When she swept first in heartless cars
or steered the slow, heart-thumping bike,
she saw the wet queues waiting, like
children for Christmas. Or a bus.
Now work is gone, though she could drive,
she thought, before sickness or fuss,
she would shun cars. For as a child
she rode hills on a swaying bus.
Now when a queue is tense and hunched
she knows the D is running late,
or notes, with its majestic shrug,
Ninety-Four swings past Ninety-Eight.
Beneath clean, rattled roofs she meets
twins, wheelchairs, pugs. The most off-track?
‘I think he’s had a heart attack.’
She hurries on, through busless streets.
Dorothy Eliza Barnes, (Dot), my grandmother
Even their daughters could not know
quite how they did it. They had learnt
to brush, beat, polish, for the rich
who picked at toast, yawned at each stitch.
Dot’s own rooms smelled of Coal Tar soap,
cool as sea, brown as petals, burnt.
She stored black notebooks in her drawer
with ‘recipes’ her mother tried.
For feverish children, scoured by food,
rhubarb and ‘laudmum’ were thought good:
a purge. They needed water more,
salts, to revive. They may have died.
Their small ghosts crowded in her mind.
The enemy would not retire.
Floors, kitchen table, sinks were scrubbed
lay acid-pale, unpolished, tough.
(I dab bleach.) Death drubbed, she would find
mud whisper, soot fly from her fire.
My father saw her climb a chair.
Arms, dark as chimney, sluiced each beam.
She never glimpsed my calm dust. Still,
come Christmas, snows of polish fill
her deep black spoons for spices, flour.
Find rags. Rub tarnish. Hold her gleam.
25 Brook Street
(G.F.Handel’s London home)
His narrow house was lined with wood,
shutters, thick as barn doors.
His paintings hid the panels’ grain
above the soft pine floor.
Men blasted duck, or the shy snipe,
a few streets from his door.
How dark the room was where he wrote!
One window’s narrow slit
would show him chimneys, smoke-grazed sky
if he once glanced at it.
Hunched, before carters cursed at day,
while they snored, he would sit.
A painter found him in his room,
in shirt and tawny coat,
round-faced, a young farm labourer,
ink’s music tossed about.
His eyes were lit, clean blue and green.
No stiff lace soured his throat.
By painted pine, in red wool burred
like ours, he lies apart.
Huge, blind, propped on the pillows’ seas
he drifts, wakes with a start
to his last, best, unwritten tune
new-whistled from a cart.
Alison Brackenbury was born in Lincolnshire in 1953. Her work has won an Eric Gregory Award and a Cholmondeley Award. Her ninth collection is Skies, published by Carcanet in March 2016. Sample poems can be read at her website: alisonbrackenbury.co.uk