is a poet, translator and editor. She has published three collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Red House and a fourth, Joy, is forthcoming from Carcanet in November. Joy is a PBS Winter Choice and the collection is named after her long poem Joy which won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2016. She translates poetry and plays from Russian and has worked with theatres across the UK and US on new productions of contemporary Russian plays. She is currently working on translations of Maria Stepanova’s poems for publication in the UK. Sasha is editor of has Modern Poetry in Translation and co-editor of the international anthology Centres of Cataclysm (Bloodaxe, 2016).
/ Cutting Apples
This morning I sat and cut apples.
I cut them into four, and then I nicked each part
And brought my knife around the curve.
And through long practice I kept my thumb
Up tight against the blade, and when I twisted
The blade inside each quarter it returned to my thumb.
And the quarters I put into the pan with lemon
And the peel and corners of apples I heaped on the board.
There was a silence. My thoughts wandered.
I thought about absence, which so hates to be considered
It throws the thoughts back out like thieves
And bolts the door behind them.
More and more my thoughts besieged his hovel
Tarred wooden shelter on the beach,
Again and again the thoughts came limping
Black-eyed, dented, tossed by the inhospitable
Absence, back to me at my cutting board
To be dispatched again with an oath
I want to know, says the despot mind
What this place is, what is inside the home
Of absence? Where are my best men?
I sent my best thoughts, the ones I keep
To guard me through the dark hours
They too came reeling and bloodied back
At last my youngest thought came to me
Father says he, let me try, where others failed
Let me enter the house of absence
Whatever knowledge it might contain
I will fight for it and bring it home
And off he flew, my most recent thought
Who came to the home of absence
And found the door wide open
Swinging like a thumb on a knife blade
He fell in love with absence
And threatens now to return forever
He is betrothed and thinks of nothing else
Waxy sporadic grass knitting the sand…
A loudspeaker on a car proceeds slowly up the far quay
and a wedge of sandpipers lifts in fright from the shore:
The circus king is back for one last stand!
Last performance of the season – tonight!
His old gardening jacket hangs like a phantom behind the door
I have a febrile energy for undoing endings
tying the old twine to new twine, so when he came to me in a dream
and asked to come back I was surprised
to find myself rejecting him one last time
pouring myself a solitary drink of seawater
and reminding him of how we saw the old vessel of his body
and it was no longer fit-for-purpose
could not be recycled or rewound
like string, or green glass or driftwood.
The whole place reeks of him, who in life smelt of railways
sugar soap and the commuter tang. Sand, salt,
thrift and rotting wrack, and stubbornness:
a vast firewood stack, a few elderly tools revived
with rags and oily fingers to massage working parts,
string tied into rolls of barbed wire.
I am walking today on the hollow old dune
September chill, the children are off buying shoals
of pencils and the circus cut-outs on the sand bank
are blanketed up for the year.
What are years? They last no longer than the tide.
I read the tables, I pore over them and seem to find relief
in the mathematical appearance of water
and how by degrees it creeps upon us,
another ten metres to swill around the back gate.
Last performance of nostalgia out here, where it burns
with an acrid smell. Throw on an armful of regret, it fires up
odd-flamed like rubber or plastic flotsam
or household chemicals glugging themselves empty.
My fingers smell like his.
/ The Ballad of Mabel
‘…her eyes filled with tears again as she went on, 'I must be Mabel after all’
Mabel. Brown-eyed, unruly curls
She knows such a little!
An empty vessel, a swine amongst pearls
A stain from the inkbottle.
Her boots are old and the leather is worn
(The scuffs are just spat on)
Her dress is thin and her pinny torn,
And a sign round her neck reads: slattern.
She rubs her eyes with her fist till they’re sore
And dozes with her cheek in a palm:
A sister that died, a father at war
Nights jigging babies to calm.
So many lessons to learn every night
She nurses, reads in the lull –
She must be a dunce, she can’t get it right:
Dates just dance in her skull.
Mabel knows nothing, her house is poky
Her bed’s as narrow as a coffin
And once she woke and her sister was choking
And the doctor – he couldn’t do nothing.
Mabel’s brother says he saw the Crimea
But came home for his chest
Once he told Mabel she had nothing to fear
And felt under her dress
Mabel knows nothing, nothing at all,
And her face is aflame
When she’s cuffed by the teacher and turned to the wall
Her ears go pink with shame.
Mabel’s hoop is at home, she says
She left her doll in bed
Mabel is standing alone – she says
She’s playmates enough in her head.
Alice has a hoop and a man takes her boating
And her tea is ready on the table
Alice once had a dream she was floating
In tears, and feared she was Mabel.
The river is quiet, it’s late and dusk
Mabel is wetting her toes
And watching the fish swallow her crust
In gold little O’s.
She’ll catch it, she thinks, if the splashes are heard
Or if she’s seen –
But here she can lie in her spreading skirt
And dream her own dream.