Now you aren’t here I find
myself ironing linen squares,
three by three, the way
my mother’s always done,
the steel tip steaming over your
blue initial. I, who resent
the very thought of this back-breaking
ritual, preferring radiator-dried
cottons, stiff as boards, any amount
of crease and crumple to this
soothing, time-snatching chore.
I never understood my father’s trick,
his spare for emergencies, but was glad
of its airing-cupboard comforts often enough:
burying my nose in it, drying my eyes
with it, staunching my blood with it,
stuffing my mouth with it. His expedience,
my mother’s weekly art, leaves me
forever flawed: rushing into newsagents
for Kleenex, rifling your pockets in the cinema,
falling on those cheap printed florals.
What I really want is Irish linen,
shaken out for me to sink my face in,
the shape and scent of you still warm
in it, your monogram in chainstitch
at the corner. Comforter, seducer, key witness
to it all, my neatly folded talisman,
my sweet flag of surrender.
Maura Dooley, from Explaining Magnestism (Bloodaxe, 1991)
I first heard ‘Mansize’ when I was stuck in traffic, in Tooting in south London. This was a very hectic time of life, which I have written about before, in which the acts of reading, listening to, talking about and writing poems seemed every bit as important as getting my children dressed and fed each morning.
Seldom alone, in the car or anywhere else, I switched on the radio to listen to the old Radio 4 arts programme Kaleidoscope, as I crawled along. The announcer’s voice cut straight to Maura’s own reading ‘Mansize’ from her book Explaining Magnetism.
I was struck immediately by the poem’s intimate mode of address, speaking directly both to its subject and reader with apparent artless disregard for everything other than telling the truth. As with ‘From the Irish’ it is about much more than it is about: gender, age, history, resistance, language and freedom. But there isn’t a word of it that is difficult. Like many of Maura’s poems, it wields the most gentle of stilettos.
I think nowadays I could have ordered Explaining Magnetism on my Amazon app before reaching Balham. Back then I had to ring up an actual bookshop and spell the authors name and publisher to them on the phone, then wait two weeks, before I could hear it again.
In the words of John Logan’s poem ‘The Picnic’, both of these poems entered my life at a moment when I was determined to be receptive to poems ‘talk[ing] in another way I wanted to know’. This is what I mean by poems having the capacity to save lives: sitting on a sofa or stationary on the south circular, once they enter you nothing is ever the same.