Abigail Elizabeth Ottley

 Before The Birds Have  Fled 
 
 
I knew a woman once whose belly swelled.
She joked she was expecting.
I’m blown up tight as a drum, she said.
Her GP ordered tests.
 
Without complaint she went, tight-lipped
on shabby Green Line buses.
She told us she was coping fine.
She was hoping for the best.
 
All the listless days of a fierce July
she rested in a chair by the window.
Bluebottles buzzed through the breathless nets,
hovered like dark jewels above her hair.
 
Then late in September she took to her bed.
She was whiter than the cotton shift that chafed her.
‘Before the birds have fled,’ she said.
I’ll be off into the blue somewhere.’
 
A child has not the wit or scope
to comprehend a mountain.
I could not guess the scale of hers
had robbed her of her tears.
 
But I saw her fight to bide a while
to hear the birds sing summer.
October was her lullaby.
The first frost came early that year.

 
 
In Praise of Needles
   
Needles will close and repair
give new life to our tatters and remnants
 
sew fast our buttons, conceal our flaws
make good our rents and tears
 
rescue our off-cuts and our left-over fabric
make from them something quite beautiful
 
transform into treasure our rags and pieces.
In doing so they may transformus.
 
They make us — makes us open our ears
open us up to hear our silence.
 
Inside that hush is the song of the hearth
where Patience stitches and sings.
 
A needle can replenish a textile worn thin
has the power to restore us also.
 
Slow-stitch is a rhythm --- in and out —
heartbeats at rest in peace.
 
A needle draws together our raw, ragged margins
sends out silky threads to re-work them
 
will knit in, good time, one frayed edge to another.
Our scars become our seams.



Taking  Care
   
My mother teeters at the white lip of the bath,
precarious on legs she can’t rely on
 
wears a fluffy pink hand towel draped like a shawl.
She has dwindled down so small.
 
I am testing the temperature, warm not hot.
She waits to receive this weekly blessing.
 
Shower head in one hand, shampoo in
the other, I ask is she ready to begin.
 
Then her head is in my hands, her small
frail skull.  The bones of it are bird-like.
 
Her dark hair is feathers, sparse as a fledgling’s.
When she trembles I think she might take flight.
 
 
Talking to my husband in the wardrobe
 
Most nights I hear you scuffling in my closet.
I’ve stopped wondering how you got there.
 
 It’s not mice, or a dream, or intruders
downstairs, or a trick of my own imagination.
 
I know you are in there, telescopically
folded, breathing in my lingering perfume.
 
Your big man’s hands I can almost see
their finger-nails so well looked after,
 
crushing to your cheek the hot, pink
folds of my shot silk and taffeta skirt.
 
I would like to ask you why you do it.
What is the etiquette of phrasing such a question?
 
Why is the bone of your long smooth thigh so
enamoured of my lace wedding dress?
 
Always a compromise, not white but ivory
I hear it rustle as its skirts spill your secrets.
 
Years have passed since you wore my face
My mirror remembers though, and sighs.

 
 The Onset of Winter
 
She is bending over, her rump in the air
so that her words fall into the fire.
She always wears a knitted hat
even when the weather is warm.
 
The wind whips in from across the foreshore
dislodging the crows from the trees.
They flap skyward screaming like noisy children
squawking and kicking up a fuss.
 
Meanwhile a robin puffs out his feathers
seeks shelter in the lee of the wall.
All summer long, the same attentive robin
the same gang of black-caped crows.
 
She has been out back since early morning.
She wears her old and too-small, tweedy coat.
She says it keeps the damp at bay
stops it seeping through her aching bones.
 
Now she dips and straightens, straightens and dips
and the strain on those brown buttons is visible.
The year’s last harvest of dry and curling leaves
she has swept into a bank at her feet.
 
It is not quite winter. There are no frosts yet.
Even so you can tell the cold is coming.
The birds know it, the rabbits too.
The smell of it hangs in the air.
 
And here she is, in her old tweed coat,
feeding last year’s growth into the bonfire.
Bending over, her rump to the sky
her broad cheeks flushed from the heat.
 
Grunting as she rises, she stares into the flames
nurses her latest clutch of leaves like an infant.
Although she does not turn she knows I am there.
It’s a hard old season, she says.
 
Winter Poetry Anthology (Print), Poets with Strong Voices, December, 2013
 
 

Abigail Elizabeth Ottley (formerly Wyatt) writes poetry – and some short fiction – from her home in Penzance in Cornwall. Since 2009, her work has appeared in more than 150 journals, magazines and anthologies including The Blue Nib, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Atrium Poetry and Words With Jam. She was also one of the poets featured in Wave Hub: new poetry from Cornwall (2014) edited by Dr Alan M Kent and published by Francis Boutle. In 2019, 12 of her poems were translated into Romanian for Pro Saeculum and Banchetul. For this, much gratitude to translator and bilingual poet, Mariana Gardner. In the same year, Abigail’s poem ‘Bull Male, Sleeping’ was chosen for ‘Poems on the Move’ at the Guernsey Literary Festival.

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