I breathe into the lonely snow lines on the scan,
tell you how to grow safely, how to throw
and catch a ball, how later, stronger, fleshed out,
you’ll thrust up a hand in class before the question’s asked,
then hush, hush yourself before bed.
I tell you about a lot of things: Clarice Cliff teapots,
Georgia O’Keefe, tiny relief etchings we’re making,
you circled in me and I’m blistering in midday sun.
I tell you about kissing at swimming pools,
little black dresses, apologies and apologies.
I say, Be stronger than me and mean every word
and plait your long blonde hair in innocence,
which I regret. I say, Feel safe with lullabies,
don’t be scared of fairy tales, but know you should be.
I say, Opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck,
as are new shoes on tables, walking under ladders, black cats.
I fail to tell you we all fall out of luck with luck.
When you fall out of it there will be a train whispering
a promise, a half-stepped on pavement, a book’s page
slicing your small forefinger as it turns the page
of the epic novel you’ll never finish.
I tell you about cutting your hair short and suffering
the consequences, and about huge paintings by women
who’ve disappeared; I will speak of my perimeters,
the way I brush my hair, cathedral ceilings
and how they are painted. I tell you, when you exist,
you will be all of these things and so much more:
we’ll write your spine in charcoal, your heart in ink.
from The Unmapped Woman, Nine Arches Press (2020)
You grow in me. I call you petal
and your name buds on my tongue at night.
We’re spooned in sleep, skin on skin
and I purr lullabies from sap-filled lips until
your limbs purl like newly-woken shoots:
fresh leaves wait for nursing, suckling.
I name you Lily, and in the bulb of my belly
the veins of your body knit together
and you sleepwalk inside me,
make tiny footprints in blurred dreams,
trail my spine with satin feet as if you
own each and every inch of me. I don’t know
which one of us is the honey, which the bee,
or who has the nectar we drink so deeply.
from The Unmapped Woman, Nine Arches Press (2020)
Forget you. The ash of bone. The uncradled
heart, leaky valve long scorched. Forget
the unthinking arm that fell on my shoulder,
those times we crossed the M6 flyover
and you drove with one hand on the wheel
and I’d change gear, rather badly. Forget
the mix-tape, its erratic path through
teenage years, the growing up, beers, larking
about on bridges and piers and dancing
all night in the Zap Club. Forget the sea
and its snub-nosed wall, the hiss of shingle
on sand, the plans we made at 2am
to be bruised by life. Forget the headlamps
dimming on the Downs, the uphill walks,
the drinks in the Nelson, Trafalgar Street,
the way your heart beat. And beat. Remember
the dull ring of my doorbell, the slight tap
on glass, the way my stomach flipped when
I knew you were there, before you arrived.
Remember what longing means, the thick taste
of Milky Bars for breakfast, the crack of your elbow
broken on the stairs at 4am, the thud of your step
across floorboards. Remember how in that crowd
we found each other’s silence, feathered it out,
knowing we might make it from friends to lovers
and friends again. Remember how we felt that night
when we each held our breaths, met under
an invisible sky. Remember how we said
when you died, I’d try to forget.
from The Unmapped Woman, Nine Arches Press (2020)
Before you write-off your imaginary sister
remember how she didn’t take her blunt playschool scissors
to your Tiny Tears doll, didn’t lop off a curl,
how it didn’t make you cry for three nights in a row,
your only consolation, not inviting a mantra to your lips:
You are not my sister, you are not my sister.
Think of that night she wasn’t at the tap-end
of the bath, not blowing bubbles through her fingers,
not sloshing them over your face, how the water didn’t slop
over the bath’s rim, and how you didn’t slip
when your mother hugged you out in a towel.
Memorise how she didn’t cuddle close for those stories,
clap when they escaped the Gingerbread House. Learn how
she didn’t travel with you on the school bus, wasn’t there
when you rubbed your fingers over the invisible bruise
that couldn’t yellow on your thigh, wasn’t bashed by her bag.
Before you know it, she’s not at your wedding,
taking the posy from your nervous hands, doesn’t smile
when she doesn’t do it. Bear in mind she didn’t
have that look in her eyes when she didn’t hold your son
in her arms in amazement. Learn by heart those miles
she couldn’t take because you couldn’t call her at two am
thinking he might die from colic. Remember how
she doesn’t say, she loves you more now than ever, and how
desperate that cannot make you feel. And know now
all you can say is, I miss you, I miss you.
Winner of the Cinnamon Prize 2013
The shed = your secret life
You repeat yourself like some kind of vow
is wedged in your teeth, a small sad door
you’re trying to leave by, its hinges straying
with the wind, metal on creaking wood.
You calculate how many times you might want
to come and go, rub creosote on your sleeve,
side-step a smell of paint stiffening its frame.
Sheds are for nails, blades;
you have a need for both, telling me this
through the moth-eaten space of your mouth.
Words now tumbleweed, but somehow
I’ve lost the gist, focused too closely on your lips
which are held in place as if stitched on
by someone who can’t sew.
Commended in the Mslexia Poetry Competition
Summer’s End in Hackney
So that she might go unnoticed, she doesn’t turn
on the sitting-room light when the street lights gutter,
announce evening in a sudden gust of white
that catches out the rain. She wonders if it’s okay
to start drinking at four, winter nights creep in
ever earlier. In the kitchen she greets the fridge:
they blink at each other for a minute –
she reaches for the wine, grabs it like it’s ripe on the vine,
the Veneto sun freckling her arms, and the 50 kilo basket
dragging her backwards into the hot earth.
She presses the bottle to her cheek, remembers how
each grape was too low to squat for, too low not to stoop,
and how she spent that holiday, stretched the full-length
of his bed watching the first light distil the dawn,
splash through the shutters, ooze across the room.
Published in Poetry Review
So he told me that by speaking fast
his sadness couldn’t catch him –
he’d leave it behind on some highway,
its pulse quickening in the verge
but an urge to carry on didn’t leave him.
He kept running up streets,
lights at crossings blinking amber,
mouth wordlessly moving
up and down and from a distance
it looked like he was saying, Because, because.
I checked the back of his head,
watched the yank of his neck
pull itself into a brisk arc ‒
it was like he was dying at high speed,
his mouth too hungry for words.
And when a part of me let him go,
he slowed down, a stitch
in his side calmed to an incantation.
He dropped his hand into mine.
I wanted to say, Because, because. But couldn’t.
This package is securely wrapped.
I’m eating buttered toast surveying
its string, Sellotape, a date blurred
in the top right corner.
It circled Queen’s Square at least four times
before you dropped it in a postbox,
let it fall from your grip, two hands, one hand,
gone. You probably took a detour
at the Coach and Horses, Dutch courage,
so somewhere between windmills
and drop dead drunk you’d tossed it,
along with your broken heart
(you tell me this later) into the first
postbox you saw. So now, when I open it
you’re here next to me, astonished
that its arrived today
when you’ve changed your mind
about leaving. I cut the string, you wince.
I tip out the contents, let them curve
in my bowl-shaped palm.
You say you hate inflicting pain.
Somehow I don’t believe you.
The Museum of Missed Opportunities
They rest under glass, limp on unbleached muslin,
carefully placed by a white-gloved curator who
plucked them from my life as if pick-pocketing time.
He laid them out ‒ unwrapped promises, wrens’ eggs
freed from cotton wool, the shape of water from cool
mountain streams. Displayed, they suffocate under
the creak of onlookers who lean their full weight
on the cabinets, press fingers above pieces,
leave their own blurred history in its print ‒
tick items off catalogues, scrunch their eyes tight
as if squinting out the sun. The exhibits glister
beneath their shadows, stare back, refuse to blink.
How to Pour Madness into a Teacup
She hangs her tears at the front of the house
cuts the rain in half and puts time
in the hot black kettle. She sits in the kitchen
reading the teacup full of small dark tears;
it’s foretold the man in the wood
hovers in the dark rain above the winding path.
The man is talking to her in moons,
she is laughing to hide her tears
and with little time, she secretly
plants the moons in the dark brown bed.
She shivers, thinks the man is watching
as the jokes of the child dance
on the roof of the house. Tidying,
she carefully puts hot rain in the teacup,
sings as she hangs her tears on a string
and watching the dance, thinks herself mad.
in collection How to Pour Madness into a Teacup, 2009 Cinnamon Press
published in Orbis#142 Winter 2007, The Spectator, November 2008
On the scan you are tiny – a whiteness
in a dark sky. Your breath steams in patches,
ghost white strokes on the photograph.
(I want to step into the picture to see what happens.
I want to go between the blackness and the clouds).
You stitched yourself to me with fisherman’s nylon,
sharp needles where your nails should have been.
But even in my warm belly you were unformed.
When your breath left, your eyes were still closed.
You would not have seen a thing. I turn the page –
nobody moved, nobody smiled.
(I want to pull the dark over me and find you there:
you at two, at five, at twelve).
My tongue wraps itself around you, grows limp
when I speak your name. There is urgency in my loss.
I want to unwrap it, to see it, to release it.
My body yearns for you at night. It cries.
At the end of the darkness is the thread of my child.
I carry the weight of the dead.
(I want to place my hands around your face,
my fingers stretching as you smile. My child).
The Frogmore Papers, issue 77