I was five the day I first discovered death.
A cat-got songbird on the lawn, frail, prone,
some final beauty to a mangled chest
that had been crushed mid-flight, a life undone;
I found a counting in my numbered breaths.
I carried the body about with me,
smoothing short feathers on the perfect head,
alive with a new-born empathy –
and then Dad saw us. Wash your hands. He said.
Instead I made a grave by the chestnut tree.
Once burial was done, I fled to my room,
sat cross-legged by the boarded fire-place
and one by one imagined every future tomb;
each person I loved in a cold tight space,
their eyes limed over into sightless stones.
I stayed, there stuck in this enormity,
until, again, Dad came along, saw tears
and sat to share the carpet, growing kindly.
He listened as I gabbled out my fears;
why live at all when death’s a certainty?
He did not laugh, or speak of God Above.
Instead he put a huge arm round my shoulders
and silently reminded me of love.
Then he said, why live? Well, for each other.
Besides, we’ve all got so much left to prove.
Poet: Ruth Irwin. Illustrated by Judi Bailey
‘The Greenfinch in the Garden’ was placed Second for the Poems Please Me Prize 2015.
Ruth Irwin is a poet from London. She recently finished an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths, and currently works as a Teaching Assistant in an East London secondary school. Visit Ruth’s e-zine here – a new (Nov 2015) project with a friend.
See other illustrations of this and all winning and commended poems in our eBook Red on Bone
Ruth, you told my story! I was very moved by your words.
Your poem has beautiful balance and excellently controlled rhythm. I also love the contrast in the lines…
“and then Dad saw us. Wash your hands. He said.
Instead I made a grave by the chestnut tree.”
I really enjoyed this poem about death. However it is very reminiscent of a certain Larkin poem. Maybe try and channel your poetic voice more in the future. Look forward to it. R x