A Difficult Birth, Easter 1998
by Gillian Clarke
A Difficult Birth Easter 1998
Q What’s the poem about?
A There are 3 stories tangled up here, and you need to know them:
1) 2000 years ago, the story goes, on the Friday before the day now known as Easter Sunday, Jesus was crucified, and his body placed in a tomb with a stone blocking the entrance. The story tells that later, when people went to look, the stone had been rolled away, and the body was gone. Christians believe he had risen from the dead.
2) The second story happened on Good Friday 1998. After 30 years of violence involving the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, with the British Army as ‘piggy in the middle’, something called ‘the peace process’ was about to be agreed in Belfast. All sides had to sign it. And they did.
3) Story number three stars a five year old ewe (female sheep) who’d never had a lamb. She was due to lamb at any moment. She was 5, which is old for a first time lambing, so we were warned she might have trouble, and we might have to call the vet. The lambs were born safely, without the vet.
So what’s the poem about? Difficulties overcome.
Q Why is she ‘hoofing the straw’?
A She is making a nest. You can tell the ewe is in labour when she scrapes the ground with her hoof and turns round and round to make herself a bed.
Q Who are the whitecoats?
A Doctors, or those doctors who think they know more about birth than mothers do, and the ‘whitecoats’ symbolise know-alls who think they know better than nature does. The statement is slightly ironic, a note of caution rather than a serious condemnation of surgical intervention in birth. It is a gentle rebuke, not a condemnation of doctors, vets, or science.
Q What do you mean by her ‘opened door’?
A The ‘opened door’ is the exit from the womb after the first lamb was born. The second twin just slipped into the straw without a hitch.
Q What does ‘the stone rolled away’ mean?
A In a way there’s a word missing in the last line of the poem. I could have written, ‘the stone having rolled away’. Sometimes I read it like that, to make the meaning quite clear, but I don’t like the sound of it, and it’s not strictly needed. You should read the line slowly, with the last 3 words stressed: ‘the stone rolled away’. The image connects the empty tomb on Good Friday 2000 years ago, the womb of the ewe once the first lamb is born, and the prospect of peace at last in Northern Ireland. In all three cases, life wins.