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Madame Du Coudray's Woman Machine, 1756

I perfected an invention that pity made me imagine.—Madame Le Boursier du Coudray, Abrégé

After D'Agoty's macabre écorchés
and Rymsdyck's tendency to coil
his innards tight as bags of fists
and then to paint a fatty sheen
on every part, I gasp out loud
when I find Le Boursier's soft machine
of linen and leather, the woman's thighs
great hams of rosy fabric gathered at the knees like parlor bolsters,
the plush swell of belly draped
in a modest apron opened in a V,
that all who would deliver her
might see the fine embroidery
of the wrinkled vulva giving way
to the crowning cloth doll, one puffed
umbilical cord to announce life,
another flat to advertise a death.
While D'Agoty's sexy écorchés
live on in countless volumes, only one
of Madame du Coudray's machines
for instruction in the art of birth
remains, this one with its wicker bones
and wooden pelvis replaces her original
which tucked a gate of real pelvic bones
inside the giant cushion. Sundry detached
pieces lie about: the pillowy placenta
as if infused with waters still, the warning
of a crushed and severed infant skull
to show the damage of an unforgiving tug.
She made her mannequin of cloth
for the women of Clermont who couldn't read,
much less afford D'Agoty's illustrated books,
who worried more about the warming
of the wine and butter in which a living child
was cleansed, or the sturdy shoes the dead
would need for traveling hard dark roads
to nurse their babies from the grave.
She listened while they spoke of prolapse,
mangled parts, torn limbs and broken backs,
the ragged, filthy fingernail of someone’s
helpful aunt or neighbor tearing the sight
from a child's eye. From these tales
she fashioned her machine, pushing
her needles through the flesh colored cloth
as capably as she pushed her hands,
merciful and clean, into the darkened rooms
of a thousand unupholstered wombs.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 79, No. 2 (Summer 2005), pp. 27-28

Author Comment

“Recent debates about how much control governments have or should have over women's reproductive rights and gynecological care are part of a long history of western medical debate over women's bodies and health care. ‘Madame du Coudray's Woman Machine, 1756’ is a poem that calls attention to the fact that even in 18th-century France, female midwives like Madame du Coudray had much greater understanding of female anatomy and physiology than their male counterparts and so were uniquely qualified to care for women and to teach them how to help each other as they gave birth. Survival rates for mothers and children in the French countryside were so poor that Madame du Coudray was appointed by the King of France to go into rural French areas to teach women to help each other in childbirth. Coudray is also credited with discovering the important role of hand-washing in reducing child and maternal death rates long before male surgeons realized the dangers of germs passed from one birth to another. Many factual details in this poem come from Nina Ratner Gelbart's excellent The King's Midwife: A History and Mystery of Madame du Coudray. One of Madame du Coudray's ‘woman machines’ is on display at the Musée Flaubert in Rouen, France and can be seen