Updated: Apr 23, 2019
Jemma Borg won the International Ginkgo Ecopoetry Prize in 2018. She also won the RSPB/Rialto Nature and Place Competition in 2017 and is published in magazines including The Poetry Review, Oxford Poetry and Plumwood Mountain. Her first collection is The Illuminated World (Eyewear, 2014). She has a doctorate in evolutionary genetics and lives in East Sussex. http://jemmaborg.co.uk
My son in his ancient world is swallowing dreams
while my heartbeat entangles him
and he coils at my navel, the pendulums
of his legs accruing bone and his soft hands
shuddering at his face as he gulps at seawater.
He is, for this short time, a saint
getting ready to fall from concealment.
His heel quivers: the body wakes upon jerking strings.
Small snake-soul: you are the first strong child
to stir in me, and stay bound.
You commit to the nine months, the globe
of your head settling deeper at my pelvis.
When they lift you out of me, you ascend
into the violent light, your head black with blood,
your toes ten grains of rice and you curl
in on yourself like a coral, the quenelle
of your back gleaming. And then your cry goes up
in astonished multiplication
and before they sew me shut with wire,
the year opens
with your candelabra of vowels.
The story of the vow
I offered you the vow – as I found it –
like a harvest of field mice in my mouth.
The dark, singing vowels wound their tails
to make the Gordian knot.
There were arum lilies, roses with their freighted, scarlet blush.
Ancestors sat behind us in their wide-brimmed hats.
Among sparklers and confetti, the frost had begun
to bind the gravel. No warm coats –
cold is the simple discomfort you can trust.
What was mine, beyond my name?
What else had I agreed to, that I hadn’t named?
That night, the vow poured from us like light through a window.
It took me years
to find the better words, the ones I could align to,
the ones still living like tenants in a derelict house.
Then I breathed them into our son
and his obsidian eyes. The vow grew down
and up. The vow took on rain
and the rain washed away its lines and terms,
left only the glittering grass and a clear, blue sky.
What is ours, beyond our name?
What have we now made that isn’t named?
Our first promise turns yellow as the pages of a book.
Our child grows towards the sun like a tree.
Now to that question we all ask, out of politeness or an interest in comparing ourselves to others, especially about sleep, that private thing we do, that can only be done alone no matter whether someone sleeps next to us or not, that private thing we can share, that it’s expected we will share – you cannot say, protectively, I will not tell you how I slept! How rude! As we also do not say ‘How did your toileting go’ or ‘How was the washing of your feet?’
What about the colour of my eyes? I wonder what it would be like for them to be blue: to see with the eyes of the sky, to see from two still pools of water – would it be like speaking French? That language of clarity, with its pill of clear diction. To have brown eyes, as I do – and nothing terribly equivocal about them, they are brown without any other shade or blemish or anxious backtracking – is that like speaking German? Do I wait forever for the verb that doesn’t come?
Except what I think I’m saying is more about infidelity. How did you sleep? I never say, Well. What does it mean to sleep well? There are only one or two instances I can remember when I’ve woken and said, Ah, I slept so well! So perhaps the error is in the waking. Or to sleep well is an error itself – we do not sleep well those of us who must wake. Which is to say only the dead sleep well. Or, if you like, the word I come to, after a long detour, is death, the verb I’m waiting for is dying.
So, how did you sleep? I am not yet dead, I woke. No sleep but the night in which the light withdraws. No sleep but the desire to sleep. And then that desire withdraws. And then only the long hours until dawn, the raw nerves, a silence that is not quiet. Someone slept beside me – the sound of him sleeping was the sound of the sea. Others sleep like a memory you’ve lost but love to listen to, formed in their own words, and they hold it differently, in the light movements of their eyes.
The night is a gift of exhaustion, full of irritable buzzing – transformers, condensers, distant alarms – and deep pessimism. There is no-one in the world and there never will be. Darkness nestles in my arms like an animal – the alienness of what is real if I’m not, if I’m not there to tie it all into lies, like flowers on a table bound with rings of straw: the stem and stem of their order, the opening and falling of the petals, the slow rot rising, the fading of the reds, the wild browning of the yellow. And the white petals pale too – as though they eject blue back into the sky. A daylight moon – no longer silver, but silvered – and we fade beneath it, worn and worn by waking.