Mary Madec

The Birthing Bridge

based on field notes, 1983 (research project on the Irish Travelers)

Under the arc of her legs the red sky of morning, the river in spate.

The crows squall out of the trees from her cries, water rats, 

the clean-up brigade, already smell the afterbirth, wait.

The girl rises from the waters like the Virgin of the Apocalypse

the remnant of her seed, a healthy baby, inhales his first noseful 

of fresh air and screams as he opens wide his de-purpling lips.

Under the blue sky she bends to cut the cord, 

waits until the big mushroom of blood falls

into the current, and as instructed invites aboard

the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, swinging the baby over the water’s flow.

She picks her way back over the fields, trips on twigs and stones,  

clasps her bundle, and gets home to the camp, as if a great eagle flew low

and took them both, body and bones, into the arms of the midwives, 

the older women waiting with stanching bandages and swaddling. 

The men cannot bear to think of the dark hole from which the baby came.

They fear the miracle, they fear the girl, deem her unclean, 

say she has to stay out of sight to keep the camp safe, until these powers are tamed.

Even the one who believes it was his seed, agrees she is dangerous now, mysterious. 

She learns this truth at sixteen, her breasts stiff as melons for suckle 

hidden from the men who say she is untouchable, a danger to the camp.

In the post-partum wilderness of taboos which proscribe eating meat for forty days 

she feels rawness, nipples sore as the milk comes in, and she craves

food like she never did before, mad from this new hunger and prohibitions.  

She has to wait until the globe of her abdomen contracts to their world, 

until the forces which turned her insides out, subside. 

The daughter of Mannan Mac Lir a Sainte Marie de la Rivière, 

Mother and Child bathed in blue sky 

the energy of water which ripples out, salvific like a prophesy.

*An earlier version of this poem appeared in the poet’s collection The Egret Lands With News From Other Parts published by Salmon Poetry, 2019, but has since been substantially revised.

Mary Madec (PhD, University of Pennsylvania, MA, NUI, Galway, Ireland) has three collections with Salmon Poetry (In Other Words 2010, Demeter Does Not Remember, 2014, The Egret Lands with News From Other Parts 2019). She won the Hennessy XO Prize in 2008 and received a literary bursary from the Irish Arts Council in 2021-2022. She works for Villanova Unversity in Ireland.