Sequence of three poems from Electric Shadow
The duty of balance I
During the Blitz, he said,
fire-raisers spat on his street.
Aircraft freed their bomblets at altitude,
blinding scraps of phosphorus
that consumed oxygen to flare,
grew as they fell, into scores of fires
– beacons for incoming bombers,
stowing their own DNA of damage.
Fierce white lumps scattered
like moon-rocks around.
As if in a trick, a man dropped a tin hat
on one on their doorstep.
The hat glowed white hot and altered.
He watched his mother watch.
Across the street, an unnatural brightness
challenged the blacked-out sky.
Through pink smoke he saw
barrage balloons guttering,
the odd genuine star,
smelled fumes like wild garlic.
On Victory Night the fireworks
went boom, crump, crump like guns.
Peace was declared in an excess of light
streaming strangely from windows.
He told me phosphorus means ‘light bearer’,
is built-in to all living cells.
‘How many fell after the war?’ he asked,
meaning his own story – meaning the way
he watched his mother’s mind
for years after. Waited for it to ignite.
The duty of balance II
He was that age, fourteen,
his hormones already in trouble.
He stormed the stunted stairs of ruins,
challenged local gangs for turfs of rubble,
dodged the confines of the parlour
to haul what he could from childhood.
Though the war was four years back,
surprising things were rationed:
father’s tolerance of questions,
the clarity of mother’s mind.
Too much oxygen being lethal
as too little, he burnt what he could.
In a dream he saw the Northern Lights
pulse beneath the clouds of London,
lacking only the proper conditions
to show. Then streams of white ribbon
tore strips off the stars, tied the sky,
looped through their limits of colour.
When he woke his mother was dancing.
When he came home from school she was gone.
The duty of balance III
Like she’s just back from shopping
they said. He skulked in his room,
refused to acknowledge the door, her coat
as it sighed into place on the banister post.
He’d taken the ill-advised journey just once
to the low home with wheelchair-wide doors
filled with the drone and bark of inmates.
Tea in the dining hall was like flying –
everything altered, even her eyes.
Her pupils were gaping. The colours
of her iris shifted. For months
they’d tried to shock her back.
Now she was stowed in the house again,
he listened for silences. Father
fussed over lunch, requisitioned
his presence to bolster the troops.
She sat in her old chair politely.
He broke the code. Held her
like she was still gone. It felt
like that day in the bombed-out house
when the top stair crumbled – leaving
him flexed on the tip of things;
grasping the duty of balance,
gasping for something to give.
Heidi Williamson’s first collection Electric Shadow (Bloodaxe Books, 2011) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the 2012 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry. She is currently poet-in-residence at the John Jarrold Printing Museum. In 2008 and 2009 she was poet-in-residence at the London Science Museum’s Dana Centre.