Deputy-mother of her maybe rivals,
love swings on and off.
Mary Poppins, Miss Hannigan,
spit-spot and slap-slap.
When parents say, she is shot like a comet
into adultness, to govern babies or keep
the ship of housework sailing.
Larger than adult, smaller than child,
chore-hungry and chore-fed,
a machine-child sweating at the iron.
Her fingers fly, her eyes are stone;
a ghost to herself, she body-and-soul becomes
the order that sorts the washing,
shyly perfecting the nappy's origami,
pressing the fatherly hankies
into high-piled civil squares.
On the floor, four toddlers sprawl
like dropped grenades: stilled by Babar,
that delicate French family of bourgeois-monarch
elephants and mint-green
apple-studded trees that float
through the screen and fill the timber house
that noses at the sky like Noah's Ark,
its cargo more than all the world.
It is like an order she has made:
four sisters, their hair still gleaming
in the braids she yanked into shape that morning.
Their future tantrums wait inside her throat,
she swallows them and keeps the peace.
The house teeters, creaks.
She slips out, climbs the voiceless apple tree,
squats quiet as a dove that ate the olive branch.
The babies drift by like clouds, their smiles
strung with cosmic spittle: she crouches,
a monster, hardened and un-hardened,
forming and re-forming,
eyes red with metamorphosis,
deep in the smell of feathers, wing-wax,
she leaps from the apple tree,
lands in the kitchen, an angel,
and like four little kittens, the children
curl around her silk-slippered feet:
she pours them ‘baby tea’ – six sugars, all milk.
© Petra White