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It Occurs to My Mother that She Might Be Dead

September 21, 2013

By Jean Sprackland

This unsettling poem appeared in the Financial Times on 14 September 2013. It’s from Jean Sprackland’s new collection Sleeping Keys,

She’s been stripping beds, gathering sheets for the wash,
a thing she’s done each week since she was fifteen –
first during her mother’s illness
then in all the houses of her married life –
grasping the sheets and heaping them on the landing,
stirring the air with crumbs and flakes of dust.

I tell her don’t be silly of course she’s not dead
and she says But how would I know?
I suggest she pinch herself, which I’m sure will settle it,
but she says That’s for dreaming, not dead.
I don’t think there’s a test for dead.  And turns
and goes on stacking dishes in the sink.

That must have been forty years ago. Now I wonder
whether my mother is still there, somewhere,
asking the same question. How would I know?
I remember the glint in her voice as she said it,
the icy terror that seized me. And now
I stand with my arms full of sheets, and suppose I’m alive.

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