Sunday, 13 December 2009

Baby-sitting - Gillian Clarke

Gillian Clarke's poem centres on her experience of baby-sitting for a baby that is asleep but will wake up to find the baby-sitter, a stranger, and feel that it has been abandoned by the mother.

The first stanza opens with the baby-sitter sitting in a 'strange room', telling us that this must be the first time that the sitter has looked after that baby. She is waiting for 'the wrong baby' to wake up, and so we assume that the baby-sitter is a mother herself. Speaking in the first person, the poet tells us quite openly that she doesn't love the baby, and this emphasizes the fact that she is a stranger. She goes on to describe the baby in quite an endearing way; snuffling in its sleep, it is fair haired and not unattractive. The narrator, however, actually feels afraid that the baby will hate her when confronted with her on waking; 'she will shout / her hot midnight rage' conveys the idea of angry cries and screams. The description of the baby towards the end of the stanza, now that it is no longer sleeping peacefully, becomes less flattering. Her nose will run 'disgustingly', and the baby-sitter will find the smell of her breath unpleasant.

At the start of the second stanza, the baby-sitter imagines that the baby, on seeing her, will feel that she has been deserted by her mother: 'To her, I will represent absolute / Abandonment.' The baby's situation and feelings are then compared to other extremely lonely situations, such as a lover alone in bed, 'cold in lonely / Sheets.' The baby's loneliness will be worse than this, worse even than the sorrow of a woman visiting her husband in the terminal ward of a hospital. Sleep is depicted by the metaphor 'the monstrous land' from which the baby will awaken, crying. It will expect to be breastfed by the mother: 'stretching for milk-familiar comforting', but instead will be held by a stranger. The repetition in the final line of the phrase 'It will not come' serves to illustrate the fact that there is no bond between the baby-sitter and the baby; no comfort will be found.

The poem consists of two ten-line stanzas with lines of slightly varying length. There is no rhyming, and in fact many of the lines run straight into the following one, so that breaks occur frequently in the middle of the line, particularly in the first stanza.

Alliteration and assonance are used in the poet's description of the baby: 'She is sleeping a snuffly / roseate, bubbling sleep;' 'absolute / Abandonment' in the second stanza uses alliteration to emphasize the fact that the baby feels deserted by its mother. 'Beside the bleached bone' combines alliteration and metaphor to create a harrowing image of a person dying in hospital.

Gillian Clarke has painted a sensitive picture here, seeing the situation from the point of view of the baby, imagining exactly how it must feel on awakening to find a stranger instead of its mother. She also understands how the baby-sitter will react, actually feeling fear because the baby will not welcome her presence. It is a convincing picture, giving an unusual slant on what to us is probably a commonplace situation.

(Note: I have referred to the baby here as 'it' to try to avoid confusion between the baby-sitter and the baby; in the poem itself, the baby is referred to as 'she'.)

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