“Maternity” by Anna Swir has appeared in two of the English translations of her works: Talking to My Body and Happy as a Dog’s Tail. The title of the poem is appropriate to its content since the poem is about a woman facing her newborn child for the first time and trying to come to terms with this new situation. While the publication date of the poem is not mentioned in the English translations, it is known that Anna Swir had a daughter who is the likely subject of the poem. This daughter would have been born sometime in the 1930s or 1940s, but the poem was probably written a long time afterward. Its first appearance was in the 1970 Polish publication of a collection called Wind. Happy as a Dog’s Tail was published in Poland in 1978 and published in the United States in 1985. Talking to My Body was published in the United States in 1996.
In the first publication of “Maternity,” the poem had two additional stanzas that were removed for Talking to My Body. These two stanzas seem only to repeat the already established message and do little to add to the poem. Furthermore, the additional two stanzas spell out a conclusion rather than allowing the readers to figure it out on their own. Consequently, the shortened version seems to have a more dramatic ending and more impact on the reader’s imagination. Perhaps for these reasons, the two stanzas were dropped in the second English collection of Swir’s poems. “Maternity” fits into Swir’s central theme in these two collections, which is referencing the body, but it also inludes themes of motherhood, love, and independence.
The first four lines of “Maternity” deal with the obvious topic of life. However, Swir looks at birth in terms of both a new life, the baby, and a sacrificed life, that of the mother. Using the first person, Swir says “I gave birth to life,” not “I gave birth to a baby” or “a child” or anything yet connected to her as a human. Rather, Swir is focused on the product of birth as a living creature that not only has a birth, but also will have a death and a life in between. This perspective is extended in the second sentence (lines 2–4) with the use of what appears to be an odd word choice: “entrails.” When discussing birth, one usually uses terms such as “womb” or “uterus” or even “belly.” Entrails has the meaning of guts or intestines. Unless Swir’s biology is faulty, she chose “entrails” to associate the product of her body with other eliminations to emphasize that what came out this time was something living. This unique turn of events demands something from her life in turn. Swir likens the demands of motherhood to the human sacrifice once made to the gods by the Aztecs, perhaps because the commitment is so total and all-consuming.
In the next three lines, Swir starts to focus in on the baby, whom she calls “a little puppet.” This mother seems still not to be sure of what she has gotten herself into. What is this little creature she has been given? It is too hard to believe that it is a real living human, so is it a toy? But the toy is looking at her just as she is looking at it. “With four eyes” is dropped into the next line to heighten the impact of the two staring at each other. One wonders if Swir wrote “four eyes” because the mother recognizes a similarity between her own eyes and that of the child.
The Defiant Statement
In a pique of independence, the mother tells the baby that she is not going to “defeat” her mother. The word choice indicates that the mother views the existence of this child as a conflict in her life and the baby as someone engaged in a power struggle with her. The mother wants to get it straight from the beginning that the mother was not just the shell to this egg, not just a vessel that carried the child only to be cast aside. The mother declares that she will defend herself from being used, from being walked on like “a footbridge,” by the child. The message is made clear as Swir separates out “I will defend myself.” The notion that a mother would need to defend herself against her child is contrary to the traditional picture of a mother willingly giving of herself in every possible way to provide for her child’s needs.
The mother’s defiance ends in the third stanza as she once again leans over the “little puppet” and makes a discovery. Drawing the reader’s attention to her revelation, Swir puts “I notice” by itself on the second line. What she notices is the “tiny movement of a tiny finger.” This baby is becoming more real by the minute. That finger was just “a little while ago” still inside the mother, waiting to be born. The baby was just under her mother’s skin, where the mother’s own blood flows. Swir may have chosen this way to describe the previous physical relationship to connect to the universal saying about “my own flesh and blood.” In fact, Swir uses “my own blood.” These lines are a re-crafting of an old expression to explain the mother’s steps toward the realization of the closeness and uniqueness of her relationship with this child.
When “suddenly” the light goes on and the connection is made in the mother’s mind, she is “flooded” with emotion. Surprisingly, the emotion named is not that of love, but of “humility.” Swir dramatizes her choice of humility over love by placing “of love” on a separate line. The reader knows that the mother has been overwhelmed with love for the child, but Swir probably chose “humility” as the descriptive word in order to emphasize her feelings as being the same as one experiences when in the awesome presence of a wonder of nature or a miracle of God. The final line, “Powerless, I drown,” indicates a total surrender to motherly love. Consequently, the poem has moved from a first stanza that sets the scene and expresses assessment, to a second stanza that is a declaration of defiant independence, to the third and final stanza that is a capitulation to maternal instinct and attachment as natural and inevitable as an ocean wave or the life cycle itself.