When I first came across Dorothy Nimmo, I thought she was like Sylvia Platt – only more so.
Mother has made you a house to live in
and she’ll make sure you live in it.
Mother has made you a bed to lie on,
she’ll cut bits off you if they don’t fit.
The obsession with pleasing – and being unable to please – her parents. The ever-present temptation to suicide.
Lying in the warm soapy water I do not
slit my wrists. I take only one sleeping pill.
The feeling that she shouldn’t be here at all – that it’s the wrong part in the wrong play:
This is the dressing-room I know is mine,
when they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
For God’s sake tell me, what’s the opening line?
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?
When they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
You’re on! they whisper and I face the light.
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?
Forgive me, mother. Have I got that right?
My voice is strangled. I’m awake. I shout
I know there’s something I must do today
and I can’t do it. You must write me out.
It’s not my part and this is not my play.
But see the whole of this wonderful poem – “Dream Play”
She had been an actress, spent ten years on the stage. Now as a poet and person she was not even one of the audience. She was outside the theatre in the dark, peering in through a window.
I was getting smaller and smaller
I went up the track on all fours
my petticoats torn off by the brambles
my hands bleeding.
(from “Pretend Games”)
The true outsider.
But if you turn out to be left-handed, if you suspect your name
may not be your real name,
if you can hear the cry of bats, if you can dowse
for water, if your dreams belong to somebody else,
if when you stand at the tide’s edge looking out to sea
you hear them calling to you, then you must come to me.
Put your hand in mine. I’ll say
It’s all right. it’s possible. We go this way.
(from “A Birthday Present for Roger John”)
So go as the sun goes, wise daughter, go clockwise;
wrong way round the church is another kingdom, the price
of walking alone is a sword-blade slashing the instep.
(from “Message for a Daughter”)
I keep my mouth shut so they do not see my teeth.
Tiny, malevolent, I could be rat or weasel.
They should hang me up on the fence as a warning.
(from “Animal Kingdom“)
In a harshly realistic landscape, we meet Boys and Girls:
The boys have big bikes now. Their helmets hide
their private faces. They bomb up the lane.
The girls go soft with love, all dressed in white.
Their mothers think this is their proudest day.
The boys meet brick walls head on. And they might
pull through. Or not. They go the bravest way.
The girls meet life head on and they survive
to watch their children going out to play.
Whichever way they go they go away.
(from “The Boys and Girls are Going Out to Play”)
We meet a “Nanny”:
They find me in the conservatory full of dead
geraniums, light striking on all sides. I loved them
well enough, James, Nell, Blossom, but they greet me
as a stranger and politely put me away.
We meet “Two Men and a Pig”:
I am wearing wellies, working trousers,
jacket, cap. Matthew is wearing boots,
waistcoat, no jacket. Pig is naked.
And we meet her, a woman, a sex object:
He never could stand the sight of blood.
I learned to keep my skin unblemished,
my stomach flat, breasts firm, joints supple.
There would be no blood, I promised.
He himself devised this thick dark hair,
these long legs, these slender ankles hung
with silver bells that sing as my feet shift.
I wear his scarlet robe though red is
not my colour. I paint my nipples, dance
myself into the ground.
(from “Jumping Off”)
When she speaks of herself, sometimes she is ‘I’ and sometimes ’she’.
“Sometimes I call her ‘she’. I give her another name and call her ‘she’ which is fair enough because she did have another name. But those were my eyes through which she looked, those were my children she cared for.”
He gives her a basket of strawberries.
“Open Wide!” he says, gently. She opens.
(from “Good Gifts“)
And then there are the poems about the man who leaves, walks out – again some ‘I’, some ’she’. First, before – when – he leaves:
I’m going to have to leave you, he said,
very politely. Sorry.
I stood up to riddle the Aga,
to draw the red curtains I’d bought
ready-made, marked down, to put out
the cat and I said, Oh really? When
were you thinking of going?
As if I might offer to take him
to the station. As if I didn’t want
to make him angry in case he left me.
(from “Ill-Wishing Him”)
Then after he leaves:
There is so little left. The room is bare.
She’ll strip his sheets and blankets by and by –
only this morning he was lying there.
The light is pouring from a hard white sky.
She’ll write to him, perhaps he will reply?
He’s better off, she knows, God knows, elsewhere.
She’ll be all right she told him cheerfully.
There is so little left. Thew room is bare.
(from “Rondeau Redouble”)
when I see his writing on an envelope I think,
Oh yes! That was the man I married. I live
so easily without him now that I forget him
for months at a time. Until perhaps some man says
Let me help you.
And I knock his teeth out.
He mops up the blood, bewildered, and I apologise:
I’m so sorry. I just couldn’t hear you for the echoes.
(from “Years Later”)
Dorothy Nimmo died on 24th May, 2001.
Because I wasted my time,
time has run out.
Oh, no. I do not accept that. She did not waste time. Time wasted her. Time does not pass: we pass – through time. Nor does time run out: we run out of time. Time wasted her as bright sunshine might waste us while we walk through it, or an icy gale.
She was published by small poetry publishers and in magazines, which I hope brought her some small pleasure, some satisfaction; it brought her some praise, but no more than most such minor poets receive as a matter of course, and less than many, though in fact her work, while superficially comparable with that of many other women writers of the late 20th century, actually places her among the greats such as Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Platt – women and outsiders (an inflammable combination!) who poured out their hearts in immortal verse.