‘The Scarecrow Christ’ and other poems by Shirley Bell

The Scarecrow Christ

The fields are flat and brown, it’s hard to think
they’ll ever stand high with corn, flare with rape
again this summer. For now the scarecrows lurch
at crazy angles. They trail old coats and rags.
Polythene bags flap around the suggestions of
their shoulders. And yet the wind lifts
their shoddy clothes and they are touched with
magic; they always seem about to fly.

It’s Sunday and I’ve taken you to Chapel.
Everything is grey and earnest. There’s no
incense here, though a sense of well-meaning
sifts gently through the air. I don’t think I belong.
It’s Lent and the sermon is all about temptation.
I feel I would not pass those tests. Now I see
distraction in the corner of my eyes; a painting.
When I can, I take a picture on my phone.

It shows me strips of cloth, snarled around
an empty cross, a tenuous fabric
lifting in air currents, tangled with light.
Something. Nothing. Faith, elusive as a sigh.
A scarecrow pinned to a stick.
Leaning forwards, with the wind stirring its tatters.
And always on the point of alteration,
by some sudden unexpected angle of the sun.


Autumn Is Coming

It’s September and the sombre clouds are rolling
themselves up into tentative shapes, faces that
billow, then pass into oblivion. Autumn is coming early.
The ground is strewn with plums that are rotting
where they fall amongst the maggoty apples,
and the leaves that are blushing into decay.

Creak by arduous creak upon the stairs,
you haunt me with the man that you once were
as laboriously, you are rasping through the days.
On your bad side, your stiffening hand is
contracting to a claw, and now, when I hold
you close to me, I feel your bones against my breast.

I thought the memories, that grew like lichens
intertwined, were permanent. But now you say
you rarely think of them, so mine are going too.
Your voice is a dry whisper, vanishing on a breath.
Under that press of sky, it’s feeling colder. And
our world is growing smaller every day.


Tell it to the bees

The garden hums. Bees guzzle in the throats
of the lush flowers and butterflies clot the blossoms.
The simple flowers are full of nectar. Sometimes
the hives are dressed in mourning. Someone has
rapped softly and told it to the bees. Their hive servant
who managed their perfect world has gone.

As the coffin settles in its grave, so gentle hands
lift and set down the colony with its waxen cells
like catacombs. And reverently, lay out their share of
funeral meats and drinks at the entrance where the bees
dance their maps; carry the pollen in their baskets
to feed the hive in their secret waxen chambers.

Cells dripping with nectar metamorphosing into honey:
that gold that gives the gift of prophecy. Telling the bees.
But there is a stutter in the rituals. Threats grow like
the larvae in those perfect hexagons. The doubled flowers
flounce their skirts. Nectarless. The bees in their quietened hive
are alive instead with Varroa mites, crawling in their plush.

And all the words of prophecy roll on the tongue.
Foul Brood and Nosema,
Colony Collapse and neonicotinoids.

Tell it to the bees.


A Love Story

It was 1970.

We walked beside the river, hand in hand, and the sun
gilded us, and I was dazzled by the blackness of your hair,
your golden skin, and the amber of your eyes, sometimes
black as olives in the glinting dark. When I look back
it is always summer, and your skin is hot against mine,
breast to breast, in the half shadows where my hair falls over
us in a silky veil. We both remember the short green dress,
brighter than the grass, cheap polyester from C&A, sticky
with the heat. And when I took it off it was rust marked
where the buckle of its belt had rested on my waist.

And you ask, and I ask myself, what is the point of all this?
And that is the point. A day burnished until it gleams.
Two young people, hand in hand, beside a river sequined
with sun so bright you had to squint to see. I don’t write
love poetry, my poetry is full of the darkness that followed,
but this is a love poem, that has walked into my head and
surprised us both.


Dr. White

Dr. White, last time I came you were counting on your
fingers. “Four and twenty blackbirds,” you said, “baked
in a pie” that just you could see. “You are only as old
as the woman you feel.” No-one answered. “And that’s a joke,”
you told us, sadly, but no-one got it.

Today you are rocking and reciting. It is poetry.
My mother says, “Hello,” and so does Dr. White.
“Hello, hello. Hello. Go so, go low, go slow. NO!”
And, “Where? there?” “Would you? Should you? Would you?”
Then, “Go!” says Dr. White again and I’m wishing that I could.

But I have only been here for twenty minutes. A carriage clock,
its mechanism slow as treacle, turns to and fro, sealed in its case.
A DVD of Pearl Harbour is cycling through the start page. “Play”
it instructs us. Or “Pick a Scene.” Every now and then a plane flies
across the screen. Dr. White is shouting, “NO, NO” he says.

He is surrounded by etiolated women, sitting in special chairs.
Their necks are stretching towards whatever light remains.
“Shut up” they say, often, severally, but Dr. White just goes on
and on, rocking and chanting his dreadful incantations.
“Shall I hit him with my book?” my Mother says, and laughs.

Now I say “NO, NO”, to her, and I sound like Doctor White.
Violet tells me what a wonderful doctor he was. I look
at his long, clever fingers and his wits are pouring through them,
and joining the other memories lost from all these fogged heads.

I can hear him when I leave. “Where? he is saying. “Where?”

The Scarecrow Christ and other poems are © Shirley Bell

Shirley Bell is the editor of The Blue Nib, a growing online literary magazine and small publisher, and she is a widely published and anthologised poet. Her poetry is archived in the Special Collection in the University of Lincoln (UK) Library and, as a result, she has collected together all her published poetry from 1982 to early 2016 in her book, Dark is a Way and Light is a Place. Her latest book, The Still Room, new and selected poems chosen by Dave Kavanagh is coming out shortly under The Blue Nib imprint.

The Wide Skirt published her pamphlet Hanging Windows on the Dark. She has published two other pamphlets, behind the glass and Poetry of Hospitals and Waiting Rooms. She has been writing poetry since the 1980s and has read widely all over the country. She worked as a Writer in Residence with all ages, from primary to students in Higher Education. She was Literature Consultant for Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts and edited their magazine, Proof.

Image: Walter Baxter / Beehives / CC BY-SA 2.0
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