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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Highly Commended Poet – Grainne Tobin

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Formerly

They will be grandparents, and the country
where they honeymooned will no longer exist,
after several wars, massacres, forced migrations,
the splitting and sorting of territorial claims,
new dialects: a language whisked together
in official dictionaries will have separated out
like a curdled sauce, and worshippers
will devote themselves to difference.

When everything’s the future, all that year
they go each week to a class in Serbo-Croat,
planning their fortnight with a phrasebook
that they’re still carrying in summer,
newlyweds leaving the hot glare of the street
to visit the famous mosque. An old caretaker
beckons them to follow, leads them
down stairways, unlocks heavy doors
one after another, takes them along passages
deep into the crypt, feeling their way
towards a hollow where he turns the iron key
in a wooden chest, lifts out a treasure to show
the colours and gilt of illuminated pages,
Arabic on the left, and Cyrillic on the right –
then opens his face and voice to sing
the sacred words to the strangers, a song
alive among the centuries, out of his time
and theirs, before the next catastrophe.

There will be grandparents who remember.

 

The Stork

And here online is our tiny bubble-skulled alien,
apparently making itself at home in a little hammock!
We wake in our borrowed bed to a sonar image,
a twelve-week scan of the womb where the new mother
and our own son have combined all of themselves
and those that went before them, gathered
together like savings in some cosmic kitty,
to conjure up this being, to invite it into the world,
happed-up against the hazards of the journey.
Here are held the scrolls, the codes, the memory
of our species and our clans. Across the archipelago
we’re hearing bells rung from spires and clock-towers
as the dial is set to survival.

The museum of La Rochelle is showing a stork,
stuffed for display on its nest above the marshes –
the world is full of omens, our minds stuck on playback –
and the summer exhibition is called Monstrous.
Its posters ask You think this is normal?
on a photo of a spiked puffer fish with curled lips.
Magnified insects, robots, mythical creatures,
and a pair of full-term infants, immured
within glass cylinders, cords still attached,
their faces intent, like old men thinking long,
hunched into silence in thick jars, closed eyelids
swollen, lips in perfect Cupid’s bows, skulls
squashed out of true, brains extruding
into preserving fluid so that the strands
look like beautifully tied topknots.
A woman behind me says Cabbage Patch Dolls.
Offered in 1854 to the city’s men of science, specimens
of the same anomaly that finished my first pregnancy.

I’m back – and ten weeks gone. It’s night.
Alone in a side-ward as the pains take hold,
but floating, buoyed up by those who wish me well,
I’m carried through the years from debris to shelter,
where storks feed in fertile wetlands, return
to nests on rooftops, airlift the newly-born
in slings held tightly in their bills.

 

September: Normal

We have not seen, but have believed. The wean
is set to be a son.

His working title,
his undercover alias in-utero,
is Rodge, the codename his parents lit upon
to humanise the weirdness of planting
one creature within another, enclosed,
but bugged and pictured.

The second scan
measured each part in turn, examined
the liver and heart, estimated weight
and height for dates, auditing the future.
They paused at each to note down the results,
all normal.

Normal! As if soothsayers
of the information age can now predict
an average share of happiness and health,
the usual astonishment, the love.

Between ourselves we call him Normal Rodge.

 

Amulet

O look with kindness on this woman, who is cycling
at the moment as a double weight on the saddle,
this woman who’s more than a vessel, though full
of every hope, gravid, round, enceinte, encircling,
who is carrying our grandson, whoever he may be,
bellied like a sail open to a strong wind, heading
towards a new life for all of us.

At the online warehouse of pious tat,
they’re keen to sell this magic. For an offering
of $17 or more we will send you a hand-packaged
half -ounce bottle of Blessed Mother Oil.

She’s wheeling forward, in full charge
of blessings. I shake off the old urge
to tie an amulet to her handlebars.

 

Expectant

It’s tougher than they said. She’s under scrutiny,
she’s a person of interest, there are things
she needs to find out but would rather not know,
and it’s not long now, the calendar is marked
with an official date which is certainly nothing
to rely on, the nights are bad, she’s elbowed awake
by her implacable companion, like an over-sharing
flatmate who follows her around, chatting,
though really nothing else is like this –
maybe Darwin’s horror, the parasitic wasp
that leaves its eggs to hatch and feed
inside a living creature – she’s weakened,
yet withal, enraptured to be carrying
such force, she might do anything,
multiply, begin it all again.

 

 

Fine Rightly

Why don’t we have a cross of folded reeds,
cartwheeling along our kitchen lintel? We want
to chant. We want a square of tin, stamped
with the image of a baby, to lay in a cave
in the mountains. We cannot help but know
of wounds no cures can heal, a woman
held in extremity, a trial by ordeal
which pins her to the edge of her power,
turns her inside out and back again.

In February, when it’s all gone on too long
across the water, and we’re pacing the house,
unable to do anything to help our son,
or his gallant girl, or their baby,
whose moving into life is so delayed –
we let ourselves be led by urges beyond reason
to fertility goddess tales, sham-Celtic rigmaroles
for a fruitful spring at Imbolc or the feast of Brigid.

Prayer’s never a temptation, knowing fine rightly
there’s no-one there to hear –
but we trace the ancient spring to a rugby club
by a fingerpost to mark St Brigid’s Well,
where we set down our foolish rose.
The sacred water seeps from underground
behind locked gates with lorries and CCTV.

Away out to the graveyard, where the bones
of loving parents decay together, RIP,
and we’re tidying up, pinching off dried leaves,
tucking new narcissi in the spaces.
The phone! It’s done. A perfect child,
lifted to safety from his mother’s womb,
an incision like a trapdoor or escape hatch.
She’s well, she’s smiling at her baby.
Our son now has a son. We’re all reborn.
I lean against the car, crying and shaking,
overcome as any pilgrim.

 

 

Emergency Section

The two of them are moved to theatre –
a battlefield, a puppet show, a stage?
Nine members of the cast begin
by lining up in green pyjamas, smiling,
to explain which parts they play. But this
must be an audience participation event.

Now Romeo’s in costume, holding hands
with his Juliet who’s lying drugged on a couch,
draped to her neck in matching sterile cloth,
the pair screened off from scalpels
by a low green curtain stretched across her
from oxter to oxter, as if for table tennis.

Remember the children’s party game
where you put someone out of the room,
bring them back blindfolded, spin them round,
hand them a peeled grape and say it’s an eyeball?

Look! The newborn’s lifted out, held above
the green veil, exhibited to the young couple
like Mr Punch’s baby, or a treasure at auction,
or a rabbit from a conjuror’s hat, or a glimpse
of the consecrated host in a gold monstrance,
with ringing of small bells – then swiftly
taken aside for his dad to cut the cord
and lay him on the girl, the child’s skin
still hot and bloodied from their inner life.

 

 

With This Ring

His wedding ring’s gone from the button jar,
so long ago it’s been forgotten.
Perhaps it was thrown out with the rubbish,
or will turn up when both of us are dead,
and one of our babies, getting on by then,
takes a turn at sorting out possessions.

That broad, scratched metal band may rattle
out of a posthumous shoebox, stuffed with letters.
Someone may wear it, or find it a nuisance
as he did, snagging when rock-climbing
or washing up, and put it away again
among obsolete coins and unmatched keys.

Because he said that they reminded him
of nose-rings for leading cattle, we’d held off
buying rings, so that an hour before
the wedding, we were running hand-in-hand
down the high street of an English cathedral town
to the cheapest shop, dressed in red gingham
and a borrowed shirt, leaving two older couples,
about to become parents-in-law unto death,
to meet without an introduction
on the register office lawn.

 

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