She Wanted the Voice of Birds

(Christina Rossetti—1894)



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

of nightingales. 
In paradise 
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 
Martyrs panting 
for the sweet aureole”: 
Gabriel’s ranting

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 
habitually avoid 
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 
the audience 
(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.’

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