Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Reverse birth

Helen Foster
Richmond, United States


Poet’s statement: I can’t remember if the TV show Ben Casey began or ended with the symbols for man, woman, birth, death, and infinity, but endings and beginnings intertwine in my heart, and depth perception comes from overlapping images. Here’s a poem overlapping birth and death. Toads and babies. Love and fear. My son really had a hog-nosed snake, and it alternately hissed like a cobra and played dead.


Reverse birth

Generations are dropping away
in a boom of reverse births.

My son once had a snake
that unhinged jaws to

swallow toads. He filmed it

like a father films childbirth:

Dilating mouth, peristalsis
backwards, toad compacted

to snake pseudocyeisis.
In the year of my birth, mothers crowded

hospitals, birthing a post-war
boom. Babies slept off twilight

sleep or suckled propped
bottles in glass-crib Isolettes

kept from medicated mothers
advised to wait a day to nurse.

As death descends we hope for hospice,
Lamaze for aging. La Leche League

for ending. Backward birth: the snake’s
embrace. Hospice rushes in at last,

cranking up hospital beds. Offering sponge
baths a la LeBoyer. And if, need be,

opium dreams for our loved ones
as the cosmos swallows and we caress,

recalling all they gave us, which was as much
as they could. And where they are going

which is both away and more near
than we once thought we could bear.






Photography of The Milky Way
The Milky Way




HELEN MONTAGUE FOSTER, MD, is a psychiatrist with a psychotherapy practice. She is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University, and her poems have appeared in JAMA, The Pharos, Citizen Jane, and Rattle. She is simultaneously revising two novels: A year of seeing lights and Narcissistic injuries.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Spring 2011 – Volume 3, Issue 2
Spring 2011  |  Sections  |  Poetry

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