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Nicola Nathan: two poems

Moments from Thumbelina's Other Life

Author's Note

Tiny is another name for Thumbelina, the protagonist of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy story of the same name. Like Tom Thumb, Tiny is impossibly small and, in Andersen's narrative, a perpetual victim. After she survives kidnap, assault, poverty and enslavement, Thumbelina's salvation arrives in the form of marriage to the tiny Crystal Prince: a man who is equal to her in size but (one imagines) impressively rich and well-connected.

In part, the poems are an exploration of the subversive potential of status and size. I had in mind the first line of Emily Dickinson's poem "I am Nobody, Who are you?" The Tiny of my sequence is a woman with a complex and intense inner life. Scholar, wise-woman, shaman, priest – neither her stature, nor her supposed vulnerability, are an impediment to the power of her imagination or the number of roles she might inhabit. By posing her own questions, and answering them, the Tiny of my sequence creates and takes ownership of her own rich and ambiguous narratives. She also, in effect, offers a direct challenge to Andersen's patriarchal story.

The poems are given as two pairs. In the first pair, Tiny compares herself her to the Greek Goddesses, Demeter and Hera. What can the lives of these mythological figures tell her about the nature of her own voice, the power of naming, the meaning of marriage? In the second pair, Tiny attends to the precise nature of feelings – in particular of pain and of guilt.

Thumbelina's Meditation on Demeter

...but the corn had been cut a long time; nothing remained but the bare dry stubble...

(Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen)

After the corn had been cut, a pink dust

floated in the stubble.

She stood among the stalks, bars of shadow

striping her face, mouth shut against the pollen.

Absence tastes of blister-weep and blood.

No wonder Demeter spat out her rage:

Let the heavens divide and my wolf-head appear

through a circle of cloud...

Tiny moved her mouth; trying her jaw

as though working a puppet.

The click of her teeth made her skull ring like crystal.


Thumbelina's Meditation on Hera

He took the gold crown from his head... and asked her name, and if she would be his wife and queen over all the flowers.

(Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen)

Out after dark,

Thumbelina dared herself to think it:

Hera bound and hanging from her feet,

blood pooling in her head.

night stiff in her lungs.

There might have been a crescent moon,

the Goddess blind

to its up-ended leer.

Had marriage been her first mistake

or was she lost

the moment she let slip her chain of names:

Cow-Face, Goat-Eater, Queen of the Gods?

Starlight revealed nothing

of the way night fell in flakes or how

her own name hung ungifted among the beech leaves.

Nicola Nathan has a degree in English Literature from Oxford University and is both a qualified solicitor and English teacher. Her poems have been published in magazines including Poetry London, The Edinburgh Review, Ambit, Agenda, Wild Court and The High Window. Her pamphlet, Tiny, was published by The Next Review in 2016. Original monologues (co-written with David Harsent) were performed at Chancellors Hall, Senate House, in February 2020, for an event celebrating the musical commissions of patron of the arts, Winaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac. (1865 –1943.) Poems from her sequence, Hekate, were broadcast as part of the Bitesize Prom series in August 2020.


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