The Nuns Assist at Childbirth

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: Collected Poems 1945-1990 (1995)
More Poems by Barbara Howes