1959: Woman Donkey Hours

Outlined against the fields,
inevitable as landscape,
a kerchiefed woman and a donkey
trudge the dusty path, to where
they fight the stubborn earth for food.

Anchoress, she treads her daily silences,
mantras iterating on her children;
she knows no joy in exercise of muscle,
spread of sky or shades of green
on ten-mile tramps each way.

She fills the bag suspended from her shoulder
with twigs for kindling, dandelion and sorrel,
and cuts the donkey’s fodder from the pathside
to stuff the sacks which press against his flanks;
she would not dream of riding him.

When they reach their hard half-barren patch
she pulls the weeds out from the wheat,
clears a space around the beans, then sits;
other headscarves dot the panorama –
one with her, yet utterly unknown.

When sun is hot it scorches them,
when rain is pouring they get wet;
every day the same but Sunday
when she prays for strength from Him
Who made this grand design and drew her in it.

Responsive to the brushstroke of the air,
she feels the varnish drying on the day:
they set off on the backward trail,
his hooves clicking, her boots scraping –
rhythms marking off the hours.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1996

Merry-go-round

After Mark Gertler’s painting of 1916

Merry-Go-Round 1916 by Mark Gertler 1891-1939

Here we go round the merry-go-round, the merry-go-round, the merry-go-round,
here we go round the merry-go-round
in saecula saeculorum:

on Hampstead Heath by threes we turn,
no way forward – we never learn –
fixed for ever, still and moving –
our nannies nod their heads approving;

trapped, we look in the next direction –
dress and deportment turned to perfection –
no one knows if we’re laughing or screaming –
sleepriding blindly, awake but dreaming;

if we come unstuck we’ll surely die –
do what all the rest do, don’t ask why –
keep on circling to postpone our fate –
circulate, circulate, circulate;

swapping clichés, repeating them afresh –
tongue exercises for the sagging flesh –
I’ll say something, you agree –
then you can do the same for me;

traipsing vacant-faced through exhibition halls,
staring at dead people on the walls –
why don’t the living vanish when I close my eyes? –
I need free hands and feet, no human ties;

through angular spaces carpeted with jazz,
lifting our noses above the razzmatazz,
we find our way by a thin yellow line –
dictatorial, one-dimensional, serpentine;

squeezing through the many, never meeting eyes –
how can these others live whom I despise? –
looking only in order to look away and scorn,
heading for the solitary chair on the empty lawn;

get up, go to work, the weekly routine –
the same at sixty-four as at sixteen –
the only escape routes TV and sleep –
other distractions never come cheap;

along the City streets the unremitting bustle –
swept to my next appointment, apostle
of the mobile phone – I hurry therefore am alive –
running round the treadmill eventually I’ll arrive;

commuters crushed on tubes and buses –
the boy barges past, the old woman fusses –
accusations, shoving in the queue –
excuse me, I was here before you;

fashions repeating – hems up hems down –
last year pink and blue, this year cream and brown –
songs of thirty years ago are sung again –
up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen;

chew gum and turn your music high –
if you have to speak make sure you tell a lie –
play computer games, take drugs, don’t think –
blot out your dissatisfaction with a drink;

dole out gossip with like-minded guests,
dream of making citizen’s arrests –
there are no new ideas left under the sun
and we have done those things we ought not to have done;

don’t dare get off, don’t try to live –
remember there’s no alternative –
sweet dreams as long as you hold tight
spinning down dark spirals of endless night;

keep on spinning happy till you die,
spun on your way to pie-land in the sky –
then your relatives will act surprised –
they thought death long since exorcised;

some are dying, others being born –
spare parts to replace the overworn –
the dead are recycled in the living –
the mother views her infant with misgiving;

more and more degeneration, nothing moving on –
too late to turn back now – we’ve crossed the Rubicon –
spinning so fast we’re almost standing still,
helpless to make a change for good or ill;

trapped, we look in the next direction –
smart sophisticates in our subjection –
no one knows if we’re grinning or screaming –
our mouths in rictus of fear or inanely beaming;

on Hampstead Heath by threes we turn,
no way forward – we never learn –
progress ended before we’ve begun –
no reason for living under the sun:

here we go round the merry-go-round
in saecula saeculorum.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1995

Too much dreaming

I heard that life is no rehearsal,
But performance of the play;
Yet I have spent so long in learning lines
I missed my time and lost the way.

So I become a critic in the wings,
Mocking observer of what others do and say,
And dream of being the deus ex machine
In the final act, when I have my day.

But will I still be waiting here
When the curtain falls for the ending of the play,
And the last of the watchers has wandered off
To the empty street and the dying day?

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1988

First published in Apostrophe 12, Autumn 1996

Blackbird

A blackbird alone in the dying sun’s footlights
sings to a backdrop of indigo blue;
for the sound of its voice, for the sake of the singing,
it plays out the longest day of the year.

Perched on the rooftop, stop-out blackbird,
late home, carousing, careless of time,
emptying its throat till its heart is empty,
scattering the tune like stars in the street;

unnoticed by drivers cocooned in their vehicles,
by comfortable viewers with volume turned up:
only the walkers of dark hear this singing –
the carolling bird in summer’s midnight.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1993

First published in Poetry Nottingham International, Autumn 1995

A Baptism

Brompton Oratory, a hot lunch-time in July,
a baby being received into the Catholic Church
and Catholic upper-crust society:
dressed-up, a group stands round the font.
Otherwise the building’s almost empty, save a
scattering of oddballs dotted round the nave,
the occasional stray tourist fleeing from the sun.

A little girl in blue-and-white-striped dress
escapes the cluster of family and friends.
She patters down the aisle towards the wardrobe-like
confessionals – archaic Wendy-houses –
which lure her to explore their dark insides;
drunk with happiness, she crawls along a pew;
ecstatic – the Oratory one unimagined playground.

Behind her plods the solemn uncle.
Determined not to make a sideshow of himself,
he doesn’t chase – but holds himself on guard
till the moment she stands still. She totters,
absorbing wonder, dizzies herself with space …
He scoops her up, bears her back towards propriety –
the serious expectations of family and Church.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1995

Auntie Edie

I started meeting Auntie Edie in the mirror,
so rooted out the tiny photographs to check:
her nose and lips were coarser, but the shape’s the same …

Great Aunt Edith – to us the funny snob who came
to tea on Thursdays and ‘wasn’t used to children’.
Shapeless and sagging, she’d never worn a bra,
had sparse grey hair scraped back into a bun
and used to drawl ‘I know, I know’ to everything we told her.

She instructed me it’s wrong to say ‘I love ice cream!’ –
‘Such feelings are for people – not for objects or for food.’
We imagined she knew nothing of any sort of love;
She let fall little hints – mysterious men in France before the war –
but Mum said she just made that up, there never was a man.

I’ve found a relic which backs up the fabled snobbishness:
a thirties’ menu from The Women’s Business Club in Glasgow –
peas, potatoes, dressed lamb cutlet, speech by Mrs Tweeddale –
unassuming friends like Betty Kingdon, Florrie Clough
have signed their names alongside ‘Edythe’ Griffin.

My sister startles me by saying, ‘I loved Auntie Edie.
We used to visit her in that old people’s home in Eccles –
I was only little, and we’d nod and wink at one another secretly.
I was really cross they wouldn’t take me to her funeral
and didn’t go themselves.’

Looking at her photograph,
I see myself an old and tiresome woman,
holding out my cherished memories to unbelieving visitors …

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1995

First published in Iota 36, 1996

Seven Ages of Woman

She had a beautiful mother,
serene in a sepia photograph
who cried over every debt;
her father was happy-go-lucky,
a charmer and very bright;
a Methodist grandfather killed himself;
her grandmother’s hair grew down to her knees.

Cycling the three miles to grammar school
in a uniform sizes too large
with a second-hand hockey stick
and fingers chapped from the cold,
she identified flowers by the roadside.
Small round glasses and wrinkled stockings,
her life was all books and the seasons.

She worked as a teacher, then as a secretary,
and on the train from Luton to London
she met a fellow commuter. They loved one another
but for months she wouldn’t take him home –
her sister had a baby and an atmosphere;
he insisted, and after the wedding
they lived in a flat close to Paddington.

She gave her daughters comfort and stability,
caught their floods of words
which rushed from every day.
Best times were half-term shopping in the town,
then cups of tea and reading by the fire.
Eventually they left for work and college:
she never held too tight, but missed them.

Her fellow traveller journeyed on –
he formed a company and she assisted.
Through the days she typed and checked;
at night and in unsettled dawns
lay listening to his plans and fears,
always reassuring, willing his success:
she only turned from him to hide the growing lump.

Disease had spread and held her hostage –
feline cancer seldom lets its victims stray.
For years it failed to mawl her spirit
even when the stick progressed to wheelchair;
only when she couldn’t stir from bed,
jousting pain with ranks of coloured pills,
she said, ‘I hope this won’t go on much longer.’

Her taut neck stretched across the pillow,
face attenuated back to youth,
the ageing woman and the little girl are one.
The curtain descends on seven ages –
invisibly, they take their final bow.
Nurses, importunate ushers, quickly confer
and parcel her up in a sheet.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1995

Saying goodbye

The flesh drained back on to the pillow
so his nose poked up surprising, sharp,
a single flower placed beside his head,
below his green-pyjama’d shoulders –
fragile, like a child laid lovingly to sleep.

There were signs his nose had bled –
otherwise he looked tidy and so still.
His eyes were closed, his mouth fixed
wide open in a grimace of false teeth;
his beard neat, the hair above his ears
curlier, more playful than I’d thought.

On Sunday afternoons, a child,
I’d stared so often at his sleeping chest,
convinced the next breath wouldn’t come,
that now I stared again and waited –
unwilling to believe that chest was still forever –
for him to say, ‘Hello, dear – is it tea-time yet?’

Beyond the window I looked out of,
to the outside world opaque,
unknown unknowing people crossed the carpark,
visiting – leaving – friends or relatives,
deliberately jolly, insultingly alive –
as though some other outcome could be theirs.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Orbis No.99, Winter 1995

Ironing the hankies

I’ve done his shirts. Now I’m on the hankies.
I learnt on these. My mother thought I couldn’t harm
the plain white squares. He had plenty anyway.

First you flatten out and heat away the creases,
then fold in half, do both sides, fold again,
ending with a steaming, neatly cornered wedge.

Clean hankies conjure up his optimistic mornings:
watering the plants before setting off for work
humming with vitality, redolent of soap.

Now there’s not much sense in being optimistic.
All that’s left to hope for – a pain-free, sudden end.
In the meantime I continue ironing the hankies,

pressing all my love into worn white cotton.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Understanding 6, 1996

Snapshots

I fell on to the pebbles from his shoulders:
‘Are you all right?’ my first anxious words –
adults had so far to fall. He told my mother
how absurd I was to worry about him. I never
thought how scared he must have been for me.

I couldn’t get my key to turn and kept on struggling,
trying to pretend the lock was only stuck inside my head.
Damp from swimming, tears about to add to all the wet,
I was rescued by a sympathetic mother-type
who led me to the desk to ask for help.
From the corner of my eye I saw him waiting –
his towel rolled up, impatient for his breakfast.
He looked as though he wished I wasn’t born.
When I at length emerged, we drove away in silence.

I saw my first nude men (apart from him)
when he took me to the Everyman in Liverpool –
it wasn’t quite what he expected but we both enjoyed it.
Another time we went to see Jean Brodie, he alone
applauding when a schoolgirl did a handstand.
Zhivago, West Side Story, Zefirelli’s Romeo – I saw them all with him,
fighting back my tears in case he called me Fairy Liquid.

He took me out to eat the night my finals ended.
I knew I’d hear the outcome in the morning, so was distracted
when he handed me the largest cheque he ever had.
He told my mother I didn’t seem very grateful.

He cried into the washing-up.
My sister had explained Mum wouldn’t last another day,
cancer having cleared a path for chest infection.
He’d thought it could go on like this for months.

We stood on platforms facing one another –
me going back to London, he to work.
Both tried to look absorbed in something else.
I wondered how he’d be next time I saw him.
His train came first; he settled by the window –
then we waved at one another, smiling.

I left him in an armchair with his sherry –
I’d turned down having one as well. I’d held his hand
when all the drugs had made him feel peculiar,
pushed him in a wheelchair for a change of view –
he’d hunched up small to negotiate the doorways
for I seemed rather clumsy, as usual with him.
I clothed his swollen feet in baggy socks,
kissed him twice and left, not turning back.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994