Wie is de vrouw on de overkant?
Who is the woman on the other side?
It was the only phrase that stuck
in months of pre-trip conversation class.
As I struggled with the syntax,
it became clear you were a natural,
spending hours in the lab perfecting your grasp.
You couldn’t wait to track down a local
to ask how to say I love you? Ik hou van you,
you said, content with your acquisition.
You led me in the appropriate response,
encouraged me to practise daily. Ik hou ook van you;
all it took to keep you happy.
The towns we visited belonged to you,
their guttural place names all tongue and throat;
Groningen, Maastricht, Utrecht.
You strode through their stone streets
listing the features of gothic churches,
as I fumbled with a bi-lingual map.
(first published in the Yellow Nib)
The dilapidated hut at the sand’s edge
is a trick of the light, and shadows lift
to reveal a delicate arrangement of driftwood,
crate and rope; the uprooted debris of the sea.
Sunlight settles on a sodden sponge.
Here on a flat shelf of beach
disparities are ironed out;
faded plastic strips, origin unknown,
dull the glare of emerald glass.
Curious shallows slip to the shore.
Inland, the polder’s stillness is not disturbed
by the pylon’s hum or the clouds insistent shift.
She is remembering the sea, its possibilities,
drained by the regulated tidiness of men.
(first published in The Open Ear)
In my life there are several firmly fixed joys: not to go to the Gymnasium,
not to wake up in Moscow of 1919 and not to hear a metronome.
I am four –
I want to live in a cuckoo clock,
emerge on the hour from the wooden door
to call my call.
I am six –
straight-backed on a black stool as a steel stick
oscillates, its methodical click
measuring my days.
I am eight –
I want to live in a bright street-light,
peer at the path or up to the sky, and wait
to speak to the stars.
I am ten –
lead-legged on the parquet floor as mother
sneers at the words that flowed from my pen,
and rips the book.
I am twelve –
I want to live in Valeria’s room,
touch powders, pills, scent bottles on shelves,
lock myself in.
I am grown –
know now that love is sharply felt in parting
for she played her last note, left me alone,
free at fourteen.
I am old –
the clock sends shivers through my clicking spine,
the power of the lifeless over the living told
in the steady beat.
(first published in the Ulster Tatler)
The Portrait of his First Wife
Jealous of whom? Of the poor bones in the cemetery?
face to face,
his two wives –
no, not quite.
The young one, seventeen,
still has her feet on the ground.
She looks up
to the other, hung high
on the drawing-room wall.
The beauty gazes back,
smiles with her dark eyes,
her mouth as delicate as a bird’s.
The girl walks
to a tall window, looks out
at the silver poplar leaning across the gate.
A growing daughter
quickens at her centre, drives her on
through the rooms of this wooden house.
And she waits
for the strong wail of a son
to drive out the song of all her nights –
the call of a nightingale,
emerging softly from beneath
the locked door, to sooth a living boy.
(first published in the Stony Thursday Book)
Blinking in the Dark
If you have placed your hands, at their urging, on the new wet skull,
small as a cat’s, and recoiled in surprise at the slippery touch
of matted hair, despite the months of waiting, of willing this moment
to arrive, then you too can go back to the start of it all;
to that moment in the dark, eyes shut and alert to every touch
when I caught my breath, and you took it and made it your own
and surged blindly on, splitting to become whole; of course,
we were totally unaware in the instant we set you ticking (busy talking)
but that night I dreamt of rain, or heard it on the window pane –
persistent drops that fell and found the swell of a lake or river and made
for the open sea; I thickened as shadows pulsed on screens and lines peaked
and fell long before the quickening that made you, finally, real –
you held on tight, where others had faltered, and were content
to watch your tiny hand open and close in that watery room until the walls shuddered
in their bid to expel and you emerged and cried out into the light –
our cord cut, they carried you off to count your fingers and toes,
the vertebrae of your still-curved spine, checking for tell-tale signs
that you might be less than perfect; they did not see the cord take form
or hear it hiss as it slithered upward, past my breast, and I lay caught,
lead-legged and tied to machines, as it rose up, ready to swallow me whole.
(first published in Abridged)
These poems are © Stephanie Conn