Catch, my Uncle Jack said
and oh I caught this huge apple
red as Mrs Kelly’s bum.
It’s red as Mrs Kelly’s bum, I said
and Daddy roared
and swung me on his stomach with a heave.
Then I hid the apple in my room
till it shrunk like a face
growing eyes and teeth ribs.

Then Daddy took me to the zoo
he knew the man there
they put a snake around my neck
and it crawled down the front of my dress
I felt its flicking tongue
dripping onto me like a shower.
Daddy laughed and said Smart Snake
and Mrs Kelly with us scowled.

In the pond where they kept the goldfish
Philip and I broke the ice with spades
and tried to spear the fishes;
we killed one and Philip ate it,
then he kissed me
with the raw saltless fish in his mouth.

My sister Mary’s got bad teeth
and said I was lucky, hen she said
I had big teeth, but Philip said I was pretty.
He had big hands that smelled.

I would speak of Tom’, soft laughing,
who danced in the mornings round the sundial
teaching me the steps of France, turning
with the rhythm of the sun on the warped branches,
who’d hold my breast and watch it move like a snail
leaving his quick urgent love in my palm.
And I kept his love in my palm till it blistered.

When they axed his shoulders and neck
the blood moved like a branch into the crowd.
And he staggered with his hanging shoulder
cursing their thrilled cry, wheeling,
waltzing in the French style to his knees
holding his head with the ground,
blood settling on his clothes like a blush;
this way
when they aimed the thud into his back.

And I find cool entertainment now
with white young Essex, and my nimble rhymes.

– Michael Ondaatje


There is something enjoyable about the jolt you get from a shift in perspective; in this instance, when you realise which Elizabeth the poem title refers to. Today is the anniversary of her death in 1603.

If you enjoyed this and Browning’s Duchess, I would recommend “Snow, Glass, Apples”, a short story by Neil Gaiman.

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