Tuesday Poem: The Republic of Motherhood - Liz Berry

Sky Birth

Bringing you into the world, I let the mountain enter me:
mauve, shadow, the sky a zoetrope spinning crows
     and rain-soaked fog.
I let in the scree and nodding heads of heather,
a path hidden by moss
where waymarkers of dotterel skulls whistled in the breeze.
I opened my chest to the wind,
                 which soughed and howled
over the voice of the midwife, the beeping monitors.

The ascent was steep,
                                 dirt and stream, the air electrified
with concentration.  A hare leapt in the milkweed,
mizzle fell
                slant on my spine.
Up     up     I climbed until I could no longer see
the bottom, the place I had begun
but retched with the heights, poor beast of the base world.

Up up.     Higher.     Further.
I cried out but the gale swallowed it and sang back my name
until everything was burning,
until the face was sheer and the rush were on fire,
the bones of death gleaming beneath.

          I knelt on all fours, scrambled, desperate
       to reach the summit, the splitting peak -
                 when it came it came fast, a shining crown
through the slap of the storm,
     for a second we were alone on that highest place
             and love, oh love,
                           I would have gladly left my body
       on that lit ledge for birds to pick clean
for my heart was in yours now
and your small body would be the one to carry us.

Copyright Liz Berry  www.lizberrypoetry.co.uk
Reproduced by permission of the poet.
From The Republic of Motherhood, Liz Berry,
Chatto Poetry 2018

It's spring - the fields are already filling up with lambs, birds are nesting, there are baby rabbits in the hedgerows and that whole, marvellous reproductive cycle is beginning again, and - heaven knows - there's enough poetry written about it.  Lots of poems too about motherhood. But when I heard Liz Berry read from The Republic of Motherhood at the Kendal Poetry Festival last autumn I was aware that this was something different.  It's not just the distinctive way that Liz Berry reads, it's the content of the poems themselves and their lyrical and unsentimental style.

In the title poem the 'I' of the poem finds herself in an alien country - the 'wild queendom' of motherhood.  She wears its uniform, works in its factories (The owl shift, / the graveyard shift), toiling anonymously as if in a novel by George Orwell before walking home 'heartsore, through pale streets'.  Her identity is replaced by a zombie-like figure. 'As required, I stood beneath the flag of Motherhood/ and opened my mouth although I did not know the anthem'. It is a moving portrayal of the black hole that is post-natal depression.  She prays to 'Our Lady of Birth Trauma, Our Lady of Psychosis.'

Here is Liz Berry reading the title poem after winning the 2018 Forward Prize for best poem.

Sky Birth was the poem that I most admired in the collection because it described birth as I'd experienced it - an uphill struggle and a feeling of being able to see through the gap between life and death. I felt that I could have reached out and touched it.(The title of the poem creates an association with the Sky Burials used in some cultures.) And then that rush of emotion you can't even put a name to, for this small being who is so part of you,  you can hardly think of separation.  All mothers' experiences of birth are different, and my four were all different in their own ways, though it was the first one that shocked the most and changed me utterly from a carefree, rather naive teenager into an immigrant in a strange country where I knew nothing and noone. When I looked in the mirror I was surprised to find that I still looked familiar. Liz Berry articulates all of this and more.

I'm interested to find that the poems are equally popular with men and with women who have not had a child - the appeal of the imagery is universal, the language unique. That is what makes this slim collection so good.

The Republic of Motherhood
Liz Berry
Chatto Poetry 2018  £4.13p

Find out more about Liz Berry by visiting her website here


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