The Nuns Assist at Childbirth

By Barbara Howes 1914–1996 Barbara Howes
Robed in dungeon black, in mourning   
For themselves they pass, repace   
The dark linoleum corridors
Of humid wards, sure in the grace

Of self-denial. Blown by duty,   
Jet sails borne by a high wind,
Only the face and hands creep through   
The shapeless clothing, to remind

One that a woman lives within
The wrappings of this strange cocoon.   
Her hands reach from these veils of death   
To harvest a child from the raw womb.

The metal scales of paradox
Tip here then there. What can the nun   
Think of the butchery of birth,
Mastery of the flesh, this one

Vigorous mystery? Rude life
From the volcano rolls and pours,   
Tragic, regenerate, wild. Sad,
The unborn wait behind closed doors.

Barbara Howes, “The Nuns Assist at Childbirth” from In the Cold Country. Copyright 1954 by Barbara Howes. Reprinted with the permission of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

Source: Poetry (February 1949).


This poem originally appeared in the February 1949 issue of Poetry magazine

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February 1949


Despite being nominated for the 1995 National Book Award for her The Collected Poems of Barbara Howes, 1945-1990, the work of poet Barbara Howes has received relatively little publicity; Robert Richman, writing in the New York Times, called Howes "as obscure a worthy poet as I can think of." Usually alternating her backdrop between the gentle climate of the West Indies and the harsher landscape of her native New England, Howes's . . .

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SUBJECT Christianity, Living, Religion, Birth & Birthdays, Nature, The Body

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