Mark Russell 71

Mark Russell


The claims made

That she was born // that // in Strasbourg / seems incontrovertible // a confluence of ideas about this / her husband / first husband // (many objections later) // up in the hills / overlooking niceties / like marriage / insurrections across the river / lists // one named Louis / one named Otto / Gaston who claimed to be a Duke // whom she never married despite the four daughters // That she was born even / out among the parson’s steep banked vines / (was he the third? nobody knows) / down in the basin / up in the branches of ancient maple / in the woods / rich red leaves / thick green lichen / even that // forest girl / guerrilla girl / abandoning her sons / all her menfolk / for the love of first edition grammar textbooks / (1945 was a good year) // It is clear / in a clearing / that she was born

How she became free

But I thought you were a handsome devil from the Third Republic / not a pink-nosed pug-faced weed of // where do pecans come from / what time did you learn to dance // of // (Bastien haunts her still) (Didier too) / (let’s not mention Dieter, Pieter, & Horst; Moïse, Pascal, & Olivier) // give up // of the frontier // whichever way that went / whatever its unaccountable stasis / between the Bugatti and the role of Faust // she learned how a cross can spit fire in her own and many languages / she translated it for her friends / a rising / a red rising // she wrote it down and Nathalie composed a song

And her myth

A refusal of kisses / simple enough strategy / strength is angelic / (it’s an interpretation) // there was the military service / and happy to talk about it / the reels and dizzy songs // promise of publication / election to public office / the resignations / escape from the hyperbole of execution // on-again off-again liaisons with Hélène the translator / her sister Carmen / Nina and her husband Claude / the three Czech girls // Prague had its advantages / and street thieves / imperious police chiefs / men who sit in the old bars / in the old town / long for the old days // people will do your work for you / sit tight / smile frequently / look into the distance / present your left profile


Once you leave / you can’t come back // she left  

Escape to London

‘So, this is how it works?’ was her first question / even before departure / though nobody understood her thick accent / despite her education // what else?

a road made of water and horses / what else?

she typed ‘Female French Poets’ but was given ‘Female French Pete’ / typed again / ‘Female French Pets’ does not exist // not enough / (her London refrain) // ‘but can we suggest a succession of “Penthouse Pets”’// not enough // what else?

a longing for a circle of friends / soon renounced // the writings / a manual for gamblers / an anti-tragedy / a treatise on asceticism // drink drinking drunk / ate Portuguese raspberries // everything seemed to grow a new head and became unrecognisable // come on // what else?

before the queues formed / after the tickets were confirmed / before her conversion / ‘So this is how it works?’ was her last question / so the story goes

Aboard the barque

Not in triumph // in the traditional sense // a reward for smugglers / lazy and recumbent / radar systems undergoing night time repairs // (though she was compared to moonlight / a fountain / a fragrance / – lily, perhaps – these things were often misheard) / (though certain attributes / – let’s call them that – / were remarked upon / lips, for instance / courage and guile / the same buttocks she used for sitting) // it was becoming predictable 


Roof tiles / white washed walls / smell of hot tarmac / the ease with which people discussed the slave trade // as if it happened // but the coffee’s good / and new languages // she was asked to wear a hat / stand for hours in front of men with pencils / men who could make only copies of her

On retreat

The records state / eleven months at sea / for stealing a handkerchief // twenty-three children to four husbands / disappearance of the whaling fleet / all its men // the building of a church / the burning of same church // women suspected of everything / twelve dunked in the river / four burned for sport // she re-trained as an architect / presented her plans for the new courthouse / they built it on the graveyard

Back in the city

Poverty and isolation became thrills / a disguise / truffles / she took on the features of the men who loved her / began a career in stand-up comedy / had prosthetic wrists made / manufactured uniforms for sale abroad // there were no holes in her plan / or its execution // somehow she was never in vogue / her periods fell either side of the fin de siècle / both of them // she gave thanks for this coincidence / (advantage, she knew, being a multi-coloured orphan) // fainted extravagantly / when the opportunity arose // put an end to such nonsense / discovering it had been invented / by men // inherited the estate of a bishop / though she (and he) had never married (despite the rumours / despite the results of the forensic investigation / despite the claims made by a ‘son’) // married her aged aunt in Nice / gave her entire inheritance away to a dogs’ home / was divorced by her bitter aunt / (the relief made the papers) / feigned the purple rash to avoid further astonishments // under this smoke and fever / laid claim to her place at the university / paid young men to write her essays / corrected them / rewrote them / considered this her greatest lesson learned / dropped out

Payment in kind

Her skirts became heavier / she cut them up / made trousers (she was asked to call them pantalon) / (she refused) / (she preferred Hose – with both syllables – / the English couldn’t cope with either / she began to whisper it) / it was the absinthe / the beer // her fringe / such as it was / when it was / was / a contested border / the kind that runs through a river / takes a shape and force of its own / will have no truck / it was the melodies / all the broken strings / the black and white photographs // a last known resting place / under a roundabout / an intersection of the A9 / north of München / that’s how she constructed it / buried the plans in a steel tube / labelled it / ‘in the event of my unexplained death’ /

Too late for introductions

She knew it // as she knew most things / entry in her new trews / without a known past / a past thick with silence and prohibition // the local nobles would find her / agreeable // on the steps / posing no obvious threat / mistaken for a doctor / (but not a dentist) / a civil engineer / (but not a model) // held meetings on tennis courts / in restaurants // code red // stay in bed // code red // stay in bed // here was the way in / more than an entrance / more than a woman / more than a man / (much more ) / (she could hear the laughter all the way from the valley) / more / so much more that she culled her pronouns / they lay in pieces about the town / people took photographs / she had created a storm / Instagram whirred / when alone / with her thoughts / and nips of vodka / she laughed / a soft laugh // men at faraway tables heard it / complained of odd discomforts / refrained from further comment

To the Settlement

She said she couldn’t live without acting / to do so is to die without living // the sand is witness / the ink and papyrus are witness / the engraver’s chisel and hammer too // // but others / the different ideas / the sounds they made / to have never eaten octopus – oh / to leave sheep unsheared – goo / to have never been painted – grrr / to never have enough money to buy a car – gah! // // she began two novels at once / entered them at the Salon / faced rejection / after rejection / she took them and healed them with masks / opened as a solo show / pyrotechnics / visual aids / moving pictures / her old friends from the Czech Republic showed up / quite by accident / she added them as a performance-based installation / the glow sticks caused minor pain and irritations // the town threw her a party // she couldn’t go // she wouldn’t go // she didn’t go // the rumours resurfaced / would nobody set eyes on her again / would she emerge like the last time / dressed re-purposely / would she have children // where does she keep her magic


She hired / she pulled ropes / she wrote the score / she played the lead / she played the chorus / she was her own understudies


The tub in which she bathed / filled with lemons and rust / that was how she liked it // in her own terms / she was born // she lived // no other terms interested her


It’s impossible to die with regrets // you’re too / dead / too / busy / being dead / that’s what she lived by / that’s how she died / in a room of her own design / in a house she built / in the flames she lit // so the story goes

Living again (in a song about rain and the resurrection)

The first tattoo came late / but once she tasted the writing / she swam in ink // celebrated with a first digital radio / an endless supply of notebooks / ‘this is’ she heard / on deck / in waiting rooms / paying for her zucchini and eggplants // ‘this is’ // when she looked around her / snow had fallen / there were no men / there were no women / just layers and layers of snow // ‘yes’ // ‘this is’ // ‘this is’ // ‘yes’


Mark Russell’s publications include Spearmint & Rescue (Pindrop), and Shopping for Punks (Hesterglock). Other poems have appeared in Shearsman, Blackbox Manifold, Gutter, Adjacent Pineapple, Poetry Salzburg Review, and elsewhere.