In the Hôtel-Dieu

Nancy Reddy

Paris, 1580

In the salle sauvage, in the animal body of labor, women labored,                slept, recovered, up to five in a bed. Book-trained doctorsdelivered women of their babies with hands still slick and stained                from the autopsied bodies of mothers who'd diedhours earlier of childbed fever inside the same hot rooms. The doctors                blamed the mothers for their fevers: their split-open bodieswere filled with pus, and the men saw milk gone wandering,                rotten, clotted in the abdomen and intestines.The doctors blamed the women's shame and worry, the lack of fresh air,                the sewer gas. They filled the wards with smoketo purify the air and walked unwashed between delivery room and morgue.                There are rooms where a woman's rickets-narrowed pelvisis displayed in brine, where baby girls joined at the hip swim in a jar,                where a fetal skeleton is passed through a pelvic basinto show how birth is meant to work. The doctors were taught to deliver                without looking, to work in the dark, shieldedby huge sheets draped over mother and physician.                The women labor flat-backed in the stirrupped positionnamed for stones. The doctors wield forceps, from the Latin for                hot and seize, the paired spoons that scoop the babyfrom the birth canal, the way a line cook grabs a burger from the grill.                with tongs. Yanked from where I'd lodgedinside my mother's narrow hips, collarbone broken,                but alive, redheaded, howling,I was born like that.

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Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Gettysburg ReviewPleiadesBlackbirdColorado ReviewThe Iowa ReviewSmartish Pace, and elsewhere, and her essays have appeared most recently in Electric LiteratureThe Adroit Journal, and The Mothership. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in New Jersey. She’s working on a narrative nonfiction book about the trap of natural motherhood.

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