for Elizabeth Ryle
Immediately cries were heard. These were the loud wailing of infant souls weeping at the very entrance-way; never had they had their share of life’s sweetness for the dark day had stolen them from their mothers’ breasts and plunged them to a death before their time.
—Virgil, The Aeneid, Book VI
And then the dark fell and ‘there has never’
I said ‘been a poem to an antibiotic:
never a word to compare with the odes on
the flower of the raw sloe for fever
‘or the devious Africa-seeking tern
or the protein treasures of the sea-bed.
Depend on it, somewhere a poet is wasting
his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious
‘emblem instead of the real thing.
Instead of sulpha we shall have hyssop dipped
in the wild blood of the unblemished lamb,
so every day the language gets less
‘for the task and we are less with the language.’
I finished speaking and the anger faded
and dark fell and the book beside me
lay open at the page Aphrodite
comforts Sappho in her love’s duress.
The poplars shifted their music in the garden,
a child startled in a dream,
my room was a mess—
the usual hardcovers, half-finished cups,
clothes piled up on an old chair—
and I was listening out but in my head was
a loosening and sweetening heaviness,
not sleep, but nearly sleep, not dreaming really
but as ready to believe and still
unfevered, calm and unsurprised
when she came and stood beside me
and I would have known her anywhere
and I would have gone with her anywhere
and she came wordlessly
and without a word I went with her
down down down without so much as
ever touching down but always, always
with a sense of mulch beneath us,
the way of stairs winding down to a river
and as we went on the light went on
failing and I looked sideways to be certain
it was she, misshapen, musical—
Sappho—the scholiast’s nightingale
and down we went, again down
until we came to a sudden rest
beside a river in what seemed to be
an oppressive suburb of the dawn.
My eyes got slowly used to the bad light.
At first I saw shadows, only shadows.
Then I could make out women and children
and, in the way they were, the grace of love.
‘Cholera, typhus, croup, diptheria’
she said, ‘in those days they racketed
in every backstreet and alley of old Europe.
Behold the children of the plague.’
Then to my horror I could see to each
nipple some had clipped a limpet shape—
suckling darknesses—while others had their arms
weighed down, making terrible pietàs.
She took my sleeve and said to me, ‘be careful.
Do not define these women by their work:
not as washerwomen trussed in dust and sweating,
muscling water into linen by the river’s edge
‘nor as court ladies brailled in silk
on wool and woven with an ivory unicorn
and hung, nor as laundresses tossing cotton,
brisking daylight with lavender and gossip.
‘But these are women who went out like you
when dusk became a dark sweet with leaves,
recovering the day, stooping, picking up
teddy bears and rag dolls and tricycles and buckets—
‘love’s archaeology—and they too like you
stood boot deep in flowers once in summer
or saw winter come in with a single magpie
in a caul of haws, a solo harlequin.’
I stood fixed. I could not reach or speak to them.
Between us was the melancholy river,
the dream water, the narcotic crossing
and they had passed over it, its cold persuasions.
I whispered, ‘let me be
let me at least be their witness,’ but she said
‘what you have seen is beyond speech,
beyond song, only not beyond love;
‘remember it, you will remember it’
and I heard her say but she was fading fast
as we emerged under the stars of heaven,
‘there are not many of us; you are dear
‘and stand beside me as my own daughter.
I have brought you here so you will know forever
the silences in which are our beginnings,
in which we have an origin like water,’
and the wind shifted and the window clasp
opened, banged and I woke up to find
the poetry books stacked higgledy piggledy,
my skirt spread out where I had laid it—
nothing was changed; nothing was more clear
but it was wet and the year was late.
The rain was grief in arrears; my children
slept the last dark out safely and I wept.