"Ellesmere Poems"
by Fred D'Aguiar


The Mythstories museum of myth and fable Poetry Commission 2004



funded by
Arts Council England
The Regional Arts Lottery Programme administered by Arts Council England, West Midlands


CONTENTS (click on the poem title of your choice)

Editor's note: Many of the poems use call and response; the poet's voice is in plain text, the response is displayed in italic.

BODIES OF WATER

EVERYWHERE

ELLESMERE

PEGASUS OF ELLESMERE

EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

THE FLOOD

IF THE MERE COULD SPEAK

MY MOTHER BATHES MY SON AS ONCE SHE BATHED ME

UNDERWATER BELLS

I WALK AROUND ELLESMERE

MERE TURNED UPSIDEDOWN

SEPTEMBER 11TH

HER PARENTS WARNED HER

JENNY GREENTEETH

ROBIN HUNT

DRAINING THE MERE

CALL AND RESPONSE





BODIES OF WATER

Not the gravitas of the Dead Sea

Not even one of its scrolls

Not the least bit of the black Atlantic

Nor the borrowed blue of the Mediterranean

Not the snake river winding down cold mountain

Nor the Amazon in its mineral bath

Not the Angel Falls of Venezuela

But these bodies of water

Not the Grand Canyon gouged in the Ice Age

Nor the Artic soul on ice

Not the Thames with the capitol for reflection

Nor one of the S’s in Mississippi

But these bodies of water

Not the keeper of Atlantis

Nor the guardian hills of Lock Ness

Not the harbinger of a 1000 leagues

But these bodies of water

These Meres in this Shropshire



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EVERYWHERE

water
           spreads for eyes to drink
water
           thirsts for lonely lips to kiss
water
           dreams up moisture in desert mouth
water
           swells in hungry belly ground

ground
           stuffed with weighted water
ground
           English earthquake gathers under

water
           robbed of running over stone
water
           minus light and without a home
water
           must rinse teeth and mince talk
water
           must plait ropes down necks
water
           ready to explode


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ELLESMERE

Robin of Shropshire
A fish out of water
H2 minus his O
C O missing his 2

           The moon at the bottom of a well
           The sun streaming through the eye of a needle
           An estuary in the veined leaf of a hand

Robin of Shropshire
Out of his element
A duck in a stew
Yeast in an antibiotic

           El Dorado in a litre bottle
           Mount Vesuvius on a Petri dish
           The library at Alexandria in a Chinese cookie

Robin of Shropshire
Shrewsbury’s Ali Baba
Ellesmere’s William Tell
History’s Holy Grail

           The children heard in a waterfall
           The ocean in a conch shell
           The milky way in a cereal bowl


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PEGASUS OF ELLESMERE

Horsefly, dragonfly, housefly,
Which of these do you see?

I see a horse in the air, more miracle
Than horse or house, more beautiful
Than a dragon, its hooves beat a path through cloud.

Is the flying horse rider less?

No and yes. A man rides the horse.
But the man, less a man more an extension
Of that horse, shifts shape like cloud.

Does anyone else besides you see this spectacle?

I am alone in a field. But all around me
Ellesmere looks skywards and sees what I see:
A horse flies above the trees and some lucky rider
Clings to the smoke stream of its mane.

Can you take a digital photo or video?

No but the sight burns itself on my retina.
My heart beats faster because of it.
I walk with springs in my heels.
I look forward to sleep when I can straddle
That horse and cling to its mane in thin air.


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EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

Not being a man given over to myth
To soothsayers and Friday the thirteenth types
Imagine my surprise when I saw what I saw
With these two eyes of mine
Capable of seeing a feather fall
In slow motion sixty feet away
Mind able to name bird that lost said feather

I do not throw salt over my shoulder
If a black cat crosses my path
I think
Here kitty-kitty
I do not turn back or run for cover
Or make the sign of the cross

When a knife a fork or a spoon falls
To the floor
I do not think a strange
Man or woman or child will knock
On my door
I believe I dropped the utensil
Plain and simple
An accident
If ever there was one

Yet my eyes witnessed something
My mind could not accept

As if I stood on a street and watched
A mile-long parade of floats
Decked out with dancers in fancy dress
Waltz by
But heard nothing
Not a shuffle of feet
Not a laugh
Not a carnival note
Reached soundproofed
Bubble wrapped me

I looked at the water –
All smooth and flat –
Breeze ironed pleats into a raised skirt of mere
I saw a horse rise
A winged horse with a man on its bare back
They made me think of a cruise missile
Fired from a submarine
At some remote target far inland
Seen at the point when the missile
Breaks the skin of the sea
And takes to the salt air

I heard the commotion on the mere
I blinked and strained my eyes
But there was the same horse
Wings spread and flapping to break free
Of the grip of water
And the man clung to the mane
And more water seemed to fall
From horse and wings and man
Than the mere contained
As horse and rider rose above the mere
Above the mere then above
Trees then away to become a speck
Indistinguishable from cloud

I rubbed my eyes and blinked
I shook my head to clear it
I called out to anyone nearby
But it was just me
At dusk
On my after dinner stroll
And now this thing I saw
That my head cannot accept
That my heart skips a beat
Thinking of


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THE FLOOD

Fence around field,
belly-button of a well
in the mid-riff of that field
fence posts girdled so close together,
staves knitted almost,
even air cannot slip through
without turning
sideways.

Plaited barbed wire so tight
sun stops like pollen
in those barbs unable to rise
into that fenced field.

A sign on the kissing gate
stops it from swinging open with a kiss,
a sign that tells a child
with a thirst that he cannot drink
from the well inside the gate and his kiss
must remain as dry as baked stones.

So the flood comes,
so the mere begins,
so the field swims away
leaving a well in its place
a mere for a well
a mere left where a field
once stood
a well too big for a fence
a well so deep
it quenches every thirst
and not a fence big enough
to go around it
and no bouquet of barbed wire
in sight
only a child’s hand,
fingers spread,
dips into that mere
for its cool in mid-summer
or breaks the slate
skirting the edge
all winter.


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IF THE MERE COULD SPEAK

I take her body,
her body that counted
stitch on stitch
hoarding all for itself,
and I fill her lungs,
drive out air and hope,
put my lead weight there,
drag her underground.

She maddens me and I see red,
red in her veins. I drink
from her body. I drain her dry;
replace her with myself.
She dies for my life.

Her greed did this to her and me.
As water I obey natural laws,
a moral compass.
I do not wish it on anybody.

They bring it on themselves
as her greed brought it on her,
brought my weight on her,
pressed life out of her.
Chased away her days counting
stitch on stitch and keeping
all those stitches to herself.


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MY MOTHER BATHES MY SON AS ONCE SHE BATHED ME

My mother bathes my son
in a bath of soapy water
as she once bathed me
in a basin next to the sink

My son puts his head
underwater
and burbles to my mother
that he hears bells

           the ringing in his ears
           is the water full of bells


She tells him the bells
ring in his ears
not in the tub
but he swears
he only hears them
when he puts
his head under

           the ringing in his ears
           is the water full of bells


My mother who once
bathed me as she now
bathes my son
tells him if he
does not stop
putting his head
underwater
he will collect
those bells in his ears

           the ringing in his ears
           is the water full of bells


She tells him they will ring
all the time
even in dry air
even in his sleep
as if housed once more
in a chapel
in the belfry of his mind


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UNDERWATER BELLS

Vibrations of the umbelliferous
underwater bells
widen rings on the water
rings on the water
widen as if an ironmonger
thrashed the round bell metal
flat to cover the smooth lake
from corner to corner, end to end,
top to bottom, tip to toe.

Sound for a cover,
covered sound,
sound cover, these ripples
spread to the shore,
lips of a congregation
hymns its praises whenever
breeze picks up over the water,
voices rise from under water,
from the bed up to the top,
song pleats the skirt of the mere
and mere tries to hold her skirt
from blowing up over knees
and above wet thighs.

The bells rest on the bed of the mere,
bellbottoms, bellows,
tongues cut out by ghost currents,
lips tangled by spun moss,
plaited weeds and mud soft as dough,
bells shift their shapes from bells
without belfries to the faces of mere
after mere, profiles with the sky in them
and tongues roped around every breeze
that picks up over the smooth faces
to ripple them, tear them, wring water from smooth
to rough, pleats ironed into them.

So a drowned bell works
so a drowned bell’s work is never done
so a drowned bell never loses
its sing-swinging tongue.


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I WALK AROUND ELLESMERE

I walk around Ellesmere
           As if one foot put in front of another

                       Captures the measure of water

           Or the dimensions of a ghost
Contracted to water surrounded by land

How long do I walk before I realise
           That my footprints erase themselves,

                       That I am in the middle of the mere

           Strolling on water and not alone
But in a crowd of ghost walkers?

This is a dream, I tell myself,
           Only a dream, when I wake

                       My feet will be on firm ground and dry.

           But I do not wake, I keep walking
Out to the middle of the mere

Where I am welcomed as a long lost
           Friend home at last to water and air,

                       To midnight, and me out in the open

           At a festival of airy presences
All with a date and each in the head

Of the living who sleep and give over
           Themselves to these ghosts and this

                       Ghost-coloured water in midnight walks

           That feed the mere with stories
And each story as heavy as water, and as cold.


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MERE TURNED UPSIDEDOWN

Resembles a city seen right side up
           With the mere bed as a sky dome
                       With every emblem of the city stuck to it
                                   For ballast, beauty, hope and glory.

Except this city under water,
           Not a bowl of blue air, but a basin,
                       Layered with mud and filled with water
                                   Sprouts legends, keeps debris for myths.

Countless moons waltz up
           To each mere take one look
                       And plung into it as only
                                   Moons can, without a splash,

Not even a ripple, and the mere,
           Each mere parts for every moon
                       As only a mere can, without evidence
                                   Of a scar, with only the bruise

Of water, a pore, a gill,
           For taking in moon into its open
                       And shut door into density
                                   Greater than air, lesser than land.


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SEPTEMBER 11TH

The date matters not one bit
And those dead still mounting
All these dead have
All the time the world
All their worlds brought to
The body of the mere
The surface of the mere
If crinkles on the water
Shelved in a library
Drowned long ago
Remembers
Those same crinkles
on a black man’s head
Not of books or cane rows
Decanted into a giant cone
The bed of the mere
Stores its own calendar –
As into a bottomless pit
Remembers
Wears all the scars
On the land we live on and from
Bending into water
A contortion of water
Each mere
I look into a lake of glass,
Stop the dead
Stop the killers
The date matters not
The body of the mere




to those who died that day
up in the name of that day
right now is time
takes to powder their bones
a standstill in time
remembers
keeps no records
recall book spines
then all the books
The body of the mere
Another man sees
He thinks of cane rows
Yet another pair of eyes thinks
but of ice cream
The body of the mere remembers
keeper of the dark
debris flung into it
The body of the mere
The body of the mere
inflicted by us
Every broken bone sends light
Every child’s cry
Child tears filling flooding
The body of the mere remembers
read its sky writing:
mounting up in the name of that date
who add to a mountain of dead
one bit to the dead
remembers



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HER PARENTS WARNED HER

A girl who never learned to swim
           left her house on her 9th birthday
                       flying the sailboat made for her
                                   by her carpenter dad, a working rudder,
                                               triangular canvas sail and balsam he sanded,
                                                           painted white and named, Gloria, after her,
                                                           embossed on both sides of the skiff in letters
                                               carved so small he must have parted
                                   bristles from the brush and with
                       no more than a quick dip
           into the side of the paint can.
She walks, barefoot
           from the back garden down to the jetty,
                       still flying her boat, an engine
                                   noise from her pursed lips
                                               alien to her airship.
                                                           Her parents always warned
                                                           stay away from the mere. She looks
                                               back at her house lost now among trees.
                                   She hears her name from her mother
                       as a dying whisper that barely reaches
           the pale inner elbows of leaves.
She stoops on the jetty, launches
           her birthday boat and watches it
                       stuck on water as if air
                                   were its maiden flight and not this
                                               cool embrace.
                                                           Gloria grabs a stick, leans over
                                                           prods her namesake but falls
                                               short and so stretches even farther out,
                                   her thighs printed jetty,
                       toes dug in between two planks,
           hand full of the weathered wood.
She feels blood rush to her skull,
           drain from her lower body,
                       and redden the bright
                                   filaments of her eyes.
                                               Her weight shifts from the jetty,
                                                           feet lose their toehold on wood
                                                           like sandals kicked off, hand drops
                                               stick, hand loses grip and Gloria
                                   splashes into the element she never
                       grew to know and lands
           square on her birthday toy
as new to water
           as sailboat is to air,
                       as her feet are to the water
                                   both Glorias disappear
                                               under and only one of the two
                                                           floats back to the surface
                                                           for air.



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JENNY GREENTEETH

Jenny Greenteeth


Jenny Greenteeth


Weed green arms


Pull a stray child


do-dah, do-dah day

Jenny Greenteeth


water witch
                       do-dah, do-dah

water witch
                       do-dah, do-dah day

that lie in wait
                       do-dah, do-dah

under the lake
                       do-dah, do-dah day

do-dah, do-dah day

water witch
                       do-dah, do-dah day


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ROBIN HUNT

Yo! Robin. I cannot help what I must do with my slingshot, made from a fork  
found in a tree, a perfect V, leather tongue loaded with a dried mud ball  
hard as my ears, filled with warnings that if I shoot you, my arm  
will surely break. I feel no fear for what I must do to prove  
my aim true and the myth about you false. Watch  
me  now  and  learn from what you see.  
My dear boy, I do not usually talk to
fools, much less try to talk
fools out of foolish
acts, but you
need to listen to your
elders. If you shoot me, your
arm will definitely break into two
and mend with a look permanently akimbo.
Think about it, I am a mere bird and you are human
but the fork you robbed from that tree you need to apologise for the
theft. Not to me, fool, to the tree, before it deals you damage medics can’t undo.



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DRAINING THE MERE

Whose idea was it to drain the mere?

           They say the Duke of Bridgewater bankrolled it.

Who could move that many tonnes of water?

           Talk has it that the sun teamed up with the Duke.


Where did all that water go?

           Into the sun and the moon and the stars.

Why move the water to another place?

           The Duke wanted it closer to his estate.


What happened to the water in its new location?

           The sun fell in love with it.

The Duke ordered the sun out of his sight and off his estate.

           But the sun merely withdrew to a safe distance.


The water dried up and the clouds grew heavy,

           Travelled far from the estate and fell back into the mere.


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CALL AND RESPONSE

Mere

Memory

Walk

Back

When

Time

Ran

Slow

Glass

Face

Water

Flung

Wide

Span

Towns

Swept

Through

Hills

Round

Each

Mere

Memory

memory

walk

back

when

time

ran

slow

glass

face

water

flung

wide

span

towns

swept

through

hills

round

each

mere

memory

mere


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