Open 11am to 8pm
Royal Festival Hall (Level 5), Southbank Centre, LondonOpen Tuesday - Sunday from 11am to 8pm
Artwork by Paul Peter Piech, 1991. Words by Vernon Watkins. © the Estate of Paul Peter Piech
Stealing from his mother’s house,
Edward came across a hand-written note
tucked away in a scallop-shell purse, which seemed at first
to be some sort of letter or short story, but here’s what it said:
“As a child, Edward liked to climb trees in the plantation
and make dams in the stream at the foot of the garden,
and once carved a bookmark from a piece of wood.
But right from the very beginning there was an absence in Edward’s life,
a craving emptiness which grew like the black pit of a dilating eye.
Where that void came from neither the teachers nor doctors could say,
except that it was there from the very start,
curled up beside him in his crib, hiding in the grip of his fist,
drinking from the water vapour in his breath.
Nothing could suture that dark, famished wound.
Board games and soft toys, space-hoppers and bikes –
the more it was given the deeper and wider it grew.
All sweetness was rancid on Edward’s tongue.
All handshakes were tentacles, all compliments were veiled threats,
all statements and assessments were worthless confessions
obtained under torture, all care-plans were Byzantine conspiracies of evil intent.
Awake and asleep Edward stalked the battlements alone,
meeting the emissaries of peace with the point of a bayonet,
beading friendship in the crosshairs of suspicion,
scanning the open plane from the watchtower
so as to ride out and beat until dead the first flames of tenderness
or the sparks of love. He is survived by his mother, Eleanor,
from whom he took everything, but who would give it all again
just to let him scream his agonies into her face
or pound his fury into her breast one final time. He left no note.”
Edward opened the wardrobe, which was empty
except for the greatcoat, which slumped towards him
then engulfed him as he hauled it from the rail.
The huge, overburdening coat with its stiff, turf-like cloth,
and the heavy legs of its sleeves, and the triceratops collar
and the mineshaft pockets and the drunken punches of its flailing cuffs.
Through the neat bullet hole in the back, daylight looked distant and pinched,
like the world through a dusty telescope held back-to-front to the eye.
And there Edward wept, crouched in the foxhole,
huddled in a ball under the greatcoat, draped in the flag.
Yours pearls worn siren smooth,
no longer luminous, unlike
your grey green skin:
my mother - still beautiful.
I start gathering shells
as you lie dying,
selecting only the best.
For the altar bowls of oysters,
tinged with grey lustre;
strewn clam shells and bouquets
of periwinkles - soft bodies, now gone,
maybe drowned in the stomach of the sea
or buried in the sand.
I bring you the roots of sea holly
adorned by silver leaves to soothe,
maybe stem the tempest in your belly
before the carcinoma swells
your fish-like tissue and you body
flips in on itself one last time.