Ali Whitelock – How

Ali Whitelock LE P&W May 2019

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How, poems Ali Whitelock

Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet living in Sydney with her French chain-smoking husband. Her debut poetry collection, ‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ is published by Wakefield Press and her memoir, ‘Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell’ was launched to critical acclaim in Australia and the UK in 2010. Her poems have appeared in The Moth Magazine, Pittsburgh Quarterly Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, American Journal of Poetry and many others. Her next poetry collection, ‘in the silence of the custard’ will be published by Wakefield Press in November 2019. She is currently working on a third collection of poetry (as yet unnamed), a second memoir, ‘andy’s snack van tour of scotland’ and a weird little collection of letters to Neil Diamond called, (rather unimaginatively) ‘letters to Neil’. You can read more of her published works here


how he runs through the facts of his boy’s
death like he’s ticking off stages in a home
renovation gone wrong; how the gyproc came
late––how gyprock is always late; how the idiot
in the hardware store sold him the wrong
fucking screws; how at one stage he had to take
down all the walls and start again; how the electricians
were called but still the lights wouldn’t come on;
how the entire school turned out for his funeral; how
they replaced all the plastic with copper and still
the plumbing wouldn’t plumb; how he would have
been eleven his next birthday; how the council
granted permission to take down two trees but still the sun
couldn’t shine through; how when the terrible
rains came his gutters collapsed; how he braced himself
for when his roof would finally be gone; how he watches
cartoons with his youngest––superman rescuing every
other man and his fucking dog; how they scattered
his ashes in the skateboard park; how humpty
fucking dumpty how bob the fucking builder;
how he keeps his room exactly as it was; how
he knows he clings too tightly; how he tries
to be strong; how he ropes a tarpaulin
tight around his heart.

not much of a mother in four parts:

part I

i had my baby dead before she was even born
cot death leukaemia fatal blood disorders affecting
one in a million newborns. then there’d be the choking
on the coin, i’m frantic turn her upside down slap her back
her face turns blue she stops breathing. then the
anaphylactic shock a single peanut, her wind pipe
swells i race to emergency her face turns blue
she stops breathing. repeat repeat

i marvel at women falling pregnant at the drop
of a fedora risking their hearts on the first rung
of the telescopic ladder of eternal pain. when i turned
thirty nine the gynae said, if you’re going to try for a baby
you’d better hurry up. relax, i told him, i’m fertile,––
i’d been pregnant twice before. he carried on tapping
his notes into his computer muttering how he wished
he’d had a dollar for every woman over forty who’d
ever said that.

we gave it a go. if i’m honest, half heartedly.
our fedora never dropped, it barely even tipped
then came the shadow on the remaining ovary.

the day before the hysterectomy i drove my friend
to the airport she was off to the bahamas to cook for
the much too rich and famous as we hugged goodbye
she whispered i’m sorry you’ll never be a mother. 
i cried all the way home. i never thought i’d have made
much of a mother. for the same reasons for years i resisted
having a dog. it is how they worm their way in till your
heart is mostly holes like a swiss fucking cheese then
before you know it they have you in a rickety cage
wearing a hard hat and carrying a lamp. your rickety
cage swinging precariously as you are lowered down
the mine shaft of your soul. once in your mine the beam
from your lamp will fall upon your heart slumped
on top of a coal wagon. you will remember you threw
it there many suns and moons and saturns ago it was not
in the best of shape, but you will remember it was still beating.
you will see the scabs. you will remember how they got there.
these scabs have served you well but they are dry now
it is time to pick them off. as you pick you will understand
that to love is not to tip toe around the crust of your soul, rather
it is to descend into the fire of your molten core without a harness,
asbestos suit, or dry fucking ice; it is to suffer third degree burns;
it is to gasp for breath; it is to watch many canaries die.

part II

after the hysterectomy my seventy year old friend Hamish
asked if it would affect my ability to have children. under
normal circumstances i’d have laughed, taken out my highlighter
drawn a fluorescent yellow circle around his stupidity. this time
i merely nodded, thanked him for asking and the waiter brought
the scones the danish the strong black coffee. i ended up getting
two cats. there were six kittens in the cage to choose from.
i chose the two that sat alone in opposite corners to each other––
each of them staring out into their own very separate horizons.
i have always gravitated in the direction of lovelessness.
this relationship i’m in now has love on demand. it is a two litre
carton of full cream milk that sits in the fridge. there is no best
before date, the level never goes down and i have yet to pour
my cornflakes into my morning bowl only to open the fridge
door and suffer the crushing disappointment of no milk.
sometimes i don’t know what to do with love like this.

part III

it is always the middle of the night. after emergency
triage she’d be admitted to intensive care. there’d be tubes,
and drips, the machine that beeps the sonar requiem of the grief
stricken whale mourning the loss of her calf. and i’d spend
the last of those nights curled up beside her––i’d be sobbing,
she’d be the one stroking my hair telling me not to cry.
my daughter would have had a strength i could never know.
i’d keep her hand in mine, read her a bedtime story
tell her i loved her three hundred million times
hours would
crawl days buckle
her clutch fade
fingers cool––
she’d drift like
snow and the
night would
take her.
the woman in the wide-brimmed hat at the funeral
home would ask about the eulogy, the order of service,
the psalms, the prayers, the power point slides. too sweet
smelling candles would flicker, casting shadows of dead
children dancing discreetly in corners. i’d have to choose
her coffin; i’d have chosen pink with diamanté handles
images of Elsa and Anna around the outside; Olaf
on the lid. and i’d insist on the softest fleece
to line it.
grief would fill me like concrete.

part IV

i’d have buried her by the scots pines in the cemetery
lush and green strewn with clover and buttercups yellow
as the yolks of the fried eggs we’d have for breakfast
on sunday mornings and where are the four leafed
clovers now that i need them? we used to make daisy
chains here together, just the two of us in our matching
pink sun hats with the corks that hung from the brim my sister
sent us all the way from australia. and my how we’d laugh
as the bobbing corks chased away midges that dared come
too close. and the soft pink cotton shaded our heads
from the fading embers of the afternoon sun as it slid down
and fell off the end of my world. and i know she’s too little
to know the beauty of this place right now but when she’s older
i know that she will. and she’ll know i chose this spot in the shade
of the pines with their roots digging deep into the earth reaching
for their own molten cores to drink the love they’ll need
to stand another hundred years protecting my daughter
from the warm rays of the summers to come and freezing
winds that will whistle in bleak winter days here and dark
lonely nights. and the snow queen will cover this place
with her blanket of snow and ghosts of dead children
will make their Olafs with gouged out holes for eyes,
a carrot for a nose and lumps of coal for buttons
down the front of their iced winter coats
that no one can see.

who shot jr?

then we got bored of the beheadings on youtube

then the arsehole in north korea

then the two hundred and seventy six schoolgirls taken

in nigeria by boko haram
then the campaign to bring the girls home––#BringBackOurGirls

scribbled onto a piece of cardboard & held up for the cameras––
(as if a piece of cardboard and a few celebrities was ever going
to bring them all home*)

then in amongst all of that aussie blokes are murdering
one wife a week

then eleven thousand three hundred and fifteen people
died of ebola and we got bored seeing that on the telly every night too

then the bush fires came

and the news station put a soundtrack to the devastation
––footage of firefighters running towards the flames in slow
motion before cutting to a commercial break
giving us just enough time to grab a giant pop corn
and a litre of diet coke before plonking ourselves
back in front of the telly with the same misplaced eagerness
we felt waiting to find out who shot j.r.

now christians and muslims are tiptoeing through the tulips
and around each other and we’re all so worried about
offending we’re gargling with bleach before
opening our mouths

then i stop at a cafe to buy a coffee and a brownie

the white aussie barista with the hipster beard and too
skinny jeans hears my accent. asks where i’m from

i tell him i’m from scotland. he doesn’t reply
disappears into his milk jug as though commenting
on someone else’s nationality were an over-chlorinated
swimming pool he were not prepared to dive into

then my friend working as a waiter in a fancy
restaurant was asked by two of the diners where he was from

my friend asks them to guess

the diners take turns stabbing at various
exotic locations––none of them correct

my friend tells them he’s from india

ah!, they said, we thought you were from india, but we didn’t
want to say so in case we insulted you

i try to tease the hipster boy’s nose out of his milk
jug––ask him if he’s been to scotland before

he says no, but he’d love to go––only not in winter, ha ha ha––
and the ice between us is broken

he asks me how long i’ve been in australia

i tell him twenty four years

the hipster boy says nothing, pours my coffee, dusts
it in chocolate, squeezes a lid on top and hands it to me along
with my brownie and my three dollars change and says,
okay, well, uhm, enjoy your coffee and uhm, welcome to
australia––i guess?

i take my coffee, my brownie and my three dollar
change and i tip toe out of cafe that day thinking

*four years later in january 2018 about 100
of the 276 of the nigerian girls still remained in captivity
(source: The Washington Post, Feb 2018)

if you read this poem you will see what happened
though the end is not clear yet

BUT it will explain everything.
how she pulled herself back up the tenement
steps one at a time not two to change her bra––irritated
by its sudden tightness i know that feeling
i have felt it too of fresh bra straight
from the washing machine. then in the car there
was the mention of the sore left arm then the nausea
then he said fuck going to work we’re going to the hospital
and she tossed her head back and laughed at the prospect
of draining the public health system for the sake of a tight bra.
ten minutes into her shift she called him––something not quite
right he did a u-turn, raced back through the traffic took one look
at her and flew like the january wind to the royal infirmary––up the
ambulance only lane pulled in so close to the the emergency
doors forcing them to stay open.
she got out of the car
took two steps
he parked
she stopped breathing
and the surgeon has prepped
him for the worst.

AND i know he does not want to talk
about what might happen next
how things will turn out
he says he will sing to her––
he is musical i am not
all i can do is record in words
to say what has happened
though the end is not clear yet.

© Ali Whitelock