Elizabeth Burns has written three collections of poetry. Her first, Ophelia and other poems, was shortlisted for a Saltire Award. Her pamphlet The Shortest Days won the inaugural Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets in 2009. She lives and teaches creative writing in Lancaster.
As the potter enfolds air with porcelain,
making, in this new vessel,
a presence round an absence,
containing what’s invisible
and at the same time smoothing into being
something that the hands can cup,
so, walking though October woods
I find myself reaching out
in some ancient gesture
of holding and encircling
as if I clasped my hands
around your body in its sickness –
as if by this I could give you,
for a moment, strength,
fastening more tightly
your spirit to its fragile skin.
THE SHORTEST DAYS
How the low sun flamed on those afternoons
with their early dusks, how the crusts of snow
in the pasture cast their blue shadows
and the moon’s shape grew sharper,
land and sky just prised apart
by the horizon’s slit of paler light
like the way the colours meet in Black on Grey,
that luminescence, thread of light, so fine
it’s scarcely visible: the shred of a life
that’s almost swallowed up
by dark. His last days on earth:
the precious lightness of his breath.
And if there were some way to take the weight
of all your sorrow, heavy as wet sand,
I would do it: our lives are tipped scales,
mine all air and weightlessness, yours leaden.
But these moments when I think of you
and a sense of your loss pours through me –
are they, like some form of prayer,
a shouldering of your heaviness,
a time when the grains of sea-sand shift
and you feel, so briefly, lightness again?
One year old, and he’s discovering the river,
dropping stones in at the edge, retrieving them.
He loves containers, says his mother,
then wonders, is a river a container?
The riverbed is: it curves its way from Roeburndale
down through these woods of wild garlic and bluebells,
letting the winding stony vessel of itself be filled
with springwater, meltwater, rainwater,
water which also contains things – you can plop
a stone into it, take it out again,
and here are glints of fish and floating twigs,
silt, insects, air-bubbles, ducklings –
and if the river’s a container, so’s a song,
holding words and tune; an eggshell
holds a bird, the atmosphere
enfolds the planet; everything is like a basket
says the basketmaker, the earth contains us,
we contain bones, blood, air, our hearts.
We are baskets and makers of baskets,
and fresh from the hold of the womb
the boy-child’s discovering how things
are held by other things: milk in a cup,
food in a bowl, a ball in his hands,
a stone in water, water in a nest of stones.
Evening sun in the plum blossom – the lit tree
white, gold, haloed – but you’d look at it later.
Later the sun disappeared, later it rained,
the blossom fell. No more light on petals,
the tree is all leaf now, a different creature,
just as your daughter, in flux, is blossoming,
opening – impossible not to take this image,
as old as myth or story, but add to it this:
that while the young girl is transformed,
her mother is, fleetingly, looking away.
LETTER TO KATHERINE MANSFIELD
on having her portrait rejected by the National Portrait
But you look great, Katherine, in your red dress
with your hair as black as the sea at night
when you peered from the deck on the long journey north
and your eyes so dark and serious, unflinching
in the soft Cornish light that falls on you
as you sit in her studio only months before your death.
Already your eyes are shadowed, your skin so pale
and, under the vermilion of your dress, your lungs
Flowers surround you, golds and pinks, scarlet poppies,
creamy whites like the blossoms of the pear tree in your story.
Your cheeks and mouth are cherry red, there is so much red,
there is also blood red. She pitches you onto the canvas,
this artist, she makes you flame from it, there is no
ignoring you, wild colonial girl. But your reds are too bright
for the committee of the gallery who suggest perhaps
a pencil drawing? It’s this or nothing say your friends.
So the portrait languishes, unseen. Fifty years on,
I’m sitting in a garden of frost and sunlight
reading your letters and journals in a book on whose cover
is that portrait, staring up at me, showing me a writer’s life.
Years later, I will give birth to a daughter
and name her for the girl in your stories, the girl they say
is like you, the sparky one, the curious one,
the one who rolls in the grass and goes where she shouldn’t.
Still not in the gallery, Katherine, but here among us,
your character’s name on our lips, your stories read over and
and you in that picture, defiant and vibrant, your reds
like the petals of tulips, crimson in winter.