Issue 23: Ruth Valentine

The Aralqum Desert

male eighty

five foot nine

hospital gown

3 January 10 a.m.

to shelf A7

4 Feb to freezer unit

nobody’s claimed him


his landlord



betting-shop manager



till a cousin-twice-removed

who's moved to Reading

spring morning

street trees flowering

the man melting

curtained viewing room

coffin lined

with plastic sheeting

in case

calico sheeting

lavender oil

can't shroud           

the dissolution



Land of No Return

once  island

now desert


bleached seashells

broken boat-hulls

the one ranger

found seated

five years later

head in his hands


I woke in a god-size bed

with a goose-down duvet

sea bright-blue sonorous

through plate-glass windows

she was still alive


in another room

I didn't have to see her

I thought I might

inherit the cliff-top house

be rocked to sleep

each night by the loving water

in early morning


into the sun-

and-spindrift blessing


Christmas cards

windowsill bookshelves dresser

red and glitter

fifty-two times my name



at fifty-two points

in space-time



new festival

Day of the Unwanted

whose fathers wiped their cocks and went downstairs

whose mothers couldn't pay for an abortion


every four hours

by harassed nurses

a day to celebrate our resourcefulness

having no option

our courage

walking the grass

above the cliff

into the wind off the sea

our determined dying

Cobalt Variations

with acknowledgments to Edmund de Waal


reclusive     not tracked down

in mountains chalkdowns streams

too barbarous

to breathe our air     hidden

among nickel and copper

the malleable the brazen

indifferent god

arriving in the hold of a meteorite

not at the time we pray

at the time we are hollowed


In the photo you are Jackie Kennedy:

black hair, that sway of the hips, the dress and jacket

you must have made in the evenings after work,

having cooked and cleared away, got the boys to bed,

your husband watching the evening news. 

                                                              You stand

at the dining table, pinning the paper pattern

onto the glazed cotton, reach around

for the big dressmaking scissors, in your head

the plan to do what you’ve always wanted, walk

along a ward, the sunlight coming slantwise

through the long windows to a glass of water. 

You knew who you were: not Jackie Kennedy,

one rich man after another: your orphaned self

on a street in a small dull town, in black and white

and the confidence you could pretend until it landed.



a ship sets out from Cyprus or Lebanon

cargo of olives logs tin terebinth

thirty-four centuries on

still undelivered

and cobalt glass

colour extinguished in

the deepsea dark

finding its glow at last

by the grace of divers



porcelain merchant

wrecked on a desert coast

his crew build a new boat

he heaps up stones

ships back an evening sky

to an inland town

looks for that lode again

but the beach has vanished


Exiled to the north, a cottage on a hill,

a view along the valley, an old milltown,

canal, Methodist chapel, the hospital

fifteen miles away on a snowy road.

You left the car at the bottom and hauled your shopping;

the next time harnessed the dog to a sled, came home

victorious, like Scott of the Antarctic.


mined in Persia

along the Gulf across the Indian Ocean

Sumatra China

to be dragons phoenixes lions

the eight immortals

a sparrow on a branch

a straight blue border

black on the tip of the brush

put to the flame

emerging  bluer than oceans bluer than summer



When your best friend’s son, a few days out of prison,

sat on his bed wrapped in the counterpane

and put the gun to his head, you were the one

she phoned.  You’d given up

for more than a year, but that day she handed you

one after another, lit, when you took a break

and went back in to clean the blood and flesh

off the furniture, carpet, ceiling.

                                                            It’s only now,

after the first stroke, you’ve had to stop

smoking again: just the one, you tell me,

last thing at night, and first thing in the morning.


grey northern light     grey sea

silences plainsong

then a sea-crossing a sky

spires above cornfields

colour     trapped from the wind

scattered on stone

meaning not joy not faith

not the mother missing

toccata and fugue     a touch

escape from being



When I came to the hospital it couldn’t be

you in the blue flowered gown, with thin grey hair

greasy against your scalp, and dentures missing.

You, you kept insisting.  You.  No, you,

no other words with the strength to clamber out

into the bewildered overcrowded air.

You looked at the gifts I’d brought – lavender handcream,

expensive chocolates – as if they might have been

dug from an Iron Age fort in the chalk downland.

The words are mostly back, and the understanding;

though sometimes in your hand the TV remote

becomes inscrutable, the coloured buttons

arrows and icons an archaic language

that one day may open and reveal its function –

a list of grave-goods, prayer to the moon goddess –

though until then it’s hard for the news to reach you.


denser than summer sky

more matte than water

colour to lean against

to gaze     no answer

indifferent god     that blocks

absolution     meaning

surface as deep as truth

solid as grieving


What you have lost is still there, only hidden

like cobalt in a mountain, kobold, goblin,

trickster, disguised in copper, shape-shifter,

that goes into the furnace a black powder

and comes out radiant, butterfly, dragon, dolphin.

Ruth Valentine’s most recent publications are Downpour (Smokestack 2015), Rubaiyat for the Martyrs of Two Wars (Hercules 2017), and A Grenfell Alphabet (self-published in aid of the Grenfell Tower fund). She lives in Tottenham.

Copyright © 2019 by Ruth Valentine, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.