‘Mrs Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary’ by Olivia McCannon

Mrs Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary
(Anonymous artist, New England, late 17th century)

The baby is looking to one side –
Uncovering an early smile – at
The next canvas being painted
The mother attentive, but
Watching the way you watch her
Challenging whatever it is
You think she is doing – yes,

                        Holding the baby, but as you’d
                        Hold a balloon without a string –
                        The child is buoyant, rising
                        The mother’s touch is light, just
                        Stops the child from floating away
                        One hand barely at the shoulder
                        The other a pulse at the waist, while

The child’s miniature fingers weigh
On the mother’s bodice opening, say
Everything laced in here is mine:
The breast that softens the bone
The heart that works behind, I touch
Here to be safe. I touch to take
Whatever she has, that I need, and

                        The mother’s eyes confirm she knows
                        Her strength, her discrete tokens of
                        Investiture. The grasp must be just
                        Right: the child wants to float away
                        And also grip her bodice, to have it
                        Unlace quickly in case of hunger
                        Sticky tragedy or fatigue. Although

The vigorous fingers also press
When she herself is dragging or sad
Or defeated, the cool knowing
Mouth encourages, the small
Hand pats her back together so
She must go on. Bliss like this
Only ever has the wholeness

                        Of dandelion clocks breaking up
                        As she tries so fiercely to keep
                        The child’s gesture of trust intact
                        Before it disintegrates into need, that
                        Her eyes become hard and hot –
                        She must stop happiness floating away
                        She must stop the child floating away
(previously unpublished, written after the painting Mrs Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary available to view online here)
Olivia McCannon was born on Merseyside and lives in London, after nine years in France. Her collection Exactly My Own Length (Carcanet/Oxford Poets, 2011) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize and won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. Her translations include Balzac’s Old Man Goriot (Penguin Classics, 2011) and medieval to contemporary French poetry. She co-judged the Poetry Society’s Popescu Prize in 2015.