There's an audacious moment in John Berryman's long poem "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" in which he dramatizes Anne Bradstreet giving birth to her first child in 1633. Berryman had to take a giant imaginative leap in order to create an idiom wherein the 17th-century American poet could speak of her labor even as she was having it. Here she is, describing the birth itself:

So squeezed, wince you I scream? I love you & hate

off with you. Ages! Useless. Below my waist

he has me in Hell's vise.

Stalling. He let go. Come back: brace

me somewhere. No. No. Yes! Everything down

hardens I press with horrible joy down

my back cracks like a wrist

shame I am voiding oh behind it is too late

hide me forever I work thrust I must free

now I all muscles & bones concentrate

what is living from dying?

Simon I must leave you so untidy

Monster you are killing me Be sure

I'll have you later Women do endure

I can can no longer

and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me

drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!

Berryman's poem comes to mind because in a splendid new anthology, Birth: A Literary Companion (University of Iowa Press), Kristin Kovacic and Lynne Barrett identify a genre they call "birth literature." They deliver an imaginative guidebook -- a spiritual Baedeker -- to the daunting country of parenthood. The poems and stories are arranged chronologically from early pregnancy to late infancy. The centerpiece of the book is a section called "Notes from the Delivery Room." It contains Lee Upton's witty and ferocious poem "Women's Labors," which plays off the cliche{acute} that a woman's work is never done and ends with a feeling of true timelessness, absolute freedom.

You might want to be amused at the work

that is never done -- or at our most difficult

labor, our work soonest ended.

In some work we are with most women,

crossing a bridge in our labor.

You will forgive me if I resort to Homer.

When the master returns,

the handmaidens are ordered

to clean up after the dead suitors,

washing blood from the tables,

the blood and water running from their sponges.

And then a cable is drawn about their waists,

and they are lifted from the ground

to perish in a great bunch together.

Even Homer must have pitied them:

a knot of slaves who only yesterday

laughed, believing the master

would always be missing.

How could I not pity them more --

slaves no one will defend.

If you are a woman in labor

waves break at the spine,

and a giant cable is drawn about your body.

You are held in the air for a very long time.

At last, later, you may be --

as I was -- handed a daughter.

And for hours it seems there are no gods to claim us.

It is an illusion of course. But

even after the bracelet is clamped

upon the infant's wrist,

it seems we belong to no one.

We are out of history's singular lens.

For hours we serve no state, no master.

(The stanzas from the poem "Homage to Mistress Bradstreet" appear in John Berryman, "Collected Poems 1937-1971," edited by Charles Thornbury. Farrar Straus Giroux. Copyright © 1989 by Kate Donahue Berryman. "Women's Labors" appears in Lee Upton, "Approximate Darling." University of Georgia Press. Copyright © 1996 by Lee Upton.)