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Selected poems from:

The Tiny Museums by Carolyn Abbs

Carolyn Abbs grew up in the south of England, and now lives in South Fremantle, Western Australia. She has published poems in journals and anthologies such as WesterlyCorditeRabbitWrit Poetry ReviewThe Best Australian Poems 2014Australian Poetry Journal; a series of poems, ‘Different Hemispheres’, in Axon: Creative Explorations (2015); and in Australian Book Review, print, online, and a recording, as part of the ‘States of Poetry Project’ (2016). The Tiny Museums is published as part of UWAP's poetry imprint, UWAP Poetry. 

UWAP Poetry celebrates contemporary Australian poetry by bringing together established and emerging voices in a dynamic list established in 2016. Enter POETRYFREEPOSTAGE at our checkout to receive free shipping on this and all of our poetry titles.



First Memory

...there she was from the very first.

Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being

it was just her and me:
hush her voice an echo in a cold room
− floorboards dusty my dress
was white she swept the curtain across
April sunlight

on the metal side of a pram huge wheels turned tick tick

must not put my fingers in the spokes
she lifted me to see,
i clutched the black hood concertina folds up-down thwack umbrella sound,
i wanted to dive inside
but we left clunk the door was shut

she was gone

he took me outside a blue gate

thin snow on the ground Look! a plane roared low in the sky

metallic like a pram he held me tight i sobbed,

wanted to go indoors to her
the sleeve of his tweed jacket scraped my legs but his words soothed there, there,
the click of his pipe against his teeth,

smell of tobacco his smell

a soft hankie dried my face quietly we went into the dark house, isatonhislap

she was in a bed across the room the midwife wore a big white apron, there was a trolley a dark green cloth,

instruments set out like cutlery go to her soon soon

she beckoned and
a newborn cried in the crib




Walls Haunt Me – in two voices


First voice (2014):

Wise as his weathered face, my father’s old oak desk
kept secrets hidden for years, but now,

in the unfolding of letters,
whispers drift from slant of prose;
and a sepia photograph:
Dot and Marjorie, July 1916.
Dot, my Nana, slightly behind her sister, in fear, I’m told,
of revealing her unwed shame.

The girls wear identical dresses,
wool fabric hangs from thin shoulders, drop waists, skirts mid-calf;
arms at the same geometric angle
show symmetry of movement like dancers, straw hats looped on a fence like hoop-la. The backdrop, St Martin’s Cottage; windows either side of the door.
You’d never guess the labyrinth of rooms.

A crease down the photo suggests someone almost tore it in half. Instead, the photo hidden,
as Dot was hidden.



Dot’s voice (August, 1916):

The scullery’s thick with steam. Mother is lifting hot sheets from the copper;
I push and wind

through the mangle.

Concentrate girl!

Her voice sounds distant; I’m far away;
time stops like a painting; I’m looking onto a scene; it can’t be real,

the room’s a blur.
fight a light-headedness, but fall.
floor is stone cold; she’s leaning over me, stroking my forehead;
my body slumped;
my frock tight,
it restricts my breath; tears leak from my eyes.
I’m sorry Mother, I’m sorry. She’s hitting me, screeching at me;
floor’s as cold as death; I’m shivering,
trying to crawl away

but I’m tangled,
my skirt, heavy and
sopping wet from the
floor. Help me!
but she’s in a rage,
hands pressed over her eyes; rocking back and forth.
That boy... he’ll not
come back from the front.
Such a mess in the scullery with washing half done.



Dot’s voice (a day later):

I’m locked in the middle room; a window to the stair well;
no daylight.
I’m hidden,

my sisters forbidden anywhere near; chatter drifts from the kitchen.

Last summer’s cotton frock hangs on the door,
flat as a paper cut-out.
I’m cheap, she said.

Wear this:

a smock of drab cloth;
its weight drags me down; the rug is threadbare: strands of blue and red worn beige
and smooth as string.

In the corner,
a clover-leafed table, where a school bible was
flung like a bird in flight.
Read it, she said.
I peruse a colour plate
of a shepherd,
lambs in grass

and long for outdoors, the sky,
to hear birds scavenging for mulberries

in the tree;
to make daisy chains on the lawn.

Time is slow,
each quarter hour
dong, dong,
grandfather clock in the hall.
I lay on the bed,
rose-patterned wallpaper
smells dusty;
trace spidery cracks on the ceiling; damp patches change into shapes, clouds or faces;
cobwebs trail strands of grey hair.

Not think of months ahead, Mother said.

After I give birth, I’ll be sent away GIVE BIRTH

words that have nothing to do with me.



First voice (St Martin’s Cottage, 2016):

I pause at the doorway,
your cramped cell, renovated now, a bath where a bed would’ve been, sink squeezed in a corner.
An airless space;
I tremble
as if my body remembers con
the enclosure of walls.

It’s hard to imagine
how you
filled time:
that bible
splashed and stained
like rash of measles on skin, fever and delirium,

being quarantined, solitude,
did you balance the book on your head? take three steps
table to door, turn
one, two, three back, turn;
did the bible slip to the
a mess of feathers and broken wing? Did it splay open
at a colour plate of a shipwreck?

when the ship was caught, and could not
bear up into the wind,
we let her drive...

Those words, I remember exactly from the old bible you read to me.

O Nana, were you bullied? Did she say, Stick-a-smile-on-your-face-girl, Did you take courage

and, like a ship at sea, dip and lurch,
one moment peering down a stairwell

the next lifting, dragging
covers from tangle of bed;
barely space to stand,
smoothing, tucking sheets, blankets, sides, top, bottom;

eiderdown flopped on top;
did bits of prickly feather scratch your arm, your face?

Suddenly I’m out of there! Down steep steps,
walls haunt me,
enclose me.

I leave part of me behind as you did, Nana.

O the softness
of your grey wool frock;
we played ludo with bright counters, and the ritual of making beds,
not knowing then
of this tiny museum,
at the house where my father was born.




A Day in April, 1939

They shut me up in Prose ,

Emily Dickinson

A bunch of daffodils on her lap
like a meagre o
ffering of gold in exchange for a son stolen twenty-one years ago; lush fields rush past, her reflection in glass as vague as his knowledge of her.
A man in the carriage has a newspaper:

WAR, WAR nothing but war.

The day happens so fast
from the train, down a lane past the church,
gulls squawk and soar; at the door to St Martin’s,
black paint peeling, brass knocker tarnished,
party sounds come from inside
her son’s birthday.
The door opens her brother older, jovial, glass in hand. Phyllis too
Dot’s here. Dot’s come back!
The family crowd around...
How dare you! Mother’s hair is white.
The da
ffodils drop to the floor,
Dot steps into the low-beamed room.

Here is her son Alexander a stranger
but like in a dream, or a vision, she knows it’s him, tall solemn shock of wavy brown hair.
I’m your mother... she blurts;
he retreats, vanishing into shadow of an alcove
she follows through a maze of dark rooms, fumbling up wooden stairs stopping
at the door to the middle room

horror of memory blackening the moment

but here he stands by the window, fresh curtains, a bed, a bookcase, row of leather bound books. Alexander...
at the softness of her voice, he turns

those watery green eyes break her.




Piece of Lace

just a piece of lace she left. a crocheted collar for a neat black dress. reddish-beige. could be blood-stain. imagine a Victorian brooch
at her throat. a stab wound a spurt. stubborn stain would remain. women took risks for vanity. steel pins spiked through hats. elastic beneath chins. the ping. the sting. but see the lace her face in the oval mirror. powder-pink. mirror-mirror frail face full of grace. her wrinkled hand winding silk around a crochet hook. one moment stretched smooth as rose petal. then puckered slack. a relaxed slump. her last breath. last click of crochet hook. let her rest in peace forever and ever. scent of lavender drifts with cigarette smoke ashes to ashes... just a piece of lace.




The State Library of Western Australia promotes literacy for all ages. To this end the ‘Read this and be smarter project’ has been developed, providing a short piece of writing from Australian publications every Monday to Friday to read on your commute or lunch break.