By May Swenson 1913–1989 May Swenson
She sat on a shelf,
her breasts two bellies
on her poked-out belly,
on which the navel looked   
like a sucked-in mouth—
her knees bent and apart,   
her long left arm raised,
with the large hand knuckled   
to a bar in the ceiling—   
her right hand clamping
the skinny infant to her chest—   
its round, pale, new,
soft muzzle hunting
in the brown hair for a nipple,   
its splayed, tiny hand picking   
at her naked, dirty ear.
Twisting its little neck,   
with tortured, ecstatic eyes   
the size of lentils, it looked   
into her severe, close-set,   
solemn eyes, that beneath bald   
eyelids glared—dull lights   
in sockets of leather.

She twitched some chin-hairs,   
with pain or pleasure,   
as the baby-mouth found and   
yanked at her nipple;   
its pink-nailed, jointless   
fingers, wandering her face,   
tangled in the tufts
of her cliffy brows.
She brought her big
hand down from the bar   
with pretended exasperation   
unfastened the little hand,
and locked it within her palm—
while her right hand
with snag-nailed forefinger
and short, sharp thumb, raked
the new orange hair
of the infant’s skinny flank—
and found a louse,   
which she lipped, and   
thoughtfully crisped   
between broad teeth.
She wrinkled appreciative
nostrils which, without a nose,   
stood open—damp holes
above the poke of her mouth.

She licked her lips, flicked   
her leather eyelids—
then, suddenly flung
up both arms and grabbed   
the bars overhead.
The baby‘s scrabbly fingers   
instantly caught the hair—
as if there were metal rings there—   
in her long, stretched armpits.   
And, as she stately swung,   
and then proudly, more swiftly   
slung herself from corner   
to corner of her cell—
arms longer than her round   
body, short knees bent—   
her little wild-haired,
poke-mouthed infant hung,   
like some sort of trophy,
or decoration, or shaggy medal—   
shaped like herself—but new,   
clean, soft and shining
on her chest.

May Swenson, “Motherhood” from Nature: Poems Old and New. Copyright © 1994 by May Swenson. Reprinted with the permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Source: Nature: Poems Old and New (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1994)

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Poet May Swenson 1913–1989

Subjects Nature, Living, Animals, Parenthood

Poetic Terms Syllabic

 May  Swenson


During her prolific career, May Swenson received numerous literary awards and nominations for her poetry. Often experimental in both form and appearance, her poems earned her widespread critical acclaim. As Priscilla Long commented in the Women's Review of Books, "Swenson was a visionary poet, a prodigious observer of the fragile and miraculous natural world."

Swenson's poetry has been praised for its imagery, which is . . .

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SUBJECT Nature, Living, Animals, Parenthood

Poetic Terms Syllabic

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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