Julian Orde Abercrombie relased very few poems in her lifetime, what follows is one of the few extant examples of her incredible talent,released two years after her death: a poem which confronts death even as it sings in the beauty of nature, watching the conjuring of life from “hairy grains” and chrysali, and then the magicking away of life, like “cloud wiping cows from a field”.
This poem is taken from Poetry Nation 6 Number 6, 1976.
This crusty July, blackfly
And other small, moist flies –
Whiskers so thin
They are not felt on skin –
Liking a dry July
Interrupted the performance
Of the opening of some flowers.
Nasturtiums’ circus balance
Of little heads and great wheels
Went heeling sideways
Under the puny flies’
Procession of slow advance –
Who could be changed to grease
By a thumb flicked over a leaf.
And as a leaf I picked
I saw my fingers smeared with the dead
And I hated this meek
Giving-up of ghosts by black
Destructive pests, too quick
To surrender their flash of daylight,
– As if a cloud had wiped cows from a field
Everything is eating or eaten
The compost heap drives its mill as
Seeds in it sprout
Castaway plants open out
Into the heat of the garden,
While nasturtiums here big as umbrellas
Wear a bright display of caterpillars,
Which have eaten between the spokes.
Brisk as ponies, three abreast
They scythe their lanes
Through sweet and pepper greens
That chequered caterpillars make.
No other leaf they like to taste;
Nasturtium their nurse and hostess.
Transparent as your eyelid
Is this tender leaf’s skin,
It holds no reflection
Yet in the sun’s direction
Is seen, in health, glittered
With the tips of a pin
That fade at the first bruising.
Green ivory the stalk
Snapping with rich oils
That pulse and push
To a great umbrella bush
And thrust into gravel walk
Long messengers on bicycles
Balancing umbrellas at rightangles.
Of such juices are made caterpillars.
I put seven in a tray
With a window of glass
To watch them ripple past,
Scything from the edges
Of seven round leaves a day
And growing – until the 28th of July.
Chosen as con jurors and given
Cells that bloom like water flowers,
They do not play
But heartily try
To prove with perfect conjuring
Dear life, if dear enough, allows
A blind dive into a hatful of shadows.
They ate no more. A whisper told
Them: ‘Caterpillars, all begin!’
Through the night
They dryly ran about
Until one spun a puff of mould
To fix his end on, then, to plan,
He spat a thread to fix him upside down.
Doubled back he spat
And spun thirty threads in one
Till he lay within a loop
Tethered over his fourth hoop,
This thread to keep off bird or rat
Or the wind or houses falling down,
For he would melt and hope to live again.
Now all the bright ponies are still
From Highgate to Angmering,
For three days wait
Heads bent in a praying shape,
Contracted and stiffened until
They recede from the surface dizzily, with pain,
At speed they take leave of their eyes, legs, brain.
Something has so altered in the night,
Surely the wind changed to make this?
The racking caterpillar gone
And a pale nymph lightly borne
Under the old thread. Might
It be a ghost? The mask on its face
Has a beak of gold. It is like a little fish!
It is like a waxen fish
Filled with green leaves
With a veiny hint
Of two wings’ imprint,
With a waist, with a twitch-
ing tail, with a sheaf
Of yellow dots. It is hooded like a witch.
It has come among us hooded
And it has no bones!
It cannot walk
It wears a long cloak
But is also naked;
It is the skin round albumen,
The caul, the bag about the yolk.
It is nothing but a bud
Too late for the spring,
It will wither away
It will never be a flower,
It will shrink without food,
It is a vegetable swelling,
A cyst, a nodule that grew one morning.
It is just a bit of dirt,
It never grew at all,
The dropping of a hen
Got in from the garden,
It will smooth itself out
Like a table, like a floor, the material
Of houses; it will spread into a wall.
Oh I cannot make it go
Though I kill it with my eyes.
It’s a castle of glass
It’s a door I cannot pass
It’s a hill of snow
It’s an aviary wrapping round the skies,
It’s an aquarium; it’s a bed for butterflies
I have been a stalk, a leaf,
A grub, a fish with beak of gold.
I fear the dark
With a double knock
And I hate intruders – that’s the truth.
And here’s the truth: I am half dazzled
By a fancy, violent and old.
Leave a frog and find a dove,
Find a dish of blackberries
Where a snake crept,
Find an owl in a cobweb
Where a hare slept. Improve
On these – no metamorphosis
Awful as caterpillar to chrysalis.
Stare till you’ve insects in your eyes,
To see will not this trick explain:
Head in two
Nymph bursting through,
Legs and face but worn-out clothes,
Handsome skin rolled to a hairy grain
By the faceless babe it could not contain.
A hairy grain is all I spy
Of the caterpillar proud
In his carpet coat
Who so lovingly ate
The burning juices of July;
Who spun his noose and cast his shroud
And slept on the groundsheet of the dead.
Unborn are the butterflies of the south
And the caterpillars gone.
Images of August
Are carried in these chaste
Cases which have no mouth
To lap the rivers of the beans
Tumbling up out of the ground,
Or touch the peas’ cool paste.
Filled with the dying and the growing in the wrath
Of their commission
To achieve transfusion,
Then I can break but not awake,
Nor hurry that congealing drop of breath
To build myself one butterfly on earth.
As a face at window palely pressed
Moves, leaving the glass dark,
So now this bottle
Darkens, though a full
Rigged ship awaits tomorrow’s test
Of spindle spars and stays. The clock
Tells fourteen days have passed in the ark.
Fourteen days, and then a crack!
A skull-grey face with tendril-coiled
Wings, in folds yet
Of greenish gold with spots of black,
And a grey fur back, walk like a child
Unbalancedly into the world.
The involutions of her early wings
Invite a finger’s cruelty
To know the damp
Place where she once dwelt,
Or to deface and itself win
From each cold hollow, guiltily,
Some of the dews and dustings of her beauty.
She walks like a boat on the beach
Dragging her drying sails,
While the last
Memory of her past
Shakes from her tail: a bead
Of amber dew, unnoticed as the shell
That husked and housed her in its brittle walls.
Climber of curtains, long she’ll not hang there;
Taut are her wings and head-dress.
She will feed on sweet
Slippets but will never eat.
She will find her answering angel in the air.
She will lay her eggs upon nasturtiums’ crease
And will not remember the taste of the leaf.
Suddenly she is soundlessly flapping across the broad
Floor of the air without a trial;
The sun takes her
Across to the blue buddleia.
Out of her depths in air she is not afraid.
When she reaches the tree she finds it full
Of her own shapes and becomes indistinguishable.