1. The Winter: 1748
—Erasmus Darwin, 1731-1802
A little satin like wind at the door.
My mother slips past in great side hoops,
arced like the ears of elephants
on her head a goat-white wig,
on her cheek a dollop of mole.
She has entered the evening, and I
her room with its hazel light.
Where her wig had rested is a leather head,
a stand, perfect in its shadow but
carrying in fact, where the face should be,
a swath of door. It cups
in its skull-curved closure
clay hair stays, a pouch of wig talc
that snows at random and lends to the table
a neck-shaped ring.
When I reach inside I am frosted,
my hand like a pond in winter, pale
fingers below of leaves or carp.
I have studied a painting from Holland,
where a village adjourns to a frozen river.
Skaters and sleighs, of course, but
ale tents, the musk of chestnuts,
someone thick on a chair with a lap robe.
I do not know what becomes of them
when the flow revisits. Or why
they have moved from their warm hearthstones
to settle there—except that one step
is a method of gliding,
the self for those moments
weightless and preened as my leather companion.
And I do not know if the fish there
have frozen, or wait in some stasis
like flowers. Perhaps they are stunned
by the strange heaven—dotted with
boot soles and chair legs
and are slumped on the mud-rich bottom—
waiting through time for a kind of shimmer,
an image perhaps, something
known and familiar, something
rushing above in their own likeness,
silver and blade-thin at the rim of the world.
2. The Lions: North Staffordshire, 1770
—James Whitfield, 1735-1772
There are backflows of broom and mayweed,
slick on the mine path.
And the bulrush reeds stretch up from the marsh pond
like the stiffened tails of lions.
I walk toward a village of perfect exchange:
my life taking coal from the earth, then the potter
in turn taking heat from the coal, the earth
giving up an arc shape of pot, and the pot
giving back, in some fired brilliance,
a raspberry vine. . . .
We make from the spines of bulrush reeds
our tallow candles, each turn
in a trough of sheep fat
increasing their marble. They burn with a kind
of spitting and cast to the walls
an equal division of soot and light,
all the surfaces gradually blackening,
around the crucifix, the pastel sketch of
a peach and char.
Through the windows,
great kilns cast the shadows of scent jars.
It is a kind of immortality for us, that
entering, that coming away, icicles thick
in the drift tunnels, our lungs half functioning,
but functioning—each chest with its hissing
like a room with a brook running under it.
When the earth shudders just over our heads,
we say that the lions are walking,
down from the marsh pond, out through
the seams. We die with their chests
pressed over our chests. In feast position.
In rubble or in bed.
The lions are with us, we say to our children,
although nothing is there but
the bedclothes. They have come for their tails,
that sputter and flare on the bedposts
and mark with their compass-point brilliance
the absolute boundaries of
any world opening under us.
3. Wedgwood: 1790
—Josiah Wedgwood, 1730-1795
When smallpox settles like sand at the knee
each upstep is a rasp, each kneeling
the hiss, then downwash of seedpods.
Just a boy, I limped past a pity
of cantering geese, black-beaked with madness,
each with its burden of drunken rider,
then crossed the short tracks of moorland waste,
the gorse tufts, the low-slung canopies of broom.
Near the treeline, a single deer stepped
into a stillness, watched me from a stillness,
a magical closure of particles, light. Behind me,
the pot banks of Burslem shivered like hives.
I grew, declined. My cane tip
a hail on the cobbles. And each day,
each year, from a salt glaze or green glaze:
knife-hafts, pickle-leaves, then creamers, Queen's ware,
the press of the moulder's board, the dip
of the baller's scale. I visited the chemists.
I visited the soil.
One spring, they severed my leg with a surgeon's blade.
And up through the rice grains of laudanum,
through the stupor, dream, as the blade
wheezed with the breath-strokes of sleepers,
I watched the still globe of our earth
shatter and rush, burst away in an instant—
particles, light. Then a cough. The thin
lispings of thread under skin.
On a wooden limb—brindled and cold as a pike—
I walked and re-walked the kiln-room floors,
saw on the rackworks those jasper bodies, cawk-white
and luminous. And where was I going those years
of my life, pigments of gorse and heath
flaring, fading on the hillsides?
In the royal chambers one morning, I watched
as the Queen, from an elbow pad of claret velvet,
reached up with her forearm and open hand
to the open hand of the glove maker. From her
nails and knuckles to her palm, wrist,
he stroked out a cover of suckling fawn, translucent,
fragile as the inner skin of eggs.
Then a flush rose in the rims of her ears,
as if she imagined an alternate world, as if
through that dappled membrane, she were held
by an alternate world—suspended—like water
by a vase still rich with the coal-scent of fire.
And as long as she did not move at all,
there she would stay.