Monday, December 20, 2004

Poetry selections from Still Life of a Muse

These poems are about the life of Elizabeth Siddal, wife to the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In 1861 Elizabeth gave birth to a stillborn daughter and in 1862 she died of an overdose of laudanum. In my poems, her pregnancy and consequent stillbirth are treated metaphorically as a symbol for her unrealized creativity. Strangely enough, I wrote the poem “Stillbirth” when I was pregnant.

Earlier versions of these poems were published in Contemporary Verse 2 Volume 26.4 (2004)


You admire your belly big
as Jonah’s whale. A living house
of fleshed-out interiors.
A tender bone architecture
where another hides, tucked inside

cradled darkness.
Rhythmic beatings felt deep
in the flesh.

You have difficulty buttoning dresses.
Corset laces give way under
the stress of unruly flesh.
Your body — expansive, blown large
before your delighted eyes,
spanning out to great distances.

You chart the progress,
measure your belly’s ample swell.
Giggle at the way, when lying down, a teacup
balances on waves of undulating skin.
You trust the current that ripples

just beneath the surface.
Your body a seaside cottage. Walls stripped
of paint, bones bare and stunningly beautiful
in the morning light. A glowing fire warms
interior chambers. Radiates outward,
the tendrils of your hair
alive and flaming.


Shut in,
the walls entomb you. The bed
tucks folds of your skirt into sheets, wraps you
like a cocoon — something soon to be born
or already dead.

Doctors visit often.
Insist your mind is too excited.
Warn that gentle waves of swelling thought
can soon turn tumultuous,

crashing in doors, flooding rooms.
They warn – imagination a danger.
Confine you to bed.

The curtains are drawn shut.
Shadows creep into empty corners.
You no longer trust the darkness.
Keep one eye open, scanning

the invading night.
The walls are advancing.
You hear them whispering strategies, plotting
the deployment of chairs, the hostile
take-over of the window.

You feel the dresser’s encroachment,
slyly advancing
when you are not looking.

You toss,
swaddled in crisp white sheets,
trying to free yourself
from suffocating fabric. Pass through

these troubled waters.
Dream the child inside
wages war, punches blindly
against darkness with tiny clenched fists —
fights to be liberated,
as though light provided shelter.


You push out
dead weight, half expecting a cry.
But there is no declaration of arrival,
no gasp of air and sudden scream
announcing I am born —
only silence. A woman you do not know
washing glistened blood from your thighs.

You desire only to hold her,
cradle her in your body’s warmth one last time.

Place small hands
between yours, rub vigorously as if kindling fire,
force the heat in. Open her mouth, push
in breath, try to inflate lungs
like some god.

Darkness is all you see. The black pits
of her eyes, a lake of your own blood.

A canvas devoid of colour, the world holds no
light for you now. You tunnel underground

with your newly-born dead, bury her
in that dark place where nothing
more will thrive. The center
grown darker still.