?
She is ‘hoofing the straw’ to make a bed for herself, a sure sign that she is ready to give birth.
I deliberately refer to the Yeats’s poem, ‘Easter 1916’, because I enjoy the layer of meaning and history. In verse 2, I watch the ewe while thinking about what’s happening in Belfast.
How do you know I feel close to her? Does she trust me? The lamb’s front hooves and his muzzle are visible, which means he’s the right way round, but his head is stuck.
Verse 3. My husband thinks it’s time to ask for help, but I’m not sure. I imagine the farmer pulling the lamb, not understanding the ewe as I think I do. So I help the ewe myself. She pushes, I pull, worried that I might hurt the lamb. Suddenly the lamb’s head is free, and the lamb arrives in a rush of birth water and blood. A minute later a second lamb is born without trouble.
How to read the poem for its form:
The poem is written in 4 verses of 6 lines each. There is no rhyme, but sound is important. For example, in line 4, I enjoy ‘tonight she’s serious, restless and hoofing the straw’, for the assonance* of ‘e’ sounds, and the alliteration* of s and t.
The lines follow a natural storytelling rhythm, often using the 5-beat rhythm of iambic pentameter*, Shakespeare’s favourite, a frequent rhythm in spoken English. It’s the same tune as ‘Do come in and have a cup of tea’. The first 2 lines are a good example:
An old ewe that somehow till this year
had given the ram the slip. We thought her barren.
The rest of the verse follows the same 5-stress pattern, and this continues into the next verse. The beat is natural, so when the story, and the rhythm of the sentence, want to break step, I let it happen. This is important in the final two lines of verse 4, where just four words end the poem.
How to read the poem for its language:
The ewe’s story alone would not have made a poem. The poem happened because of the metaphor* of the stone which has been rolled away in the last line of the poem. The idea of the stone is central to the poem’s content. It’s the blockage stopping the mouth of the tomb, the head of the lamb stuck in the birth canal, and the stony hearts and stubborn minds of the men of violence holding up the signing of the Peace Deal. It’s a three-way metaphor.
The chosen words are important. Notice words like ‘serious’ to describe the ewe. Why do I say the ewe is ‘serious’? Look at the verb ‘hoofing’. What does that verb suggest? Note ‘her own lost salty ocean’ - the birth waters, the amniotic fluid in which the lamb swims in the womb.
There are other metaphors in the final verse, words and images chosen because they suggest something else: ‘a cradling’, ‘a syrupy flood’, ‘her opened door’. Why did I choose those words, and how do they affect the poem?
The ‘whitecoats’ are some, certainly not all doctors. I connect events to human experience, women in the hands of ‘whitecoats’, know-alls, experts who act without consideration for her feelings.
The ewe ‘drinks’ the lamb, a word chosen to express the thirst of the ewe for her lamb. ‘You’, (my husband) ‘find us/ peaceful, at a cradling that might have been a death.’ Notice ‘cradling’.
Read Seamus Heaney’s ‘At a Potato Digging’. How does my farming scene in Wales compare with Seamus Heaney’s? Both poems combine present events with past events in Ireland. Look at similarities and differences. Compare the mood of the two poems. How do we both use form, metaphor and other poetry devices? Look at Seamus Heaney’s own notes on his poems.