Iris Holden, District Nurse

1`Love's mysteries in souls do grow,
2But yet the body is his book.'
4  Children in them. It wasn't just the dirt --
5You saw so much of that you didn't see it.
6  But when time pried away the grip with which
7They held their tattered privacy about them,
8  The flannel and the filth peeled off and bared --
9Bodies you couldn't call them, no, they were stones,
10  Coursed by hard water. Strain bowed men's backs;
11It veined their arms and necks, and pressed the women
12  Flat as flint. No tears: they kept a stone's pact
13With their pain, and when they cracked they broke clean through.
14  Then fifty years of love or hate poured out
15The way the waters yield in childbirth: old Briggs,
16  His heart full of some poaching grievance that
17No one else in the village could remember,
18  Smashed a deal table with a hand too weak
19To hold a spoon. Or Mary Girling, creased and
20  Frail as a teacup, standing braced to bake
21Christmas puddings for friends she knew she'd never
22  Share with again; when I cut into mine
23Mary was gone, but nestled in the pudding
24  Was a gold sovereign polished till it shone
25One with the candles on our Christmas table.
26  Something holds on, and a rare death can leave
27The feeling of a birth, of ripe fruit offered
28  And well taken. Not that babies always
29Come away apple-easy. One night long past --
30  It was an April night; I was just up
31To making calls after we'd lost our Amy.
32  The name lives. We'd have called her Amy if
33She lived. But here, I'll tell you about this night:
34  Rain fell so thick my acetylene lamp
35Barely could cut a path to the cottage where
36  The woman lay. A barn! -- children asleep
37On the floor, on straw, huddled under greatcoats;
38  The mother restless, wrapped up in her pain
39On a bare bed, the father nowhere in sight.
40  No light but a wood fire: back to the rain
41For my cycle lamp, then set to work by it,
42  The baby coming strong. I dipped some fresh
43Rainbarrel water and boiled it in a tin --
44  No kettle, the pots caked too thick to clean --
45And ripped up an old shirt to wrap the baby:
46  So we made do. But then the fetal pulse
47Fell off like a sail slacking when the wind fails,
48  Shy of the port, as if it lost all heart
49For being born. It kept falling, the baby
50  Caught in straits you dared not wait for nature
51To pull it through; so I made a cut to free
52  Its head, and found the cord tight round its neck.
53I plucked the cord off, easing the baby out:
54  A figure of a girl, well-formed, but still.
55I raced to wake the life I felt might still be
56  Sleeping in her. Each second fell heavy
57With all the deafening rain until her cry
58  Broke like morning over the storm -- and woke
59The other children too! I bundled them up
60  Into the kitchen, poked the fire to warm
61Their wide eyes back to sleep, then washed and tidied
62  Mother and baby. My acetylene
63Gave enough light to see which of their needs the
64  Painful abundance of our house could fill.
65Then I set them in a neighbour's care, and gave
66  One quick look at the nursing pair to check
67Their pulses -- steady both. I can see them now,
68  The hair on the baby's head like peach-bloom,
69Gold in the morning sun, the mother smiling
70  Over her pain and knowing more to come,
71But smiling. Perhaps because it is so frail,
72  New life makes you take heart in your own lights.

Notes

3] The epigraph is from John Donne's ."The Ecstasy.." Back to Line
Publication Notes: 
Ashbourn (Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1986): 19.
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire