“This poem is loosely based on the life of Francesca Cuzzoni, one of Handel’s most difficult divas, who became a factory worker.”
The button factory in Bologna
I throw the final buttons in the tray.
They rattle, bone on bone, the hollow day,
The dusk I drink in. No one knows me here.
I knot my rosy shawl. Strip twenty years:
‘I won’t sing that! It is too plain.’ Then Handel
Flung up the sash, grabbed my waist, let me dangle
Above the rushing street. ‘I am Beelzebub,
You devil!’ Onioned breath. How close to love
Hate runs. How close my singing came to war.
I scratched my rival, drank my crowd’s applause.
Yes, I did trust the men would never leave.
But I was choosy with the flowers they gave.
I threw the lilies at them. ‘This room stinks.’
I took no cottage trash, Sweet Williams, pinks.
I wanted roses, with their greedy crowns’
Rich pollen, sharp leaves, petals tumbling down.
I wanted armfuls, scattered on each bed.
But breasts are fat, voice, muscle. Now, instead
Of lovers, I drain drinks. I gave up all
Wine for a week, for my rose-printed shawl.
Did thick books tell you, I threw it all away?
I laugh like gulls. This town tonight hangs grey
As your dull ports. Listen. I hear the ice
Crack like my boots. Your tastes will not stay nice
When coasts flood, wires go down. I drank the worth
Of one small voice. You threw away the earth.
That is your business. I will carry on,
Hungover, silent in the women’s song.
The shawl waits on its hook. And I would say
Mine are the finest buttons in the tray.
‘The button factory in Bologna’ was broadcast on
BBC Radio 3’s breakfast programme on May 24th,
in the Poems for Today series.
Read about Alison and her most recent collection,
Singing in the Dark (Carcanet, 2008), here.
Visit Alison’s website.