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Portrait House

Penelope Shuttle

Rivers climb back to the ceiling where they belong

and a fox enters a woman's body, sliding

between her ribs, unable to keep a secret, He speaks

in a different voice from hers. Hunger, he says,

comes to the Portrait House capable of anything,

not just eating, That's no secret.


High above the Portrait House

the sky dozes between love and fornication.

Only the stars, those alumni,

care about me, he said. I am not a fox, he said.

I am a woman, just breathing and feeling sad.

In the Portrait House we had an endless year

that ended. He creaked efficiently out of the door

in his best uniform, saying, I am not a fox.

Yes, it was time to throw out the photographs

of the loveless prince and princess by the palace gates

crowned with make-believe snow. It was time

to eat a gargantuan meal and then sleep

for two or three days, at least.


Ah you are right. It is only a house, a box of shadows.

It is only me folding my arms

in the sparkle of twilight. It is only me

counting my children and beasts. It is only me

in the apple wood when all turns blue and windswept at dusk

with my favourite child singing to her ghost-ponies

high in the branches.


In the Portrait House every wall carries its fair share

of painted or photographed faces; burning lips and all sorts of eyes,

brows and chins. And when in autumn a wind that breaks things

dives through the corridors and the gazing rooms, the faces

frown with such eavesdropping tenderness. They watch us blindly,

growing more and more like foxes. They know

we are too stupid to be bribed. And so a little ghost-sadness

comes into the house, driving us away.

Like any other Adam and Eve, we run weeping

from the forbidden place, everything weeps with us,

tree, cloud, star, lion, river, sun. Every Angel

weeps, and God, he weeps also. But the portraits laugh,

and that little ghost-sadness cries out, smiling foxily,

don't you want these seven kisses? Come back! Oh please!


Outside the Portrait House is a black world and black stars,

black seas and black moons. That is where we must go.

You draw back in fear. Tears run down your face. Why?

You are not a visionary, are you?

I want to be you. Who are you?


In another life I was a man without joy

who lived a wild life.

Since then there have been streets and streets

of silence and rain and fox-voices.

But in this life I am just sifting a little bastard saffron

into a milk pudding

while you come to the table capable of eating anything,

complaining of your loneliness,

saying that women are no better than horses,

that this house has always felt sad.


From Poetry Wales Vol 29 No 1 (July 1993)