The Yellow Curtains
The color is repellent. A smouldering unclean yellow,
strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.
For seventy three days now I have lain here.
Toile de jouy. Carmine on goldenrod.
The shepherdess bowing before the archer,
her slender hart watchful by the brook.
Seventy three nights on this great immovable bed
(it is nailed down I believe)
whilst inside me the careful work never ceases:
brain tissue, marrow, a coppice of lungs
leafing and tossing in the swell.
I haven’t felt like writing before, since that first day –
But I must not think about that. Toile de jouy.
It’s maddening, riling. The curtains shut
on Summer; on the silver birch undressing,
her leaves a snowstorm; frost feathering the glass.
I am alone a good deal just now
and I cry at nothing and cry most of the time
– in the cock-crow, through the shining hours,
the velvet meadows of the dream life.
There are things in these curtains
that nobody knows but me or ever will.
The small face in the oaks. Blessed little goose.
She reaches to me, calls for me. Mama.
But I dare not move, dare not sit up,
for in that mint green ward
there are ventilators, defibrillators, needles
for tiny veins like scraps of red thread.
No. It is the strangest yellow!
It makes me think of all the yellow things
I ever saw – not beautiful ones like buttercups,
but old foul, bad yellow things. Toile de jouy.
How many minutes now, how many days?
This toil of joy. He said I was his darling
and his comfort and all he had, and that I must
take care of myself. For his sake.
I can stand it so much easier than a baby, you see.
But I cry at nothing and cry most of the time.
At the swollen breast of the shepherdess.
At the sweet hart, shy and anxious by the stream,
soon to be shot. At the little face in the oaks,
darling little face. Dear god, how I love you
in darkness, you small pulsing creature.
For seventy three days now. Smouldering.
Yellow. I don’t know why I should write this.
I don’t want to. I don’t feel able.
Lines in italic font are taken from “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892).
Bringing you into the world, I let the mountain enter me:
mauve, shadow, the sky a zoetrope spinning crows and rainsoaked fog.
I let in the scree and the nodding heads of heather, a path
hidden by moss, where waymarkers of dotterel skulls sang in the breeze.
I opened my chest to the wind
which lowed and howled
over the voice of the midwife and the beep of the monitors.
The ascent was steep,
dirt and stream, the air electrified
with concentration. A hare leapt in the milkweed as mizzle fell
slant on my spine. Up up I climbed
until I could no longer see the bottom
the place I had begun from.
but retched with the air, poor creature of the low world.
Up up. Higher. Further.
I cried out but the gale swallowed it and sang back my name
until everything was burning,
until the face was sheer and the rush were on fire
and I saw the gleaming bones of death that lay beneath this.
On and on. I could not turn back
but knelt on all fours, clung and scrambled, desperate
to reach the summit, the splitting peak of it –
– and when it came it came fast, a shining crown,
through the slap of the storm,
and for a second we were alone on that highest place
and love, oh love,
I would gladly have left my body
on that lit ledge for the birds to pick clean
for my heart was in yours now
and your small body would be the one to carry us.
Liz Berry was born in the Black Country and now lives in Birmingham. Her debut collection Black Country (Chatto, 2014) was a PBS Recommendation, received a Somerset Maugham Award and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.