How Is It Possible To Ever Say Goodbye?
Having never had her and watched her always never
Having herself, when she died, I wanted to keep her for ever.
To confound the burial men I filled her coffin with stones
And a dead sheep to keep the stones still.
Then I scrubbed her all over with bleach.
Remembering my biology I eviscerated her.
I fed the guts and organs to the pigs and hens.
Through her nostrils I pulled her brains with a bent skewer
She'd used each Christmas on the turkey rump.
The brain was spongy and grey and I looked at it,
Wondering if I was in there somewhere. Just in case
I preserved it in a marmalade jar I found in the cellar.
I rolled her up, having first extracted the bones
Taking instruction from a cookery book. 'How to Bone'.
(The bones presented a grave problem; in the end I burnt them
Over and over, crushing them once they were brittle.
O they were a gift for the old apple trees whose fruit had
Filled her pies for all the years of my childhood. I
Raked the grey grit between them.) My mother now
Fitted neatly into a suitcase and we went on a journey.
North, the winds are dry and cold. I rented a lonely house by the sea
And hung my empty mother on the washing line, two pegs
For each shoulder as she'd taught me. Her breasts hung down.
Try as I might, I could not remember drinking from them.
All night I watched her hanging in the salty air like a frozen sheet.
Boneless feet pointing downwards, her yellowed toes just
Tipping the ground. She was a dead dancer.
Daytimes, I unpegged her and kept her rolled up, out of sight.
Nights drying and days rolled up, my mother became soft, like kidskin.
After one month, I packed her back into my travelling case.
Between, some mementos of my stay, local whisky, honey and shortbread.
We went home, my soft new mother and I. To the south again.
She lies now, behind the spare blankets in the mahogany linen press
Which once witnessed my conception, my birth.
Mary Arden's Soliloquy
To marry John, or not: that is the question:
whether there's a better man who'd offer
those tender touchings that're now my fortune,
and take my arm against my mother's worries,
and by opposing end them. To refuse him; to say
no more; yet by refusing would I end
the heart-ache, and the thousand questions
I am hammered by? Well now, that's a consummation
I could wish for. To stop all this;
to think again: even to dream; yes, there it is;
for in that dreaming what other options show,
where I could stop the niggling talk of sheets and silver.
Let me just pause! there's the wearing down I see
that makes calamity of any marriage. . . .
how will I bear the years, the trials of time,
the rank stench of leather on his body, his
weighty ponderings on stitches, the dyer's delay,
the addings of sums, and the worry
that takes away all merit of a man,
when 'he' himself might be a nobler man?
My mother says, he's a good man, John,
it's not all grunt and sweat and a weary life.
But my dread of life after wedlock, the seeming
undiscovered country from whose prison
no woman can return, erodes my will,
then makes me rather bear the thought a good man
than fly to another that I know nothing of.
My conscience says: too cowardly, Mary;
now be condemned to what you know; be
strong, suppress all wild thoughts.
So as my dreamings and my longings
disturb my soul I cry, I know
I must be content with contentment.
The Song of the Woad Gatherer
woad: a spinach like plant which when crushed
and boiled in urine yields a blue dye; used since Roman
times in Europe and the Middle East. In the first year
the young leaves are picked and in the second year the
plant produces tall flowering stems.
There was a woman once. I was young,
not yet a man, some might say a boy,
but I think I brought her comfort,
not the comfort she sought, but still,
some small respite.
I’d been up since dawn, gathering
the first new woad leaves, bright and green
as spinach, my nostrils full of a rank
bitter stench that the wind carried
from the boiling dye vats. My hands sore,
my back bent, I ached; the broken stems
left behind me like small white bones
scattered across the field.
She was walking in the next field
amongst the seed woad, reaching up
with a slow hand and plucking
at the ripe black seeds between
the yellow flowers, her face wracked
with such grief I could see it from
a distance. The seeds she counted
unseeingly from one hand to the other
she let drop, trampled by her feet into the dirt.
She was heedless, harshly muttering,
my son, my son, my son
the words desolate, demented.
She came very near to me, her woad dyed
faded blue gown blowing open in the dry wind,
the slow wind, the little wind I welcomed
each day. Dark on her crimson under dress,
I saw rusty stains. I thought it’s blood,
she’s lost her child, some accident,
a mule, a cart. Some violent act.
As she passed she turned and in that moment
she saw me there in the hot haze of the field,
stripped bare to my loins, around my head
twisted rags and loops of fibre against the sun.
She cried out then, her voice pierced my ears,
her hands shot out as if she feared to fall,
some small black seeds dropping stiffly
towards the ground. She came to me, but
seeing I was not the one she’d been looking for,
and thinking of her comfort I took her arm
and led her to a place, like a small cave,
where we, the woad gatherers, took our break
midday. I’d thought she’d rest, but her hands
tore at me. She pulled me fiercely, wordlessly
down. I was not the one she had lost but
I wonder now if what we did there in the dirt,
toiling on the gritty floor of the cave, if that
strange act comforted in some way,
but she never said a word all the time
and her eyes scoured my face unseeingly.
After we’d finished I stood outside I remember,
and saw across the fields of green the dyeing place,
the great loops of linen blowing, each a piece of sky.
['Song of the Woadgatherer', Prize winner, Limnisa Bluethumbnail Competition 2010]
The Edge of Land
Will you walk over the hill with me?
We'll go west, towards the evening
and the little blond boats coming in
with the brash fishermen tired of the sea.
We'll walk on the path, the wide
line of chalk that rises and falls
on the hill that rises and falls to
end at the sea in a crumbled mass
of stones and yellow gorse.
I will imagine for us a house, there,
on the stones, under the hill,
and we sitting, talking,
our worn legs by a fire, the music
of the sea beating and creeping
on the stones, the wind in the stiff gorse,
and the odd perfume of the yellow flowers
that's so un-English, filling our heads
as the evening comes.
['The Edge of Land ' , Frogmore Papers Number 94, October 2019]
A Postcard to My Mother
What's it like up there?
Have you got a room of your own,
is it all to your liking? Is He
what you expected? I hope so,
I hope they made you welcome.
I hope they let you rest in peace, and
spread a table for you. I hope there's
not too many clashing cymbals
and sounding trumpets to
disturb the peace. Missing you,
wish you were here. Hope this finds
you well x
PS. Hope the weather’s nice.