for Mark Haworth-Booth
Small mother, I want to believe that when the soul is released it is borne to the stars by a swan, though the body remains, your small bones laid in a Perspex kist and soft-clothed clean, beads at your mouth like a song for the child curled at your side on a dead swan’s wing. Lately I learned that, for another tribe, Ursa Major constellates a stretcher and Ursa Minor is the stretcher of a child. Surely your baby was flown on this soft litter to the emergency room of heaven, hurtled through its vast swing doors into galleries of light, nursed and cauterized, without trembling or pain. Some hot Syrian nights of bomb-shocked children shivering in the clinic, legs dangling from the gurney, screaming for a mother who is not there, a small boy cradling his baby sister who is dead, I want more than anything to trust that a child’s soul flies up on a swan’s white back, that there’s room for them all in the deep expanding dark, that they’ll take their stations, their heavenly bodies burning, and graze the world again, as light. But I think this life is all there is, and all these children know of it is a doctor whose hand shakes so much she cannot stitch, and a cold faraway feeling, the white rush of a white breath leaving and the strange ascension of dying.
Here’s my body in the bath, all the skin’s inflamed trenches and lost dominions, my belly’s fallen keystone its slackened tilt – for all the Aztec gold I’d not give up this room where you slept, your spine to my right, your head stoppered in my pelvis like a good amen – amen I say to my own damn bulk, my milk-stretched breasts – amen I say to all of this if I have you – your screw-ball smile at every dawn, your half-pitched, milk-wild smile at every waking call, my loved-beyond-all-reason darling, dark-eyed girl.
In the Milk Days of Your Sister
After years of ruling this roost, little chick, your hair is unbrushed, your breakfast brought in to the sitting room, everything out of custom and your parents somehow gone, your father silent, the laughter blown out of your mother like someone snuffed her out. You put your hands each side of your sister’s fat cheeks in a gesture entirely your own, and you tell her that you love her, and my poor exhausted soul for love of you, bows down.
I fled upriver cut gills, sprang scales, he was teeth in the water rudder-tailed –
I became a snake and hid on my belly he became a mongoose Rikki-Tikki-Tavi –
I became long-eared and burrowed into earth he was muscle in the tunnels, trap-jawed, fast –
I was a deer streaking for the hills he was the runner snapping at my heels –
I fletched black and tan and flew against the wind before I reached the stars he was swan, I was pinned –
we made a crater where we fell screaming through the night a bloody prolapse – his shame, not mine.