Poetry

Famine Girls

Famine Girls

Cobh 1850

The roads to Cork fill
with the young, but not the very young.
Driven by whispers to get to the workhouse
they dare not look back at the tumble of cottages.
A slow shuffle, tugged forward by rumours of soup.

Holding onto the rails as feebly as old women, they haul
themselves onto the deck and stare at the harbour side shadowed
with thin quiet strangers. The man who brought them was already
turning away; back to the girls who wouldn’t risk leaving
their pallets of bundled straw or who couldn’t give up
hoping someone had survived, back to the new
girls coming in from the hedges, distended
bellies, mouths tinged green.

Melbourne 1860

The girls who years before had watched
their bellies swell as they chewed bits of grass,
fossick for wood and news, fuel for the evenings.
Smells of bread and stew drift from the rows of tiny
houses. Family meals merge into street gatherings. Music
mingles with the sounds of horses, and traders and travellers
and the laughter of the girls, as their men reach round their drum
tight stomachs, each feeling the slow tumble of a baby settling.

Tiny skulls jammed against contracted pubic bones.
Forceps groping through cervixes, clamping
the soft fontanelles. Bits of wood bitten
through. Screams cutting the night
into morning silence.

E.A. Gleeson

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