Catherine Smith’s first short poetry collection, The New Bride (Smith/Doorstop), was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, 2001. Her first full-length collection, The Butcher’s Hands (Smith/Doorstop), was a PBS Recommendation and was short-listed for the Aldeburgh/Jerwood Prize, 2004. In 2004 she was voted one of Mslexia’s ‘Top Ten UK Women Poets’ and included in the PBS/Arts Council ‘Next Generation’ promotion. Her latest collection, Lip (Smith/Doorstop), was short-listed for the Forward Prize for Best Collection, 2008.
She also writes short fiction and radio drama and teaches for the University of Sussex, Vardean College in Brighton and the Arvon Foundation. Her first short fiction collection is due out from Speechbubble Books in November 2010. She has adapted three of her short stories for a stage performance, Weight. She is working on her next poetry collection and a novel.
Nobody tells you this – that when
your second baby latches on the nipple,
the womb, lonely and vicious,
clenches itself, again and again,
fists and thumps, or snarls itself
into a cat’s cradle, knots and knits,
a spiteful old crone tugging
and winding wool and the pain
makes you cry out, and want to push
your child away, this innocent
torturer clamped and hungry,
nobody says, the price you pay
for doing things by the book,
for offering your breasts like holy gifts
is a body furious with you,
a womb still sullenly contracting,
nobody tells you this tightening
is the womb’s last gasp,
because the sadness of it
might linger, might cause you to
grieve, leak useless tears
onto your newborn’s scalp,
and you might not understand
or forgive. And you must forgive.
First published in The Rialto.
Sad about my ex-lover
I open a decent bottle of Merlot,
fill a glass almost to the top
and within minutes
he’s up to his knees in a dark red lake
sloshing around comically
wind-milling his arms.
I drink steadily until
he’s waist deep, flailing.
He shouts up to me –
Remember Westminster Bridge,
my hands on your breasts?
The flat in Kennington
where you bit my thumb to the bone?
I say nothing, pour another glass.
Once he’s fully submerged
and I can no longer hear his screams
I sigh and close my eyes –
finally appreciating the Merlot’s
musty fruit; the full, robust body.
First published in Trespass.
Losing It to David Cassidy
That hot evening, all through our clumsy fuck,
David smiled down at me from the wall. His ironed hair,
American teeth. Eyes on me, his best girl.
And his fingers didn’t smell of smoke, he didn’t
nudge me onto my back, like you did, grunting
as he unzipped my jeans, complaining
You’re so bony, and demanding, Now you do something –
hold it like this. David took my virginity
in a room filled with white roses, having smoothed
the sheets himself, slotted ‘How Can I Be Sure?’
into the tape machine. And when we were done
he didn’t roll off, zip up and slouch downstairs
to watch the end of Match of the Day with my brother,
oh no, not David. He washed me, patted me dry
with fat blue towels, his eyes brim-full of tears.
All over the city, women in restaurants,
cafes, bars, wait for their fathers. Sometimes
the women sip coffee, or wine, pretend to read.
Some fathers arrive promptly, smiling,
dressed as Policemen, or in flannel pyjamas.
One wears a taffeta dress, fishnets and stilettos,
rubs the stubble under his make-up.
Sometimes the father is a Priest
in a robe stained with candle-wax.
Some have pockets gritty with sand
from Cornish holidays; one father
flourishes a fledgling sparrow, damp
and frightened, from an ironed handkerchief.
They bring spaniels, Shetland ponies, anacondas,
they bring yellowed photographs
whose edges curl like wilting cabbages.
One father has blue ghosts of numbers
inked into his forearm. Some of the fathers
have been dead or absent for so long
the women hardly recognise them, a few
talk rapidly in Polish or Greek and the women
shift on their chairs. Some sign cheques,
others blag a tenner. One smells of wood-shavings
and presents the woman with a dolls’ house.
Some fathers tell the women You’re getting fat
while others say, Put some meat on your bones, girl.
Some women leave arm in arm with their fathers,
huddled against the cold air, and shop
for turquoise sequinned slippers or Angelfish
hanging like jewels in bright tanks. Others
part with a kiss that misses a cheek – lint
left on coats, and buttons done up wrong.
That first morning, he boils her
an egg the colour of a spring sky,
a baby boy’s first room.
She cups a hand over its heat.
It’s miraculous, this egg,
conjured for her. He says
the colours vary – some
aren’t really blue at all,
they’re green as a winter sea.
Is there a God, she wonders,
whose imagination allows
the creation of eggs like these –
eggs so beautiful, and rare –
nothing a husband would serve his wife,
or a mother her child?
This love must be possible,
as he shears off the lid
and feeds her the first mouthful –
cloud albumen, sun yolk –
when eggs are the colours
of the sky and sea, when she
can kiss the hairs on the back
of his wrist and think of hens
easing blue eggs onto warm straw.
This is his first afternoon with Madame
in her flat above the bookshop, the buses
whining through the drizzle along
Islington High Street. He likes
her colour scheme – bold purple, gold,
everything flickering in the candle-light,
very different from the magnolia anaglypta
and white skirting boards in Theydon Bois
– and the scarlet drapes and Turkish kilim
where a one-eyed ginger cat
regards Madame’s whip phlegmatically
as she trails it across his thigh. He likes
the joss sticks dropping ash
onto the floor like insouciant students
though he’s less keen on the actual pain –
the bite into the flesh; he slips further
from the room, each lash a descent
into darkness, his skin laid open,
vision blurring and that’s when
he realises he’s forgotten the Safe Word.
It’s a place, yes – some northern town
he visited as a child. He remembers
grit-stone houses under a film of rain,
women in beige with bosoms big enough
to offer shelter and the smell of baking,
a wet dog itching its fur against his legs.
He’d said to Marjorie several times
he’d like to retire somewhere like that,
somewhere with hills, real hills, the light
on them blue as the day went. Look,
he whimpers to Madame, do you think
you could stop that now – but no,
she’s in her stride, a real professional,
and he’s so tightly bound, his wrists
chafing on her iron bedstead.
He can feel her breath on his neck, yeasty
and warm as the loaves in the bakery ovens,
swelling and rising to greet the new day.
‘Losing It to David Cassidy’, ‘The Fathers’, ‘Blue Egg’ and
‘Heckmondwike’ were published in Lip (Smith/Doorstop, 2007).
Visit Catherine’s website.
Order Lip (Smith/Doorstop).
Order The Butcher’s Hands (Smith/Doorstop).
Hear Catherine read some of her poems at The Poetry Archive.
Visit Speechbubble Books.