Despite your lessons,
I never learnt to sew.
I could never master the fluid
movement required to darn a tear,
sealing it tight.
Could never emulate the steady rhythm
of your hands as you thread
the faint stitch through the lip
of the ripped fabric.
Your casual flick of the wrist.
The simple knot you tie with a gentle twist,
a bow formed from loose ends
and dangling cotton wisps.
Even now I bring you clothes.
Garments with gashes of flesh missing,
torn out by careless tumbles.
Blazers with burnished buttons slack
from too much wear.
I know what you will say.
I should learn to sew,
to seal up this gasping gulf,
but I bless my ignorant hands.
Ellen Davies, “Sewing Lessons”, Popshot Magazine, n.º 13, The Outsider Issue, 2015, p.9.
© Ellen Davies. Reproduced with the author’s permission.
I like this poem because it offers up autobiographical references – childhood memories – a valid and honest reason for any reader to like a poem at first reading. I was an anachronism for my generation (I was born in the sixties of last century). I was brought up to be accomplished in the domestic arts – from my mother I learned to lower the hems of my dresses (and to read) at six; at fourteen I no longer told anyone that I could embroider, could knit and crochet. All of them embarrassing accomplishments for a teen girl in the eighties: I cursed my knowing hands.
Ellen Davies is young enough to be my daughter. This places me, as a reader, at the centre of the gulf that she speaks of here, and which at first seems to separate her from the person she addresses in the poem – her grandmother. The granddaughter never managed to learn how to sew; the grandmother laments this every time she is asked to mend the tears and mishaps in the granddaughter’s clothes. But, despite the setbacks that nowadays could be easily solved – here, but also in Wales (where Ellen Davies was born and still lives) – by a trip to any high street clothing store, “Even now I bring you clothes.” These tears and mishaps offer us, if we look at them, palpable wounds, visible and invisible, of a life: “Garments with gashes of flesh missing/torn out by careless tumbles”. The fabric like the skin are sewn together with words: deep cuts, the result of careless falls, tumbles, that leave her (like her clothes) raw; the wear and tear that reveals fatigue and discouragement: “Blazers with burnished buttons slack/ from too much wear.” This blazer is a proper jacket, professional and academic, whose burnished buttons are polished by the “productive” workday’s normalizing effect, but are also loose, almost about to fall off. These trips to grandmother’s house have, therefore, two readings: the mending of clothes (an alibi) and the need for consolation, which only the grandmother has the wisdom and the power to bestow.
Moreover, if the poet never learned to sew, it wasn’t for lack of observation skills or of memory. The description, from the third line on, of the sewing choreography, raises the suspicion that she could have done it after all, just as she reproduces it in the lines’ construction – the fluid movement decisively wound up in the fifth line, the sure and careful rhythm that follows (as you thread/the faint stitch trough the lip/ of the ripped fabric), the sudden gesture, unexpected, conjured in the tenth line: Your casual flick of the wrist. The very last lines of the poem – I should learn to sew, to seal up this gasping gulf / but I bless my ignorant hands – recreate the tying of loose ends that she is supposedly unable to perform: The simple knot you tie with a gentle twist,/a bow formed from loose ends/and dangling cotton wisps.
In truth, the loose threads remain – the granddaughter cannot sew (though she can stitch lines), and the gulf dug from such obstinacy, or strategy, continues (as do the wounds she should learn to avoid), but all of these threads can be tied off with a blessing to that real or fake inability, because it is with them that this relationship of love and intimacy is stitched and maintained, even now. And thanks to such ignorance there is material for her poem, bless her.
Ana Maria Pereirinha
Translation Isabel D'Avila Winter
Ana Maria Pereirinha has worked for the past 20 years as an editor of Portuguese contemporary fiction. She also works as a translator, and is a PhD student at the Program in Literary Theory (Faculty of Letras, University of Lisbon). Her relation with poetry began in kindergarten as a very successful slammer avant-la-lettre, rhyming chocolate with marmalade.