She and her sister stand at the top, looking down.
They can see the sea, the lighthouse
and the salt-walled church.
She and her sister think what it would be like to jump –
long hair, brown dresses,
tumbling into the giant water.
This morning they sat in church,
heard the story of the pillar of salt
and how Lot lay with his daughters.
She and her sister became aware of a shuddering
along the pew, a straightening of spines,
a pinkening of their father’s ears.
Always they dread Sundays – the motherless day –
left to the will of God, the will of the wind.
From the collection Sisters: © Jennifer Copley
Published by Smokestack Books
Buy it here . . .
Who are these girls? Why are they standing with their backs to the camera? These questions appear on the back cover of Jennifer Copley’s latest collection ‘Sisters’. The answer is that both girls are dead – for this is one of the ‘post-mortem’ photographs taken by Victorian photographers for grieving parents. Often, when loved ones died, the family didn’t have a photograph and they were desperate for some memorial. It seems bizarre to us, as well as ghoulish, to think about the dead bodies being dressed and then propped up on frames in a photographic studio to be pictured as if they were still alive. Sometimes their faces would be over-painted to resemble the living, but if the photographer wasn’t skilled at this technique, a view was chosen that portrayed them asleep, or avoided showing the face.
Jennifer Copley became fascinated by this photograph in particular and began to think about sisterhood and death. The poems in the collection explore both, as well as other complicated family relationships. They have been described as ‘urgent, visceral . . . not for the faint-hearted’.
The motherless sisters stray in and out of fairy tales – Snow White and Rose Red, Hansel and Gretel – grandmothers, mirrors, apples and trails of pebbles feature in their lives as they make assignations with dubious boys (who might or might not turn into geese) and walk in the dark woods. They dress up in their mother’s clothes;
‘Watching themselves in the mirror.
One drowning in a long pale dress.’
They fantasise about imprisoning their drunken father in the spare room and grinding his bones
‘a little at a time
into their gravies and stews’.
And then one day ‘there is no more us’.
One of my favourite poems, at the end of the collection is called ‘There’s Another Graveyard’ which was a prize-winner in the Bridport Poetry awards in 2010.
‘far more overgrown, brambly at the edges.
Sheep step across the threshold
liking the taste of this grass.
Our grandmother brought us here.
It was like a jar of quietness with a lid of sky –
the only place where you never cried.
She’d crochet, sitting straight-backed
against the wall, while I hunted four-leafed clovers
and you made grass and dandelion pies.
They say there’s no sound when someone crochets
but I can remember the rasp of wrinkled fingers
against wool, the sucking of teeth as a corner was turned.’
Sisters by Jennifer Copley
This is an unusual collection by a very accomplished poet who has published 6 collections, had poetry included in the Forward Prize anthology and set for GCSE exams. She won the Ottakar's and Faber's poetry prize in 2006. Jennifer Copley lives in Cumbria, where she was born in her grandmother's house in Barrow in Furness. She has a wonderful website at www.jennifercopley.co.uk
The Tuesday Poets are 28 poets from all over the world who share poetry every Tuesday. We take it in turns to edit the main Hub. This week's editor is Helen Rickerby, who also edits Jaam literary journal and she's chosen an unusual poem by New Zealand poet Anahera Gildea. Click on the link to take a look at the poem and see what other Tuesday Poets are posting. http://www.tuesdaypoem.blogspot.com