Treadling hard on a Singer machine
the girl would often sit back and weep
to simply be spared the plaintive sight

of yet more embroidered Sweet Violet
handkerchiefs shuddering through
to be boxed and ready for World War Two.

She altered skirts for a high street store,
campaigned that the jobless be catered for
and was duly ditched from her sewing job.

Taken on by a parachute firm, she couldn’t curb
the sense she’d left undone a vital seam
in the sea of silk, and a flier had come to harm.

She knitted and threaded from door to door
with her bone basket and grubby velour.
The further she fell, the further she’d fall

but would always have cotton and needle.
She mended spent elbows, potatoes in socks -
penny a go down Saint Katharine Docks

till she dreamed of holes appearing in ships
and they’d sink, sink, for all that she stitched.
She took to night shelters, still mending

rough, trying to make good. She stripped men,
prior to plying a patch, for she’d fret
that her tacking might pierce a breast.

She was target of blame, spit, and curse.
She was often kicked in the course
of work. Said it’s the fate of the seamstress.





The Nature Table

The Nature Table came to teach Science to young children in the 1950s


The Nature Table
has to stand very still.

Depending on seasons
it hides beneath holly, hyacinths
daffs in a vase, acorns,
and frogs which get pinched.

Perhaps it’s shy
and that’s why.

that’s its nature.

Perhaps, till it was grown,
it lived in the wood.

Teacher caught it and stood
woody stuff on it
to make it relax
and feel good.

But its poor legs are so stiff
and I wonder if
Nature Tables
long to throw off
all the dusty labels
and dance under trees.



Get Set

These are your Houses, he said. You’ll be split
in three. You’ll either be OVERALLS, CAPS, or BADGES.

We sat with hands in laps and fancied ourselves.
I felt proud to be a BADGE. Badges are the stuff of Cubs
and majors’ blazers after all.

My friend John was an OVERALL. His mother complained,
thought it common, till it was explained;
she came out with a smile patting her son.

Playing a top sport for your country
would win you a cap, so CAP was okay (except when
they went BANG, the class comedian would say.)

If we’d known the secret meanings we’d have blenched.
SHEEP, GOATS, and IDLERS translated into French

but this shouldn’t overshadow this fine teacher
for he taught with such fire and compassion
that we never twigged, were never diminished.



Phlip Burton


More poems by Philip Burton

article on poetry - by Philip Burton


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