Best of 2018. October: Laura Potts

Laura Potts

Alma Mater

Widow-black and winter, evening took me south into

lamps burning blue in the dusk. Out and over my hometown musk

lay the hinterland hills breathing low in the dark. Still,

frostspark sharp on the city streets, holy rain sweet

in the winter and the wet, with no evening stars ahead I let

the pavement take me home. Through the town nocturnal, gloam

and grey, my chimney throat coughing its smoke, I saw aslope

on the city’s slow spine those old black gates, the summer of my days

inside. Grief cracked my face. Those navy girls and me, a pace

always ahead. But in the pale stairwell light the ghost of my girlhood dead

in its fresh green spring and gone. From roadside wet I looked on

at this child of light, her afterglow bright, her ashes of life

already black. The cold breath of loss on my face. At my back

a schoolbell cracked at the evening air. I saw Death at my table there

tipping his hat, and the years in my face that sank as I sat

at that desk at the back of the class. I remember that. And last,

on an old December evening, down hallways dark the wilting hymns

of girls turned ghosts before their time, I saw their eyes

like candles cold, like lights no longer leading home. Outside, to the bone

I shook and swung, the darkened seas that were my eyes done

and gone at the sight of myself. Each girl ringing her own passing bell.

Well, in that mist and half-dark morning, my face a clenching fist

in pavement pools, I saw that septic, terminal school for what it was.

I never went back, of course. I tipped my compass north.

The first time I heard this poem, I wanted to see it on the page. You need to hear it first, and then you need to have it in front of you, so you can read it aloud and try its syntax and rich texture on the tongue. I love the way it starts, in a landscape realised like an Atkinson Grimshaw painting (which is why I chose one). I love the persona of the narrator, a dark watcher who puts me in mind of others, like Jane Eyre, Mary Lennox, and of Stephen Dedalus, the ones who examine their isolation, or alienation, and square their shoulders, and become resolute. As she watches her own ghost with a mixture of pity and a huge sense of loss, of being cast adrift, the clenched fist of a face fighting back tears becomes the clenched fist of defiance. That last sentence nails it.

I tipped my compass north.

I really like that stripped back line after the rich language that comes before. And I like that rich language too. Laura kicks the fashion of the day.

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