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Poems from Emily Zobel Marshall on loss and coronavirus

Bath of Herbs

While I mewed new-born in my basket 
and my mother lay birth-ruptured 
you prepared a bath of herbs
gathered from your garden 
under beating summer skies

With mortar and pestle you crushed
yellow chamomile into young mint 
pressed buds of newly flowered lavender
sprinkled ocean salt

with cramped fingers you
mixed cloves in oil of orange
made back then for now

You mix, scrape, paste 
add plant to water
until bath and steam are essence busting 
until tiles gleam and mirrors mist
until all is ready to receive 

And so you lead her, daughter of yours
long and naked, hurting, tender
slowly sink her into hot forgetting waters
uncoil her aching body
your love hits her lungs
diffuses into every crevice of her form 
she will step out strong again 
to greet the world and me 

Grandmother, daughter healer 
I give thanks



What is this business of shade
this fixation with hue 
this delinquent melanin?
mixed ticks and tricks
the box marked ‘other’?

To fix this business of shade
The puzzle of origin
You call me
Black in America
Red Skin Gyal in Jamaica
Yellow Child
Here, Half-Caste 
Also, I can be
Your Metis, Mulatto
Martinican Blue-eyed Chabine or
Peau Sauvée

But know this
from the skin that I’m in 
the view
is as clear as a tropical night
I see beyond histories of shade 
and know that this issue of hue
is a problem concocted by you


He Returned 
(Remembering David Oluwale)

Where does the river run to?
my children ask
out of winter sunshine 
we stand under dark arches 
in echoing shadow
in chills of stone and subterranean waters
in rumbles of overhead trains 
above heaving river rush

Where does the river run to?
we hang like the question
peering over railings 
absorbed by the thundering Aire 
that consumed Oluwale 
Oluwale, water-borne to this city
Oluwale, who did not submit
until they pitched him in

Where does the river run to?
Oluwale knows, he journeyed 
down inky Northern canals 
tunnelled out into the pulsing spread 
of Atlantic waters
under an outraged sky


Note: This poem was originally published in Magma 75: The Loss Issue, edited by Adam Lowe and Yvonne Reddick.

Listen to poets reading their work at the Magma website.



You left me in the Spring
last breath on hospice bed
crisp sheets tight and fanned by morning light
so now I run on winter nights
no focus for my love
red trainers beat on frosty iridescent streets
remembering the rhythms of your heart 
behind me homely windows shine 
but I’m adrift 
inside this pain of mine

My shadow crosses pavements 
into a stretch of urban moonlit park 
and there
A Fox
who stops to stare
locking blazing eyes with mine
bristling with fiery otherness
wild in the city 
and stinking proud
and I am stilled
and I can breathe at last
for it's you that sent him 
and then he turns and streaks
across the muddied grass



I watch you, squirming commas 
freeing yourselves from jellied pods
surging towards life, frantic for each other
while we stand alone suspended in Covid cocoons
ever since the music died 

Outside, each person in our path becomes a puzzle
how to get past two meters apart?
a strange Spring waltz we dance 
on the muddied tracks of the park 
trying to breech the space between us
with tight

But when we emerge from sealed bubbles
squirming with the pleasure of release  
we will touch and hug and squeeze again 
dizzy with the warmth of bodies 
breaking through the space between us
and turning up 
the music 

Emily Zobel Marshall, April 2020

Illustration by Jeremy Vessey

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