Her eyes bleach the colour of milk, head coming up blind and turning.
Once the fat is risen we syphon the cooling tallow into flagons, set them in line,
add beeswax and lye, stand back from its boiling and hissing, do not breathe until it stills.
I pour the soap into moulds, scatter over cranesbill, nibs of lavender and marigold,
wrap the cooled cakes in scraps of vellum, stack them in the drystore.
It’s warm there and dark enough for owls.
Above shelves of pickled fruit and bottled juice, cowls of gut hang like vines.
It is light tonight, cloudless. We carry her flesh to fire, break bread, sing her name.
Tomorrow the women will roast the bones, use the crushed chalk to make buttons and beads.
No one speaks of the old days. We light candles but no one prays. Each moon has its feast.
She was our chosen one, our beauty.
Exhibit: ‘Song of Lost Species’
O N C A, Brighton, 2016
Bell jar, in a row of bell jars holding only silence and a memory of birdsong:
thin wisps of birds, half-remembered dreams of birds, airborne waifs pared from wind and reeds
balanced on tines of wire in gallery light, their calls the grief of dwindling.
This one labelled Bewick’s wren, others names we do not recognise.
With their final breath they sing to us:
‘Scoop me up, my bones lighter than stalks, feathers that fracture in your fingers; remember.’
On the screen, we see forests of birds, trees teeming with life, peep and shriek and trill.
We take home a flutter of wings, the thinnest piping, a future emerging from banks of mist.
We tell our children: ‘Watch this. Remember…’
bound to a curve no spine should accommodate by his three pinched feet, this dusty jungle relic lies cradled in my palms: his cockled back, his quizzical nose stitched to tail to form a handle, the carapace lined with old calico a basket for needles and silks;
his three feet fisted as if fighting, he is almost a question mark but there is no point to this and no answer and I wonder where his fourth foot is lying, clenched and forgotten a thread of jungle-light caught in its stony grip.
Poetry judge Jane Hirshfield says…
It’s not always simple to say why, out of a group of excellent finalists, one voice steps forward. I was drawn in the end to select this set of poems for their precision of description, clarity of diction, and tactfulness through which they address their central point. At the center of all three is our human relationship to the non-human world, limned differently in each of the poems. “Tallow,” for me the strongest of the group, offers an unflinching description of the transformation of living creature into rendered use. The last line (“She was our chosen one, our beauty,”) for all its simplicity, holds and honors the inevitable grief in the contract we make between kept animal and human keeper, when both are recognized in their full dignity and worth; the deft switch to past tense creates the power. “Armadillo” also portrays one particular animal’s particular life, its unknowable history changed into object for our human carrying. “Exhibit: ‘Song of Lost Species’” takes place in a gallery: bell jars hold taxidermied birds whose living actuality appears only through technology’s reproduction. The poem’s unstated question: Will this secondhand depiction be the next generation’s only knowledge of the world my own generation was given? These poems stood out for me for their word-choices—“cockled,” “tines,” “syphon”; for their depth of knowledge; for their ability to acknowledge how much cannot be known; and for the moral and ethical awareness so thoroughly in them. We live among and by the taken lives of other beings. Let us, at the very least, acknowledge the history and cost.
Jane Lovell has been widely published in journals and anthologies. She won the Flambard Prize in 2015 and has been shortlisted for several awards including the Basil Bunting Prize, the Robert Graves Prize, and the Periplum Book Award. Her most recent publication is Metastatic from Against the Grain Poetry Press.
Header photo by Peek Creative Collective, courtesy Shutterstock.