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A Rare Woman Inspired by the self-portraits of Helene Schjerfbeck, Finnish artist, 1862-1946 The primitive spark of her gaze cannot be silenced. It demands a dialogue. She starts with a soft palette and a reminiscent pose, the quiet youthful notes shaded with a crayon. Her eyes, stark and peering, hint at what drove her to the easel, taunting us to ask why and how her art lifts her from obscurity to Paris. Even her mother wondered, why not just dabble. Gifted with more than talent, she is unafraid, exposes her strength in heavy lines, a mustard splash, brazen magenta slicing. She builds face upon face, scraping each clean before moving on. Traces lurk below the surface, bold in what she shares and what she hides in paint. A stubborn witness as her country falls, independence into discord, she best documents her own advance, war after war waged upon her body. Age rips her apart. Eyes now haggard and hollowed, pared back to shadow, stalked by time. Her final statement, her fury never fading to a whisper, leaves us raw. A Recipe for the New Year Christmas leftovers tidied away, the last firework embers sizzle out over a white spread of snow. Clean as my grandmother’s linen, ironed crisp with starch, the table left undressed, but for her empty plate. Our family’s women send me recipes as condolence cards, her life marked with banana bread and yeasty cinnamon twists, baking our language in love and grief. Shuffling around the kitchen in a house coat and worn slippers, she faded into isolation without other’s needs to tend. Ingredients gathered, I stumble to follow the method as I could never repeat her prayers. Her fingers no longer warm the dough that wilts under my impatience. The oven remains cold. I crack a fresh notebook, eggshell emotions sticking to the pages, ink the surface with I want, I want to heap my plate with the new, the uncertain. I am not ready to become memory, sugared and warmed. Diary of the Unnamed Maid First Victim of the Great Fire of London, 1666 Mistress learnd me my letters so I might read her lists at market. I scratchd on Miss Hannas old slate by firelight or with a wet finger in bed until their shapes filld my dreams. I share my attic room with the cat too old to hunt mice. He warms my feet when frost catches on the eeves. In the morning I haste my errands down the rows of wood houses to the stalls After I run to the river and scribble amid the tugs and shouting sailors. Mistress never asks for the paper sure it is dropped in the gutter. My day is the kitchen. Chop and peel wash the pots. I only enter the bakery with Masters lunch. His booming voice roars with heat enjoining me before the oven. I collect the family bread and cakes sometimes a fresh biscit for Miss Mary and a blackd one for myself. I long rise early with that flour and warmth but Master has a man to help. I return to dishes and peelings. Tonight I workd my letters in a sampler A gift of thanks to my good lady and sir who gives me a job, food, a safe home. Master says we must off to bed. I can hear him fixing the locks. But he has not stoppd in the bake-hous. The cat purrs my name mongst my scraps of writing. Voices echo in Puddin Lane below. London never sleeps. St Tenue, Mother of Glasgow Remember me, a princess raped and thrown away again and again for the shame of my swollen belly. Twice condemned by my father to death, my life begins anew as my chariot tumbled down Dunpendyrlaw. A survivor, I was called Witch, then abandoned to the Firth’s waves. A shoal of fish silvers beneath my coracle, washes me onto blessed shores to birth my son, my dear one, Mungo. I share your pain, my daughters beaten and branded, cast aside by men. Come, my hermitage, my arms offer shelter. For centuries you visit my bones, my sacred well in my son’s green city, leaving coins and rag wishes, praying that I give you peace. Even when I am gone, you will find me in this cathedral of metal and glass, beneath the modern trains’ roar. Whisper my names they have buried, Thaney, Theneva, Tannoch, Enoch. Whisper to me, Mother. I will lift you up above the grinding heels of men, you unbroken queens. History of a Nesting Doll Her first face, serene is stamped with flowers beneath time-yellowed paint, but her garish colours don’t match the interior. A clichéd spinster librarian in the corner at parties, 1950s tight perm and chunky plastic jewellery, spitting and muttering like her Siamese cat. After death her story cracks open, the early loss of her mother hollowed her out, family shuffling in from next door to fill the gaps. The details blur more on the next Matryoshka, features cramped, eyes anxious to speak. A touch of a smile, her flushing cheeks. Engaged to an unknown boy in WW2 who didn’t return, she never dated again. Discouraging other widows, she chided that only one mate exists for each. Her next expression holds the unsaid behind pursed lips. The paint simplifies, spotted headscarf and one large, loose bloom. Unearthed sepia snapshots with her father at US road-side attractions, Old Faithful, the biggest ball of string. He bought the cars, she drove as her brother moved on to family of his own. The last three matrons are pared down, wood fading, fewer dots and colours on matronly aprons and kerchiefs. A beloved community soul, layers hidden. She paid for niblings’ educations, took the grandkids to local pow-wows, feeding her love of turquoise with the hard beat of dancing feet, sweltering summer days. Trinkets of her solo trips packed in boxes; wooden shoes, a twisting Thai dancer and a Flamenco dance in a sweeping skirt. Ten orders down, the smallest face speaks with black, depression, electro-shock therapy, slivers of her memory lost like the last doll, an emptied space in her heart-centre. The Viking and The Maiden No romance but the sagas sung in my head. He was my warrior, riding his motorcycle in the wind like a longboat, a stormy petrel. We were young gods, revelling in the sauna heat of the dark disco. Awaiting his arrival, I brushed off sailors like flies, breath held. His oars rocked him in on a wave of girls who knew the course he charted. I lashed myself, sweat-rich and wild, to the mast of his bones, riding my longing tide to the songs of the mead-hall. I was willing to throw myself from his cliffs, to dance with his shield maidens in blood-lust and love until I broke apart, timbers against his sword. But he sensed I was not battle-ready and dropped his sails to shelter me back to the hearth fires. I stole a kiss from his sand-dry lips. as he returned to the pearling foam, my last sun-hope snuffed out. Rebirth When she drifted loose-paged through the Idaho bookstore, I imagined Europe’s narrow streets followed at her heels. She could never blend into this backwater town, an exotic wind in the tilt of her eyes, her Mary Janes mirror-polished, her uncombed hair. She lived in sensuous melancholy, a spirit downcast by her own beauty. I wished to remain hidden near to catch her spark. Whispers followed her, unemployed, unwed mother. I dream her face stares back through my window, a maria of the moon, her dark, silent surface hiding upheaval. I long for her wide cheekbones to push me through the crowds. Dishevelled Da Vinci’s La Scapigliata She rises from the wood, the earthy paint, clear and bright. Paused over something unseen, needlework or a sleeping child, a thought pulls her away and lights her from within. Soft notes unwind in her hair, the thread she’s following. Unburdened by painted background, the strictures of fashion and time, of man or home, on her own she is raw, falling loose. Grace, not in her eyes hooded and downcast, not in her smile. La Serenissima. Bio: Gerry Stewart is a poet, creative writing tutor and editor based in Finland. Her poetry collection Post-Holiday Blues was published by Flambard Press, UK. Totems is to be published by Hedgehog Poetry Press in 2022. Her writing blog can be found at http://thistlewren.blogspot.fi/ and @grimalkingerry on Twitter. 2 poems about forgotten women by Gerry Stewart