was what she aimed for. Speckless floors and
windows but especially sheets, plunged
again and again into water hot as she could
make it, soap and scrub, knuckles raw,
twisting out the dead watery weight of them,
stinging in arms and shoulders; then again
through the wringer. Then watched like a
hawk for the shadow, the sniff of rain.
The inelegant dash to rescue them from
the deluge. Then in off the line to dance
them into narrow folds. Edge to edge, face
to face, hands almost but not quite touching,
chaste and white and clean smelling.
Something formal, a word you have read
but don’t quite understand, gavotte or pavane.
Then the disinterring of the ironing cloths,
grey blankets laid on the table, old linen
smooth and scorched. The good day’s work
of piles of speckless sheets growing and growing
at the uncovered end of the scrubbed table.
They rise up in copperplate the long dead,
With an elegance and sinuous grace they
Lacked in life. Ragged lines straightened,
crooked columns shuffled together,
lower case shoulders, upper case pikes.
They emerge as if from the same hand,
identically stately, invisible margins exactly
the same width, as if some ancient, holy scribe,
his writing box and quill under his arm, had cast
some magical spell over the land.
But of course it is the hand that is inherited.
Passed down from darned and patched tutor,
clergymen with no livings, to these junior officers,
shaking out their cramping fingers, careful not to
blot the pages of life and death.
The witnesses process neatly across the page,
released from byre and shed, brushed and
combed for the day. Neatly laid out incomprehensible
actions; travelling ten miles to borrow sacks,
lounging against neighbours’s walls at midnight.
And squeezed small between the marching lines
of traitors and curves of smoke, some women,
who are reminded of what an oath is and to be sure
to repeat exactly what they heard the men saying.
This is where I am buried, a footnote.
Small printed quibble briefly dragging
your eye to the bottom of the page,
intruding on the principal action,
a what if, on the other hand or some
lesser view hanging dismissable
over the page where you, my always
spotlit sister are centred, weaving
golden circles of verse with the skill
other girls loop ribbons, twist wool.
The lines flowing on from each other
in a chorus we have to follow to the end
then go back and read again, then go back
and say out loud, the words individual pieces
of bright glass dropping onto the stage,
glowing where they fall, singing in your head,
on the street, in your house so you repeat
them as prayers, as vows, as ritual.
Behind the curtain I am sweeping up the dust
wondering how will we live now ?
For a whole summer my father worked
somewhere between a crying shame and
a mortal sin. Riding off every morning
to join the other hobnailed pillagers stripping
and ripping out huge plaster ceiling roses
bordered with ivy and vines, chipping
away at deep cornices and elegant picture
rails, carting off loads of woodworm pitted
mahogany newel posts, sweeping up acres
of chandelier glass and oil lamp pendants.
In the evenings he conjured for us fabulous
tales of spoiled and rotting opulence; brocade
curtains hanging in ribbons, Persian carpets
mildewed and stinking, stained glass bleeding
into skips. Some things he couldn’t help but
rescue; stilts, an improbable rusty sword,
a doll’s house with real wallpaper and
best of all, thick rolls of draughtsman’s paper
where I drew the family trees of ancient
European royalty, Ferdinand, Isabella,
and their not yet doomed daughters.