20th Century Poetry #9: Susan Miles

One way to understand where poetry is now is to see where it was a hundred years ago. Every Saturday I’ll be posting not the best, but at least the most representative, poems from the last century, where we can see poetry constantly changing. You can read the other entries here.



The brown-faced nurse has murmured something unintelligible
And is clucking distressedly.
She is apparently perturbed because I have not eaten my dinner.
Deprecatingly she takes from the chair by my bed
The heavy plate of liver and rice which I have not touched.
She turns the rice with a slow-moving fork
And gently proffers a brown chunk of liver cased in congealing gravy.
I raise myself in the bed and hold up my mouth.
But the stitch in my wound is pricking me,
And the smell of the liver makes me sick.
Through the wall beside me
Penetrates the sound of sobbing from the Sergeant’s wife,
Whose baby is dead.
“Memsahib cry,” the brown-faced nurse is murmuring.
“Memsahib cry, cry, cry – all the day,
All the night.
Memsahib never smile; only cry.
Memsahib not happy. No.”
As she moves away
Her kind eyes are filled with tenderness
And with deep and impotent pity
For the sobbing woman.
Carrying on her fore-arm a minute bundle,
The Sister enters.
She has brought for my inspection a brown baby,
Aged twenty minutes.
She tells me that his child mother
Has died.
The baby clenches frail and infinitesimal fists,
And makes vague movements with pale curled feet.
His unseeing eyes stare through the Sister’s pity-wrenched face.
She speaks rapidly and a little brusquely,
Fearing lest her voice should sound blurred by emotion.
Now she has thrown me a quick jest
And is gone.

From across the compound creeps a child,
Naked and inevitable.
She squats on the verandah near my bed,
And surveys me with patient eyes.
I fold my hands upon the bed-clothes
And watch her,
Patient too.
Her utterances, which are many,
Are wholly unintelligible to me.
Around her neck yellow marigolds
Dangle in rich beauty.
She holds them out, proudly:
And babbles, proudly.
Now she has ceased to hold out
The marigolds.
She is pointing,
Apparently with equal pride,
To the sores on her little body,
And she is babbling, exultantly it seems.
Of them.

And while I listen to her unintelligible babble,
As she displays now her marigolds,
Now her sores,
Her little voice becomes for me the voice
Of the unintelligible universe,
Beautiful and appalling.