Welcome, blog readers, to another installment of our Pick-a-Poem feature. Although I took last week off for the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve now returned with another poem for you. These (mostly) weekly posts offer a new poem and poet for you to discover. Hopefully you’ll find someone new whose work you can read. Everyone needs a bit more poetry in their lives, right? These poems come to use from Poetry Daily, which is a great website that offers a new poem every day. This week we’re featuring A Matter of Life and Death by Sinéad Morrissey.
According to her bio page, Sinéad Morrissey is an Irish poet who has written five collections of poetry. These include There Was Fire in Vancouver, Between Here and There, The State of the Prisons, Through the Square Window, and Parallax. She has received several awards for her work, including the 2013 T.S. Eliot Prize, the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, and first place in the 2007 UK National Poetry Competition. She teaches creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University, Belfast.
A Matter of Life and Death by Sinéad Morrissey
On the afternoon I’m going into labour so haltingly it’s still easy
to bend and breathe, bend and breathe, each time the erratic clamp
sets its grip about my pelvis, then releases—
I take a nap, eat lunch and while you pen a letter to our impending offspring
explaining who we are, what there is on offer in the house
we don’t yet know we’ll leave, to be handed over
on his eighteenth birthday like a key to the demesne, sit front-to-back
on an upright chair in the living room and switch on the television.
World War II. David Niven is faltering after a bombing op
in a shot-up plane. Conservative by nature, Labour by conviction,
he quotes Sir Walter Raleigh: O give me my scallopshell of quiet,
my staff of faith to walk upon, while a terrified American radio girl
listens in. It’s all fire and ravenous engine noise—he can’t land
because the fuselage is damaged and he hasn’t a parachute.
Then, because he’d rather fall than fry, he bails out anyway—
a blip on the screen vanishing into cloud cover. The girl hides her face in her hands.
The baby drops a fraction of an inch and the next contraction hurts.
I know I’m at the gentlest end of an attenuated scale
of pain relief: climbing the stairs, a bath, two aspirin, tapering down as the hours
roll on (and we relocate to hospital) to gas and air, pethidine,
a needle in the spine, and go out to walk the sunny verges
of our cul-de-sac like a wind-up, fat-man toy, tottering every five minutes or so
into a bow. Nobody’s home. The bins are still out on the road
after this morning’s pick-up. The light is slant and filled
with running gold. Back inside, the film has switched to Technicolor
monochrome: an anachronistic afterlife in grey in which dead airmen
sign in under ‘name’ and ‘rank’, the Yanks smack gum
and swagger, isn’t this swell? and a legion of otherworldly women
with hair rolled high as dunes hand out enormous plaster wings
to the just-deceased. The dead are invoiced for,
like battleships or teapots, their names on the list ticked off
as they swing through each allotted doorway clean and whole
and orderly—the incomprehensible machinery of life and death
a question of books that balance. And there’s this sudden tug inside,
rigging straining taut and singing, and I cry out for the first time,
and in you come to coax and soothe as though I’m doing something—
running a marathon, climbing a mountain—instead of being forced back down
into my seat by some psychopathic schoolmarm over and over again,
stay. And I think of my granny and her forty-six hours
of agony, shifting my mother from one world to the next, and how that birth
cut short her happiness at the Raleigh bicycle factory in Nottingham
where her youth was spent in secret war work, typing up invoices.
Back in heaven, there’s about as much commotion as there’s been in a million
years (a slight shake of the head by the woman in charge, a sigh)
because David Niven, who should have arrived but hasn’t,
landed on a beach and—how?—survived, met the American radio operator
as she cycled home after the night-shift, and fell in love. He must be sent for.
Down below, they’re already looking post-coital: picnicking in civvies
on a homespun Tartan rug in a Technicolor rose garden. I’m not supposed
to show up at the hospital for hours, or not until the cervix
has done its slow, industrial cranking-wide enough to be marked
by a thumb-span, and the problem is I don’t know what that means, or how to tell,
or how much worse the pain is going to get (answer: a lot)
and so the afternoon grows hot and narrow and you abandon
your confessions altogether and the botched clock of paradise with seven hands
across its face ticks on the wall. I’ve seen it many times, said my granny,
when a new life comes into a family, an old life goes out—
as though there were checks and balances, birth weighted against death
like a tidy invoice, and a precise amount of room allotted the living.
Before we inch upstairs to the bathroom to test what sweet relief
is granted, after all, by a bath and lavender oil, I catch sight
of a magical marble escalator—the original stairway to heaven—with David Niven
captive on its steps being hauled away to the sound of a clanking bell
from his radiant girlfriend, and I imagine my granny, who died three weeks ago
on a hospital ward in Chesterfield, making room as she herself predicted,
not dumb and stricken and hollowed out with cancer
but young, glamorous, childless, free, in her 1940s’ shoes and sticky lipstick,
clicking about the office of new arrivals as though she owns it,
flicking open the leather-bound ledger and asking him to sign.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s featured poem! For more of these posts, click here.
— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan