Your past can’t tell it is the past.
How to convince it that it’s done with, now?
The only touches that I got before I reached eighteen were blows.
It never crossed my mind to look for others’ kindness, later on.
But my pigheaded will alone propelled me to my sorrows.
When I could step into the shockingly open world
I wasn’t sure of where I ended, or where someone else began.
This was a joyous state.
Under my skin I might have been a man, a kindly one.
Longing leaped in flames, it raced and crackled.
Small winds tore through it, keening
and fanning its chase.
It made the truest of songs —
it was the truth ablaze,
it was pure wanting, bloodied and radiant.
Holy, holy, sang that pursuit
and holier the infants born of it.
Then unholy the contempt that circled me.
Time did, but did not, pass
in muted work and stabs of gaiety
to build some way for us to live
clear of the glaring, yet repeated, risks
of coupledom warped by rancour.
A darling can turn wolfish.
I wished, half-helpfully, to be unseen
or run a website for the hard-to-place
with me as its founder member.
Now I’ll brandish my rosy face around
teasing my pratfalls of a baffled need
while hope deferred still hollows me out,
takes clownish leaps about my gouged-out shell.
As there’s dark humour in a darker time
so there’s resilience in an obvious rhyme.
Self-parody deflates a plaintive mime
to make it truer — just as pantomime.
The mothers are long dead,
the several fathers too.
What took place is done, though
it murmurs on in you
who got through it alive, with
a bit more extracting to do.
On blackened streets the taint was scoured from doorsteps.
The illegitimate sent off to the infertile,
their pasts expunged, their names altered.
Their records sealed.
No need to mention any of it again.
That was only for the best, it was all for the best.
Everyone meant it for the best.
This present-past hangs on. It says:
‘Days flocked with frighteners — they’ll circle round you still
though they’re long dead who daily clouted you across the mouth —
disgusting animal, you’re asking for it, useless object, you want a good thrashing.
You didn’t, but you got it anyway, with other things far better not
to get (though, decades later, getting pregnant saved your life
since you did get lovable children). Slaps smelled of bleach
striping your face in wheals each the width of the finger
that made them — you prayed that they’d fade before school.
A knee to the small of your back shoved you down
if you paused on the stairs: you’re bad — bad, through and through.
You spend your next sixty-eight years working out how far that’s true.
So what are you asking for now? To not still hear
these utterances, in the only mother tongue you knew:
obey without question, you want a real beating, spare the rod
spoil the child, shut your gob or I’ll shut it for you
you’re neither use nor ornament, you’re not like other girls
you don’t deserve to be loved, you belong in the loony bin
a child has to have its spirit broken, hold your tongue
you disobedient animal, no one would ever believe you
— Well, no. Though you’d never expected them to.
Who would have heard you then, who would,
since no one could see how you’d tried to be good.
You can’t try any harder than ever you could.’
‘That couldn’t have happened, you seem so normal.’
— I am so normal. And it did.
Just as it did to thousands.
I tell my past it’s passed, though it can’t tell.
More training, to teach obedience: the toddler
who’d wet herself gripped by the scruff of her neck
and her nose rubbed in it, in freshly damp white cotton.
Their real beloved dog I envied, while I stayed an ‘it’
burrowing through straw quills in the kennel
to study the grace of the dog, to poach the secret of being liked.
Yet gradually my life as an ‘it’ has grown muscular.
Almost, I am that dog.
I won’t blame those enslaved by their own rages,
fearful of a baby that would never feel like theirs
yet couldn’t be returned to the agency.
I blame the powers that packed us off to them
as misconceived children to be conformed —
easy mishaps in small border towns,
stains on their working families.
Cast to the winds, some might find safe landings,
but others blew onto steel shards.
‘Bad blood’ was how our bad fortunes described us.
It could all have worked out fine — bar the tick
of a chancy official biro, handing you straight
to the care of gloved anger, or respectable angry anxiety.
But that was the luck of it, that was how it fell out
for surplus postwar children.
The indifferently falling rains of them.
‘More care would get taken in re-homing a dog.’
Though the dog might at least have its pedigree.
Hit and miss (literally) where you ended up.
And each person involved was unknowing.
This history’s too commonplace to tell.
It is a story which so many own.
How do I get it right, alone?
The point of telling is to crack its spell.
‘The point of telling is to crack its spell’?
What if it underscores dead violence
as calligraphy — a sentence
maybe freeing, but only if ‘done well’?
And when the casual judgements fly
around each teller: ‘She’s damaged, TMI’?
— Judgment runs everywhere in our material