Her Birth

Her Birth

by Rebecca Goss


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A poem sequence that is spare, tender, and haunting, this book navigates the difficult territory of grief and loss. Poet Rebecca Goss’s newborn daughter Ella was diagnosed with severe Ebstein’s Anomaly, a rare and incurable heart condition, and lived for only 16 months. This collection of moving, deeply thoughtful poems brings Goss’s professional and personal experiences to bear, beginning with Ella’s birth, her short life, and her death, and ending with the joys and complexities that come with the birth of another child.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847772381
Publisher: Carcanet Press, Limited
Publication date: 09/01/2013
Pages: 80
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.20(d)

About the Author

Rebecca Goss is a poet and the author of the collection, The Anatomy of Structures, and the recipient of an Authors' Foundation Grant from the Society of Authors in 2011. She is a former creative writing teacher at Liverpool John Moores University.

Read an Excerpt

Her Birth

By Rebecca Goss

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Rebecca Goss
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-446-0



    Fetal Heart

    It uncurled, unfolded
    into four but was clover
    with an unlucky lobe,
    the rarest of anomalies
    that would flourish
    to defeat her.

    Room in a Hospital

    No tabloids, no vending cups, no debris
    of the bored and hungry. Instead
    carpet, fireplace, neat homely items.

    This is not the room where you wait for news,
    this is the room where you are told it.

    At the coffee table, the doctor hunches
    to draw a heart. It needs time from his pen,
    crossings out and a white space

    where the valve won't meet.
    The heart is thirty-six hours old and hers.

    Perched on cool leather, we puzzle the sketch,
    my husband takes his glasses off to cry.
    Our daughter warrants a new vocabulary

    and we are struggling to learn.


    Wrapped inside my gown
    her hot pearl of cheek

    sticks against my chest,
    her knees dent the dough

    of my stomach until a registrar
    comes to incubate, must find

    a vein beneath luminous skin,
    his arms gowned, his hands gloved.


    Hunger sends us seeking its cheap white thickness,
    forces us to leave her, two days old, incubated

    in Neonatal and stand in the 'parents' kitchen'.
    Fluorescent lit, poky, we embrace the closest thing

    to home, busy ourselves separating slices, re-washing
    plates. I take two squares of butter from the fridge,

    warm their foil corners in my fists. Fear rolls in my shrunken
    gut, watching you, wanting our sad mouths to kiss.

    You spread, cut and pass me a golden triangle,
    the oily joy of it leaking onto fingers. We suck it down

    into machinery that made her, wondering where the fault is.


    We wait to be called
    and watch a toddler,
    bare for a nappy,
    playing at the toy table,
    a raw, linear scar
    in the centre
    of his chest.

    I picture him
    dulled to a floppy
    sleep, slit like a fish
    for a surgeon
    to cup his heart,
    take its damaged
    weight and begin.


    Not the one that starts in your mouth, bounces back,
    rolls down your throat, vowels collecting like balls in a net.

    I mean an echocardiogram. The doctor's probe plays
    slim keys of her ribs, draws the murmur of music

    that beats in there. Her baby heart dances on the screen.
    If only it was lucky to see this secret cave. A deformed

    valve leaps between chambers like a March hare,
    marking the spring day she was born. Diverted on its travels,

    her blood is a mystery trail, leaving me lost.
    I distract her with bubbles. Keep clear spheres

    coming around her head, wanting them to last,
    each pop a small, inexplicable loss.


    I knew what it meant, but that didn't stop me:
    I came home from clinic, early in her life,

    sat on the stairs with my hardback Collins
    solid as a baby on my knee, thumbed quickly

    through papery leaves, whispering l, m, n, o, p,
    to seek the word they said once

    when discussing the flawed mechanics
    of her heart. There, on a gauzy page,

    its definition printed across shadows
    of my fingers, I read 'serving to palliate',

    (from Latin pallium, a cloak) and turned back
    to find 'palliate' vb 1. to lessen the severity

    of (pain, disease etc.) without curing

    and I re-read without curing until curing

    didn't look like curing anymore,
    it looked like curling and I clasped my hands

    around my knees, pulled that book hard
    against my gut. As a student I loved its reams

    of indisputable fact, its ability to reveal
    and make clear. Now I bury its bulk

    on the shelves, swathe myself in hope.

    A Dream of Heart Babies

    (a poem for their mothers)

    Gathered on deck,
    we slip them from our hands

    like they slipped from our legs,
    a shoal of heart babies

    sweep down the hull.
    Their fragile beats

    thrum the keel, beats we've
    often pressed our ears to,

    seen tremble in dozing chests.
    Here, they plunge and soar

    in gregarious mass,
    skins of cyanotic sheen.

    Their pulses echo
    for nautical miles,

    in a search for chambers
    more complex than coral.

    We cut through ocean,
    nets trailing the stern,

    see our babies somersault
    the spot we must haul.

    The catch rises, drips
    and bulges, spills glistening

    infants, like oysters at our feet.
    Each one cups a new heart

    and we wonder every accurate throb.

    I Sweat When I

    Hoover. Mash potatoes. Fuck.
    She sweats sitting up. Eight kilograms

    and able to spread a stain on her
    father's shirt, asleep in his arms.

    A breastfeed left us slippery, hot,
    her heart working harder

    than mine. Weaning her
    was undocumented. No chapters

    for a child who can't eat.
    I prepare another bottle,

    blonde floss of her hair
    sticky at her neck,

    while she watches, breathes.


    Swinging her
         in the park,
    her fingers
         wrapped tight
    on the bar,
         her smile bigger
    than my heart;
         it must have been
    such a thrill
         to swoop
    and fall like that,
         for a child
    who couldn't
         crawl, walk,
    even pull up
         against my shin,
    how free
         she must have been
    then, on the swing.

    Ward at Night

    Composed in her lungs, the cough
    scales her throat, stops her from sleeping.

    I scoop her from her metal cot and rest
    her broken heart on mine. Televisions hang

    like planets overhead, as we creep past beds,
    hear the cadenced breath of babies

    through the bars. Bright at the ward's core,
    the nurses' station beams help from its hub –

    women who mark my baby's decreasing
    growth, report to a cluster of registrars.

    Eventually, she dozes. A nurse tacks a plaster
    to her toe, restarts the monitor, to follow

    this small satellite, failing in my arms.

    Severe Ebstein's Anomaly

    The lack of a cure sparked dreams.
    In one, her father and I set out

    for the island of disease beating
    in her body. Her breath in our sails,

    we navigated waves of excess fluid,
    toured the ruins of her lungs.

    Gradually propelled to the heave
    of her heart's edge, I laid my hand

    on its plump shore. Her father
    kissed my brow, kitbag swung

    across his back, and trekked towards
    the faulty, flapping dam

    of her tricuspid valve. There,
    he gazed into the chamber

    with its swish of redirected river
    and set about his sole desire

    to fix her. In intensive care,
    as she fails in her father's arms,

    doctors run to swarm her, apply
    repeated pressure to her chest.

    We flounder in the doorway,
    lose sight of her small body

    until a man, head bent, his mouth
    aflood with tender vowels,

    tugs us to her bedside to grant him
    the undocking and let her come adrift.

    A Child Dies in Liverpool

    We are tourists now, in her home city,
    but there was no last-minute booking
    or excited packing of a case.
    With pockets void of tour guides, we drift
    to the waterfront we know well;
    each dome and bronzed wing tip
    blurred in gauzy grief. Stilled by rain,
    we find a bench, sit down where her death
    has docked us. Going home, back down
    the river road, will be a foreign route without her.


    Who knew to trap the Inland Revenue's
    slim brown demands inside a sorting office

    for a few more days? Who let them lie
    in the dark with promises from Barclays,

    requests from BT? Who made sure
    it was just the cards that came?

    Twenty at a time, hitting vestibule tiles
    with a heavy slap. I scooped them

    from that cool place to our bed, where
    her breath used to be. Those breaths

    you counted (her five to your one),
    as she slept between us, propped up

    to keep the fluid down. Cards pile in clouds
    of duvet. Little one, sent among us briefly,

    your spirit meant to fly
. Her cough
    still rises from the sheets, from pools

    in her lungs; her struggling wings.

    St Mary's

    Keeping the hem
    of my new black dress
    held up, I perch to pee
    while a verger waits
    patiently outside.
    Close to my knee
    a brick wall is
    painted palest pink
    and music I chose,
    in that surreal
    week, planning this
    service for my child,
    is coming through the clay.
    People are entering
    the church. Her funeral
    has started. I cannot stop it.

    Her Birth

    On the wall, petunias,
    painted in Walberswick.
    I call to you, say
    That's a good omen,
    that's a good sign,

    before buckling,
    gripping the hospital bed.

    Walberswick is where
    I holidayed, every childhood
    summer. It's where we announced
    the news. Sixteen months
    after the effort of her birth,
    we collect a faux-walnut
    box from Jenkins & Sons.
    Inside, a clear sachet,
    weightless as dried herbs.

    We drive two hundred
    and eighty-one miles
    for that cold, unstoppable
    wave to suck the sachet clean
    and I ask you, She is all right now,
    isn't she? She is all right?



    The Postmistress

    She said the river lured him to lie.
    The day he slipped from her, stayed out

    as the rain fell and fell, the village
    bracing itself for change. There was

    a boat, then it was gone. As the story
    went on, my husband and I, tourists

    in this empty post office, could only listen.
    I saw her run to that swelling, every breath

    sucking in hair. As she reached stepping stones,
    saw the boat, his friends and finally him, alive,

    I pretend to share relief in my envious mouth.
    I want fear to breed like that in my sweat,

    want my daughter, two weeks dead,
    back here to grow, run, alarm me.


    Gleaned from her own hives, a woman
    who'd never met my daughter
    but heard she'd gone, left a jar resting
    on my step in August sun. A script
    of instructions slipped beneath hot glass:
    it was to be opened occasionally, inside
    the scent of one last spring, preserved.
    I roll its gold against light, picture the woman
    bent at my door, but have never dared
    to twist the lid, afraid the perfume of bees
    might hurl me back to the garden; my daughter's
    warm exhaustion in my arms. What if the lid's small pop
    meant the vapour was lost? It would be my fault –
    unable to keep an entire season in my lungs.

    Stretch Marks

    My swims kept those scars at bay,
    two thousand lengths it took, to form

    my mapless globe. No trace she was here,
    her travels around me refused to surface

    as she dived between poles, lapped
    that black belly ocean. Once born, meridian

    of my achievements, she went off course.
    I followed her divergent route, but this was not

    her geography. I have wished for them,
    a record of her tracks, all snowed over, gone.

    The Highchair

    Fastened in its straps,
    she craved my breast

    like a new lamb.
    Denied the breath

    to chew or swallow,
    her limbs did not puff

    with weight, her neck taut
    from the chin as she failed

    to bloom. I'd announce
    'Lunchtime!', in my

    hopeful tone; she sat
    grumpy as a gnome,

    shook her head. The highchair
    went to Sure Start.

    Homemade stews
    hurled frozen in a bin bag,

    until it was lumpy with waste.


    We have her prints.

    Hands and feet, pencil grey,
    as if they stood her in soot.

    A nurse lifted her palms
    then soles to the paper.

    Underneath, wrote her name,
    the date. I wanted her handprint

    to come home on sugar paper:
    bright yellow, ready for the fridge.

    Months later, the sun picked out
    her paw on the pane, each tip,

    tiny as peas. I peered close,
    nose almost touching my fossil,

    backlit on the glass.


    I let socks dot the washing, coats grace
    a chair's arm. Her hospital bag, too hard
    to unpack, stayed slumped and ignored

    but eventually there was a gathering,
    the limp outline of her size carried upstairs.
    It accumulated in the cot, a cold pit

    of pyjamas, dresses, jeans. My heap of her,
    visible through bars. Insides of sleeves
    brushed with her cells, last flecks compacting

    in pastel matter, until her father found me
    fretting at its edge, suggested it was time
    for the careful mining of her things.

    Our intention to sort, fold and label soon became
    a quick, unhappy shoving into grey plastic bags,
    the silent hoisting to an attic's dark. Her cot

    collapsed, I sobbed in that desolated space,
    while my desk was carried in, books and pens
    planted on its surface, her father's wise reclamation

    of the site. I kept a row of lilac-buttoned relics
    in my wardrobe. Hand-knitted proof, something
    to haul my sorry lump of heart and make it blaze.


Excerpted from Her Birth by Rebecca Goss. Copyright © 2013 Rebecca Goss. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Fetal Heart 13

Room in a Hospital 14

Skin-to-Skin 15

Toast 16

Clinic 17

Echo 18

Palliative 19

A Dream of Heart Babies 20

I Sweat When I 21

Swings 22

Ward at Night 23

Severe Ebstein's Anomaly 24

A Child Dies in Liverpool 25

Post 26

St Mary's 27

Her Birth 28


The Postmistress 31

Honey 32

Stretch Marks 33

The Highchair 34

Print 35

Mining 36

You're Lucky You Can Dream About Her 37

October 38

Muscovado Sugar 39

My Neighbour's Himalayan Birch 40

The 21st of March 41

Mothers of the Dead 42

Found 43

Helpline 44

The Lights 45

Sunday Papers 46

Grief Goes Jogging 47

Peeing at the Odeon 48

Repair 49

Another 50


Why We Had Another Baby 53

Test 54

Hyperemesis Gravidarum 55

As Owls Do 56

Clothes 57

Welcome 58

Shadows 59

My Animal 60

Lost 61

Bench 62

Telling the Tale 63

In Memory of John Ernest Goss 1920-2011 64

Snail 65

Moon 66

Taking You There 67

Last Poem 68

Acknowledgements 70

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