from Holloway Letters

from Holloway Letters | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Blackbird, painted by Arthur Dove in 1942. Courtesy of the Estate of Arthur G. Dove/Terry Dintenfass, Inc./Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.

[What She Was In For]

You learn not to ask ‘What are you in for?’
but what she was in for was parking on the road
outside her house to get her kids inside
before she’d find a space to leave the car.
And what she was in for was passport fraud:
she’d made it here over several seas,
her dignity locked in a single plait.
And what she was in for was possession.
And what she was in for was being poor,
unable to pay for her TV licence.
And what she was in for was her son,
doing time for his non-payment of a fine.
She’ll tell you soon enough, in passing.
It’s the one thing you should never ask.

It’s the one thing you should never ask,
besides ‘Please could you turn your radio off?’
It’s on 3pm to midnight without a break,
and LOUD. I try asking her to turn it down.
It’s not turned up, she says, she’s doing
a long sentence and it’s the only thing
that is keeping her sane. It’s driving
me mad, I say, and I can’t get out.

If I’d known back then about St Kevin,
I might have had a go at sticking my arm
out the window, turned my palm to heaven,
and waited till a blackbird chanced to nest.
It’s not that the pain would have brought me rest,
but that we hold small hopes in our own hands.

But that we hold small hopes in our own hands,
or under our pillows. She’d save the little capsules –
half egg-shell blue, half ox-blood red – till Friday
for her hit, casual as anything, though her nagging
every evening when the drugs trolley glided
along the corridor rather undermined her cool:
‘Go on, get me some, go on, go on.’
Or she’d wait for visiting time and ‘crotch it’ –
reach up inside the small frayed hole
between her thighs – or swallow then retch
the stuff up later in a mess of Mars Bar.
But mostly she was waiting for her Discharge Grant.
Our cell-mate banged her head against the wall;
you couldn’t say anything to comfort her at all.

Emma Must lives in Belfast. Her poem “Toll” won the inaugural Environmental Defenders Prize at the Ginkgo Awards in November 2019.
Explore Related Content