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Maggie Sawkins: a poem

Zones of Avoidance

I'm reading The Confessions of an English Opium Eater

I want to understand what drove my daughter out in the snow

with no coat or socks, in search of a fix.

I want to understand what divinity led her

to set up camp in the derelict "pigeon house"

after running out of sofas to surf.


I was a "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" girl myself.

I liked the way it made inanimate objects move

until that day in Balham when my guy sang "Rock n Roll Suicide"

from a third floor window and an Alsatian leapt

from the wood grain of the station door

and policemen were penguins in disguise.


Tough Love. The mantra of the support group

for those beaten by their loved one's addiction.

When I was busted at nineteen and the bedsit landlord

tipped my belongings onto the street, the last person

I would've turned to was my mother.

You've made your bed. Lie on it. Lie on it. Lie on it.


My mother warned me about heroin, but it wasn't to be

my drug of choice –

I preferred to turn on, tune in, drop out to Timothy Leary,

pick up my needle and move to another groove,

to fathom Hell and soar angelic,

to take a pinch of psychedelic.


My mother, who never touched a drop,

was addicted to cleaning,

as if she could tidy the scraps of unhappiness stashed

in the corner of her orphaned heart.

My father's solace for his bi-polar was brandy and soda,

laced with a medicinal dose of ECT.


De Quincy believed no-one, having tasted the divine

luxuries of opium, would afterwards

descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol.

These days it's my only poison.

A glass of laudanum negus, warm and without sugar,

was his.


Opium pills coated in varnish for the labouring classes.

Others coated in silver and gold popped by the rich.

Mothers who quelled their babies with Ayers Cherry Pectoral

and Godfrey's Cordial chose to ignore the wisdom of

the Family Physician: Those who would use opium for every ache

and pain would take an 80 ton gun to shoot a rabbit.


The inebriate. The addict. The morphinomaniac –

the Victorian terminology for those hooked on God's own medicine.

Christian evangelists regarded addiction as a sin

born from the story of Adam and Eve.

Treat them with scalding baths, mustard plasters

and physical force. Apply with contempt.


Black Mamba, White Ivory, China White, Special K,

Yaba, Gumdrops, Purple Wave, Vanilla Sky –

the hedonist shop at the end of the road

has it all –

interesting gifts, seeds, pipes, aphrodisiacs and Shrooms,

weird stuff like "I can't believe it's not heroin".


Who can blame them? The crackheads, the speedfreaks,

the dipsomaniacs. Isn't this what we crave – the ability to turn off

and on at will? The night is flying. I'm lying under the weight of

my eyes replaying the cameo of my daughter picking up dog ends

from the pavement after yesterday's matinee of Cinderella.

I'm imagining a face for the Higher Power.


I wake up wondering what it's like to cluck.

De Quincy said that when he tried to stop his eccentric pastime

it was as if rats were abrading the lining of his stomach.

Though filled with torpor and stagnation, animal and mental,

he carried on until he was forced to untwist, almost to its final links,

the accursed chain which fettered him.


Higher Power. What cave do you live in?

What clothes do you wear?

What makes you more than the spent rocket I found

on my doorstep on New Year's Day?

What would I give to believe in you? To rest my hand on yours

as it hovers above the switch attached to my core.


In 1863 Mrs Colebrook of Southsea ran a home for fallen women.

There was a society that gave blankets to the poor

and another that dished up dinners to delicate children.

Last week the Salvation Army made a plea in the paper

for disused sleeping bags for those of us who scavenge

the bins behind Iceland at midnight.


Mill House. A hostel for those who've been through the mill.

I've come to visit my daughter.

I follow as she limps along the corridor on high red heels.

She's babbling so much I don't have to say a word.

We reach her room where her new boyfriend's hiding.

He has tiny ears and a face carved in old wounds.


Waldo, the Peruvian support worker,

says his favourite poet's Pablo Neruda.

We're pondering over an "Ode to a Conger Eel"

when a resident keels over in the corridor.

A bottle spills and rolls to our feet.

Waldo rushes to lift him, as if his arms could hold a wave.


I don't know how I did it. Turned the particles of my soul

into a stone that could not be moved.

How I watched from my car window as she scurried

into a derelict building at midnight.

God. If you exist you must be something small and solid

lodged like a silver bullet in the barrel of the heart.


I drive past the pigeon house – the place where

my grandson was most likely conceived.

They were happy there for a while, until the day

of the demolition.

Once I was even invited to tea, though I had to take

my own sandwiches, garibaldi biscuits and flask.


A cloud has entered the house.

We can neither pack it nor unpack it.

It has robbed us of lightness,

nudged us into corners, disturbed our vision.

You can't do battle with a cloud.

Its disdain for words will lose you ground.


I was hooked up once to a Guardian Angel

like the one I'd seen in a book.

Its wings tinged with fire lit up the blue sky

of my page. Back then God was a face in a cloud

and I believed in Heaven, and Hell

was just a word.


She's become unfathomable – my daughter who was fire.

I sit on the shingle surrounded by sea kale,

yellow-horned poppy, plants with roots anchored

below the surface. It's unnatural for one

made of flesh and bone to be so unmovable.

It will take an earthquake to break her.


Papavar Somniferum, guardian of eternal sleep,

who made you?

Once exposed to the sun, your milky sap

turns to opium black.

Is this our destination, this place where hope

has lost its wings?


I want to remember her, carrying a sandcastle bucket

full of crabs, wearing the bolero my mother made.

Never one to shy away from a crash of waves,

she's walking straight into the sea.

A stranger on the beach alerts me.

Always at the last minute I rush in to save her.


The baby's father's Romanian, no fixed abode.

My daughter thinks he can fix her life,

as if love was more than a sleight of hand.

This morning I clocked him staggering in flip-flops

towards the cemetery in Highland Road.

If he's in luck, tonight, Securicor won't move him on.


The tick and the tock. All the echoing corridors

in between. So this is where they were leading –

to this spot that frames us in strip-light

waiting for a nurse to unlock the door,

where we listen, stricken, to the words I love you

escaping from the hard box of my throat.


The Taurus Void is large and circular.

Walls of galaxies surround it.

Is this where she's hiding? My daughter

and her baby boy born under the sign of the bull.

Is this where he'll come looking one day

with his scrap-paper past curled in his fist?


The day my daughter agreed to have her baby adopted,

a torso was found in a bag on the beach.

The pebbles in front of Rocksby's Café are strewn

with blue disposable gloves, numbered yellow cones.

What's to distinguish a person who's lost their face,

their hands, the gaze reflected in a mother's eye?


I like to think the heart doesn't keep growing.

That when it's cut from the body and placed on the scales

it weighs no more than a newborn's.

I like to think of it rising from the surgeon's hands

(as the Egyptians believed it would)

to find its place in Heaven.


Euphoria. You razor-edged friend.

You've robbed your devotees of the gift of grief.

Is this your mission – a one-way ticket

to an unknown zone?

Anonymous as waves. Is this what we become

when no-one is looking?


The baby's been appointed a guardian.

In dreams I watch as he's sent from nest to nest

and each time I forget to pack his feed.

A dog with two masters will starve to death,

or so the dictum goes. Four months on

and my daughter's still secreting milk.


The court rises for Judge Marsh. He glances down

at the legal guardian and us,

says this is one of the saddest cases,

becoming a grandparent should be a time of joy.

The interpreter repeats the gist of it

in the baby's father-tongue.


An owl is perched on the end of my bed.

I follow as it flies downstairs and into the lounge

where it settles on some plumped-up cushions.

It opens its beak and tries to speak.

My daughter arrives from the garden

with three dead mice.


We've made the baby a memory book.

Inside's a photo of my daughter struggling

to push his newborn arm into a sleeve.

There's a skeleton of his family tree.

We're to be allowed letterbox contact –

we'll compose our words faceless as stars.


The day we drove to the adoption centre in Hester Road

it was zero degrees.

My daughter sang along to Prince's "Purple Rain", as if her voice

could drown out fate. We hugged the baby goodbye.

I dropped her off at Baytrees to begin her detox.

If she ever meets him again he'll be a little man.


A weekend's leave from rehab, but she's not permitted

to stay with me

because I drink wine with my evening meal. Three glasses

of Pinot Grigio. My passport

to intimacy. It makes me smile to think

I'm out of bounds.


It's Day Two of her job at the King Prawn Takeaway.

She's stopped by after her shift for a cup of tea.

Topics of conversation: Romanian culture, bleeding,

ugly boyfriends, the Chinese, and suicide.

She believes some of us are born with the right to take

our own lives. But she's not one of them.


We're in the garden, Sunny Girl and me, sipping Cola,

talking about everything and nothing,

No longer boxing at shadows, no longer knocking back


The wind's chasing leaves from the handkerchief tree –

the branches are losing their grip.

Maggie Sawkins lives in Portsmouth and delivers creative writing projects in community settings.  The text above is from her live literature production "Zones of Avoidance", which won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. Her most recent poetry collection, Many Skies Have Fallen, is published by Wild Mouse Press. You can find her here:

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