At dawn she picks
from beneath the lush hostas
chewed overnight to green lace,
fishes them from the white saucer
of treacherous milk, watches
as the grey-tongue bodies glisten
then fizz to mucus
in the trail of cruel salt.
Later she boils the brindled husks
to remove the taste of gritty
garden earth, builds them
now sanitised and cleansed,
into a ziggurat,
then slithers inside. In its cool
interiors she grows small, soft,
viscous as putty,
curled in the hidden chambers
tries to understand
the sounds of the world outside.
In the quiet she whispers
into this silence of shells,
listening for an echo of her
own breath. She longs
to speak but already
her tongue is turning to slime
I have done with the sun. Here on these northern plains wheat fields become waves, beneath leaden skies, shadows black of dogs run through the swaying crop. Long ago I left another country where the sulphurous sun hung low over the potato fields. They called me a madman because I wanted to be a true Christian. In Arles I painted blossom pure as drifts of Japanese snow. Now it is upon me again, this clamped crown. I who melted gold into an alchemy of sunflowers burnished as a lion’s mane. Misfortune must be good for something… Across the wheat field crows wheel in a ragged requiem towards me. My vision shifts and slides. Three paths diverge – leading somewhere going nowhere. My eyes burn. I cannot hold on.
That night we gathered,
the white moon peeped between the skirted clouds
flooding the high-panelled room in eerie light.
Eight of us, at the great scientist Dr Wilke’s house,
a man with eyes so deep and brows so fierce,
in copper damask dressing-gown, he frightened men,
and that shock of wiry hair!
On the table such weird contraptions as I’d never seen:
an air pump made of gleaming brass, strange tubes
and liquids that gave a sulphurous glow.
I cried and hid my eyes, clasped Kitty close,
At six far braver and more curious than I.
Still I can feel the callused grip of Joshua’s
hand in comfort on my thin shoulder.
Science: an experiment, he explained,
to see if the pretty bird could fill
its gasping lungs and beat its failing wings
without the magic stuff he called oxygen.
I could not bear the thud of it snowy breast,
the rattle of its brittle beak, the scratch
of tiny claws, as it circled and circled
expiring from want of air.
Such power of life and death he had
that strange alchemical man.
I did not dare cry out ‘stop’ to save
the frightened thing.
Later, when they were finished, I asked to hold the soft limp body, sat by the guttering candle on the sill and tried to close its beady current eyes as a lick of scarlet dribbled from its beak and felt the little bones light as air, in my warm cupped hands.
An Easter light, watery as whey, spills
from the high window, catches the rim
of her linen cap, its white gulls’ wings,
the coarse cross-stitch of yellow bodice
against her apron’s blue, the sleeves
rolled to elbows against curdy skin.
Already she has raked ashes, broken bread
for him from the willow basket with her big
raw hands. And in the oyster-grey morning
while the house sleeps, Vermeer’s woman
pours warm milk from terracotta
jug to crock in silent communion.
She is mistress here,
moving with slow deliberation through
these daily tasks: her quiet meditations.
On the table beside her is spread
a Delft flagon of ale, a cloth; on the wall
a wicker creel, new polished brass.
Did he love her? Who can say? As in the chill dawn he lifts his brush to catch that creamy curve of brow the shadow on her lowered lid where sable tufts stroke, soft as her cool fingers on fresh laundered ecru.
They have changed the white cloth, soaking
out the dark stain with salt. I hardly
remember days that were different, filled
with the sweet diversions of work.
Time is measure now
in poultices and lint. Below my window
the same hens scratch the same dirt,
borage and shallots bloom in the herb garden.
Hours stretch faded, formless
and I inhabit the waste lands
behind my eyelids where there is colour
for my body is white, my limbs thin
as saplings, my hair has lost its walnut sheen.
Once the bodice of this calico dress
clung tight across my apple breasts,
now it hangs like a nun’s blue folds.
All morning I sit by the window
read, write letters to my cousin;
outside children’s voices shatter
holes in a duck-egg sky. Lilac shadows,
long and dark as a bruise, stretch
across my room, camphor and crushed
violets fill the throttled air,
on my table a pink cup and saucer of camomile tea.
From behind drawn blinds sunlight needle-
points the satin gloom. My skin is grey
as old pastry. In my wicker chair,
with the down cushion plumped to the small
of my back, I dream of the impossible sun
high over courtyard and dovecot
illuminating the frailties of small lives,
baking the cracked roofs of barns.
Some days Bathsheba or Danaë,
voluptuous and bangled
on her cushioned ottoman. But this evening,
her linen chemise crumpled high
against wide hips, the loose
sleeves carelessly rolled, she paddles
the stream, simply herself, Hendrickye.
Florentine brocade, mulberry damask
from Uzbekistan, she leaves the tumbled rugs,
steps in the pool, her body warm, the smell
of him lingering still between her thighs.
His eyes absorb the creamy solid flesh,
those familiar dimpled knees. He makes
no judgment on her nakedness.
Times she has posed for him;
out of love, not an interest in his art,
just as each morning she pours his ale,
chops pickled herrings, slices coarse black bread,
nights warmed his bed since Saskia died.
Nurse to small Titus, what difference,
opening her ample arms to him as well.
No matter others find him strange.
Soon dusk will turn to night, wood-smoke
and a Gouda moon hang over the gabled house.
She turns to her mirror, combs out her hair,
prepares for sleep, sees other selves reflected
in her glass: the sandy freckled skin. Let him
wrap her in chiaroscuro if he must – grey morning
will find him seeking the warmth of her bed.