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Every year when the extreme cold
Falls suddenly over us, cracking the skin
Straightaway, that has been oiled by summer,
Freezing to a standstill the heart, strangling movement,
I hear the same awful story, in different versions.

I had begun to think it was the myth-making faculty
Like the wartime story that a man in Australia
And a man in Finland
Heard from his father:
The limb blown off that landed in his dinner
In the exact same way; and only some detail revealed
(A sock in one version, in another a hand with a mitten
In one a lamb chop, in another a plate of porridge)
That this was a variant of archetypal legend
And brought relief and laughter that it wasn't real.

An idiot brother chained to the bed for years;
The drunken return only to punch up the wife,
Every year pregnant, and to get her pay-packet;
Dog on cushions and relative in a boxroom
Kept on biscuits.
Punch hitting Judy over the head with a stick.

Gruesome stories
Arising, miasma from marshes, from the foetid pools
That stand in the human mind.

Alas not so, alas I am forced to listen:
They found a child of eight dead in a bath.
It had been a night, the coldest over Christmas
When - heating in the house, good dinner inside me
Woolly scarf round my feet, five blankets, thick mattress
Eiderdown, bottle - I had felt too freezing
To put out my arm from underneath the bedclothes
The air inside the house had such a bite.

The child had nothing on, there was no towel
No flannel he could clutch or put against him.
The window had been wedged open and the door locked.
The snow-laden wind cut through the curtainless room
Keeping the enamel five degrees below freezing.

The child was frozen blue in the empty white bath
His urine an iced runnel.

It was Christmas Eve when his parents locked him in.

This year I hear that last night there in Poland
It was 37 degrees below and men
Taken across the snow-stormed plain, were made
To stand outside the wagons in the dark
And hosed down with water that instantly froze on them
And left till dawn, standing in ice-bound Europe.

Who are these people? The woman I see in the grocer's
Polite to customers? The couple who, arm in arm
Every Saturday morning go to the Post Office?
Numbed, as with cold, all I do is mouth
In a silent howl, like the paralysing frost,
'How long - -? How long?'

Another year; a summer has intervened,
A healthy fat baby next door is leaping about.
A little chill breath of autumn creeps through the dusk.
I close the back door, think about lighting fires.
Tired, a bit cold, I think of an early night:
Some warm food, a bath and a soft clean blanket - and sleep.

In my hot bath lies drowned the ice-dead child.


from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1992), copyright © Jenny Joseph 1988, used by permission of the author and Bloodaxe Books Ltd.

Books by Jenny Joseph