The House of Rest
A History of Josephine Butler, feminist and social reformer, 1828-1906
Then you were here
real as a wound.
They placed you in my arms
with such care I thought you a parcel of feathers
that might fly away.
I stroked your face –
Your eyes were midnight blue.
Time bended to you,
language re-strung its instruments
to sound your name.
Visitors admired your lace-
ears, your peony fists, but they
could not see you as I did –
you slid from your skin
just as you had slipped out of me
and became a shard
of morning light, turning
cobwebs to crystal thread,
the windowsill to a gold bar,
dew on hedges constellations
of delicacy. I knew then
this love was alchemy.
Our bond is not made of that loose
wet rope they cut
but of instruments that show
the unseen and sound the silent,
the heart’s infinite missions
harnessed in flight.
Lord, I told Charles this morning about Eva.
Lord, is there anything in this world worse than a boy of seven
watching his beloved sister, his almost-twin, fall
to her death during a game, and learning that she later died?
Lord, his beautiful face was the face of an old man’s,
still as a saint’s, emptied of childhood.
Lord, I pleaded for you to fill my mouth with words to heal
his silence, and I held him tightly and promised him that You
were holding his sister just so.
Lord, he asked if there were games in Heaven.
Lord, I thought on this and told him that yes, there would be games
Lord, Charlie asked if Eva would be fine during the games in Heaven
or if she would fall as she had fallen yesterday, and the terrible
shriek that had pierced me rang again in my ears, and I jumped.
Lord, I told him that she would never fall again
but was in Your arms. He quietened at this,
looked away, and asked in a voice that wrings my soul:
How could He have let her fall?
Lord, as Thou wilt: answer him.
The Women In My Bed
I am no suffragist
but a womanist, and if there is anything
I cannot abide it is the selling
of virtue for tuppence, and if there
is anything I abhor it is the selling
of virtue for tuppence else a woman will die
of hunger, and if not hunger, she will die
of cold in the street, her feet bare,
her soul too heavy for her body.
So they are here: five destitutes under our roof,
five incurables, as we explained to Cat,
Henry and Charlie. Our friends think me
quite mad and George even madder
for permitting it. It is obscene! Five
prostitutes! They are girls, I replied,
children of God, and they are dying.
An acquaintance of George refused to cross
our threshold in protest. Where are they? he
I could not help
myself. I said,
upstairs, I should imagine,
asleep in my bed.
The irrepressible flicker of zeal before
he turned on his heel.
Carolyn Jess-Cooke is a poet and novelist published in 23 languages. Her latest poetry collection Boom! was published by Seren in 2014.