Prose from Poetry Magazine

The True Nature

The poetry of home-birth.

by Tracey Johnstone

I chose to leave the world of poetry to become a home-birth midwife as deliberately as Wendell Berry chose to be a farmer. A midwife’s work is not simply to provide safe, evidence-based maternity care—it is to stitch together with families the emotions, physical sensations, and spiritual dynamics of birth into a meaningful whole. The vocation of midwife is my authentic answer to the call of being a poet.

Poetry was once my life. I was an editor with the university poetry magazine in my small southeastern city, and through luck and chutzpah the other editors and I connected with the Beat poets. Between 1991 and 1993 we brought Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Diane di Prima to our city. We made all-nighter car trips to New York and read at St. Mark’s and the Nuyorican Cafe. Thrust into this—suddenly, unexpectedly—was a baby. I was five months pregnant in March of 1991 when I watched the invasion of Kuwait on cnn. She roiled inside me with each televised mortar round and I felt the edges of myself dissolve between her body and the first of our tv wars:

Everything is swinging: heaven, earth, water, fire,
and the secret one slowly growing a body.

I had a long, challenging birth—unmedicated, hallucinatory, poetic. My room filled with every woman who has ever given birth or will give birth, witness to the last brutal and ecstatic efforts of my greatest poem—my daughter. My poetry changed. I delved even deeper into di Prima, Whitman, Rumi, Rilke, Rich, Berry; poets unaffected by the academic postmodern disdain of the “Grand Words”—Love, Revolution, Hope, Liberty, Peace, God, Beauty; words I was being warned off of in writing class because academia had decided they were tired, cliched. Giving birth, becoming a mother with war in the background, made these words and the ideas behind them fierce, powerful, fresh. Real. I understood the office of the poet is to renew and actualize these words, not simply describe:

You cannot write a single line w/out a cosmology
a cosmogony
laid out, before all eyes  
           —From “Rant,” by Diane di Prima

In the fall of 1993 I attended the fifty-year Beat retrospective at nyu. I was elbowed out of the way by a celebrity because I was between her and a photographer. There were rock stars and movie stars. The words I had just become brave enough to reclaim—they crumbled under fashion and corporate cool. The following spring when Hunter S. Thompson came to my city, it was the antics of the famous actor traveling with him (preparing to play him in a movie) that were on the lips of the poetry girls. The binding on my Rilke broke that year:

A god can do it. But will you tell me how
A man can enter through the lyre’s strings?
Our mind is split. And at the shadowed crossing
of heart-roads, there is no temple for Apollo.
True singing is a different breath, about
nothing. A gust inside the god. A wind.
           —From “The Sonnets to Orpheus”

I slipped through the lyre strings of academic poetry and poetry of the New Cool. I slipped through them to birth, the truest song I had ever sung. I began a midwifery apprenticeship and learned to care for women and babies not only with skill and safety, but also in a way that honors the glorious relational sloppiness that involves time over efficiency, process over product. The families who choose to experience birth in all of its ecstasy, pain, effluvia, humor, and power, who reject the medical model of birth as illness, a condition to be treated, fundamentally understand that we are a creative process, the primary expression of a creative force. They are not afraid to be their own poets:

       What will I say
to my fellow poets
whose poems I do not read
while this passion keeps me
in the open?
         —From “Clearing,” by Wendell Berry

A baby is born into the warm water of the birth tub. Her parents’ hands raise her above the candle-licked surface. Unobtrusively I cup my hands under her head, supporting her above the water as she blinks a new world into focus. The first thing she sees—her mother and father kissing deeply over their creation, her being:'

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.
          —From “Origins and History of Consciousness,”
             by Adrienne Rich

Originally Published: January 3, 2011


On January 4, 2011 at 4:55am Barbara Harper wrote:
Congratulations to the Poet Laureate of the
birth world, Tracey Johnstone. Your piece
is far too short. I wanted more and expect
to read a longer rendition which addresses
all of the "glorious relational sloppiness that
involves time over efficiency, process over
Thank you for publishing this moving piece.

On January 4, 2011 at 10:49am hallie wrote:
that was just a beautiful essay. i can't think of anything else to say. thank you for sharing this with everyone.

On January 4, 2011 at 12:38pm Arielle Greenberg wrote:
This is the most intense conflagration of two of the most important things in my life. I almost can't take it. I love you, Tracey.

On January 4, 2011 at 10:55pm Elizabeth Treadwell wrote:
This is beautiful. I wish it didn't seem so either/or tho. I blame the beats and those damn Hollywood actors ;)

On January 5, 2011 at 6:24am Joan Moon wrote:
Tracey...thank you for this truly touched me. I wrote birth poetry for the Journal of Perinatal Education for many years and had some touching experiences through that endeavor. I've been away from it for a long time but your essay reminded me of what a meaningful time of life it was for me. Thanks. Joan

On January 6, 2011 at 1:11pm Pat Serio wrote:
How delightful to read a poet's description
of a midwife's work. Being a midwife and a
quilter I admire the "stitching" handiwork
of your works. Thank you!

On January 6, 2011 at 6:40pm Julie L. Moore wrote:
Thank you for saying this: "My poetry changed. I delved even deeper into di Prima, Whitman, Rumi, Rilke, Rich, Berry; poets unaffected by the academic postmodern disdain of the 'Grand Words'—Love, Revolution, Hope, Liberty, Peace, God, Beauty; words I was being warned off of in writing class because academia had decided they were tired, cliched." The "grand words" represent everything that's important, everything worth writing about, everything at the root of life itself. Yes, indeed.

On January 17, 2011 at 6:13am Mary B. wrote:
I am grateful for this beautiful writing.
Thank you for allowing, for the gift of time,
for grandness.

On February 7, 2011 at 2:26pm Polly Giantonio wrote:
I attempt to slip through the lyre strings of "good" poetry in my mind to allow my soul's music to play. I've often wanted to write about my children's births - home births - and haven't yet. Your essay inspired me to revisit this most grand creative act that I was fortunate to witness.
Thank you.

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This prose originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

January 2011


Tracey Johnstone is a midwife, poet, and author of legislation for the regulation of midwifery.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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