Poems » lynn crosbie » iris holden district nurse


`Love's mysteries in souls do grow,
But yet the body is his book.'

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