Conjurors by Julian Orde Abercrombie

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
               Antennae; wet
               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.

Published by pnreviewblog

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