Dona Bela, Midwife of Lençóis

Eleanor Stanford

Bahia, Brazil

1.She made her way across hunger and thirst
She grew in the forest of the twentieth century
She ate cactus, leaf and fruit
With her hands she rubbed the belly
Rubbed amulet, trough, the knot umbilical
The science of birth belonged to Dona Bela
Bath of cashew husk and umburana bark
She caught one thousand one hundred and twenty babies
Dona Bela danced samba with Sutão of the Forest
And wheeled over the Capivara River
like a hawk
Of seven husbands she was the lover
 2.She lost her mother in childbirth
She left her people to become
midwife of the dirt roads and the cities
Nanã the Earth goddess taught her the art
of catching babies. Curious Dona Bela: her plate
was the vast tablelands. Her cup
the curved frond of a bromeliad.Snake, Dona Bela said, when she meant
clothesline.
Savior, she said, meaning
voice recorder.The frill of lichens her lace collar.
The candombá lily a green ribbon for her hair.
 3.The barbeiros in her mud walls
kissed her while she slept.
Then neither Jesus nor her orixás
could unclasp the crochet hooks
in her blood.Her heart a patchwork
of holes, its muscles worn thin
as bobbin lace.Dona Bela: daughter
of the earth goddess Nanã,
mother of Julita made
of cloth.One thousand one hundred
and twenty times her hands
had touched the scrap of ripped
caul, pulled back
its pale spiderweb.Now those hands wove another: the blue
of seven lovers, blue dress of a saint’s
daughter, blue of her diamond-
scarred Sincorá Mountains
at sundown.In this fine shroud of sky
was she buried.

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Eleanor Stanford is the author of two previous collections of poetry, The Book of Sleep and Bartram’s Garden. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and other journals. She was a Fulbright fellow to Brazil, and lives in the Philadelphia area.

“The poems in Eleanor Stanford’s third collection shimmer—not just with beauty, but like objects about to transform. With the touchstone image of the midwife leading us through these pages, the poems shift and move through struggle and comfort, magic and loss, through desire shouldered across generations and continents.”
—Rachel Richardson

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