The year's best poems: The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry

Liz Berry
Liz Berry's The Republic of Motherhood has been nominated for a Forward Prize Credit: Rupert Hartley/Forward Prizes

Ahead of this year’s Forward Prizes for Poetry, The Telegraph is publishing all five nominees for the Best Single Poem prize. Today’s poem comes from Liz Berry. Her upbringing in the West Midlands inspired her debut collection Black Country. Using the region's dialect to tell lyrical tales that echo traditional folklore, Black Country was one of The Telegraph's poetry books of the year in 2014.

The Republic of Motherhood is the title poem of her latest pamphlet, published by Chatto. After the birth of her first son, she was struck by how rarely the experiences of new mothers are mentioned in modern poetry. "Our stories were beautiful, raw, heartbroken, joyous and deep beyond reckoning," she says, "But when I looked to poems, the places that had always comforted me, that experience was hard to find."

The Republic of Motherhood

I crossed the border into the Republic of Motherhood

and found it a queendom, a wild queendom.

I handed over my clothes and took its uniform,

its dressing gown and undergarments, a cardigan

soft as a creature, smelling of birth and milk,

and I lay down in Motherhood’s bed, the bed I had made

but could not sleep in, for I was called at once to work

in the factory of Motherhood. The owl shift,

the graveyard shift. Feedingcleaninglovingfeeding.

I walked home, heartsore, through pale streets,

the coins of Motherhood singing in my pockets.

Then I soaked my spindled bones

in the chill municipal baths of Motherhood,

watching strands of my hair float from my fingers.

Each day I pushed my pram through freeze and blossom

down the wide boulevards of Motherhood

where poplars bent their branches to stroke my brow.

I stood with my sisters in the queues of Motherhood –

the weighing clinic, the supermarket – waiting

for Motherhood’s bureaucracies to open their doors.

As required, I stood beneath the flag of Motherhood

and opened my mouth although I did not know the anthem.

When darkness fell I pushed my pram home again,

and by lamplight wrote urgent letters of complaint

to the Department of Motherhood but received no response.

I grew sick and was healed in the hospitals of Motherhood

with their long-closed isolation wards

and narrow beds watched over by a fat moon.

The doctors were slender and efficient

and when I was well they gave me my pram again

so I could stare at the daffodils in the parks of Motherhood

while winds pierced my breasts like silver arrows.

In snowfall, I haunted Motherhood’s cemeteries,

the sweet fallen beneath my feet –

Our Lady of the Birth Trauma, Our Lady of Psychosis.

I wanted to speak to them, tell them I understood,

but the words came out scrambled, so I knelt instead

and prayed in the chapel of Motherhood, prayed

for that whole wild fucking queendom,

its sorrow, its unbearable skinless beauty,

and all the souls that were in it. I prayed and prayed

until my voice was a nightcry

and sunlight pixelated my face like a kaleidoscope.

Originally published in Granta

The Republic of Motherhood is published by Chatto & Windus at £5. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the online Telegraph Bookshop

Liz Berry will be reading with the other shortlisted poets at the Forward Prizes award ceremony at the Southbank Centre on September 18; southbankcentre.co.uk