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last update: 21st Nov18

 

 

The Genius from Pisa                      The Oldest Road

 

Matryoshka                      Time out

 

The Genius from Pisa

The scented smoke is dizzying, even in Duomo cool.
Padre Benito drones: Dominus vobiscum. A young man
drags his thoughts from the purple flowerings
on the cleric’s face – syphilis, for sure – responds
Et cum spirito tuo. Dare he, a mere student, advise
a dose of mercury? He yawns, shakes his head,
notices two altar lamps swaying in a draught.
The smaller swings higher and yet they are in time.
He presses fingers to his wrist, checks them against
his pulse, sits up with a jerk: what if there were
a clock that worked by pendulum …
 
At seventy-eight, forbidden by the Church
to leave his home, he sits in a patch of sun, relives
some high-lights of his life: works on harmonic oscillation;
improvements to the telescope; behaviour of the moons
of Jupiter, and his heresy – confirmation that the earth
moves round the sun. He remembers the Duomo lamps,
gropes for a pen, sighs. His son, Vincenzio soothes:
I’ll be your eyes: tell me what to draw. The old man
describes a cog-wheel and two curving pawls which will be
flicked up by a pendulum and also keep it on the move –
the workings of his clock.
 

Gill Learner

published in Agenda, Vol. 50 Nos 1-2, 2016, ISBN 978-1-9085272-7-1



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The Oldest Road

Put your ear to the ground and listen for the beat
of ghostly feet – horn-hard, rag-clad,
skin-wrapped, leather-shod, Vibramed heels
and toes have stirred up this pale dust.
 
While the Thames still flowed into the Rhine
and aurochs were flayed with stoneflake knives,
their hunters trod this upland grass to white.
Then ice arrived and cleared the Downs of man.
 
When Babylon was still a mighty city, voyagers
from the east arrived, settled in wooded combes.
They felled the forest to make space for maize
and emmer wheat, to graze cattle, sheep.
 
Attuned to what we can no longer hear,
they found sacred places, built homes from hazel
and chalky daub, raised sarsen chambers
for the burial of powerful dynasties.
 
Others came after: migrants, invaders, skilled
in pottery, metalwork. Remnants of their forts still
circle vantage points; their language echoes
in names: Barbary, Wayland, Hackpen, Uffington.
 
Nomads, drovers, peddlers, farmers have, for millennia,
found safety in its height. Now ramblers step out,
unafraid, wind-buffeted, rain-drenched, sun-warmed
along this track through time.
 

Gill Learner

published in The Interpreter’s House, 66, 2017, ISSN 1361-6610



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Matryoshka

Not smoothly curved but roughly angular.
She’s painted with sprays of clematis, begonia leaves;
crotchets and treble clefs. She holds a pad and pencil;
stands on books by Heaney, Duffy, Hughes.
 
Twist her where fleece meets jeans and pull apart.
 
Inside she waves a pointer and a whiteboard pen.
The pattern’s now a typescale, scalpel, Apple Mac.
Under her feet are packs of planning film,
imposition schemes, a copy of Hart’s Rules.
 
Turn blouse and separate from skirt.
 
This woman wears a smock and CND earrings swing
below a frizzy perm. Nappies, dummies jostle
with Hornby track, a Barbie doll. Books fly like birds:
Squirrel Nutkin, I-spy Dinosaurs.
 
Another tug breaks her in two again.
 
Now one half’s in a gymslip, the other a flouncy dress.
One hand grips a Latin primer, the other an Elvis 45.
Her right foot’s snug in a lace-up shoe, her left’s
precariously heeled. There’s a small black dog.
 
A final sundering.
 
A toddler sports a siren suit with bunny ears.
She clutches a crochet blanket and a well-chewed teddy bear.
Around her head fly Spitfires, Messerschmidts.
 
Shake her – she rattles.
 
At her core, pallid and featureless, a fava bean:
an inch-long clot of possibilities.
 

Gill Learner

published in Acumen 88, 2017, ISSN 0964-0304



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Time out

No-one knows which hospital but family history
had it on the Isle of Wight. A shaded-glass back door,
rotting wooden steps, five of them, all nip-waisted crispness.
One’s my aunt, Adelaide Marie, always known as ‘Bob’.
Scarcely seventeen, inside the starched half-halo
of her cap, she grins.
                                    Home and belovéd piano
left behind in Chandler’s Ford, she joined the VADs.
Ever the tomboy, she must have struggled to keep
that floor-length apron clean, those stiff cuffs white.
I imagine her singing softly as she scrubbed bedpans
in the sluice, mopped between beds, smiled comfort.
But she never spoke of it.
 

Gill Learner

Winner of Hampshire County Council’s ‘100 words for 100 years’ competition, published online
and in a booklet of winning poems, November 2018.



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