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Book review: The Ship of Birth: Poems by Greg Delanty


Published April 24, 2007 at 9:53 p.m.

Gestating or newly minted offspring are subjects that sorely tempt poets to get cute, particularly when those progeny are their own. You can't really blame them - there's something about a helpless infant that provokes the instinctive "Aww" response. But behind the urge to croon and coo is a more solemn feeling. To be where new life begins is also to be in the presence of death - not just because of all the things that can go wrong in nine months but also because, as that pop diva reminded us, "children are the future." They lead us to meditate on the darkness we came from and will return to, both as individuals and as a species.

Greg Delanty, St. Michael's College artist-in-residence and a recent Guggenheim winner, takes those connections seriously. His seventh book, The Ship of Birth, was originally published in the United Kingdom in 2003. It unpeels the layers of excitement and reflection and dread that surround a child's arrival in a series of poems addressed directly to the poet's son Daniel as he transforms from blurry ultrasound image to squalling baby.

The book's epigraph initially seems incongruous. It's an inscription from the floor of the American Museum of Natural History that warns, "Right now we are in the midst of the sixth extinction, this time caused solely by humanity's transformation of the ecological landscape." But Delanty, who organized a series of local readings called "Re-Versing Global Warming" last fall, knows what he's on about. In a poem with the same title as the collection, he makes the link explicit.

The "ship of birth" of the title is the unborn child's crib, piled with gifts and linens, including an embroidered version of the Noah's Ark story. Delanty notes how often animal images crop up on kids' clothing, then asks,

Is this saying, unbeknownst to us,

that we gather around the baby

The Great Circus of the Earth:

the flying hippopotamus,

the fetus-like manatee, the dork stork,

the delirious giraffe,

not just for a sappy laugh,

but to illuminate their dearth

and our sapien dodo-ing as we fish-mouth sorry


In the idyllic menagerie with which we surround children, Delanty suggests, we're acknowledging the sacrifice of real wild creatures, a loss we permit even as we mouth our comic "sorrysorrysorry" mantra. We're like a nation of hapless Homer Simpsons, hoping to give birth to eager-beaver little Lisas who will correct our mistakes.

In another poem, "For the Record," the poet drives down Malletts Bay Avenue and observes the countless small signs of environmental pollution with an eye that's jaundiced but not jaded. Humans, he concludes, are "confused only by ourselves, our ghostly / genes of fear and survival, too quick to be undone / by our invention."

Of course, invention is also something we take pride in, and Delanty isn't shy about exhibiting ingenuity in his verse. For all their topical themes and slang, these poems also hark back to the English Metaphysical poets of the 16th century, who experimented with unusual stanza forms and elaborate metaphorical conceits. Each of the poems addressed to the unborn child finds and explores a new metaphor, some drawn from world folklore and some from Delanty's imagination. The fetus becomes a space alien, a dead soul awaiting rebirth, a snowflake, a mummy, a sea horse, a king wearing the "Pelvic Crown." In "The Fetal Monitor Day," he's "our star, train, love wave, treasure and pony" - five metaphors for the price of one.

Formally speaking, many of these poems rhyme. But Delanty uses metrical variations and incomplete or assonant rhymes to make this effect subtle, sometimes almost subliminal, with none of the "jingle-jangle" many people associate with traditional verse. Perhaps the most "jangly" poem here is "The Language of Crying," a droll take on that old French form the villanelle, in which repetition drives home what it's like to be a parent whose cherished offspring won't shut up.

Sure, there's some cuteness here, but it's nothing you're likely to find on a Hallmark card: Delanty riffs on terms of endearment, calling his child "our little lambkin, waxwing, luckling." As he moves his focus from ultrasounds to chemotherapy - Delanty's mother was diagnosed with cancer shortly after his son's birth - the poems become simpler and more solemn.

What and where is the soul? Delanty asks repeatedly in The Ship of Birth. How and when does the life force come to us? In "The Shutterbug," the expectant father tries to capture his child's "soul-flake, the forecasted simplicity below / the whole show." Unable to do so, he settles for hoping the child is "a fur-flake, snug and at home as a fur-coated Eskimo." Good wishes, Delanty suggests, may be the only sure things we can put in the "ship of birth" - or in the fragile bark that ferries us toward our collective future.


From The Ship of Birth:

The Language of Crying

We're still learning the language of crying,

its parent-boggling irregular grammar.

Anybody would think you were dying.

Puzzling gerunds beyond the clarifying

syllables of raw hunger's regular yammer.

We're still learning the language of crying.

Diaper-changed we take turns rock-a-bying,

bawling at each other please, please be calmer.

Anybody would think you were dying:

a demented king's yowling, terrifying

soliloquy beyond a royal diaper-rash clamour.

We're still learning the language of crying.

Christ child, such a caterwaul's parent-petrifying,

hardly a put on, you're no shammer.

Anybody would think you were dying.

Is it something you sense? A wordless prophesying?

Surely the future's not teething yet. We stammer.

We're still learning the language of crying.

Anybody would think you were dying.

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