April – Carolyn Jess-Cooke


A poem without any vegetables

She has recently been made a sister. At the far end of the bread aisle at Sainsbury’s she roots herself to the spot when I call her name, her soft bruised legs planted wide, arms flat to sides, chin to chest. Her brother is a snoring spud in his car seat, sprouted on top of the trolley. I nudge a few agitated jam-browsers as I make for the milk. I call again. Once or twice she looks up to check I’m still there before quickly re-fixing her gaze on her toes. I stomp towards her. She splats on the floor. People are staring. I crouch down and hiss, ‘Come with mummy.’ She spits the pips of her vocabulary in retort: ‘No. Can’t.’ I pick her up, bundle her into the trolley amongst the groceries, then push us blindly to the checkout, by which time she’s left a trail of flung leeks, lobbed broccoli, speared carrots, chucked Pak Choi and a soil-spewed basil plant from aisle one to twenty-four, and is calm, having won.

First published in INROADS (Seren, 2010)


Descartes’ Daughters

I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or machine made of earth,
which God forms .with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us.
…………………………………– René Descartes, ‘The Treatise of Man’

I loved you from the second time you were born.

It was difficult at first. I could not see
the soul sealed in soil.
Then my face rose in yours.
Petit tu. Déjà vu.

How you worked us with the whip of your wail!

Each night I would uncurl the wave
of your little fist, terrified of still waters.
You said papa.
Red mouths opened

on your neck, the pale staircase of your spine,
right down to your knees.
They all kissed you.
And the sea laid flat its hands.

I could not accept the second body they dug for you.

They placed you in like a root.
poured from me.

Your soul was tossed into the air like a small bird.
I made a cage to re-capture it.
Not a doll, not a statue. A reflection
in reverse.

It was difficult at first. We did not remember each other.

But then your marble eyes fluttered,
the mechanistic jerks
of your right-angled limbs
became fluent in the language of memory.

Our first moments returned like migrating birds:

the skin-tent you made with your foot inside,
a red-tinged river, the cervix folding back
like a bridge at the sight of ships. So real,
as if it had been me who gave birth to you.

We set sail at the Queen’s request.

There were rumours onboard of ghosts and devils.
The men brought dogs and gunpowder,
opened your box.
Disbelief throttled the sails.

You held out a small white hand. A wave
reached back.
I lost you, lost you.

Now a father surfaces each night in my soul.

Inside every breath
the gradual opening
of wings.

First published in The Stinging Fly 9: 2 (2008)



Pamukkale, Turkey

Pammukale, or ‘cotton castle,’ is the result of underground volcanic activity which created hot springs, the mineral content of which has created thick limestone stalactites, potholes and cataracts. Situated near Izmir, Pammukale and its neighbouring (ancient) city Hierpolis form Turkey’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

From a distance it is cotton
……fat with air, or a castle of cloud
………..with a peacock drawbridge of travertine
……terraces lipping down the white slide.
So much ripeness from erosion

has me wondering what else
……could flower in its own afterlife,
………..how corpulence could awake in the corpse-
……pale limestone oozing over the cliff?
Wax should snooze without flame, but melts

here in its absence all the same.
……Walking unsteadily in bare feet
………..through chalky rivers I toe honeycomb
……patches of wear and tear, tourist grit.
Some parts have clearly suffered from

visitation, while others strive
……in their unwinding of organ pipes
………..and swan-necked formations as if to prove
……that struggle can be graceful, that hope
is the hue of being alive.

I stroke the moon throats, photograph
……the waterfalls transforming to bone.
………..The sun’s chrysalis unfolds its tough love.
……I leave, re-made, head for the ruin-strewn
pools at Hierapolis to bathe

in life-preserving minerals.
……Here, hacked stems of ancient columns turn
………..green underwater. Stars scatter their pearls.
……At dawn, when snowy veins burn crimson,
the mountain exhales its petals.

First published in INROADS (Seren, 2010)



The Waking

Those first few days every part of her wakened,
the seedling eyes stirred by sunlight, tight fists
clamped to her chest like a medieval knight
and slowly loosening, as if the metal hands
were reminded of their likeness to petals
by the flowing hours. Her colors, too,
rose up like disturbed oils in a lake, pooling
through the birth-tinge into human shades,
her ink eyes lightening to an ancestral blue.
The scurf and residue of me on her scalp floated
easily as a pollen from the sweet grass of her hair.
She reminded me of a fern, each morning more
unfurled, the frond-limbs edging away from her
heart, the wide leaves of her face spread to catch
my gaze. Once, I saw the white down of her skin
cloud in my hands, the cream ridges of her nails
drift like crescent moons, the thick blue rope
she had used to descend me tossed like a stone,
as though she was finally free.

First published in Boom! (Seren, 2014)

Honour Thy Parents

Honour thy father and thy mother
for they have spent the waning flame
of their youth failing

to get you to sleep; long hours by your bed,
singing, pleading. It was not
what they imagined parenthood would be like.

Honour them
for they have had to figure you out
like a trillion-piece jigsaw

that changed each time
they spied the beginnings of a picture.
Honour them for sparing you,

for fumbling and fretting, dressing and undressing
the foreign shrieking creature you once were
lest you grew too cold, too hot,

these imperfect beings
who confronted their complete dearth of knowledge
at first sight of you,

new and unbearably slight,
they resolved henceforth to do everything
right – honour them

for enduring vagaries and catalogues of advice,
most of it wrong,
for swallowing judgments dealt by strangers

during your many epic meltdowns.
No doubt there were times
you pushed them to some barren edge of love,

embarrassments, harassments of other
children in the park, or when you called them names
in public – fool! Dirty poo-face!

(need I go on?) O honour them!
who carried their dreams through your childhood
like beads in a ripped sack,

they were doing their best; understand they were
their own parents’ children – honour them
for they must live with their mistakes,
honour them, which is to say
be all that they were not and do all
they could not, and so honour

your life. And if you find
you can neither forgive nor see in them
the good, the God, or the once unblemished child

my dear, think on this –
parenthood is the universal curse
of becoming or overcoming

our parents
for better or for worse –
and honour them.

First published in Boom! (Seren, 2014)


All Right

A mother’s life
………..lived out on a ship
enormous planetary ship
………..that sways and is never still
and so she appears
………..to be staggering
slip-sliding between
………..opposites of time,
love, logistics, existential
………..and wholly complicated dilemmas
such as whether she is
………..wasting her life at the sink
or if she is in fact the wisest person alive
………..spending her days tending
to such small details of living
………..if she is doing it right
and by ‘it’, everything
………..if her children deserve better
than her
………..if she should have had more children
if she should have had them
………..earlier, closer
if she should have had
………..any at all
if she should have kept on
………..powering at her career
basked in the kind of recognition
………..and fabulous shoes
success would have brought
………..if, on her deathbed, the questions
she spends each moment of each day..
………..shifting in her mind –
between the forests and lakes
………..between Asia and Africa
between all the townships
………..of her love –
will ever be answered
………..if a voice, a descending peace
will finally reply
………..yes, my dear, you did it all
one hundred per cent right

First published in Boom! (Seren, 2014)


Sweet Pea


It would have been easy to tear
the tendrils that choked them,
keeping the whole bunch bowed
in a bramble
instead of arcing up to light –
I took my daughter’s hand,
showed her the fine threads
coiled tight in desperation,
and I thought of the ultrasound,
how we had to hunt in the shadows
for an echo of bones.
Arms up, her ghost-hands spread
before the torchlight of the Doppler
like a hold-up. When she was born
the blue twine of the cord
was twisted so tight
I thought it might snap back
when they cut it, and as if thinking the same
she felt for my finger, holding on tight
as they divided us
into our equal parts.


And so I could not tear them, though
she urged me to quit my careful
unlooping of noose-fibres
and compromise with a break here,
a rip there, loosening most of them to light
at the cost of a damaged few.
She grew bored, went inside, returned
with a stool so I could rest
my knees while maintaining the task
of what must have resembled lassos
in the air. I wanted to explain
that I had never seen anything as pure
as the two-second-old creature
thickened with wax and blood
settled into my arms, a human
optic through which the world
began to filter. She was yet
too young to understand and took
my efforts to save a bunch of small
stems as stubbornness. I can’t
be sure, but when the first white
purse opened I saw her measure
patience against force like an element,
an inner weather.

First published in Ambit issue 221 Summer 2015