I’m putting these two short poems together, one from 2017, the other 1859, because their subject is similar, but also for the way both use a kind of openness to usher in a shock of grief.
The first is by John Levett, a Norfolk poet, from his sixth collection A Song About You (2017), the second by William Barnes, from nineteenth-century rural Dorset, written in his representation of his dialect. At the end I’ve written a few sparse notes to help you past the strangeness of the words. Please stick with it despite the obstacles of age and dialect because the impact comes at the end. One way through is to read it slowly aloud and try to copy the sounds.
I rediscovered my copy of the Levett book, unopened since 2017, hanging up in a canvas bag in the cupboard under the stairs, and was casually turning the pages when suddenly this poem reminded me of the feeling in Barnes’ ‘Turnstile’. It was startling to find how alive a connection an absence can make.
A Death in the Family
Behind our daughter’s back you catch
my eye to let me know the worst
but glass haphazardly reflects
your mouth, your hands waved in reverse
as, laughing at our game, she starts
to gesture, mimicking your sense.
It’s joy not grief that stops our hearts
then breaks them with its accidents.
Ah! sad wer we as we did peäce
The wold church road, wi’ downcast feäce,
The while the bells, that mwoaned so deep
Above our child a-left asleep,
Wer now a-zingen all alive
Wi’ t’other bells to meäke the vive.
But up at woone pleäce we come by,
T’wer hard to keep woone’s two eyes dry
On Steän-cliff road, ’ithin the drong,
Up where as v’ok do pass along,
The turnen stile, a-painted white,
Do sheen by day an’ show by night.
Vor always there, as we did goo
To church, thik stile did let us drough,
Wi’ spreaden earms that wheel’d to guide
Us each in turn to tother zide.
An’ vu’st ov all the train he took
My wife, wi’ winsome gait an’ look;
An’ then zent on my little maid,
A-skippen onward, overjaÿ’d
To reach ageän the pleäce o’pride,
Her comely mother’s left han’ zide.
An’ then, a-wheelen roun’, he took
On me, ’ithin his third white nook.
An’ in the fourth, a sheäken wild,
He zent us on our giddy child.
But eesterday he guided slow
My downcast Jenny, full o’ woe,
An’ then my little maid in black,
A-walken softly on her track;
An’ after he’d a turn’d ageän,
To let me goo along the leäne,
He had noo little bwoy to vill
His last white eärms, an they stood still.
Barnes’ son John had died in 1839. ‘Wold’ is old; ‘vive’ is five; ‘drong’ is a Dorset word for a narrow alleyway; ‘v’ok’ is folk; ‘drough’ is through’; ‘eesterday’ is yesterday. This youtube reading may help: https://youtu.be/oXMoGJJW76Y