A.M. Cousins lives in Wexford Town. Her poems can be found in various journals including Poetry Ireland Review; The Stinging Fly; Fish Anthology 2019 and online in poethead.wordpress.com.
She also writes memoir and local history essays for “Sunday Miscellany” on RTE Radio 1.
Her first collection of poetry, REDRESS, was published in 2021 by Revival Press.
At dawn the lowing broke into my sleep
and I dreamt I was in Wexford –
my father was herding his cows,
hup-hupping them into the cowhouse,
keep moving, keep moving, good girl –
just before the baby woke and I opened my eyes
in the little house behind the abattoir on Ossory Road.
All day the cows pressed their desperate muzzles
to the rust-holes in the galvanized wall
that separated our yard from their holding pen;
at night, when a miasma of burning flesh and scorched hair
bellied out over the North Strand,
I prodded your back,
hissed into your ear
that the stench of rendered fat
would smother our child.
Nights now, I find myself moving through that house.
The kitchen window is still the buttercup yellow
I painted it before we left.
Then the back door opens
and a poppied meadow shimmers to the horizon.
After we rescue Mother and install her
in a nursing home for safe-keeping,
I go back to find her wedding-dress.
Confined for a lifetime to the yellow wardrobe,
the dress has survived, but is faded and limp,
proof of its former beauty preserved
in an album of monochrome photographs
and one crumbling newspaper clipping
praising the ballet-length confection of blue lace
worn by the young nurse in 1957.
A tear under the sleeve bears witness
to furtive adventures on those perpetual
summer nights of my childhood,
when I stole from my bed to prise open
Mother’s wardrobe-door and tip-toe back,
arms full of the dress that rustled its desire
to swirl around a warm body again.
I showed off in the looking-glass, paraded
for my two sisters perched on the bed –
obedient little bridesmaids – their silence
secured by threats and promises.
I carry it now in my daughter’s dress-bag,
lay it out on the back seat of the car.
Scraps of old stories piece together on the drive home:
Mother and her mother in Healy & Collins;
a roll of notes taken out of the good handbag,
counted and paid after fitting and approval;
the dress boxed up and carried home to hang
in the girls’ room over the kitchen;
visited every day and cossetted until
the midsummer morning when the bride
stood in her petticoat, ready
to step into the rest of her life.
The old dress settles into a bath of warm water.
I smooth soap over the blue lace, ease away
the years, rinse until the water runs clear.
A touch of Robin Starch will restore some crispness,
then a couple of hours in a fresh breeze
before it’s ironed and aired, folded and laid
flat in a box – for safe-keeping.
After the nuns left
we noticed that a hare –
a beast of a fellow
with strong back legs,
and a thick fur coat –
had moved in.
Superior now, our hare
lays waste to what is left
of the lay-sister’s herb garden,
savages Reverend Mother’s salad bed
and emerges fragrant from the Mistress
of Novices’ lavender border.
Sweet and sated,
it bounds through the cloisters –
not a chance of prayer
passing its cloven lip –
its soul long saved.
The time we brought you home –
that first night when you woke
in the small hours and refused
the teat of your brand-new bottle,
clamping your mouth shut only
to open it to wail inconsolably –
I was sorely tempted to hold you
to my breast but feared you would
pull away and search the shadows
for a glimpse of her ghost.
The next night was little better –
the crying woke the house
and we moved from room to room,
I rocked and sang and kissed,
cajoled, then wept along with you –
I thought you might have sensed
that a hundred miles away,
a young woman – in a single bed,
in a single room – breasts bound,
her bleeding staunched,
nursed her phantom child.
Not my Michael Furey
after James Joyce.
While the girls watched the boys kick a ball
on a scuffed patch of earth behind the school,
I hid in the pre-fab hut that served
as library and refuge to the bashful.
There was shelter among chipboard shelves
where books offered solace to a child
weary of feigning interest in the chatter
of fashion and elusive boyfriends.
Here were English girls learning life-lessons
in progressive boarding-schools; young women
in the Chalet novels bravely dodged Nazis;
and Miss Heyer’s Regency heroines –
all sprigged muslin and beribboned bonnets –
were tastefully romanced by young bucks,
with chequered pasts and endless supplies
of starched cravats, who drove fast phaetons
and could tame a giddy young filly
with one smouldering, masterful glance.
Sometimes I saw a boy near the Crime shelf –
barely thirteen, fingers and teeth nicotined
as a man’s. Once we talked and he held out
his yellow hands to show their tremor –
he suffered with the nerves – he liked a thriller,
a mystery to solve, Poirot was the best.
I preferred Miss Marple’s investigations
among the murdering genteel class.
If I’d ever thought of him after that
I would have imagined him on his tractor,
the cab filled with smoke as he turned the sod
in neat lines on his father’s beet-field.
Some years later, my mother wrote me –
the priest had called his name at mass,
requested prayers for his soul’s repose;
she heard the talk at the chapel-gate –
he was found in the barn, no mystery
how his life of hardship came to an end.
He was not my Michael Furey, never
my tender young love but I think of him
often in a makeshift library long ago,
wits pitted against a fictional detective
and a small, shy girl for company.
You must be logged in to post a comment.