Skip to content

Memento mori

All you know for certain is you’ll die
and so will all your friends;
you spend your busy life avoiding this,
the only thing you know.

You don’t know how – a slow death
years away, the heart attack tomorrow,
the wasting of disease, a sudden accident,
gunfire in the morning, or just old age.

It’s bound to take you by surprise.
You’ll enter that great loneliness alone –
no matter who stands round your bed
dispensing grapes and misplaced cheer.

You’ll forgive them for their lack of truth,
hear the frightened prayer behind the cliché:
‘Doctors can do amazing things these days …
‘Please find a cure for death before I die.’


©Virginia Rounding, 1994



I was looking for my muse and I found you –
sleeping between freshly laundered sheets
while wolves you took for dogs were howling
in the dark beyond your safety zone.

Iced rowanberries in the snow and strong white arms –
your concentration in the library at Yuryatin –
abandoned weeping on the coffin of your lover:
you stole my mind to live through for a time.

The sleigh is swallowed into distance. In your final
understated disappearing a part of me goes too –
out of fiction into history and the death camps,
lost in a multitude of women with no names.

©Virginia Rounding, 1994

First published in Stand Magazine, Spring 1997



On staring at a photo of Osip Mandelstam

OK Osya, you’ve made your point –
you’ve seen it all – you’re right.
As your eyes imply, I’ve never heard
that knock on the door at night;

never drunk for consolation tears
of a see-through Petropolis – town
where Gogol’s devil lights the lamps;
never perched on a ledge to fling down

my life. Your wife who wrenched you back
learns mercy would have killed. You stand
for speech that won’t be silenced,
the stubborn cry of a tongueless land.

I’ve heard your voice – the Soviet archives
produced a cylinder. Crackle and hiss
distorting the distant sounds,
an audience was haunted to hear this

Mandelstam, icon of his time and place.
Buried in some transit camp, forever
on the move: Siberia, December ’38 –
we think that’s when you died – then, and never.


©Virginia Rounding, 1993

First published in Acumen 20, October 1994

Polite Notice

Keep clear

“Keep clear of lifts” the sign dictates
uncompromising in a dismal station,
not – “Keep clear when the lift is moving”,
“Don’t leave your luggage by the lift”,
“No access to unauthorised personnel”,
or even, “Beware this lift – it bites”.
but – world without end, KEEP CLEAR OF LIFTS.

Don’t succumb to that flight of fancy –
you’re English – cherish no high hopes.
(Lifts seem dangerously European.)
Avoid the doors of perception,
the gates of heaven and hell.
Mind your ps and qs. Don’t sniff.
Play up and play the game. KEEP CLEAR OF LIFTS.

Lifts could catapult you upwards,
leave your stomach hanging in mid-air.
You don’t know where you are with lifts –
they’re something else – they let you down,
they box you in and send you flying.
For safety’s sake, make sure you’ve got
clean underwear – KEEP CLEAR OF LIFTS.

If you want your life to stay the same,
your feet to stand on solid ground;
if you hate the thought of changing levels,
seeing sights you never saw before;
if you catch the same train every day,
clutching your briefcase, a flask of tepid tea:
the writing’s on the wall – KEEP CLEAR OF LIFTS.

©Virginia Rounding, 1993

First published in Ebbing Tide 10, Fall 1995

Leaving Whitstable

In memory of my old friend, the late Canon Gerald Hudson

You’re older this time, driving more erratic,
eyes more bloodshot. We talk and read
and talk again. Not everything is said.
We’ve shared our pilgrimage for years;
When it’s good-bye, how will we know?

Your memories are of Larkin and of Keyes,
your peers at Oxford. I press onward,
seize the challenge, trying in my turn
to speak the silence, sing the dark –
notice, and it’s gone … How capture that?

Inside the train I write to wring
my spirits out, pin them on the sky to dry.
The teasing sun with one last shaft of fire
retires behind the draperies of cloud.
Leaving Whitstable, I mourn.


©Virginia Rounding, 1993

First published in Aireings 28, November 1994

Mary’s story

A woman broke an alabaster jar,
Emptied it over the head of a prophet.
She wept. Her tears fell on his feet.

A woman enraptured drank his words.
Her sister, cumbered with too much serving,
Complained, but nothing could move her.

A woman afflicted with seven devils
Loved the prophet for his healing,
Came to his tomb bearing spices.

Two women fuse in the last retelling:
Mary the sister of Martha oils his feet,
Soothes with unguent and her hair.

Which of these women was Mary
Called Magdalen, whether they all were,
Is anyone’s guess.


To overcome my nauseous fear of breathing
Foetid air of the leper Simon eating,
I fix my gaze on the homeless traveller
To whom my comfort comes before his bitterness.
An alabaster box of spikenard, very precious,
I break, and pour the oil upon his head.

Another time I brave the Pharisee,
Hear the whispered condemnation of his guests
Who sprawl at ease around his table –
But he whom I have come to bless
Releases me, dissolves my guilt;
His eyes reflect a love which drowns me,

Cracks my life to fragments,
Splintered images of might-have-been,
And I who once crawled lowly as an insect
Across propriety’s so scornful face
Begin to contemplate myself without revulsion,
Even dream my advent day of hope.


The men have vanished …
The women watch silently.
So far forgetting themselves and their duty
As to trail a madman around the countryside,
The authorities consider them hardly worth questioning.

He enters a state where they cannot follow him:
His focus fixed on the process of dying.
He is leaving them now, and at resurrection
His body will need no more of their tenderness.
When he is dead, they witness the burying.


They wrote of our bewilderment, that emptiness we knew,
As though an earthquake happened – some man in white
Descending from the clouds to roll the stone away.
All we felt was blankness, an aching apprehension
That even after death our love was interfered with.
We carried spices to disguise his putrefaction,
Caress him in a final act of love –
Even that small comfort had been snatched.
We had to make what sense we could of what we found –
Traces in a garden of the man we cared for.
Vaguely I remember kissing bloodstained feet,
Soaking up his suffering with my hair.


©Virginia Rounding, 1992



Marie had sex with Arthur once in Bow.
The doctor spoke. He prophesied a birth.
Friends tried to cheer her up: you never know,

Your Arthur might be back some time – although
Who cares? There’s other men, there’s not a dearth.
Marie had sex with Arthur once in Bow.

She wondered why she fell for such a toe-
Rag. What a jerk! she chuntered without mirth.
Friends tried to cheer her up: you never know,

Your Mum’s upset right now, but may not throw
You out – and clothes exist for wider girth.
Marie had sex with Arthur once in Bow.

No angel helped Marie, nor did the glow
Of pregnancy do much for her self-worth.
Friends tried to cheer her up: you never know,

Perhaps you’ll have a famous child who’ll show
Us how to live, who’ll help to save the earth.
Marie had sex with Arthur once in Bow.
Friends tried to cheer her up: you never know.


©Virginia Rounding, 1992