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Elizabeth Armstrong

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Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

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feral

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

We found him one day on the edge of the forest,
hair tangled, naked,
growling like a wolf.

The jungle boy: nobody knew who he was
but we took him into our house
where he screamed at mirrors.

At first he wouldn't talk, hid under the beds.
My mother gave him cake and he sniffed at it.
When I showed him the pages of my books
he looked, enthralled, uncomprehending.

He was frightened of the fire
but could climb to the top of the tallest tree.
He showed me and we hid in the branches
laughing, as my mother searched for us below.

After a few months he stopped growling
and copied my speech,
copied
until he was wearing clothes and eating from plates.

He still can't read but he has been tamed by words
and it will come soon.
Just now I speak them out to him,
his big dark eyes flashing with joy.

Mother says we have to take him to church.
I don't want to,
my jungle brother kneeling like the others.
He smells of wild things still:
adventures, earth and sun.

He does not seem fitted for chains,
for suits and collars,
hymnbooks, shops.

Tonight I mean to go into the woods with him
and lose myself in his world;
forsaking houses for the warmth of stars and rivers,
shivering my way into wildness,
saving him from the town.


poem in C minor

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

I am afraid that for you it has been a bagatelle,
An idle distraction to while away days of inaction

In the same way you discuss Heaven and Hell,
Quite unattached, incurious: ideas are spurious.

Everything is a game reflected in your eyes:
Pale, ironic, you dissect us, so sardonic.

Others die, they suffer. You register surprise,
Your wit a knife to carve holes in my life.

I used to envy you your point of view.
You never feel, you never hurt, all is unreal;

But lately I am feeling something new.
Your life is pretty, empty. You have my pity.

success story

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

We sat in the car, my mother and I.
She said, "Did you know
Rachmaninov failed his music exams as a young man?"
I could see this as a useful excuse,
Tucked it away for future occasions
On which I will fall short.

At the supermarket, scrabbling among apples,
Running my fingers over endless rows of tins,
Her words turned cartwheels in my head.
Hearing the sound of frantic cellists, dissonance,
An able mess of snarling percussion,
Even a single violin like a vision of Heaven.
Somewhere behind the composer's shabby back
Stand frowning examiners
Peering over glasses and shaking heads.

Poor Rachmaninov, slumped with a silent orchestra,
Forlorn amongst mangoes.

realisation

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

I never understood how people could be afraid of life:
tentative, refusing to jump in puddles,
looking at their watches.

For a long time it was foreign to me:
anxiety,
the need for life insurance and nightlights.
Security seemed something for the old and infirm.

For me, I always said, the open road -
not knowing what each day will hold,
what new faces, what foreign places.

I was blind until the dark descended,
my happiness childish, uncompromising.
Others' weaknesses offended me, feeble excuses
for their own inadequacies.

No more.

Now I too have joined the ranks of the timid.
If the map says, 'Here be monsters'
I do not go to investigate.
I wear my fear like a badge
and it engulfs me.

I shrink from debate.
My heart threatens to stop
when footprints carve their way on my spine,
when people I don't know talk to me -
strangers - not a word a used before.

Dreaming is not easy today.
The scales have fallen from my eyes and now
I see the way is riddled with thorns.

nightside

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

The owl glides silently over the moonlit field.
It is mouse-strewn, each blade of grass distinct,
a jungle.

The sheep shiver on the darkened hill.
It is a maze of terror and noises,
bewildering.

The bats flit over the midnight river.
It is insect-laden, a ribbon of echoes,
not dazzling.

The stargazer watches the star-splashed sky.
It is a web of distant dying suns, infinite,
enthralling.

growing up

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

Anna smiles. Today is Wednesday,
when the ice-cream man comes in good weather
with his cloudy spoonfuls of sugary cold
and looking out of the window
she can see the world is shining with summer.
Her blue blue eyes crease in anticipation;
her pink pink tongue licking her
red red lips into readiness.

All at once clouds sweep over from behind
the house, so many of them,
blocking the sun right out of the sky.
They are grey grey and she can see easily
that today is now a no-ice-cream day,
a save-the-money day, a maybe-next-week day.

When she is older she will remember this -
the cancelled treats -
and with rather more adjectives
curse the sullenness of an English summer,
like Shakespeare but with added ice-cream.

For a dead daughter

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

Here is the room we made you:
the white lace covers for your bed, not slept in;
the smiling china faces of your dolls, not played with;
the pink ribbons for your hair, not worn.
Your father painted these walls himself;
they are thick with his love for you.
Even now he holds your tiny fingers
as if they will break, his tears
mingling with mine on your pillow.
For a moment we both see you at the door;
your blonde curls pink-ribboned, laughing,
pointing at something we cannot see.
I can still feel the place you were inside me:
the warmth, the way I came to know you.
Somehow you seemed to be your own person
even as you were part of me.
I felt your moods, your little heartbeat
(too weak) drumming us both to sleep.
Perhaps one day another little version of you
will pick up the dolls in that room,
but for now it is full of your phantom,
our mutual hallucinations.
We will be looking for you a long time.

tunnel vision

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

In the city

ambulances howl, children scowl,
phones ring, radios sing,
cars beep, night workers sleep,
games are played, friends betrayed,
dogs bark, a tramp dies in the park,
people drink, fishmongers stink,
parties are held, oak trees are felled,
windows are washed, victims are coshed.

God is hovering above the city.
He makes this announcement:

"This is an announcement.
I will shortly destroy this city
if you do not mend your ways.
Do you not remember how to behave?"

No-one hears him
because they are being too loud and busy.
They say, "We are very busy, important people"
and pat each other on the back.

Then, in the city

ambulances howl, children scowl,
phones ring, radios sing,
cars beep....

September

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

How the lip of the horizon frowns at us;
pouts, draws itself up with a snarl
of storm-sound. This is such a sky
to be painted, toweringly with a palette
of blacks and purples. How the gulls
shriek at the wind, struggling to fly,
spindly like fish in a gathering net.
How the sea gains momentum, waves
snapping in a strange choreography.
How it barks at our heels, snarls
like a mad dog chained just out of reach.
This is a day to be open and free -
to run on the sands, to tramp up the beach.
How the gruff shout of a ship’s horn
rings in the bay, reverberates, muffled,
and warns us away. How the ruffled
panic of water reflects me as we gaze
into the chime of the storm-hounded sea.

Report

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

At the time of the crime
the king was in his counting-house
looking at the empty coffers
and counting the lines around his eyes
in a cracked little hand-mirror that had
somehow found its way upstairs.
The queen, meanwhile, could be seen
conjugating verbs in the parlour
with that sweet little frown upon her face
that he had so loved when they first met.
Of course the maid was in the garden
investigating the second under-gardener
with the clothes she was meant to be
hanging out strewn across the lawn.
The scene of the crime was the kitchen
but when we went there later
to make enquiries, the French chef
was temperamentally in tears
and all that could be seen
was a few black feathers lying,
singed, on the disarranged table.
It was only that evening
that we stumbled across the corpse
of the maid in a rhododendron
with the hole grotesquely gaping
above the flap of her mouth.

Song for Survival

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

Now is the time to survive,
To ride on the waves
And weather the tide.

Now is the time to give in,
To grin through your troubles
And offload your sin.

Now is the time to lay low,
To know you are dying
But not let it show.

Now is the time to build walls,
To crawl into silence
As blackest night falls.

Now is the time to take stock,
To lock yourself up
In a steel-clad box.

Now is the time to stand strong,
To long for some comfort
But never let on.

Now is the time to breathe deep,
To keep your defences
But slip into sleep.

longing

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

Let time slip away
between your absences
for they choke me today

breathe softly
I hear your closeness
voice lost thoughts

my love
let the hours pass
they are long
and I am transmuted into a light being
voiceless over roofs of houses

I see you through the window
let time slip away easily
my love
until your return.

Rootless

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

He calls me rootless
(like a plant, shallowly
striving for water,
barred the deep mountain streams,
the run-off; parched and spindly,
growing feebly towards the sun).

I remember the cities, the schools
in which I read under the table,
the park where my sister
fell off a swing from trying
to reach that same pale sun
and as the ambulance lit the lane
bluely she frothed at the mouth
like the bubbling of a split stem.
The street corners, the churches
droning into my consciousness
and if I put out feelers
they never quite took. The
moors on which I walked and nearly,
so nearly drove down, dug deep,
burrowed into the safety of belonging.
Alone: branches thrived but

truncated once again in nomadic
uplift, torn out of soil. One
week and another transplantation
will shred the roots a little further
and there is no sky I can walk under
and say, 'this is my sky'. No
cobbled streets in which I could
close my eyes and send my footsteps
safely along. This house is a closed eye
and the ocean is a blank face
and the city is a clenched fist;
in their midst I am nothing,
and may be pulled up without effort.

For my sister

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

The riddle of our separate lives
confounds me as we are prisoners together,
trapped in a web of poetry
and the tangerine sky beckons this morning
with the promise of my knowing you
all at once. Not merely the jutting
of wrist or ankle, the swipe of eyelash
and pout of lip. Not merely the
shared memories: the time
we were walking in the fields at night
away from streetlamps, scared by the sound
of a water pump on the building site;
the way pigeons scrabbled on the roof
over your old room in the attic;
the paths and hidden tadpole-pools
on the hillside we used to love. No,
I want to have the knowledge of you
complete, secure in the hollow of my ear
like a secret whispered, treasured.
The horizon today seems to offer such
an acquaintance of your thoughts,
your jealously guarded intricacies
and so I fly towards it, questing.

Reverie

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

When I was a shell I knew the sea -
its secret places, its swells and tides,
the rocking motion of it soothing my curves
and the sandy expanse of its underbelly.

When I was a bird I knew the sky,
the brunt of the wind pulsing behind my wings,
buoying my hollow bones
and the way clouds formed, wispily.

When I was stone I knew the earth,
the harsh strength of its grip,
its slow movements grinding over my back
and the safety of it, like an anchor.

Now I am a person I know nothing
but the loss of sea and sky and earth,
the disconnectedness of being incomplete,
the imminence of death.

this craft

by

Elizabeth Armstrong

It is a strange thing
to make a poem. Think of the way
a carpenter fashions wood, smoothing
the grain of it with sandpaper
and callused hands. With equal care
must a poet gather up his gift of words
and spin thoughts into a tapestry.

If I wrote a poem about my family
it would be one in which the stanzas
snapped angrily at each other,
antagonistic, and no two lines ever
quite rhymed. Overall it would be
like the song of an aged dragon
which roars constantly,
but with the occasional pause
to catch its breath. If I wrote
a poem about the way I feel
it would be crawling with strange metaphors
and nothing would be clear. The usual
disguise, a mirror somewhat obscured
for a vaguer revelation.

It is a strange thing to be a poet,
or almost one. To take down
the bones of life and spin them
from skeletal to something
more palatable. To use words
as a violinist does the strings
of his instrument, feverishly
listening to the echoes
and recreating them.

The birthday party:

by

Elizabeth Armstrong


It’s supposed to be a pirate theme,
but some children came as fairies
(they always do). "She’s Tinkerbelle"
their mothers explain, with a wink,
"she wouldn’t come as anything else."
The cake is in the shape of a parrot,
slightly cross-eyed, almost leering.
I made it myself. The entertainer
turns up twenty minutes late
and meanwhile screams and moans
accompany a hastily-constructed
game of pass-the-parcel. The guests
are not so easily impressed.
Unfortunately, he’s dressed as a clown
and drunk. I specifically asked
for a wooden leg and an eye patch,
preferably a villainous scar or two.
In the end, everything descends
into balloon-popping chaos.
The last I see of the clown
he’s down, besieged under the weight
of many determined brigands,
or mini versions of. Just then
a bloodthirsty scream: one boy
has been poked in the eye
with a rubber cutlass. Luckily,
ten minutes later he seems to have
forgotten, bribed with pirate loot
(chocolate coins).

Later, when we’re clearing up,
scraping hardened jelly off the wall
and collecting shredded balloons
our daughter flies into the room.
She’s still dressed up, pirate
bandanna slipped over one eye
and papier-mache hat somewhat
bedraggled. "I love you, Mummy"
she says with a massive toothy smile.
"That was the best party ever!"
and somehow I find myself agreeing
to a mermaid theme next year.
I can just imagine some child
getting poked in the eye
with Triton’s trident.