Bethany W Pope is an award winning author of the LBA, and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program. Her first poetry collection, A Radiance was published by Cultured Llama Press in June. Her second collection, Persephone in the Underworld has been accepted by Rufus Books and shall be released in 2016. Her work has appeared in: Anon, Art Times, Ampersand, Blue Tattoo, The Delinquent, De/Tached (an anthology released by Parthian), The Writer’s Hub, New Welsh Review, Every Day Poems, And Other Poems, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Magma, Words & Music, The Quarterly Conversation, Tears in the Fence, Ink, Sweat and Tears and Planet. Her work is due to appear in the next issues of Poetry Review Salzburg, Acumen, Pacific Poetry , Music& Literature, Anon, and The Screech Owl.
You keep this gold-framed photograph
on the small oak side-table
in whatever living room you happen to have.
You are sitting with Mother Teresa
on a stage in Manila.
Her gnarled brown hand covers yours.
It looks very warm.
When she was a young girl in Albania
she had a face that was beautiful and very strong,
the face of a young boy crusader veiled
in a veil of black radiance
she severed when she joined the sisters.
Her dark eyes pierced.
They are facing you in this photograph,
ancient, but with obvious force.
Does it hurt you to see them?
Does it hurt to be touched
with such implacable strength?
You look like a rabbit held
in the eyes of a spiritual hawk.
I cannot read your face, mother.
You are wearing the joy-mask.
Your teeth are translucent and perfect,
red painted lips curved up to just the right amount.
You are dressed in a cheaper version of a suit
worn by the Duchess of Windsor,
your hair cut and styled to enhance the similarity.
There are gold-flecked lapis beads around your neck.
They are like the straps of a mask.
This is what I know about you, mother:
you were the type of person
who played up a resemblance.
You found a mold that nearly fit
and poured yourself in.
You had taught yourself to make expressions
that looked good caught on camera
and had some symbolic connection
to the recognized icon.
Mother Theresa wore nothing.
She was more naked in her robes
than you ever were in life.
She knew you were only feigning a rabbit.
She knew by your eyes, by your weapons,
by the battle scars of invisible pain, visible to her.
You told me that old woman spoke a prophecy,
breathed it into your ear through sharp brown teeth.
You told me that she prayed for me
and for my newborn brother.
‘Your life will be a great ministry.’
Tell me, mother: was she right?
Your self-control is incredible.
Off-stage, you are the best actor in the world.
By the time the mask slips and you are rocking
back and forth in agony, tearing at your legs
with your sharp nails, shredding insensibly
to get at the blood, the real you
I’ve never met has fled and the skin-face
beneath the front you wear hangs loose
as dough from your immaculate bones.
Once, just once, let the tension slip.
Once, just once, remove the facade
before exhaustion forces your hand.
I know you through your negatives.
What you don’t do, what you do not smooth
beneath the plaster. I see you by your edges,
detecting a camouflaged lizard
by the shape of its shadow cast on the sand.
I know that your will is implacable.
I know you like your ash blonde hair.
My mother caught in black and white,
preadolescent, lanky, skin deeply tanned
so that her hormone frazzled hair
seems nearly white against her forehead.
She has made a lean-to hut of fallen live-oak branches
and Spanish moss, gray as pantomime witch hair.
She is dressed as Jane, from ‘Tarzan’.
When I did this I was Ayla
from ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’.
What is her totem? Mine was the wolf.
She grins, no other word for it,
in a way that I have never seen in life.
She is unaware of how her face looks,
this is not for effect.
Expressions of joy are messy, stage joy-
which is not the thing but only the seeming-
looks beautiful. This is my mother
without her mask.
This is the mother I have no knowledge of,
the girl that was hidden and might yet remain
beneath the layers I am peeling.
Can faces age, sealed away from the air?
When I find her, will I know?
This is the woman I am trying to love.
12th Ave. West
A strange attraction drew me there,
to that cream mission-style church
that sprawled at the roughest intersection our town had,
where the prostitutes looked- to me- like mothers
who walked without children.
My foster-mother was once mistaken for a whore.
She was walking to the grocery store, alone,
in a long skirt and sandals, a pure white blouse
that brought the gold out
of the dark brown skin she was ashamed of.
A man drove up to her,
red mustang glimmering in daylight.
He offered her a lift.
She smiled and deferred him,
that headshake sending black curls flying.
It was only when the cops drove up
to ask their questions after three minutes of following her
that she understood what they meant.
At the corner, next to the church,
there was a long blue-painted building
of temporary-looking wood.
It looked like someone had uncoupled the backs
of three pine-sided lorries and laid them out lengthwise.
A self-styled antiques market then,
it has been bought for a detox centre
by the Salvation Army.
My uncle lived there for two years,
before he ran away to California.
I walked there once a week,
dressed in an oversized blue T-Shirt
and pink neon tights, the gym shoes
I shared with my brother,
to dig through the piles of mouse scented magazines
and admire the high-class miniscule perfection
of the owner’s glass-walled dollhouse.
She knew me well enough
to let me bring my dog inside,
to shelter from the unrelenting sun
while I paged through thirty-year-old copies
of Mad and learned about hippies.
It was chance, or God, who brought me there-
the sight of green gardens in a scorched yellow land.
The church grounds took up a solid acre of free beauty,
where anyone could wander in this town with no parks,
save for the rear shed-like building
where the priests made their home.
I was tempted by the sight of fountains,
by the white open-armed statue of Mary,
by the grass that spread from her feet in an Augustine cushion
that my Dalmatian rolled in and I could not leave alone.
It felt like a trespass, not meant for me,
but the priest I saw was smiling.
Old, his glasses held with masking tape,
he stood by the doorway and beckoned me in.
‘Tie your doggie to Mary. She will guard him from the street
and there’s good water for him to dip his muzzle in.’
I tied him to her feet, by the cistern,
the copper coil that fed the water
that he drew with his tongue cupped.
Water of life.
I had never seen so much red, or gold in my life.
It reminded me of Christmas time and bloody organs,
someplace safe and not uncomfortably warm.
It felt too good for me to look at,
starved as I was on Presbyterian shabbiness,
mitigated only by my church’s astonishing windows.
At my father’s church the carpet was squalid,
pews threadbare, the only beauty in light.
A series of pre-Raphaelite windows which glowed
at sunset like no jewels on earth,
delineating the life of Christ.
Half of them, the best- which featured the resurrection,
had just been walled over, by the order of the session
to save on the cost of air-conditioning.
They always preferred the easier part,
so long as they were making no sacrifices.
You could still see the Nativity,
the long toes of the shepherds,
the blue-edged face of Mary which aged
with the story from lovely to haggard,
but with the ending removed,
sliced off by brick, there wasn’t a point.
Here, in the Heart,
everything was plush and sweetly scented.
There was no cold undertone of rot.
The altar was marble, gold leaf, wood bathed in incense,
and the people who approached it were dressed
very much like I was, our rags, our stench,
our wild hair lost all significance,
or added its own edge to the beauty
focused at the gilded body of that part-naked man
who writhed on the cross.
Death was something that I understood.
I had never known that it could be beautiful or good.
I knew enough not to offend by taking communion.
My father had confirmed me himself.
Their table was not open.
But I was deeply fed there,
in a way that- despite his best efforts-
my father could not.
Christ came in through beauty,
through the gilded agony of death
my church blocked off.
For twenty years I have been thirsting
for the blood in that cup.
Nana will never lose her molars.
She told me after breakfast
while her white mug of acid coffee cooled in her hands,
her elbows longing for but carefully not touching
either the black oak edge of the table or the blue plastic table mat.
Her teeth are all her own and nearly perfect.
Strong cream tablets, edged with the yellow
found at the petal-rims of spent buttercups,
with a small clean space between each one.
Not at all like my own teeth
which are more like my Popie’s,
weak and prone to breakage, cavities;
my eye-teeth translucent beside the solid opaque
of the false centre incisors, bought to replace the two
knocked out by the shovel. I never found them after
on the straw-strewn barn floor.
Fifty years between our ages and her mouth is younger.
‘I didn’t want to see that dentist
but he was a friend of your Popie’s
and you know how loyal he is.’
She sips with distraction. I know she can’t taste it,
though the smell of grounds thrice used, steeped,
and added to over days triggers my tears.
‘Nothing was paining me, but business was slow
so I agreed to let him check.’
She smiles at me in that flirty way she has,
eyes deep-blue and kittenish
beneath lowered auburn-lashed lids.
‘He checked me up, alright.
Did everything he could to pad the bill.
Picked over and between each one, finding nothing,
so he looked further in.
‘He ordered up x-rays, which were new then
and seemed somehow luxurious. We couldn’t afford it,
but I said yes anyway. Who could ever resist
a look into their own head?’
I could, but I don’t tell her that.
I remember the look of my jaw ten years
after the unmended shattering.
Spidery, cracked, seeping infection
that could have killed me,
if there hadn’t been a warning agony.
‘When he fixed the plates to the light
and saw my wisdom teeth,
he laughed with something almost joy.
Could hardly wait to pull them. I said no.
Couldn’t see any harm in them, they just sat there,
hidden and planted, rooted in tight.
‘Dan said yes. It was the fifties.
There was nothing more to it.’
Nana puts the mug down,
rubs one unconscious hand
down the brief length of her jaw.
‘I went under easily. Ether, you know.
Such beautiful dreams after a breath from the cone.
I woke halfway through to an agonized wrenching.
A snapping sound I remember clearly
though they said I couldn’t have.
‘I surfaced again some time later,
in a clean white room, a surgical room, like my father’s.
My jaw ached but I was otherwise comfortable.
The dentist came in, clean also, though for the first time
I noticed his gnawed, blood-rimed fingers.
They had been in my mouth.
‘He did not apologize. To me at least.
He might have said something to Dan,
though I tend to think not because he still tried to bill me.’
She grins then, exposing her rarely seen predatory edge.
‘He didn’t get away with it. He did tell me this.
‘”Mrs Pope, don’t ever let anyone near your mouth again.
The roots of your teeth are wound round your jaw.
Your wisdom teeth are linked to the main nerves in your cheeks.
If they were pulled you would feel a great deal of pain,
and your face would be paralyzed.”
No apology from him, though his forehead was sweating.’
Nana looks at her nails, long and so beautiful,
edges the shade of her teeth and nearly unbreakable.
My own fray easily as paper, tear to the quicks.
‘I wanted to sue him. I wanted it as badly as a cat wants meat.
But your Popie said no and we didn’t.
That wasn’t the way things happened, then.
I wasn’t badly hurt. The man was Dan’s friend.
It was the fifties.’
Two pairs of socks under greyed trainers,
mended by Duct Tape,
rise to my ankles which are whitish-blue,
exposed, a little bloody from the friction
of frozen cuffed jeans
which will melt in my room
and dry in the heat of my body.
There is no pain yet,
just an awareness of scraping,
a tightness when the droplets freeze
constricting the flesh.
My head is covered by my grey Dollar Store hoodie.
Unlined, but what of it? The two t-shirts serve.
My fingers are twined like rats
in the singular pouch-pocket.
They feel solid, wooden, the flesh shrunk
fast to bone so that the silver wing-shaped ring
Allison gave me revolves on the knuckle.
No one made me take this walk,
my friends would have discouraged me
if they had known.
But even in poverty, I need deep silence.
I need to be out here,
away from my dorm room,
With as close to nothing as I can manage
between my flesh and the world.
The trees are radiant, indescribable-
at least for me, a I was then.
Bare cherry, beech, oak, richly clad fir
that makes me think of green-cloaked St. Nicholas,
tall, broad, and strong in his robes.
The fat, insincere, American Santa
has no place in the world, as it is here.
Nicholas might flog you for sinning,
but after he would lend you his robe.
Each needle is caught in a vial of crystal.
It rained in the night, and then it froze.
The branches are weighted
by the weight of the water,
of triangular needles gasping their air bubbles,
their last exhalations, caught in the ice,
intentional as decorations
Blown into Florentine glass.
I duck beneath the ice-rim,
beneath that hard-edged cloak,
set the glazed branches chiming with the sound
we used to know the stars made.
I press my body to the trunk,
night-lit, seeking out bird nests,
other brutal decorations.
I cannot see either moon or stars
through these boughs,
though the clouds scattered hours ago.
The clouds took the heat back
when they drew back their clothes.
I am far beyond cold, far beyond shivering.
When I get home this morning,
peeling away layers,
my socks will draw away my toe-nails.
This moment is worth it,
a gift given, after a flogging,
made better for the pain I felt-
or couldn’t feel- a moment before.
My back against the trunk,
the sap beating, beating,
like a heart not quite frozen,
I looked up and saw in the darkness
an image of springtime.
All those clad needles,
drinking the starlight,
sending it down to me
all green and improbable gold.