Poetry by Maureen Wilkinson

Explaining the constellations

Explaining the ConstellationsThis poem has been published in Poetry Review.

This poem and its associated picture (see the 'Pictures with Poems' gallery then click image to enlarge) are unusual, in that the poem was written over ten years ago, while the watercolour drawing was completed very recently, in Spring 2010.

At the time of writing the poem Fred and I were running an ethnic art and crafts gallery in Falmouth, our first Morning Price Gallery. The premises were huge, a former car showroom, but in winter, when trade was quiet, we would take turns to staff them alone. At the time I was writing a great deal of poetry, and often recited current work in my head as I tidied, dusted, arranged displays and served the occasional customer.

I have often found that working alone at a mundane physical activity helps me to think creatively, and this was the case when one morning I accidentally knocked a large box of dressmaking pins on to the floor. The pins spilled far and wide, and I spent some time sweeping them up, placing some on display surfaces as I moved through the gallery and pinning others through my sweater.

Much of my artwork and poetry begins with a strong visual idea, and such was the inspiration for the poem 'Explaining the Constellations'. As I swept I imagined myself 'sweeping the sky for pins'. The pins were pierced into the dark fabric of the sky or into my clothing, where they became stars, and eventually formed constellations. Constellations are generally named after characters or events in mythical stories, and so it was with 'my' constellations, the sweeping woman eternally committed to the mundane yet magnificent task of simultaneously tidying up the sky and creating the world!

Please read Artist's Notes in my 'Pictures with Poems' gallery for more information about the associated image.


I spend my days sweeping, and playing scrabble.
I am the woman sweeping the sky for pins.
I raise my eyes to the mirror of the moon
and call out words. I am my own opponent.

And when the moon hangs high as a ballroom sphere,
and faceted, then all my women glitter
golden as bees. We dance as we sweep as we sing; bird gossiping
as the vowels come bright and fast. We keep the pins
for sequins in our skirts. We are dizzy with dance
and cannot choose the dreams we speak. We cast
words behind us like wheat, like water, like forgetting.

Sometimes I tire of games.
My dark face weeps.
I cannot speak
except in tongues, in gibberish. Night is a vast
shore I must search, with stars as numerous as grains as sand
and a rolling tide. I must sift the stars for pins.

Or I am a hag riding night's sawdust ring
on my hazel horse,
and the moon is my boat, the moon is my clock which chimes.
The moon is my crock of words, which spills its tongues
silver and sharp; and again and again I must sweep
my burden, my bounty.

I have cut my dress from the sky's dark stuff.
The ghosts of my dark girls keep
circular time. I pierce the sky with pins, and name each day
in neon lights. I speak from a box of words.
I am pinned to the sky like a moth. I cannot turn
back to see the beauty that I walk in.

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