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‘The London Cage’ and three more poems.


The London Cage.

The workmanship’s in the securing of wires,
the exactness of fastenings.
Tiny red spiders will hide in loose joints.

Nothing more distressing to the cage-maker
than a badly wired cage.

A London Cage, well-made:
now that’s a business-like article.
One or two compartments, a small nursery
secluded from the living quarters by a door.
An independent tenement, plain as possible.
A well-ordered system. A cage
pleasing to find in a working man’s home
as a cheerful wife, a clean hearth
and an eight-day clock

and no weak points in the mesh that could be disclosed
by a slant of blue air between rooftops,
early morning, a sudden smell of bread. A boy
running barefoot without a sound,
the neighbour who looks up from stamping turf
over a hole he has dug the size of a barrel
without a sound
and without a sound
shouts news of one army or another.


Either an eyepiece or a correcting lens.

How towering cliffs resolve to boulders or a new horizon
transfixes a ship for hours sailing nowhere,

how Arctic air unhooks time from distance (coordinates adrift,
the eye climbing spires and promontories everywhere at once)

and how at 6pm on a Thursday in January
three watermen were riding the ebb tide to Greenland Dock —

sleet, then snow, the river obsidian, devouring itself
and they the only men left alive in a cosmos of whirling flint

that begins to warp now, to slow, until the machinery locks.
Inside the cathedral air of the icefield they hear weights rise and fall,

glass chains run through pulleys. Steel gates drop into place.
Ice shines up at their faces, unblinking.

Hours later they sat in the King of Prussia, staring into a fire
as if they had returned after years from a continent of mirrors,

unable to speak of the silver chronometers scattered on the floe,
the message written backwards to the dead, the ships in the sky.

Note: Relics of Sir John Franklin’s last Arctic expedition, 1845-8, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Object ID AAA2185: ‘This lens in a brass mount is from a telescope and is either an eyepiece or one of the correcting lenses’.


In early photographs, busy streets appear deserted.

And because no one has yet invented shutter speeds
it is a peaceful city
where light falls with the silvery quiet of snow
taking no less than several minutes to land
and shadows lie unperturbed by passers-through.
There are no starlings. No one runs to a dying woman’s house
and it is never windy.

Sometimes a man stands, one foot raised
struck by the devotion of a child
who kneels to polish his boot.
Should two or three people happen to meet at a street corner
they stop to look into each other’s eyes
as if to say, This is all our life
gathered here inside this room, the curtains kept closed

while elsewhere perhaps a theatre is on fire
and streets fly into a thousand pieces
overtaking the minute hand on every white-faced clock
but only now do you see
a woman who turns aside in her own still air
transfixed by clouds the colour of lead
solidifying in a cage of black roofbeams.



I want to say it’s not the fort’s blind walls,
the derelict lighthouse, not the tight heat
(whose chained dog, whose empty car?)
but this locked gate on the Hill of Thistles
where air turns on its rim
and the path ends at a field of white stones –

the fact of them, mineral memory.
Light rolling over the sea.

For two long June days
at the foot of this cliff, twenty-four men
and one woman, not native to this city,
not native enough, were hanged and burned.
Or perhaps burned alive. Smoke holds no shape
but this was centuries ago
in an age of countable numbers
and each man was written into ceremony.
The woman’s name was not written

and the path ends at a locked gate, white stones.

I want to say I felt air quiver, then swell like a sail
once, in a field, not this field – goldfinches,
twenty perhaps, scattered out of thistles.
Their flicker and dash, their bright dash,
their spark. Their blood-dipped carnival masks.

Their brightness, I want to say,
their small ravenous brightness.

            — Monte Cardeto, Ancona


Judith Willson’s first collection, Crossing the Mirror Line, was published by Carcanet Press in 2017. A second collection, Fleet, explores migrations, absences and elusive histories, and is forthcoming from Carcanet in February 2021.

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