English wallflowers straggle
Along the Downing Street fence.
A white cottage, almost neglected
Behind slope of flowering almond
And bearded iris, pierces
My memory of lives lived there.
For seasons, after my sister died,
I squatted on the linoleum,
Before the black-and-white Kenwood,
Within that cottage, pared snow apples
For my doll, asleep on a hooked rug
Beside me. My grandmother, nearby
In a rocker, by the evening windows,
Peeled lamb kidneys for English pie.
A mother was not present. Neither in the sewing room
Nor in the pantry where
The black-handled bread knife
Waited to slice warm buttermilk loaves,
While my grandmother probed,
With the bone-handled three-prong fork,
The cooking kidney’s tenderness.
And Great-grandmother’s onion and Uneeda biscuit
Pestle…black iron whorls around an iron handle–
Whorls silvering along their edges—
Drowsed in a wooden bowl blemished
With a white growth…oh, is that your mother's grief,
My grandmother murmurs from the evening windows
Where she waters heliotrope seedlings
Growing in cheeseboxes along the sill.
Oh, is that sadness?
In that white cottage,
Catch at my heart, their footsteps erased,
Their bedrooms shadowed by others now.
No one knows we were there
Or that sorrow found us in those narrow rooms.
Or that our drawers were filled
With English soaps, and not just mourning.
Cakes of lavender, rose, and carnation…
Each tissue-wrapped bar was tucked
In a box with a London street scene printed
On its cover. I would hold a cake of soap
In my hands, smell it, and say
The cake, the bar nestled in my palm, the way
A pet hamster might, the way
Your palm nestled
In your sister’s, darling, remember?…
The London street on the box cover
Was not a place we hoped someday to visit.
But somehow one of the cottages,
Its window curtains drawn wide, hinted my sister,
Dressed in her blue homemade corduroys, lived inside.
Now in middle age, I set down baggage
At Heathrow, two or three times each year,
And find travel is one answer to loss.
And desire for memory may be another.
In the cottages surrounded by gardens,
In Chelsea, across the road
From the lighted pink and yellow houseboats anchored
In the Thames, and those in the Mayfair streets,
Nooked among the Brompton hospitals--with solitary
Aged pensioners staring from their spare windows high up--
I see my grandmother at her Larkin desk
In her chintz-draped bedroom.
Grandmother writes my dead sister
Of the stonebirds outside her window
–past the larkspur, alongside the Canterbury bells
…of my mother who stakes the hollyhocks, strokes
Fledglings, and listens to frogs leap
In the pool ringed around with rose quartz rocks.
At the cemetery, butterflies bush around
Your gravestone, Grandmother writes.
And so I travel. From cottage garden
To cottage garden, I travel and I travel
Into myself, into the depths.
And back out again.