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

 

A Dying Song

‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed,
until he was breathless and pumped full of drugs. In the end
his heart couldn’t cope – perhaps it was all for the best.

He carried on working and lived with habitual zest –
tenacious of life, he’d never call illness a friend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed.

Decked out in his suit for the office, who could have guessed
he was ill, or how ill he was? He didn’t intend
his heart to give up – they say it was all for the best.

Bewildered and hopeful, he underwent all kinds of test –
he was so disappointed to learn that a liver won’t mend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed.

In the hospice the rabbi said ‘Death is like sailing off west’ –
he made it sound easy, as though one could send
him away with a wave, saying ‘It’s all for the best.’

He battled each phase of disease but wasn’t impressed
by doctors’ vague words – he’d rather they didn’t pretend.
‘The hills are alive’ he sang every day as he dressed –
his heart couldn’t cope, and I won’t say it’s all for the best.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Iota 34, 1996

Memento mori

All you know for certain is you’ll die
and so will all your friends;
you spend your busy life avoiding this,
the only thing you know.

You don’t know how – a slow death
years away, the heart attack tomorrow,
the wasting of disease, a sudden accident,
gunfire in the morning, or just old age.

It’s bound to take you by surprise.
You’ll enter that great loneliness alone –
no matter who stands round your bed
dispensing grapes and misplaced cheer.

You’ll forgive them for their lack of truth,
hear the frightened prayer behind the cliché:
‘Doctors can do amazing things these days …
‘Please find a cure for death before I die.’

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

Lara

I was looking for my muse and I found you –
sleeping between freshly laundered sheets
while wolves you took for dogs were howling
in the dark beyond your safety zone.

Iced rowanberries in the snow and strong white arms –
your concentration in the library at Yuryatin –
abandoned weeping on the coffin of your lover:
you stole my mind to live through for a time.

The sleigh is swallowed into distance. In your final
understated disappearing a part of me goes too –
out of fiction into history and the death camps,
lost in a multitude of women with no names.

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Stand Magazine, Spring 1997

Poet

NKVD_Mandelstam

On staring at a photo of Osip Mandelstam

OK Osya, you’ve made your point –
you’ve seen it all – you’re right.
As your eyes imply, I’ve never heard
that knock on the door at night;

never drunk for consolation tears
of a see-through Petropolis – town
where Gogol’s devil lights the lamps;
never perched on a ledge to fling down

my life. Your wife who wrenched you back
learns mercy would have killed. You stand
for speech that won’t be silenced,
the stubborn cry of a tongueless land.

I’ve heard your voice – the Soviet archives
produced a cylinder. Crackle and hiss
distorting the distant sounds,
an audience was haunted to hear this

Mandelstam, icon of his time and place.
Buried in some transit camp, forever
on the move: Siberia, December ’38 –
we think that’s when you died – then, and never.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1993

First published in Acumen 20, October 1994

Polite Notice

Keep clear

“Keep clear of lifts” the sign dictates
uncompromising in a dismal station,
not – “Keep clear when the lift is moving”,
“Don’t leave your luggage by the lift”,
“No access to unauthorised personnel”,
or even, “Beware this lift – it bites”.
but – world without end, KEEP CLEAR OF LIFTS.

Don’t succumb to that flight of fancy –
you’re English – cherish no high hopes.
(Lifts seem dangerously European.)
Avoid the doors of perception,
the gates of heaven and hell.
Mind your ps and qs. Don’t sniff.
Play up and play the game. KEEP CLEAR OF LIFTS.

Lifts could catapult you upwards,
leave your stomach hanging in mid-air.
You don’t know where you are with lifts –
they’re something else – they let you down,
they box you in and send you flying.
For safety’s sake, make sure you’ve got
clean underwear – KEEP CLEAR OF LIFTS.

If you want your life to stay the same,
your feet to stand on solid ground;
if you hate the thought of changing levels,
seeing sights you never saw before;
if you catch the same train every day,
clutching your briefcase, a flask of tepid tea:
the writing’s on the wall – KEEP CLEAR OF LIFTS.

©Virginia Rounding, 1993

First published in Ebbing Tide 10, Fall 1995

Leaving Whitstable

In memory of my old friend, the late Canon Gerald Hudson

You’re older this time, driving more erratic,
eyes more bloodshot. We talk and read
and talk again. Not everything is said.
We’ve shared our pilgrimage for years;
When it’s good-bye, how will we know?

Your memories are of Larkin and of Keyes,
your peers at Oxford. I press onward,
seize the challenge, trying in my turn
to speak the silence, sing the dark –
notice, and it’s gone … How capture that?

Inside the train I write to wring
my spirits out, pin them on the sky to dry.
The teasing sun with one last shaft of fire
retires behind the draperies of cloud.
Leaving Whitstable, I mourn.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1993

First published in Aireings 28, November 1994

Mary’s story

A woman broke an alabaster jar,
Emptied it over the head of a prophet.
She wept. Her tears fell on his feet.

A woman enraptured drank his words.
Her sister, cumbered with too much serving,
Complained, but nothing could move her.

A woman afflicted with seven devils
Loved the prophet for his healing,
Came to his tomb bearing spices.

Two women fuse in the last retelling:
Mary the sister of Martha oils his feet,
Soothes with unguent and her hair.

Which of these women was Mary
Called Magdalen, whether they all were,
Is anyone’s guess.

***********************

To overcome my nauseous fear of breathing
Foetid air of the leper Simon eating,
I fix my gaze on the homeless traveller
To whom my comfort comes before his bitterness.
An alabaster box of spikenard, very precious,
I break, and pour the oil upon his head.

Another time I brave the Pharisee,
Hear the whispered condemnation of his guests
Who sprawl at ease around his table –
But he whom I have come to bless
Releases me, dissolves my guilt;
His eyes reflect a love which drowns me,

Cracks my life to fragments,
Splintered images of might-have-been,
And I who once crawled lowly as an insect
Across propriety’s so scornful face
Begin to contemplate myself without revulsion,
Even dream my advent day of hope.

**************************

The men have vanished …
The women watch silently.
So far forgetting themselves and their duty
As to trail a madman around the countryside,
The authorities consider them hardly worth questioning.

He enters a state where they cannot follow him:
His focus fixed on the process of dying.
He is leaving them now, and at resurrection
His body will need no more of their tenderness.
When he is dead, they witness the burying.

***************************

They wrote of our bewilderment, that emptiness we knew,
As though an earthquake happened – some man in white
Descending from the clouds to roll the stone away.
All we felt was blankness, an aching apprehension
That even after death our love was interfered with.
We carried spices to disguise his putrefaction,
Caress him in a final act of love –
Even that small comfort had been snatched.
We had to make what sense we could of what we found –
Traces in a garden of the man we cared for.
Vaguely I remember kissing bloodstained feet,
Soaking up his suffering with my hair.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1992

 

Annunciation

Marie had sex with Arthur once in Bow.
The doctor spoke. He prophesied a birth.
Friends tried to cheer her up: you never know,

Your Arthur might be back some time – although
Who cares? There’s other men, there’s not a dearth.
Marie had sex with Arthur once in Bow.

She wondered why she fell for such a toe-
Rag. What a jerk! she chuntered without mirth.
Friends tried to cheer her up: you never know,

Your Mum’s upset right now, but may not throw
You out – and clothes exist for wider girth.
Marie had sex with Arthur once in Bow.

No angel helped Marie, nor did the glow
Of pregnancy do much for her self-worth.
Friends tried to cheer her up: you never know,

Perhaps you’ll have a famous child who’ll show
Us how to live, who’ll help to save the earth.
Marie had sex with Arthur once in Bow.
Friends tried to cheer her up: you never know.

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1992

Joan

Her life’s been rather disappointing
In a way, and lonely. I suppose
That’s why Robert likes to have her here
At Christmas, with her knitting, and those old
Pink mules she’s had for years. Funny
How she never married – still, she must
Be used to that by now – like those women
You read about in Barbara Pym,
Taking books and ovaltine to bed
And dreaming chastely of the vicar …

I never even saw him in his coffin …
I couldn’t bear to meet his friends and relatives,
Be quiet in the background, smile condolences …

We loved each other, and the price I have to pay
For our deception is this loneliness …
I had no life apart from him …

She didn’t come this year. I wrote
To ask her – I don’t think Robert’s death
Should stop us being friends. It’s odd;
I would have thought she’d want to join
In normal family life – the turkey
And the crackers – you know, be part
Of things – as far as spinsters ever
Can. I suppose that Robert dying
Came as something of a shock –
Secretaries don’t like change …

He’d been dead two days before I heard …
A message on the ansaphone that Monday morning –

His wife told how the ambulance had come too late …
It was the call I’d dreaded all these years …
He loved me, and I lived for him … I know
The kind of thing they’ll all be saying now …

Poor silly Joan – we should have guessed …
She must have misinterpreted
His kindness as her boss … These things
Do happen … the archetypal spinster …
His wife’s been very understanding in the circs …

 

©Virginia Rounding, 1992

First published in Iota 26, May 1994