Jackie Wills/Great Britain
Jackie Wills is a poet, non-fiction writer and editor. She has published five collections of poetry - the most recent is Woman’s Head as Jug (2013). She was shortlisted for the 1995 TS Eliot prize and Mslexia magazine selected her as one of the 10 new woman poets of the decade in 2004. She is a critic and literature assessor for Arts Council England.
I made a pillow out of iron, a pair of shoes,
I made a tutu, my mother’s hat,
iron lashes for my eyes, iron fingernails,
I made myself a bridle and a belt.
I made a baby out of iron, I hammered out
a tree in bud, a nest of yellow beaks.
I smelted, riveted, cast my hands
into bellows. I blew a cumulus of sparks –
they found the corners of a room,
a hidden silhouette, they settled
on a dusty charcoal bed
and from the shadows made a forge.
I took breaths,
dipped my head underwater –
they were feeding
in the seagrass meadow,
fifty at least,
silver, black and yellow,
tipped at 30 degrees,
mouths to the weed,
the calanque pale turquoise,
lit with rods of sun.
The rest of the shoal
surrounded me, swam on
and I drifted with them
until they made a column
to graze at the surface –
each fish waiting its turn.
Later, the moon filled the bay,
threw itself into the water,
forcing everything to overflow.
I watched from the wall,
so heavy again, the shoal
quickening far below.
They slide down her toilet like the globs
she scoops from a new tin of emulsion
to slap on the wall.
She’d like to understand this cycle –
her womb lining itself constantly
then having second thoughts.
Like killer whales, rhesus monkeys, guppies,
and laboratory mice – elephants experience menopause.
Their symptoms, though, are harder to score
on the Greene Climacteric Scale –
the pressure or tightness in head or body,
attacks of panic, the loss of interest “in most things”.
They stamp the yellow lines outside
the cemetery’s pink stone columns.
A horsebox is waiting, they drink in turns
from a water bucket offered by the groom.
One nuzzles her armpit,
another shakes his white flash, they snort.
It was a double funeral today – two
black pairs and the percussion of sixteen hooves
carried two pale coffins,
rosebuds wired into hearts,
white chrysanths twice mouthing SON.
They’ve obeyed the slightest tension in a rein
and with their sixteen hooves ushered two families
from home, past Moulsecoomb Primary,
the library, derelict TA centre, university,
past CarpetRight and Halfords, The Gladstone…
slowing Lewes Road to a shuffle –
hushing it with their shoes and feathers.
And everyone on foot, in a bus or car stopped –
their own dead brought to attention beside them.
The horses turned at Skinners to climb the hill,
delivered their loads to the chapel,
carried them again to the graves.
Now the groom brushes each one down,
smooths their necks, running her right hand
over their backs. She untethers them one by one
from iron railings, buckles coats on to lead them
into the horsebox. The hearses are gone. She murmurs,
they nod, she puts her hand to their mouths,
they take a slice of apple, lick salt from her palm.
Under her chin
there’s a single sharp hair
that begins as a pimple.
The middle finger of her left hand
She can pull it out without a mirror.
How would it look, the beard
she won’t permit?
The thrush with a broken neck
is still warm when the cat brings it to her.
Her heart is behaving like a cat.
And as the fish rise to the surface
the water fires with Gaelic songs.
The shoal is eight miles long
and four miles wide. A fleet of drifters
pulls in sheets and sheets of silver
five thousand of us, knife sharp,
on the quayside. I sing
to stand the pain of salt, of men
and herring that escape the nets
carry my songs to sea again,
cast them back as blackthorn flowers
in the spring.
When the blowtorch is on inside her
and she’s throwing bricks at windows for air
she hooks herself into the national grid
to supply the city’s tumble dryers.
When the power was cut in 1974
the manager lit candles. We carried fabric
to the door for customers to check in daylight.
I learned crepe and twill – my hands explored
the dark for taffeta and gauze. All I earned, I spent.
Browsing pattern books I learned to clothe myself
by knowing nap and seam allowance, how to cut
a yoke on the bias. Start with Simplicity, progress
to Vogue. I thought I was choosing well, an easy tunic
in Liberty Varuna wool – clumps of red flowers on black.
I unravelled the bolt, measured each yard against a brass rule.
The manager handed me scissors. I was afraid to cut.
She snipped the selvedge for me, guided the blade,
wrapped in paper the dress I never finished and still crave.
Perhaps the cells in mucus on the tip of a spatula
could be grown into an alternative version
over her head that renews itself
whenever she paints it away
Let the air remember how it was when wives lugged the catch
to Lewes on the fish route, the road glinting with scales
as if time itself was in their baskets among the herring.
Let the viaduct reassemble arch by arch
and the Level bonfire reignite to consume its effigies.
Let the air resurrect the Bernard Oppenheimer Diamond Works
for amputees, the pill factory, Reverend Wagner’s home for prostitutes,
the pease pudding and faggot shop.
Let the silent film stars return to the old Arcadia –
Mae Murray in Altars of Desire, Molly Malone in The Soul Herder.
Let the air genuflect at the altar of St Martin’s
designed by H. Ellis Wooldridge,
with its 69 statues carved in Oberammergau.
Let us kneel to the dead carried to the crematorium
by Ray Trafford of Skinners, my aunt among them.
Let the air feed poets Albert E. Coppard,
New Elizabethan, and Brendan Cleary of Bear Road,
the gyratory village and the Gladstone.
Let the elms breathe the same air as in the beginning
when lines of saplings pledged magnificent avenues.
Let the air scatter into pavement cracks, parking bays,
blue as borage, morning glory, delphiniums,
forget-me-nots, creeping bellflower, self-heal.
She slid down her own legs,
squashed the puckered tissue
into a rucksack with their picnic –
at forty-two the moult took seconds
between sandpit and swings
in Queen’s Park.
There were beetle wings
pencilled on her back,
when the armour fell off.
She felt the draught on her neck.
Forty-nine – all those times
she could have flown.
Rested, in darkness,
she hauled herself against a silver birch,
shuddered into the moult.
Her face split at the right eye.
She scrubbed until the tremor found a fault,
chafed her inside and out.
The shuck was so patched,
rough with lesions,
she hid it under leaves, crawled away.
Even red, first and loudest, is silenced
as it totters into cornfields and flirts,
as it murmurs and smudges,
shelters under the rock
grunting words for deer, stream, placenta.
From somewhere in the mess of a peony
collapsed on a table, from veins in an eye,
the tip of a tampon, a sore and a crater,
red is smeared with its own absence:
what remains when there’s no skin to paint on?
It roughens your tongue and roof of your mouth,
sleepy in the afternoon,
limb wrapped around limb.
At times when green enters your eyes
it won’t leave.
It sends out echoes endlessly,
travels down the centre of roads,
bends over them,
turns them to jade.
It flares, but its great inland seas part
for anything tracing straight lines – a lorry or a cat.
It shields the cub in its den.
So hard fought for, ground, boiled, simmered, left to ferment,
it’s the hum or reed in your ear, a string picked steadily.
From morning glory to a vein enlarged by heat
it’s drawn to mist, deflects your eye to space leaking into a wood.
Blue’s always in your mind
when you look up from a job,
when your head tilts in its cup.
Drink, drink, drink the desert and sunflower field,
there’s never enough,
urine yellow, the nearly gold
of feathers and fins.
Yellow boasts its elaborate gateposts
arrows of sun.
white doesn’t exist. It does exist.
It belongs to sky, to earth…
to sky, no, to earth.
Your pupil is drawn into a hole,
cell after cell,
all the rooms you lived in,
sucked into a Dyson,
one containing rosary beads, another willows by the stream.
Black pulls you to the seabed head first,
your fists around a rope, air strapped to your back.
Breathe through your mouth. Trust your hands.
Her new skin was watermarked,
to stop womb, liver, lungs
She lay still as it set.
There are so many reasons for staring out of a window
counting cars with a bunch of keys in her hand.
after a title by Jane Fordham
Today she pours the Water of Life – green
walnuts picked in June, beaten with a pestle.
Tomorrow, Melancholy Water tasting of gilliflower,
damask rose, musk and gold leaf.
She steeps pounds of rue for Plague Water,
and to clear ‘mists and clouds of the head’
infuses peacock dung and bruised millipedes
in spirit of lavender. Bending over a bowl
she might empty a reservoir, reveal the valley it invaded.
Her head is fired from the same earth.