DEATH OF A WIFE

The following long poem was first published in Chapman a couple of summers ago. It was written during my stay at the Cove Park International Artists' Centre on the west coast of Scotland. I wanted to explore the break-up of a marriage. Particularly one where the husband is being kind and caring, yet the wife feels trapped. I was influenced by Charlotte Perkins Gilman's experience and how she explored it in The Yellow Wallpaper over a hundred years before the break-up of my own marriage. Though written in first person, Death of a Wife is not strictly biographical. Nor do I think it falls into the category of 'confessional' poetry. Maybe it's closer to an imaginative exploration. Maybe it doesn't need defined. It simply is what it is.


DEATH OF A WIFE


Here lies Isabella
Spouse
Of the Reverend John Macrae

Who having discharged the duties of a wife and mother
With the most affectionate and anxious assiduity
And endeared herself to all who knew her
By sweetness of temper
And by the pious resignation with which she bore
A lingering affliction
Died
1st June 1827 aged 45


from a tombstone in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh



1.
That spring there was an unexpected heat. He met me
in the coolness of De Courcey’s restaurant, bent his head,
pecked my cheek, wished me Happy Anniversary.

Crisp white tablecloth, white as an altar cloth,
white as a wedding dress, white as a shroud.
Salt in silver salvers, knives shining sharp.

He ordered for us both by flickering candlelight,
filled my glass with wine, a deep blood red.

You’re not happy - quite suddenly - he said.

I moved my hand in fright at
his clear-sightedness, at my transparency.

The wine glass tipped, toppled, spilled, bled
across the snowy cotton of my dress, stained me
from breast to pubic bone, a livid red.


2.
Did I love him once?

One night - we were seventeen - we climbed a path into the hills,
up past the loch where ice sheets creaked in freezing quiet
as if the world was being formed anew.

Up there we sat beneath the stars.

He drew me close and I did not resist.

I liked the smell of him, the roughness
of his chin against my cheek.
I hungered for the moistness
of his mouth, the rhythmic pound of his heartbeat.

So, yes, I loved him then – for fear of loneliness.


3.
Was it my fault he never tired of me?
Always trying so hard. All sugar, all spice.
What could he do but love his little wife?
Always smiling, always nice.


4.
Mother, why did you not warn? Why did you preach,
why did you teach my one and only duty was to please?

What was it you said, years after my father died?
I married a man I did not love, you said with pride,
and in the course of fifty years I learned to love,
learned contentment by his side.

Mother, that lie you swallowed as a virgin bride
all those years ago, did it choke your voice so
you could never tell your daughter, yes, she had a choice?

It’s taken me a hundred years - poor princess fed
a poisoned apple - a hundred years to wake,
the lie still bitter-green upon my tongue.

Now I’m locked in a pretty glass coffin,
with its fitted kitchen and its bright conservatory.
Locked up in all my finery.

And the briars have climbed around the walls
the prince has toiled to build for me. The weeds
have multiplied like lies and choked the doors.

And the love we grew to keep us safe, like ivy, twines
around us both, cuts deeper as we grow - and won’t let go.


5.
Early summer came on hot, and what he called
my madness blossomed in the damp, heavy heat.
I felt it like a quickening, as if a seed of discontent,
long dormant in the hard shell of my heart,
had split and swift began to germinate.

One day, he came in from the garden. Oh, how
I’d begged him cut the briars back!
They’re stealing all the air, I said. I cannot breathe.

And now they lay in withering piles around the lawns.

He, damp with sweat, wiped his brow, said, princess,
how are you now? I turned away. I could not speak,
my voice croaked in the locked cage of my throat -
and I had lost the key.

You need to see a doctor, he said quietly.

I bridled at his words, yet knew
he thought this was a caring thing to do.

6.
One day I read this in a book: cactus plants adapt to desert conditions.
They are trees, really. Their stumpy bodies trunks which store
what little moisture comes their way. The spines and spikes
are stunted leaves. Sometimes a cactus plant waits fifty years
before it knows a glorious flowering.



7.
I cannot sleep because my feet are cold.
I lie on my side of the bed, my body long
and straight, for if I curl, surely he will spoon
around my foetus form, close like a shell
around a grain of sand, hoping when he wakes
I’ll be a pearl again.

I shift a little, rub my feet, one against the other,
ice on ice. He turns and slips an arm across my waist.
I try to breathe as if asleep. Play dead. Smother
my urge to rise and run away.

Out in the dark the warm winds gust the trees,
leaves wag like old wives' tongues,
throw curses at the leering moon.

The howl of a fox startles. And I recall
the male fox screams
after he has fucked the vixen.
After he has spent his seed
her muscles spasm, hold him tight -

I lie awake and listen to the endless night and know
there’s always one who won’t let go.


8.
The doctor’s room is cheery, bright
with a castor oil plant – Palma Christi –
waving dark green hands to welcome me.

I’ve not been sleeping well, I say, my voice so small
I hardly hear its whisper fall.

His eyebrows raise to question marks.

My feet are cold. Especially at night.
So cold I think I must be dead.

The doctor has a husband’s face,
intelligent, reliable, kind.

You’re forty-five, he says. I nod.
He shakes his head and sighs.

Any other symptoms, he enquires,
his voice so strange, as if from centuries away.

Yes, I yearn to say. I have this urge
at night, to run away, to knot the bed sheets tight
into a long white rope, sling it from the window, shimmy down
and lope off barefoot through the woods, howl
naked at the moon.

Instead, I shake my head.

He shuts my file, suggests I get out more,
try flower arranging, like his wife. Meanwhile
he recommends, I wear warm socks in bed.


9.
While my husband sleeps I creep down to the cellar,
thick with spider webs, the baby cot and pram, dead moths,
the children’s toys, the flotsam of our life together.

I dig the album from a dust-thick shelf, sit and flick
through photographs - a young bride, smiling,
in a crisp white dress, white as an altar cloth, white as a shroud.

Oh, what dreams I clutched with his strong hand
and that bouquet of flowers. . .

Remember how my mother wept!
It’s meant to be a happy day, my father sighed.
God knows, you’d think to see you weep, someone had died.

I linger on each photograph, stare into a child’s eyes,
so bright, brimful with hope, so wide

as the church organ sounds
Here comes the
Here comes the
Here comes the


10.
How can I make you happy, he says.

I’m draining a pan at the kitchen sink.
Steam billows up, scalds my face. Creamy water streams.
I blink and turn away.

I need to know, he says.

I hold the pan lid tight.
The window blossoms clouds,
blurs the garden and its trees.

And I would gladly answer him -
if I but knew
what answer I could give.

The door slams as he leaves.


11.
I walk by the canal in airless heat,
the water dark and filmed with dust.

I stare below: clumps of brooding weed, a tight-tied sack,
water rats, suicides, the drowned detritus of broken lives.

I long for the wildness of a mountain stream, clear and gurgling
bubbling wildly, frothing, clattering freely over stones and down ravines.
I long for a savage highland river, tawny water tumbling laughing over rocks.


12.
I want to get a job, I say.
He smiles benignly. What’s the point in that?
You’re always saying you’re tired. And anyway
anything you want is yours. Just ask.


13.
He buys me pretty things to make me smile:
diamond-studded bracelets
he clips around my wrists
a fine gold chain he fastens round my neck.
He says they’re symbols of his love

but the chain, though fine as baby’s hair,
makes me choke

and every winking diamond
is a watchful eye, a tiny spy, he’s paid
to track my every move


14.
You shouldn’t walk alone, he says. It isn’t safe,
out there along the wooded paths.

I think of rapists stalking wives,
of murderers with glinting knives -

and wonder that he’s unaware
the demons I most dread
prowl constantly inside my head.


15.
The heat intensifies and discontent
grips vine-like tendrils at my throat.

Its green tongues hiss inanities into my ear.
Say, go on girl, have some fun, let down your hair.
A bit adultery – discreet - will hurt no-one.


Other times they scold, they taunt,
you really should appreciate your life,
you don’t deserve this lovely house, this man
who gives you everything a wife could want.



16.
Today the sky is heavy, grey.
I stand upon the towpath, by the lock.

The water lies grave-still.

I stare into the deep. Will myself to take
one step, and then another, let myself fall
down and drown in liquid sleep.


17.
He knows I’m still awake. He turns to me. His hand slides
up beneath the cotton of my thin nightdress, slides
warm against my thigh, my breast.

He touches me. Is gentle. Whispering pleads.

I want to please. I let him stroke, let him kiss, let him caress,
let him enter me.

And in the blackness lie
and in the silence, weep.


18.
Sometimes I dare myself to walk too far, to where
the traffic noises fade, where thistles, parched and dry
grow shoulder-high, where nettles stretch across and bar the way.
where rosehips wink like whores amongst the thorns,
and red-rimmed eyes of summer brambles stare.


19.
He’s been out hunting while I slept. A deer hangs in the shed,
its brown eyes soft and glazed. He’s gralloched it and flung
the steaming entrails to the dogs. Sated, now they laze.
He cleans his knife against the grass.
Blood stains his hands and clothes.

Once, I recall, he said my eyes were soft and gentle as a doe’s.


20.
My mother comes for Sunday tea. I think he asked her here.
I see them through a window fringed with coils of
waxed green hearts. They chat together, stroll
the garden paths, inspect the walls he’s newly built,
frown at the flowers’ drooping necks, complain
the heat’s too much, we’re needing rain.

I sit inside and watch a butterfly
batter its wings
batter its wings
against the pane.


21.
Is there another man, he says?
All those walks by the canal. . .

I lift my head and frown.
I like to walk, I say, that’s all.


22.
His anger is contained. It seethes beneath
the thin set of his mouth, the tautened skin upon his face,
the shoulder muscles tensed, the rigid line of spine.

I tippy-toe around, speak seldom, wary that each word
is snatched upon, dissected, inspected, its entrails spread,
interpreted, as if within the gristle of its disembowelled vowels
he’ll find some remnant of the girl he loved.


23.
I am becoming secretive, fugitive. I keep my words
locked tight away, like a child with its favourite sweets,
or a pervert with his stash of sad pornography.

I hide books. Between their covers my eyes have strayed -
I might have left traces, faint as spider tracks in dust,
of my deepest thoughts.

Soon I will need to wear soft gloves
to open the window of my mind.

A careless thumbprint might incriminate.

I must not write things down,
except on pages carried deep inside,
bound tight, with skull and skin.


24.
He threatened me. Just once. Waved the paper in my face,
thumped his fist upon his desk, made me read the headline

HUSBAND AXES WIFE TO DEATH

This is what you’ll drive me to. That’s all he said.


25.
How many ways are there to leave a husband?

You could go out screaming, plates and glasses smashing off the walls.
Or weeping quietly, trying not to wake the kids, determined not to brawl.

Or creep out in the dark of night, clutching a poly bag
with your future and your toothbrush and your broken dreams inside.

Or violently. Throw yourself, like Deirdre, from his speeding car.
Or take yourself out fast, steer 90 miles per hour
towards a roadside tree.

You could even go apologetically,
saying, I know, it’s all my fault.
I hope one day you’ll find the grace to pardon me.

You could go with a flounce, with a flurry, in a blaze
of indignation, in an unholy hurry.

Or you could just go. One day when he’s out.

Simply place
one foot
in front
of
the
other

Comments

Rachel Fox said…
I like the idea of a fitted kitchen and a conservatory in a glass coffin... I don't want them (or the coffin) but I like the picture and it's very true.

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