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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 Pain.

Weather as music – its din gathered in her skull –

rain-lash on silt, blister and burst, wind rattling thickets of reeds.

Small notes echoed in the sockets of her eyes:

wave-surge, leaf-drop, birds' feet stamping the shallows.

That she might shut it out,

no, allow it inside her, limbs soft, bones loose as a dancer's

might move in her dream of dance

to slow music, firelight, the twisting of shadows.


Thumbelina's Guilt

So passed away the summer and the autumn and then came the winter, – the long cold winter.

(Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen)

Guilt at her blindside –

a flightless white bird feeding on snow

in a landscape so blurred

there was no way to tell the lake from its bank.

The fault was with her: even in dreams

she stepped out of sleep straight into water

shallow waves at the foot of her bed

their cargo of shells, mirror-bright

in whose flat surface again and again

the curt reflection of her face and hair

a strip of cloud, the tilt of the sun

its light dissolving to droplets in mist.

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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