The Polish Princess who became Queen of Sweden

Catherine Jagiellon (1526-1583)

Think of an entourage of fifty-nine:
three Catholic priests, two Italian tailors,
bakers, a personal cup-bearer, four dwarfs
(two female, two male), ladies in waiting
(the favourite Dorothea), lute players,
trumpeters, drummers, two harpists. Think
of beauty associated with the colour red,
Catherine’s red hair, black velvet bodice
embellished with gold, silver, rubies.

How incomprehensible their lives must seem
to those looking on, as they traverse the land
from Vilnius Castle after the wedding feast.
Her dowry never followed. She gained
a reputation for kindness, left a legacy of the fork
(not her own gold-plated specimen) with which
to eat the sticky desserts the nation so craved.

Mary Matusz, from Issue No. 86

My Deafness, My Mother’s Deafness, My Grandad’s Deafness

Was felt inside that P.E. bag my mum stitched from old curtains.
Was salt grains scattered over the tablecloth.
Was stew, chilblains and Snowfire.
Was grandad’s puzzled face frowning over the cot.
Was what I woke into.
Was a far-out farm with wind and NPK for company.
Was the spaces between ticks of the clock.
Was the bus door drawn back and the sea smelt behind too-high hedges.
Was, for a penny in the slot, the voice of the laughing sailor drowned.
Was “Hey you, space case, wake up!”
Was the sound of our mouths on empty pop bottles.
Was my dad’s slurred speech inferred beneath blankets.
Was the ladder to the attic we never had.
Was my good ear turned to the pillow.
Was my good ear turned away from the fair.
Was the skin on a wrist’s white underside.
Was planetary, was the blanks between stars seen beyond street lights.
Was that dip in the Wolds the sun touched late.
Was our mouths mouthing the song of the swift.
Was the wings of a bat quartering the beck.
Was work that got in the way of the writing.
Was given, was the unspoken in books.
Was the green lane not shown on any maps.
Was my own mapped consciousness,
And the boy who moves now his bodiness slowly,
Who moves his slow face, still working at words.

John Barron, from Issue No. 86

Pulex irritans

I am the n times great-grandson
of the flea that famously bit John Donne.
Crushed to death by a lover’s nail,
yet hers is not a sorry tale.
Her undeserved assassination
fired the poet’s imagination:
transmogrification of common flea
into metaphysical imagery.

My great-grandsire was put in a book
by enlightenment thinker, Robert Hooke.
Though you must be dead, beyond all hope,
to be spread on the plate of a microscope,
Hooke’s intricate drawing let everyone see
the beauty of flea anatomy.
Depicted in detail, as big as a cat, he a-
ppears in Hooke’s great Micrographia.

It’s gratifying for a flea
to have an illustrious pedigree:
forefleas who nobly played their parts
in History, Science and the Arts.

Jenny Dixon, from issue No. 86

Timeline

The Sign Language teacher explains
where I should place my hands;
to show past, present and future tense:

the past behind my shoulder,
the present at my body,
the future stretched out in front of me.

High up in the Andes
they speak Aymara,
the only known language

that places the past in front
where we can see it, what we know,
the future behind us, in our blind spot.

I think of you, stretch out my hands
and reach for the past.

Joanna Sedgwick, from issue No. 85

After Homer

Dawn comes early with rosy fingers,
but Odysseus has gone, his ships and crew –
and if Athene were to reappear
she’d be another pretty girl
who walks alone with sun-bleached hair.
Zeus is a restaurant and Hades
the hell-hole down the road where
Brits hang out. The map’s the same.
This sea still drowns its refugees.

Dawn comes early with sticky fingers
and a boat trip to the secluded beach.
No heroes, purposes or sacred oaths –
instead libations of sun lotion poured
against our own obsessions.
The Lotus Eaters get their fix elsewhere
and monsters, alter ego of the Gods,
take human form, much harder to defeat.
Cruise ships eclipse even Poseidon’s reach.

Dawn comes early with itchy fingers
and with the sense it might be preferable
to slot a mast into its leather hold,
unfurl the sails and quietly slip away –
no GPS, no radio; standing tall,
riding sea rhythms to an unknown end
one hand on salted wood,
the other shading eyes that scan
across this crumpled wine-dark sea.

Chris Bridge, from issue No. 85

What I bring to the table

All the money I’ve made in this world:
a small bag of dull coins.
All the stories I’ve never written,
in a book of blank pages.
All the poems I couldn’t write.

The names of everyone who has left me:
I didn’t realize there’d been so many.

All my defeats, about ten thousand of them,
and my three victories, two of them disputed.

My expired Driver’s License.
My passport with the corner cut off.
My big bag of medications.

I’m all ready to bargain with you.
I think I’m in a pretty strong position.

Brian Daldorph, from issue No. 85

At Douk Ghyll Cave

I have returned and shall return again,
Summoned by whispering waters to the door
In Penyghent-side whence Douk Ghyll is born.

Hundreds of million years peine forte et dure
Have pressed to crush the life from solid seas –
Still living water flows out, cold and clear.

It trickles from the limestone layers that squeeze
Out of their own dead hearts the elixir
That smears them green. The muttering water flows

Under and over stones, through grassy hair,
Stitching together our green world, its thread
Appears and vanishes to reappear,

Shuttling in this secret weaving shed
Where life is spun from stone, and waterfalls
Unravel pools, and comb and card the flood.

This is the source, enfolded by rock walls,
Where trees gather like old wives at a birth,
Of consciousness itself, the voice that calls —

‘Though made of stone and rain I’m more than earth’.

– originally published by Peterloo Poets

Anna Adams, from issue No. 72

The Four Horsemen

When the White Horse Rider came, he traveled by night. He came among us quietly, lived in our street, spoke only occasionally. We didn’t see the hardness in his eyes, or hear his muttered imprecations, only saw the light in his room where a screen flickered.

When the Red Horse Rider came, he wore a fine uniform, and flashed a curved sword. Others came after him, Kalashnikovs over their shoulders, grenades in their belts. And then the tanks came to our street corner. And then the planes, and the bombs. The school exploded to rubble, houses blazed. Like rats, we lived in the craters, among the ruins.

When the Black Horse Rider came by, our fields were dust, the river a shallow ravine of stones and mud, the pond baked clay. Our goats chewed the last thistles. Our cattle staggered and died, their flesh picked by vultures and crows, white bones scattered and bleached under searing sun.

When the Pale Horse Rider came, with a face greenish white, he passed children with swollen bellies, drumstick skin over protruding ribs, flies on their lips, faces turned to the bare walls. Those of us who lived on, dug pits in the stony soil – a line of hummocks, unmarked, where once those children had played.

But this was another place, not here.
Come, through our locked doors, into the garden.
Hollyhocks, pelargoniums in the border,
Earl Grey tea to be taken on the lawn,
We have our own short lives to fill with pleasures,
with satisfactions.

Forget the smiling insomniacs, oceans away,
touching screens, picking up phones,
their shiny missiles gently rising, pointing.

Colin Speakman, from issue No. 82

Thelma Recovering

On a photograph by Chemena Dianguindo

This photo may grow to be my favourite.
Taken on the wing with a mobile phone,

it shows Thelma standing in the doorway
of the narrow passage from our kitchen

to the conservatory. Sunlight streaming
from the south pools creamily behind her,

shadowing her figure and face that looks
to the cool north. Despite the unorthodox

illumination, she commands her space
like the tempered traveller from mapless

places she is. Her bone-china fineness
washes my eyes. Like the base of a long-

established tree, the ridges and valleys
of her neck ascend to a queenly crown.

And there, among uncountable branches
of matter, the singular song of her mind.

Kevin Hanson, from issue No. 82

Teiresias on Burying the Dead

after The Antigone

Heads up. Pay attention when I speak.
Think of my words as medicine you need
for the pain of time, for these murder days.
You know what I do – I divine with birds
and take notice of the whispering trees.
It’s what wise men have been up to for years.
No trader launched their trireme without
input from someone like me – they need
to know what will be sunk in the angry sea,
they need to be told what’s turning turtle.
From the tripod in Thebes’ sanctuary
I heard crows and ravens at each other’s throats,
predator and prey, food and the feeder.
I turned to ignite the altar’s mantle
but it was having none of it – no light,
no spark – the flame choked off at source.
I sent a boy, my guide, to see what’s what.
It wasn’t hard. The streets were full of it.
Nobody can make an offering to the gods
because the faulty altars are manky
with guts and gizzards, eyeballs and shit.
Imagine what the gods will make of this.
It’s a plain fact, there are so many dead,
carrion scattered for everyone to see,
the birds crazy – they’ve got the taste for it.
And guess what, it’s not hard to understand,
this mess is down to a man. That’s Creon.
Don’t waste your time hunting for saboteurs
or terrorists, fifth columnists, lone wolves
or any of the crap his spokesmen spout.
In Thebes his crack troops are killing for fun,
leaving bodies decomposing on the street.
Anyone who stumbles in their path’s at risk –
non-combatants, school kids, nurses, mums.
So we’re clear who’s let these demons out.
His edict says A hero’s grave for patriots;
for traitors, the open street – let them rot.
Who thinks that’s clever? Who thinks it wise?
Not me, oh mighty king. You’ve lost the plot.
Think how this might be with one of your own,
how you’d feel if you lost Antigone.
It calls for compassion when children die.
I can see it though I have unseeing eyes.
So wind your neck in. Chill. Call it a day.
Stop cutting off noses to spite their faces.
Bury the dead with honour. Show respect.
Don’t think mercy’s something for the weak.
You should pay attention when I speak.

Philip Foster, from issue No. 81