She Wanted the Voice of Birds
Boredom is an art as fine as loneliness.
I practised it daily with style
and flair, as I sat for Gabriel’s drawings
and paintings. On my frozen face,
shallow breath and blank mind
thoughts might alight, such as
God must be so lonely, outside of time,
with no one to talk to.
When we pray, is He talking to himself?
Going mad? I’d begin twitching
the corners of my mouth, blinking
and Gabriel would complain.
He could only paint utter boredom,
a sort of purity—absence of influence.
A barren mind led to an angelic face
and, in turn, my eldest brother’s praise.
I was his emaciated Virgin
Mary, his Beatrice and finally Persephone.
Little beauty! He would show me off
to his friends. My face, and later my voice,
a faithful imitation of his own.
He was like Papa, William like Mama
and Maria a heavenly second mother
when I was only twelve, precocious
in all fields, even boredom, even joy,
especially rhyme—the bout rimé toy
William and I would play with nightly.
Over time, I lost these. I began to die.
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
should have had my face, my body.
I should have sat with dignity
in James’s studio, listening
to the easel creak, the crack
of his knuckles, his cuff rustle
against the canvas. Instead
she has a lower brow, paler eyes,
lips less like Cupid’s bow. Her face
masks all the women in the painting.
Critics complain—not just me.
The exhibition is ruined
by that repeated face, William
agrees. It is a shame. We all
had great hopes for Mr Collinson
but he has disappointed us.
James, I am sitting on the steps
at Regent Park where your lips went blue
as we talked alone, honestly
for the first time, about ourselves.
James, I am sitting on the steps
of heaven and I can’t rest
while I’m alone, far from the world
on the most divine threshold but
bored by the saints and angels, sick
of such light. What is the point
of being here, safe and beloved
without you? Let me go back down,
I beg the archangels. I want you
to see my blue-black hair.
I want you to read my words, hear
my voice, paint my curved lips. Repent,
the archangels say, We pity you,
but repent. This boy has gone.
Mama forbids even missives.
All my gifts from you were returned.
To stop the nightly crying,
they sent me to Aunt Polidori’s
in Gloucester—short walks with old
relatives seemed to be the best
distraction from my grief.
Nothing to do but write letters
I may not send and curse
the powdery sky, watery hills,
smudged cattle and sheep
as I wander between meal times.
Elizabeth of Hungary had sixteen years
and three children with her husband
before the Crusades killed him. Ludwig
loved her and let her bring lepers
into the marital bed, take bread
to the poor and sick. I would have been
just as celibate just as good
after my true love’s death.
I am just as celibate, but missing
children—a spinster not a widow,
a wrinkled face on a tall child,
indigo eyes frowning with worry.
Mother’s love is an earthly version
of God’s attention to his flock.
The Virgin Mary is no more
divine than my mother Frances.
I do not condone mariolatry,
only love of mothers generally,
even or especially those who save you
from disgrace, burn your notes
and scold you for pining.
My pining evolved into self-pity,
pity into piety,
piety into poetry.
I learned to work again.
Mary is not the heavenly
mother; if there is a mother
in heaven next to Our Father
it is Jesus, sacrificing
his life for mine—as feminine
an act as healing or obeying.
His love is purely maternal
and I prefer it to the fear
Our Father’s care can inspire.
What we feel for each other
must be sisterly, brotherly—
human not holy, the only
love I can know. Paradise must be
a place of mothers and sisters
where there are no demands on one
but to be cheerful and no reason
to groan—no bills or illness or
scissors or competitions. No
temptations or hatreds—I am
neither clear nor concise!—
no apologies or slights. No
false modesty or guilty eyes.
We might be a flock of swallows—
a summer of swallows or a
our prey would not exist.
I once wore a violet Syrian gown,
a gift from Mr Seddon who
was in full Arabicals too.
It was a large party, a rare
gathering at which I was calm
and not the only poetess.
Miss Howitt I finally met
and found unaffected
also surprisingly well-dressed.
Mother, Maria and I do not wear
showy gowns—the Syrian garb
excepted—but we pride ourselves
on being fashionable
and neat. It was January of
1855 and I was,
as I recall, happy.
The seaside air heals my peccant chest,
the sherry bottle stops my nervous
sighs. Young company
brightens my bored eyes.
Yesterday I caught a frog with bare hands
and coaxed my cousin to touch its skin
with her fingertip.
She stroked it and flinched
despite its cool, dry feel. It is as green
as I on reading Miss Ingelow’s verse,
I told my cousin.
Could Miss Ingelow
catch a frog, do you think, and cradle it
in her naked palm? My cousin was sure
Jean wouldn’t complete
such a daring feat.
Today, in the heavy sea, I floated
on my back, black costume billowing
weed-like about my frame.
Salt water seeped in my ears
and soaked my coiled plait. The sky
flickered with gulls and clouds. Lonely
boredom leaked into the sea.
So cold I stopped feeling
my edges. They numbed until
there was no difference between me
and the water. I was blue, lost in God’s
tears, not myself.
Buoyant as a drowned body, keen to feed
fishes, afraid of land, I felt no pain
but boredom. Frogs, gulls
and all God’s creatures,
especially my hateful self, were boring.
You cough mechanically, like a watch tick,
my doctor accused.
You wind yourself up,
don’t you? My cough does not mark time, said I,
It’s more like metre, suggesting my mood.
Ti tum, ti tum, ti
tum, ahem, ahem.
Unimpressed, he sent me to convalesce
far from his surgery. A coughing bore
bored with herself
and all she sees is vain.
Humility is taking a sincere
interest in everything. To live is to
have opinions, care.
The frog in my bare
hand is my only recent interest.
And this too is vanity. It even
turned to jealousy:
both of us blue-green.
God, what is the point of your forgiveness?
If you are too kind, I’ll just keep sinning.
Casting stone after
stone into the waves,
blameless tide lapping against my temper.
Lord, my anger intrudes when I sit down
to write, or lie down
to sleep. How do you
expect me to forgive? I am a weak
disappointment, fit for your lowest rung.
Send me down to think;
I will cough and cry
until my eyes and chest are empty. No
vision, no heart, no anger, no boredom.
Only an empty
person can forgive.
I float as if I were hollow—bobbing
like a forgotten, forgetful vessel.
But memories fill
me. A library
of acid words and vivid images
a humble woman would have burnt by now.
Alexandria should be up
in flames, but I am cold.
I know, the books are badly written and
the paintings horrifying. I keep
returning to them.
Hatred is a sin.
I would like wings that clap
softly. A dove’s wings
and a dove’s low crumpled voice,
but my throat sings
like a toad or mallard;
I groan of things
that should be loved or changed
and my mouth stings.
Christina, you cannot print
for the sweet aureole”:
ill-disguised as editing.
Are you wanting
to sound histrionic?
You are planting
a weed in your poem’s
garden that will
overwhelm all useful
buds. Don’t use frill
unless you can control
it. Better still
the word “aureole”.
So, my voice is a bird,
my words are weeds,
poetry is a garden.
Voice propagates seeds,
scatters them across the page.
Make sure my bird feeds
on rosehips not nightshade?
What if my words are meant
to be poisonous?
What if I want to kill
(and myself ), Gabriel?
What if the furnace
of Hell waits for my readers?
Roses are useless
in that case. We compromised,
placing the weed-
ridden poem at the back.
I think my need
to win the argument
trumped my wish to see
the bad poem
in print. I did
Intercessory prayer intrigues me
since my sister said I prayed
for the world in my poems—
for the girls at the home
for our brother’s poor wife
even for the slaves at the docks.
I did not disagree noisily
as I would have in my youth.
Speaking for others it seems
can be done silently—I’d become
much quieter—coughs louder
than words. You have great faith
Maria complimented me.
Only in myself, I thought, sad;
vanity of the baby sister—the writer.
In yourself, Maria said.
Faith that your utterance
will always be heard; faith in
yourself and your audience. God.
He will be listening, they will be reading
even when my heart stops and time
is forgotten. But my poems have a heart
beat. They need time, have never seen
paradise. Never will. Rhythm is sinful.
Amy Brown was born in 1984 in Hastings. She now lives in Melbourne and teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne, where she completed a PhD in 2012. Her first collection of poems, The Propaganda Poster Girl, was shortlisted for the Jessie Mackay Award for Best First Book of Poetry at the 2009 New Zealand Book Awards. Last year, her contemporary epic poem titled The Odour of Sanctity was published by Victoria University Press. Amy is also the author of ‘Pony Tales’, a quartet of children’s novels published by HarperCollins.
Brown comments: ‘“She wanted the voice of birds” is a fragment from The Odour of Sanctity, a long poem following six candidates for sainthood through stages of canonization. In this excerpt (a chapter from the first canto, “Investigation: the Candidates’ Lives”), Christina Rossetti gives an impressionistic account of her early relationship with God. The monologue is obviously fictionalised, but many of the details (such as Mr Seddon in his “full arabicals”) come from Jan Marsh’s 1994 biography, Christina Rossetti: A Writer’s Life.
‘I wanted the account to seem intimate rather than public; digressive and messy, rather than polished, as a sort of antidote to the Victorian-Anglican ideals of goodness to which Christina had been aspiring since her adolescence. I hoped to let her relax during the monologue and answer questions about her piety inadvertently. In this way, I tried to understand Christina’s belief, to find a level on which I could relate to her fear, guilt and love. This level is mostly earthy and mundane, but it can yield epiphanies, which, broadly, is how I see each of the six candidates for sainthood—recognisably human, but faced with ineffable situations. It is perhaps how I see the “contemporary epic poem” as a genre too: expansive, fragmented and erratic as life, but striving for its classical precedents’ sense of wholeness and truth. In this excerpt I think it’s the tension between wanting the peace of divine wholeness and the exhilaration of human uncertainty that is distressing Christina.’