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Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY

The Birthday Suit

December 08, 1996|Anne Roiphe | Anne Roiphe is the author, most recently, of "Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World" (Houghton Mifflin)

Cynical, sophisticated, ironic, dark, bitter, weary and cold as we may be as a nation of fragments and splinters, causes and classes, races and snipers, we levitate with hope when we see a baby. The mystery of it, the lifting of spirit, the tenderness that fills to the brim, the burning smell of anxiety about the future, the puffing of soul as we see the undeniable renewal, the opening of heart at the sweetness of the infant, the softness of skin, the helplessness, the goodness of life itself. The great Anti-Death is the baby.

Anna Quindlen captures it all in her essay in Naked Babies. This book, with photographs by Nick Kelsh, stirred up memories and told the truth, without coyness, without sentimentality, without the corruption of cuteness. The photographs and the words are about the baby, how they are, how they bend, how they feel. It is about the way the baby experiences the beginning of its life. It's about how babyhood passes, too quickly. It's about the job of being a baby. The photographs are about ears and bottoms and feet and mouths. The babies are naked, as they are in the womb. The photographer has looked for their essence, not for the social images that will soon enough be imposed on their bodies. This is a book about the biology of baby, the powerful primitive "isness" of the beginning before attitude, pretense, design leave their mark.

It's the perfect gift for a new mother who is already aware that all is not peaceful in her Eden. It's a good book for the older parent who has forgotten the wrinkles on the feet, the folds at the neck. This book is a virtual hymn to the Darwinian process. It reminds of why and what this draining matter of reproduction is about. The photographs are general, universal, anatomical, perfect. Before there was sin we were naked like these babies. Ah.

Welcome to the World: A Celebration of Birth and Babies From Many Cultures, compiled by Nikki Siegen-Smith, gives us poems, songs and incantations from around the world about the newborn. This small book reminds us of how much we have in common, how minor are our divisions of geography and racial differences. From the wish of a Maori that his son be a brave warrior to the praise of a child from Yoruba tribe in Africa--"One must not rejoice too soon over a child"--to the poem by Erica Jong calling her newborn daughter, "little lion, lioness yowling for my breasts."

These chants pick up our universal thoughts, even our common ambivalence and fear of being devoured by the infant becomes transparent in some of these poems. The book contains an interesting report on some of the many magical birthing traditions around the world. The photographs are fine and make the point that the human being is a part of a social world as soon as it is born and does not exist without a parent.

Anne Geddes has produced a large book called Down in the Garden in which babies are dressed as butterflies, stuffed into pea pods, flowerpots, vases covered with gnome hats, hydrangea bonnets and photographed in bright glaring colors sitting on leaves, curled up on branches. I know that some people will find this book cute and respond well to the fruit and vegetable and bug babies. I, however, was quite revolted at the use of infants as props, as objects in a design that seemed to say that the human form was flat and merely an element in a non-psychological universe.

The row of babies dressed in carrot costumes says it all for me. I'd rather see a photograph of a carrot than of an innocent baby reduced to a vegetable.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Holiday 1996 / BOOK CITY WELCOME TO THE WORLD: A Celebration of Birth and Babies From Many Cultures

Compiled by Nikki Siegen-Smith. (Orchard / New York: $29.95, 244 pp.)

DOWN IN THE GARDEN by Anne Geddes. (Cedco Publishing: $39.95)

NAKED BABIES photographs by Nick Kelsh, text by Anna Quindlen. (Penguin Studio: $24.95, 118 pp.)

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