Family History


My mother wore an iron diadem,
and my sisters, blue as smoke,
perished in a tabloid accident.
No-one reads them now. But I

wander the aberrant by-ways
charted by an old aunt's letters.
I pick at her piggledy script:
there is, it seems, uncertainty

about some second cousins. They
were once removed. No postal address
remains - of their remains, really.
They're as dead as newsprint now.

But the aunt (in a parenthesis)
mentions their startling habit
of mesmerising sheep. They stared
straight at royal rams, who buckled.

Tucking into these genealogies,
these elderly mementoes, I discover
sisters who never made it up,
moved mountains to be on

their other side. Reprobates
are forgivable, with their silver
canes, their gigolos, mistresses.
The spiteful alone persist, scoring

lines through family bibles,
sucking false teeth like strong mints
and faking old photographs. Shears
have snipped the wormier buds,

bowdlerised even the epitaphs.
No-one visited the pig brother
who threw the marzipan. Twenty years
before they'd lay his plain grave,

and he wasn't in it, either.
Dates were switched. Some lavished
more on the pet cat than grandma.
She was folded in like a sheet,

listening for the fatal footsteps
of the slight man who slighted her.
My aunt describes an accident,
her father's car spinning in a ditch,

wanted notices, an escapade he
seems to survive with few bruises.
Once he saved a drowning housemaid,
who curtseyed to him, and sent

screeds to a local editor. He kept
the clippings. There are rumours
that he spread incredible seed
with the indifference of scurf.

Yesterday I passed five versions
of my face. They have survived
submarines, an epidemic of epidemics,
the introduction of yoghurt. Families

tax the census of imagination,
and all our ancestors are neighbours
truanting behind curtains, and ducking
smartly into an artful darkness.

From the book Robinson Crusoe's Bank Holiday Monday