4 poems by Abigail Elizabeth Ottley

Abigail Elizabeth Ottley writes poetry and short fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets including most recently The Lake, The Atlanta Journal, Gnashing Teeth Publishing, and Fragmented Voices. Abigail is a former English teacher with a lifelong interest in History. She is also a carer to her elderly mother.

THE LEVELLER
(on the discovery of the remains of the medieval poor at  Cambridge University)

>

Most are configured with awkward grace, others

lie sprawled like restless children.
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They might at any moment suck their dead thumbs and

curl foetus-like towards the tender dark.
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Here is one who has flung wide his arms

in the act of embracing eternity.
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Here another who is huddled and cramped

finding death, like life, hems him in.
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And here repose the bones of several unjoined limbs

haphazardly interred without their torsos.
>

Perhaps their owners, foreseeing this circus,

cared not a whit where they went.
>

I’m reminded anyway that the reaper declines

to call ahead to alert us
>

seldom finds us pacing the hall

new-booted, our bags neatly packed.
>
>

>

TAKING CARE
>

My mother teeters at the white lip of the bath,

precarious on legs she can’t rely on
>

wears a fluffy pink hand towel draped like a shawl.

She has dwindled down so small.
>

I am testing the temperature, warm, not hot.

She waits to receive this weekly blessing.
>

Showerhead in one hand, shampoo in the other

I ask is she ready to begin.
>

Then her head is in my hands, her small, frail

skull.  The bones of it are bird-like.
>

Her dark hair is feathers, sparse as a fledgling’s.

When she trembles I think she might take flight.
>
>

>

JUANA ‘LA LOCA’ SPEAKS HER YOUTH*

>

i. 1496, Maiden Voyage
>
>

Our days were crawling from dusk to dusk

when a poisonous sea fret descended.
>

Crept through our gowns and into our linen

soaking our flesh where we stood.
>

We wallowed and bellied. A flotilla of gulls

squabbled in our wake after our leavings.
>

Salt stung our eyes and scratched at our throats.

Our lips were cracked bloody from the wind.
>

Most afternoons we would walk the decks

the crew had swabbed and swilled.
>

I felt their gaze on the span of my waist, caught

the foulness of their breath as they passed.
>

Not wife nor yet translated queen I dreamed

myself free of my childhood.
>

Dreamed his mouth, too blessed to speak,

the sweet conjugation of limbs.
>

>

ii. Storm off the English coast, 1506
>
>

I am dumb in the dark on a salt-white deck of the

storm-battered bark of my days.
>

No jangling bell tells the progress of time

no lantern or torch breaks the night.
>

Rocked in the arms of a hollow sky I

number the stars as they go wheeling.
>

In this swaying belly, the ocean sings and

the bulkhead winces and groans.
>

I am dumb in the dark off this moonless coast

in fear of the wreck of my faith.
>

Crabs and crayfish will nibble my toes if

the sea gods devil us down.
>

When bluefish dart and dance in our

bones shall you and I find peace?
>

*Juana ‘La Loca’ of Castile was the youngest daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain and sister to Catherine of Aragon.
.
>

>

THE ACT Of LOOKING DOWN
(Remembering The Aveley Elephants, 1964)*
>

Behind the rusting chainlink fence, the red earth falls away.

Her feet might slip. She knows this pit’s dug deeper than she dares.
>

On the broad safe side, she holds her breath

small fingers through the wire.
>

There’s something makes her heartbeat race in

the act of looking down.
>

A scruff of grass a patch of sky is all the view there is.

Once there were monsters. Now their bones are sleeping in the sand.
>

The men are gone, the clanking chains and the tipper trucks that roared.

A grave so deep and quiet as this would summon gods to sleep.
>

But then a mammoth wakes from sleep among the sand and stones.

A thousand people wait in queues to see its shining bones.
>

They snake up ramps to quaking paths that swing above the pit.

There is something here that chills the blood in the act of looking down.
>

*The Aveley Elephants

In August 1964 Aveley received nationwide press coverage following the discovery of the remains of a mammoth and a juvenile straight-tusked elephant in Ice Age deposits channelled into the London Clay in a pit on the north side of Sandy Lane.

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