Hennessy New Irish Writing: October 2017’s winning poems
‘Fur Coat and No Knickers’, ‘Dirty Little Dresses’ and ‘Ways With Rotten Cabbage’ by Louise G Cole
Fur Coat and No Knickers
Drawing breath between tales of dead
little brothers and elderly neighbours
moved away, my mother looks inside
a lifetime that’s 92 and counting,
claims no-one’s visited for months,
thinks I’m her cousin Betty
with designs on her fur coat and hopes
of borrowing a fiver.
I try not to mind the care home smell
and wonder what else to talk about when
the devil himself taps my shoulder
suggests I unburden, reveal secrets
never before shared, so I offer a revelation:
I lost my virginity four times
before I was married. She’s never yet listened to me
so it is no surprise she doesn’t hear,
continues with a rattle about imagined walks
in the park yesterday, shopping
trips she’ll make next week.
A carer comes to tuck her in,
brings weak tea and egg sandwiches,
asks if I’d like some,
is relieved when I decline.
I get up to leave and the frail old cripple
who used to be my mother
spills her tea and demands
to know when cousin Betty intends returning
the fur coat, says quietly: ‘I always knew
what a little whore you were’.
Dirty Little Dresses
Back when you were still mine
– before school but after cradle –
we’d Wednesday walk to the village hall
puffing dragons’ breath
across dim-lit benches and trestle tables,
our voices echoing bathroom-style.
At my feet you spilled Day-Glo orange squash
– the kind I wouldn’t have in the house –
while I sipped something tepid and
vaguely coffee-flavoured from a plastic mug, tried
making big the small talk with other mothers.
All these years later
I am surprised at your recall
of the precious poppet pushed
through the door, always dressed
in impossibly white cotton frocks, pretty, pristine
seldom up for finger painting and sandpitting.
She played quiet, solo games
emerging clean and unruffled,
remarked by a loud, proud parent
while you came back to me messy and wild,
hand painted, squashed and sandpapered.
You said you always had a thing
for her Snow Whiteness until secondary school
when she went Goth
and the dresses darkened to black,
full of salacious slashes revealing flashes
of snail-trail scars on pale flesh.
Neither of us heard what became
of the pushy mother.
Ways With Rotten Cabbage
The well-dressed woman in the Costa queue
hears a culchie up to the Big Smoke for the day,
shudders in recognition of the home-place lilt,
almost hawks and spits, eyes narrow, chin lifts,
she still has poison to suck from the wounds
of a childhood there 40 years ago.
In the time it takes to brew soya latte she unburdens:
second of nine, ever hungry, cold and tired,
chores before school and after,
often instead of, but who cared anyway?
Idleness, TB and priests the demons to fear,
no possessions everything shared, even underwear,
shoes, skin, soul scrubbed clean for Mass on Sunday.
Were there any more ways to cook dirty rotten cabbage?
And the endless potatoes as they waited for bacon,
the squealing pig butchered in the yard,
bled into buckets for pudding,
the gag-worthy smell clinging to clothes
for the week ahead and beyond.
She rattles a list of duties like a mantra:
foot turf, mind babies, gather kindling,
clean pots, fetch water, dig spuds,
sweep, wash, wring, find, pick, cut, chop.
And all for the lash of the belt, buckle end out
for being loudly mouthy or silently sullen.
There’s a pause as the Barista takes money,
and the coffee arrives here in the present
‘Do you ever go back?’
She spreads beautifully manicured fingers,
stands straight in well-cut designer suit,
steady on high heels, tries to smile.
‘As if,’ she whispers, ‘as if’.
Louise G Cole performs her poetry at the monthly Word Corner Cafe at the Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon, and with the Hermit Collective, a group of writers, artists and musicians who stage pop-up shows in the west of Ireland. This year, she won Strokestown Poetry Festival’s Roscommon Poets’ Prize. She also writes fiction and was shortlisted for a Hennessy Award in 2015. She blogs at: louisegcolewriter.wordpress.com, where you can discover why she insists on the ‘G’ in her moniker.