Love, relationships, new beginnings.
Structure and Form
The poem is set out in five stanzas of five lines each. The poet makes much use of enjambment and repetition, and succeeds in capturing the strangeness and wonder of her first confusing few weeks with a new baby.
The first sentence of the poem is short and to the point: ‘I hadn’t met his kind before’. It grasps the otherworldly quality of a new born child and the mother’s complex reaction to him. By including the dashes in the second and third lines it suggests that the speaker is staring at her new son and taking in his appearance with stunned amazement. Clanchy herself recognises the oddness of her choice of word ‘misericord’ to describe her baby’s face, but when we imagine the squashed, incomplete look of a very new baby her choice of word seems quite apt.
She notes the peculiarity of seeing the features of an adult imprinted on someone so small. Her observation that these are ‘blurred/as if from years of polish’ shows that though a little indistinct the resemblance to his father is clear, even if it does seem ‘like a joke.’ The simile of ‘hands like curled dry leaves’ is effective in achieving the look of the papery thin skin on the tiny furled fingers.
The second stanza conveys the energy and sheer sense of life pulsing within the child. Anyone who has held a new baby will appreciate the warmth they emanate which Clanchy describes as a ‘profligate heat’. A new baby bears many similarities to a hot bottle, although is decidedly noisier. The rhythm of his breathing is effectively captured in the repetition of gave/out, gave out. The use of these one-syllable words suggests his ‘shallow, careful breaths.’ She hints at the terror that new mothers feel, staring at their babies and fearing that every breath will be their last. Her use of metaphor when she compares his head to a light bulb is sharp and perceptive. When we imagine the head of a new-born we picture the almost translucent skin and the blue veins pulsing at the temples. As they gently throb we can visualise exactly what Clanchy means when she states ‘I thought/his filaments would blow.’
New babies are something at which to marvel, and this image of him ‘an emperor/dying on silk cushions’ is an image with which novice parents can surely identify. By mentioning silk, which is a luxurious material, we get the sense that while the mother wants to give this child nothing but the best, she is struggling to address all his needs. As he lies, imperious and oblivious, she feels inadequate to do the basic things, such as keeping him wrapped and fed. By using the rather archaic phrase ‘to give him suck’ Clanchy conjures up the image of women nursing their babies as they have done for centuries, yet she feels in the dark. She is confounded as to how to look after him and wonders whether she will be able to meet the needs of her new charge. The repetition of ‘I didn’t know’ shows her sense of having failed him already and the short sentence “I had no idea about him.’ sums up her bewilderment.
In the rich descriptions of these final verses we get a clear sense of the intimate relationship growing between mother and child. The language takes on a dreamy quality, beginning at the end of stanza three when the speaker states ‘At night/ I tried to remember…’ before making a series of comparisons. The imagery is predominantly tactile; we can almost feel the warmth of the child’s head as he nuzzles her neck. The similes employed to describe the baby’s head perfectly convey its delicacy. The ‘soft spot hot as a smelted coin’ is a wonderfully accurate way of depicting the indentation on the very top of a baby’s head where the bones have not yet closed over. There is a soft rush of sibilance and the combination of this with the assonance of the compact ‘o’ sounds seem to convey the mother’s growing excitement and fascination with this child, her son.
As she lists the details about her baby here, it is as though she is noticing them all for the first time and is slowly drinking them all in. She is spellbound.
There is a cyclical aspect to this poem as the speaker refers to the baby again here as possessing a mythical sort of quality. Here when she considers the soft down on his skin she likens him to a ‘rare snowcreature’. She is fascinated by him, almost not daring to believe that ‘such a beast’ is hers.
The repetition of ‘If you could’ shows the Speaker daring to dream, inching closer to forge this relationship. The concluding three-word sentence ‘I started there.’ is full of gentle triumph and it stands out starkly after the long description before. Although everything is strange and new there is a tangible sense of wonder as they embark on this journey together.
About Kate Clanchy
Kate Clanchy was born in Glasgow in 1965. This poem Love is featured in her 2003 anthology Newborn. She has published two other volumes of poetry including Slattern, which won the Somerset Maugham award in 1997 and written several plays for Radio Four.