|Section 1: The House Of
I want to leave something behind
like the maid who cracked one night
the length of her heart,
who crept shaking down the staircase
to where the service shone on the dresser,
plates pale as a row of moons.
She stacked them in her arms –
a weight greater than all she owned –
bore their white tower to the kitchen garden
where she stood between the soft fruit beds
and smashed each one against the wall
with a planetary anger.
That dawn she walked out of her story
though her flavour salted the servants’ tongues for months,
and clearing the ground a hundred years later
of this self-seeded scrub of ash
I can still piece bits of her together – white and sharp –
as if the earth were teething.
Since then everyone's been searching for answers,
and though nobody knew them, not really, the sisters,
we share what we've gleaned:
the taxi driver from their final trip into town
who watched the three of them sat like in church -
grave, stiff-backed, harking to something;
the woman who found them, her voice at the inquest a
describing the icons and guttering candles, the one who died last
prostrate by the back door, key in her hand.
Sometimes, undressing for bed, I picture them -
giddy and blind and lighter than girls, locked up all summer
inside a house that mirrors my own.
Once I passed by their door in the evening,
heard some old jazz being played very quietly -
a curtain fluttered into the street like a veil.
I keep everything in its place:
from the lace wings and moths that flake the sills
to the husk of a mouse outside your door,
(though the cat that caught it is long since dust).
The curtains continue to fade, velvet tattering like
the walls slough off their paper like snakes.
The rooms look as they must in our absence;
leached of desire, empty as a guest room chair,
this glass vase rimed and flowerless.
As for myself I feel airy and winged like a seed;
it's as if I've already been shed
like my bedside rose in its circle of petals.
(You always said there was nothing of me.)
I make my last round at midnight
checking there's rust in the lock, the bolt's driven home.
I perform my duties as though you were watching,
touching each bar of the window
with hands as clean as the moon.
|Section 2: The Silence Living in
They are absolute.
They are mandarin.
Sometimes merely folding a sheet
or making a bed
is to break them.
For instance there’s a right way
and a wrong way
to clear up this mess –
the spattered walls,
the tongues of broken china.
Which is which?
You spend the evening trying to guess
as you wait for his verdict,
hands resting on the table
like meat thawing for dinner.
Tonight he addresses your flesh –
Look what you made me do he says
as a flight of stairs
throws you full length,
a door walks into your face.
This morning don’t go down to the kitchen
in bare feet. Put on your gardening gloves,
fetch the dustpan and brush from the cellar
and sweep these pieces up quickly but carefully,
making sure you get every last sliver
from the darkest corners of the room
(later they may be held against you).
Wrap the fragments in newspaper
so no one cuts themselves.
Put back the dustpan and brush, the gloves’
upturned, amputated hands.
Make yourself a large mug of tea
with six sugars and a nip of whisky.
Stop shaking – he’ll be down soon –
you can hear his alarm going off,
heavy footsteps above your head, thudding down stairs.
Stop shaking I said. Swallow this note.
She is braced like glass against the air,
the fall that's always
about to happen.
The blood tilts inside her head:
in a continuous present
a girl is carrying a tumbler
towards a man lying on a bed,
limbs like a puppet flung aside.
The child is serious in her task
as a priest bearing a libation
to an unpredictable god.
This becomes her way of being good,
though daily she risks spillage,
wishes her spirit were level,
the horizon steadier in her eyes.
She tries to pull herself together,
imagines a cord tied in her guts
threading up through vertebra to cortex.
She tells herself that this is only practise:
the tight rope's laid out safely on the floor.
Though she knows in her bones
there is no rope, no floor
and some days the far side
of the kitchen is too far,
some nights the dark and sticky liquid tips
with every step she takes
across the Niagaras and canyons of the house.
|Section 3: Are You Homesick for the
House of Cards?
Are You Homesick for the House of Cards?
How can you be
when you’ve never escaped the palace of family
where assassins hide behind tapestries
and wolfhounds are digging in the cellar?
You feel at home and sick
in your hand-me-down skin,
watching the king flushed with vintage anger
while Jack, hunch-backed by shadows,
crouches in the corner juggling bone-handled knives.
The dark glitter of this game
keeps the queen sleeved in grief,
her tears twinned in the bedroom mirror
as she locks up something
in an iron-bound chest
and throws away the key.
You dream of teeth grinding
in a rusted lock, of leaving one night
by the secret staircase, with nothing
but a small warmth held tight beneath your cloak,
red and beating.
My mother moved through the house like a priest
performing a secret ritual -
touching clock hands, time's pale moon face.
In the stillness of the first October frost
I listened to midnight chiming twice.
Tomorrow would smell of windfalls and coal.
The next evening seemed biblical -
the sun set at five like a huge blood orange,
night swept over us with its feathers of soot.
The women agreed on saving light:
my grandmother, snow-haired, bitter,
peering at the television's blizzard,
her daughter, candlelit in the kitchen,
muttering interference as she skinned and sliced:
thighs, breasts, wings for the great chest freezer.
Winter is a spell cast under the breath,
sheets of ice that cover me still,
these hands unwinding me in the dark.
At her hand I learned to feast –
platefuls of bacon and glistening eggs,
tinned tomatoes pooled in bowls,
King Edwards big as babies’ heads
borne from the cave-cold cellar.
I got everything down my neck
as if she were fattening me up for winter.
As a growing girl she’d known slaughter –
her father torn to pieces at the Somme,
her mother nourishing grievance ever after
feeding on the best at breakfast, dinner, tea,
sucking the sweet flesh of the Easter lamb,
hooking out the marrow with a skewer
until her face shone with grease.
Gran had iron in her hungry blood.
She remembered all the old cuts -
brisket, oxtail, trotters, tripe,
liver, kidney, heart, tongue.
She prepared those dark and savoury meats
with knowledge culled from grief and war:
she skinned a rabbit when she put me to sleep.