by Gillian Clarke
Q My teacher and some of my class think the poem is about post-natal depression. I think it's about baby-sitting. Who is right?
A You are right. You've listened carefully to the language of the poem, and trusted the poet. The evidence is on your side. Start with the title: 'Baby-Sitting'. This is a deliberate choice, and intended to guide the reader. In line 1 and line 2 there are two important words: 'strange' to describe the room, and 'wrong' to describe the baby. I, the baby-sitter, am telling you, the reader, that I am sitting in an unfamiliar room, not in my own house. Then I tell you that I am listening for 'the wrong baby', that is, not my baby. Later, I emphasise this: 'I don't love this baby.' Look at the last two lines of the first verse: that this baby's breath 'fails to enchant me' implies that I understand the experience of being enchanted by a baby's breath. I use the word 'perfume' - something joyfully experienced as a mother.
The second verse is all about the baby's feeling in the company of a stranger. It describes the baby's fear and loneliness. Further proof that the baby-sitter is not sorry for herself, but sorry for the baby.
Readers who think about post natal depression must say that it is THEIR thought, and must first take note of the clear intention of the poet before they add their own thoughts
Q What is 'the monstrous land'?
A The baby's bad dream. Maybe what woke the baby was a dream about monsters.
Q Why have you used the words 'snuffly, roseate, bubbling sleep.'?
A The words describe a baby sleeping, snuffly, with rosy cheeks and a bubbly nose.
Q Why have you used capital letters at the start of each line even when it's not a new sentence?
A I wrote the poem a long time ago. Poems used to be printed with capital letters at the start of the line. I don't do it now. I think it looks old fashioned.
Q What do you mean by ‘the wrong baby’?
A From its birth a baby knows its own mother, and a mother knows her baby. There is, usually, a powerful bond from the start. There has to be for us human beings to survive. If you watch a flock of sheep you’ll see how the lambs, which all look the same to us, run crying to find their mothers. The ‘wrong baby’ is the wrong lamb. There is no bond between the baby sitter and the baby, so they are wrong for each other.
Q Why are you afraid of the baby?
A The baby sitter is scared that the baby will wake, and she won’t be able to comfort her.
Q What is ‘the bleached bone in the terminal ward’?
A I imagine a man dying in a hospital ward, the curtains drawn about his bed, his wife watching. His body is a bony shape under the white sheet, like, I thought, a ‘bleached bone’ on a beach. Surely a baby crying for its mother feels as abandoned as that woman seeing her husband die. I am still surprised that such a bleak image came to me as I wrote about such an ordinary activity as baby sitting. I was trying to look at loss from a baby’s point of view.