You are my secret coat. You’re never dry.
You wear the weight and stink of black canals.
I don’t feel the cold. Marching through the park my padded jacket keeps out the world. My crimes are not visible, but hidden under layers of quilt. This is how I deal with guilt, wrap it up, keep it covered, just walk.
But you don’t talk, historical bespoke.
You must be worn, be intimate as skin,
And though I never lived what you invoke,
At birth I was already buttoned in.
Cousin coat can hold many secrets. I have mastered the art of picking up pain, putting it inside, zipping it up. It’s just that after a certain number of years, the weight of my sins my unspoken desires the things I wanted to say but didn’t my mother crippled in the residential home that place in the pit of my stomach where the earth opens up and I have to hold my breath to stop myself from falling in has grown unbearable. This coat drags me down into the dark water. It reeks of regret.
And what you are is what I tried to shed
In libraries with Donne and Henry James.
You’re here to bear a message from the dead
Whose history’s dishonoured with their names.
Whenever I enter the university library, to keep warm mainly, and hoping youth’s brazen face might rub against mine, I think of my stepfather. Our house of books that’s become his mausoleum. Raymond Williams, Walt Whitman, Jake Arnott, Paul Scott, Madhur Jaffrey, Elizabeth David, Alice Oswald, Stuart Hall. A year after he died my sister received a letter from his university library, requesting his overdue books. The letter informed my dead stepfather that he would not be allowed on the premises, until he returned them. Which made us laugh with hollow gallows humour. But now it’s just the sadness and the feeling of all the shelves of books that I grew up surrounded by, falling on my head, burying me alive.
Be with me when they cauterise the facts.
Be with me to the bottom of the page,
Insisting on what history exacts.
Be memory, be conscience, will and rage,
I keep walking. The paths criss cross over each other and I sometimes abandon them and stride over the grass sinking into the mud into my past that keeps accosting me in the dark. One of these days I will take off this coat and everything I collected in every crevice all the bits of tissue I shoved in my pockets with my grief and dust that accumulated the piles of lust and anger and the words that were always forming on the tip of my tongue but fell silently into the folds of the garment before they were uttered will escape. This coat has not let me forget anything. I flinch at the thought of what will be unleashed when the stories are no longer kept in. I know it will happen soon. I don’t stop.
And keep me cold and honest, cousin coat,
So if I lie, I’ll know you’re at my throat.
Cousin coat by Sean O’brien:http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoem.do?poemId=1715
Picture from this collection of vintage mug shots of women: http://xaxor.com/bizarre/32978-vintage-mug-shots-of-women.html