Cathy Stonehouse

Cathy Stonehouse

Excerpts from 35: An Autobiography

Dead Bear Skull (1996)

throw me out of my head

           stage a coup on kindness

approach subject calmly            from above below or behind

for those of you who did not make the final cut

there's a word in the dictionary                 meanwhile cuffs

must be worn

while invoking ghosts

I fell into myself up on that boulder field

turned white in the presence of human snow

feasted on wildness

drank the voice of a fox from a creek full of winter

excreted Mars    dissected the moon through my side

days spent

threading my I

through what sees me       a heap of nothing        a cairn of discarded bones

              dolls no longer employed as transitional objects

their eyes of button        done up as closed-cunt whores

what will you call me with           rape-sharp expletive

crucifix of inner crossroad

where true poems live

wild, unwritten, unscanned         & never recited

as unacceptable to the reading public

as handfuls of wolverine scat in a high rock crevice

or fresh cougar tracks filling up with sand

Truth (1993)

In a room full of second-hand toys a woman talks

of being her sister's mother                     her father's mistress

the cast of her father's penis

displayed throughout her childhood in the living room    the terror

she feels at the sound of a zip coming down

in a room full of listeners              she speaks with the lisp of a child

             who needs a smoke break

opens the door to this room of narrated secrets       leaves us

by its barred window partially open

wondering        if    'self-esteem'

really does save lives

seeing home like eating stale 'Nice' biscuits

sweet at first but later a cause of discomfort

             Trafalgar Square the pigeons     the tourists         the pigeons

myself beside myself      standing in mid-air

is this my face                 bed beneath a bulb in a backpacker's hostel

tourist's tinted glasses                   stranger's slurred voice

                            looking back from the ice of a Gower Street mirror

            my father's unconscious

                                                     cruelty, urge to name terror

plus the sound of a drawbridge  visor

            clamping down

The Faintest Resemblance (1992)

self in a sweater              National Health spectacles                      body divided

             an HMS Pinafore covering modest breasts

                                                                              ethnically homeless

             because the lungs did

             something shameful

             manipulating language at the light table

             love's virgin sheaf

             dipped in develop

             become to me a brief

             flamenco of irritants : dust bees wheat pollen formaldehyde

             phials containing feces, stagnant

             career paths

             the red mud of the truth              traumatic opera

                                                                              (shore of bleak unidentifiable stone


             subterfuge & typography

             with God

                                     (assaults on the future)

             unless I can cohere virtuously, score


                        what we crave is what defeats

             us, the loss of

             an unbearably precise photograph

Knifed (1991)

once I saw coyotes walk through the grass on stilts

or so it seemed                 one slant-lit August evening

peering at poppies through Venetian eyelids

virtually destroyed by a day under glass

             slicing language into letters with switchblades

             steeping it in chemical baths of lies

high-heeled coyotes

cadged smokes               crude truths

             arraigned while shopping for vegetables

                          the rattle of a drunk man's can-filled trolley

crack deals        and other al-

chemical traffic               a beggar

shot to death outside Shoppers Drug Mart

where Leo the lame ventriloquist                          voices his darkest thoughts

through the mouth of an ape

             this is him still talking

once I was a coyote         slashed deep past howling

but the night crawled in through slats and bound my throat

Hotel Evacuate (1987)

how does a woman         escape

from her strangled body

             except by traveling to Turkey                    or the bed next door

intimations          of dysentery      on the Tube to Battersea

             women in fields               men playing checkers

the interwoven wires        some call nepotism         “not the church

not the state       women will decide our fate”          a cluster            in the shape of a peregrine


the shadow of a hawk on the hand                          sex touch

is elastic             proprioceptive                 Nick thinks

he might have AIDS

                                       Mick is depressed                           Jessica

still married Kate

             drinks stale Mateus rose

smokes Silk Cut and vomits                     all over feminism

& poetry

while what she knows               a Latin American dictator for example

             rises like an anti-matter sun                      vengeance

now that's an idea           best abandoned              on the border with Armenia

where Kurdish refugees

             are smuggled past


             with each joint smoked alone before sleeping

with my father                 his corrupt body             bleak

             in its yes             its dress

its mess

             oh Jesus                              Lord of Long Division and Multiplication

why did you ever teach us

                                                                     girls can write

Misread (1986)

the one who knows

without the benefit of language

write us now

on glass

where have you gone

I'm waiting here for you

inside the side-in

speak to me without a mouth because

underneath the bed a manual typewriter underneath the typewriter manual poetry

hands are loose hands are so
rain on the skylight in Hurst Street tell me what's human

a dog in a coat or an elephant strafed on the wing

striped satin pajama-bottoms old man's cardigan with Fimo buttons party-dress pigtails monkey-


does anyone suggest you might have been dressed by committee

or at any time place you in a drawer

to be looked at later
the poems are breeding

promiscuous sluts
party policy dictates that pronouns be worn face downward

please keep your real name ready for inspection at all times

the one who never reads is reading suddenly

the years stacked in two heaps

one for each life

loss is a time



dissolved into smoke at the river at daybreak

one left shoe

and a half

opened overcoat, love

Cut on the Bias (1983)

in style this autumn season are berry colours

shades of raspberry blackberry damson plum

the aisles of Chelsea Girl and Dorothy Perkins

filled with young girls in lip gloss pixie boots

each one with a brother always looking, a he in the head

by the name of Mike or Dave

poised before the mirror

selves from different body-states pour in

red whine of static radio interference

reports on the cold war waged

between good and bad

looking hot means developing

a research strategy, what skirt-length ensnares

the body most

when mirrors are weapons, erupt into threats

of military action against oneself

scarred wrists and tubs of cottage cheese

if it's who you are that counts

then a size-8 dress and three-inch heel court-shoes

synthetic uppers

wrote this brief essay on D. H. Lawrence's women

riding the ridges of words like the hot backs of horses

to that place between corners where unexpected bliss erupts

Fritz (1981)

navy blue V-necked sweater, purple-checked shirt my battle dress

I clutch this white clothbound


try to understand my role as reader

What passing bells for those who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns

active service first

then later mourning

shiny school skirt draped over a chair

amputated white socks

the stench that of fear

& other subtler gases

quick, boys — an ecstasy of fumbling

in the pencil case

for an eraser to rub oneself out

up in your room alone you revise quietly

guard the Maginot line of your half-open door

moans and grunts along the ward of survivors

red cross matrons

bloodied toilet


I am the enemy you killed, my friend

the ghost of a child who no longer is

or was

God (1977)

As you cross the threshold of grammar

             a hymn-like music happens:

             the sound of Jesus finally falling apart

             His legs and arms —

             the x and y axes of sacrifice —

             unhooked from each other

             become blond 2x4's of fake deliverance

             lunging freely at you as night follows day

             sleepless with grief

             your dreams of Him are savage unforgivable

             lurid as the circles under your eyes

             syntax wears thin

             cold northern seas

             envelop you in glass and rain-dark summers


             tense as a diving board

             futures reverberate

             you stand at the edge of the typescript

             prepare to jump in

Flesh Pink (1976)

rinsed and set with curls of he & she

my skull a bath house

where dolls all lie and grieve in tubs of wool

I'm a deliciously decent round number

even and scientific as 'vulva'

knee-deep in bruises of silk beneath the cherry tree

running through Brereton woods in only a sundress

plump self who despises indiscriminate

red crimplene smock with ecstatic hair

                        a house full of stone

                        its windows all bricked up

                        except for this bolt-hole

am I the quarry

or am I the stone

the chief of dolls

broadcasting across my nation —

Tom and Jerry, Top Cat or the test-card girl

surrounded by fat multi-coloured balloons—


where is the story of my life or has it gone now

all of a sudden

shampooed and conditioned with streaks of

perfect imperfect

                        dolls' vinyl headpieces

                        tucked away in dryers of dead ears

Neither (1974)

there are many dolls each one is thinking

me I am a person but without a house

instead the cupboard

where we live is full of dark and dust

            sometimes she takes us out

and changes our dresses

then we talk and drink

from plastic cups

            real milk            which doesn't cross our lips

because we are all persons without insides

have no blood or guts to be removed —

but she does love us

            is in fact the great big doll who thinks us —

in whose head our little heads have weight

                                                   I love you    I love you

are filled with brains and lies and words like

                                                   I hate you    I hate you




underpants of cotton

                           lime green dress with buttons made of glass

Bang (1972)

          Six sits on carpeted steps           listening to her teacher describe chickens

          while a fourth-year-junior girl dies suddenly

          running to her friend across the school field

                        she had a-hole-in-her-heart                       our headmaster tells us

          Six imagines a

                        slumped striped her         disappearing down the hole in its

                                    self like a sock's toe

          pulled up and out

                                    Mummy                           green paint has bubbles in it

          the animals of the spring are foxes and badgers

                        baby birds and moths and prim-noses too, are clouds

          animals?                           the poster is flat

                        the sky is flat the spring is in the poster although God is


my first story    Polly and her Dollies

          appears in a red-backed 'Silvine' exercise booklet with two staples holding it

          together                        & imperial measurements            listed on its textured sides

          :            the Gill the Foot            the Stone the Mile the Acre

          while a girl with mouths in her hair

                                                              combs out the infinite

          & dies again and again

                                        through the whole of her heart

Won't (1970)

school is a game of tag

of ladybird-backed dominoes falling down, down

into the tied-together segments

of a plastic fan — everything folds up

and then the irrevocable happens

first a parting

of hairs in the middle

or a lopped-off toast slice

then a division of pear drops

two on either side of the me / you line

one self holds a book and looks outward,


about Peter And Jane

while the other

                        turns her back completely


“dears” upside-down and right to left

unzips the stupid dress picks off its pockets

turns her mind the other way about

resolves to

study all that is never verbally recorded

grow fins and gills again in blood's undersea

meet the bat flying squirrel or furred owl

that lives inside all of us

hanging upside-down in the cradle of the pelvis

its one yellow gleeful

and searching eye

Listen (1968)

             language peeks out of you

like children-of-other-countries from a cloth-bound atlas

its thousand

smiling faces, all in national dress

was that your name

             or the scratch of a gramophone needle

a chaffinch scrapping for lard

             at the wooden bird table

or a teaspoon mining the depths of a soft-boiled egg

             the dance a word makes —

Our Father Witchart

                          Leicester Grandma

                                                    Whose Dress Pats Against Us

Time for Bed


             one of the strands of your inner river

come apart

             round a fish        or fist

                          or rock

or a reality

             flowering up through your mouth

             that very first time


When I grow up

She stands at the window and looks out over sunset roofs, the last birds of evening

scattered like seed corn across red fields of sky, imagines herself engraved upon by star-boned


the Word of a bronze-winged trumpeter calligraphed into her naked back. What names she has,

each the perfect initial to a text flattened against the glass of time, the story

she reads from there of apple trees and bridges, swineherds and swans.

As the night bleeds down its vast lexicon of untransmuted shapes, she reads

from left to right, right to left, until her hands turn blue, flutter and are gone.

I don't remember anything

Breath disturbs the fall of leaves, swells the fold of cloth on which is written all she considers


The face of an intruder rises so quick against the pane, black shirts of cloud flying across each


that she can smell the blood upon his hands even as the curtain draws its cataract of chintz across.

How can this be, seeing I know not a man? Who is it that she can feel the quickening of, in blood

stalled between her womb and air, in veins slim as vigil candles?

And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call him Poet —

as the Godhead enters, her souls break, like dictionaries rent apart —

and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee and all the pieces that remain of thee:

Mary, Martha and the Magdalen, her spirit split three into one,

in the miracle of a slaughtered beast that does not know the hand of its priest.

my fat stomach

In the dark, Mary offers up the scent of hallucinated hay, Martha smoothes down sheets across

her body, plans to hide the lump another week. The Magdalen withholds the truth inside her

scarlet wings:

it is Bible-thick, Second Testament long, covers all she knows about this child,

still barely the size of an angel, who dances and drinks her in,

covers all she knows about the stranger,

whose Jesus-coloured fingers

broke the skin between her ribs, left bleeding footprints in her hair.

tender breasts

The girl she is sings carefully of blue. She knows nothing of what shifts inside, the head that


inside its uterine cradle, imagines nothing of her newborn's saintliness,

until his voice of agony uncoils.

And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

A girl at school asks if she is a virgin; membranes that protect

the truth strain with the act of speech, yes I'm not

pressed out through the teeth as no I am.

Then Martha rises up to take the skin, to steal the memory of skipped periods, fitted skirts

tightened by the thirteenth week;

Mary thumps the belly several hundred times,

fasts on lettuce, cuts the skin inside her cold bruised hands,

yet the minute heart pumps:

up inside that vase, a fated amaryllis blooms.

What can each tell the others, except that they share one flesh, and that its spongey inner layer

now glues them fast against this place?

Only the Magdalen grieves —

for she has washed the feet of horror with her hair, tended it and received its blessing;

only she can clamp this baby with her hips,

can hold its blackened head out of the range of photographs, can wait until the body says it's time.

Mum says it's only growing pains

She hears the first birds of morning gather against a silent waving sky,

no inner world to fly back into, only the printed pages of her skin,

her closed eyes cased in quilts that hold the ghosts of others:      Martha, Mary and the Magdalen,

who press their M's against her

like badly-crayoned seagulls, while the sun rises like an eyelashed coin, wax-flat token of light.

She is the teenager they fly back into, so unreadably still, her body

curled around the weight of hidden lives destined to fall off time

yet strapped to it,

like the body of Christ to the cross,

or the Gospel of Lilith that slipped off her tongue an inch before sleep

and landed in God's left hand.

When the baby dies, it will be the vengeance of that black-winged maid —

Take heed that the light which is in thee be not darkness —

it will be the vengeance of all.

but what would It feel like

It will be the vengeance of all

who eat the flesh of pain in remembrance of

who drink the blood of horror in remembrance of

it will be the light it will be the dark it will be the whole body

cried out in ecstasy the high heels and miniskirts your mother cursed

a cicatrice across the belly of youth

The light of the body is in the eye

with nowhere left to look but in

drown the bloody fetus in the bath

She stands at the window and looks out over sunrise roofs,

the baby in her belly a strange sigh

that has no written equivalent,

a flat text, landscape empty of morning's road.

What name for the beast within, who slits membranes with a single cry,

slides across the kitchen floor in crinolines of blood, breathes

through nostrils blue with the scent of sex, only to die face down

in a chlorinated bath of shame, air bubbles rising off its chest

like cultured pearls too delicate to string? Through the tender mercy of our God

she stands naked at the curtained glass,

presses her hands against its chilling verb

and pretends not to pretends not to pretends not to

not to know.

nice short hair

And it came to pass that the Magdalen watched

the girl from her place at the back of the body,

watched her fairytale hands weave soap out of tomorrow,

wash themselves in nutmeg, milk and hope, watched her become a boy

with breasts, bicycle oil

smeared down the seat of her shorts, folded maps of Cheshire for her wings,

become a boy, who did not fear incarceration, who could not be mounted by a nose-ringed bull

and bred, become an angel, of medieval purposes, sandalled with long-sleeved ascent,

become a prophet, who wore her names tucked inside the collar of her shirt, whose stigmata bled

with the red-veined leaves of seasons that could not ever be predicted, flowered with the scent of

genitalia, whose glistening fronds could not ever be identified, whose fertility existed

in the secrecy of parchments covered with essene psalms, rolled up in earthenware jugs,

whose pollen-dusted epitaphs could not ever be printed, much less sung. And so.

feeling quite poorly

And behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak

except in tongues, the pieces of your broken teenaged self

placed concentrically around a hidden corpse,

each ring a different dialect that no longer understands the rest.

And behold, thou shalt be amnesiac:

Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven,

and shalt reach up high out of the body into a place worn blue by clouds,

and shalt starve thyself of nourishment, and become dictatorially thin.

And behold, the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth:

on a morning risen out of loaves, an afternoon whisper-thin as sliced fish,

a night when wine poured into her mouth like honour or delight,

and the virgin and the prostitute, the priestess and the nun,

how they ran, but could not run further than the sole on solid ground,

baby and his rounded baby-lungs ripped out of her next like grammar, like indigenous speech.

Therefore is the name of it called Babel;

because the Lord did there confound the language of

prostitutes, whose bodies glow with longing for a phallic, self-combusting cigarette; children,

who live inside the teenager, who lives inside her mother, the renowned saint; names, names,

names that beget and beget names inside of her, riddling inside,

as she spits up wordlessly her mother's home-made soup the morning after the unrecorded birth

For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.

in senior choir

Oh baby, baby stained into these cells

who carries sin on every thumb print — how you press into my voice,

like fingers pressed into a sterile latex glove, my throat ripples

visibly qui tollis peccata mundi suscipe suscipe

deprecationem, deprecationem nostrum
I make no sound

your dancing feet batter the verb to grieve

Oh baby, baby hear me as I reach for thee

eyeshadow and lip gloss

The Magdalen weeps and dreams of feet

walking over a chalk cliff

into the spacious lap of a pelican-speckled sea.

Where do babies come from but this void, this rise toward death

when rocks hurtle up, tip blanket-wrapped prophets into bulrushes,

stork and his mistress dancing on air up

to their savage nest of foam-laced pillows and wings.

Where do babies come from but the girl's own body, her annual growth

out of the pummelled pink, into the lush blue treason

of Dada's colder sky. Where do babies come from but the thought

that body has a secret life: dirt seeps out of her in dark brown trickles of blood, membranes

deep inside her flesh that separate the growing from the grown;

when she places school bags on her hip, zips open knowledge like a pocketbook,

everything she's known catalogued from A to Z

she finds no entry for the self still manacled to hotel beds

who fucks customers and gyrates hairless hips, who memorises columns of figures,

the names of girlfriends tattooed on the arms of reckless gods, the sweat and blood of them

meticulously washed off before her school bus arrives

for the Magdalen who wakes and desires a conscience: her fingers valued

at ten pounds apiece, she has no need for pens,

has never improvised such touch, knows only the scripted dialogue of limbs

that advertises sex, those secret words her father knew

Martha Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things

placing washed underpants and condoms in her bag, leaving lipsticked lips behind,

sinner sinner, catch yourself in the mirror,who watches Mary stoop to pray

while angels levitate through parking lots, falter at the back door of the cheap motel

where her pimp, the Holy Spirit, waits: then falls back out of this

in thirty minutes sits down on her bed, an atlas of the human world

propped open, the names of clients, lists of their preferences

an undigested meal she'd never sleep through, prayers to the Lord her dad

fallen into dreamrich scraps

Thy faith hath saved thee

his hand upon her brow that lets her dream again, while a stork steps

light across the belly's mound; weep, he tells her, go in peace—

where do babies come from but this void?

my baby left me

Lift up the body of this fragile twelve-year-old girl, let her stand beside the glass

through which the night descends, dark rain of shawls, condensation that arrives softly

as dew rises, stars form, her hair now filled with the purled memory of hate

twisted into a cloth she covers the blunt ends of the day with, its lit stalk of moon

a face still humming from afar —

her murdered baby, its six-month body

furled and wet as a puppy slick with fur,

now smaller than a vinyl doll, bigger than her father's fist, her fear

suddenly fresh now the stiff white body rough as linen lies in its box away from God.

She can cry now the man who came in through the light,

through the beam of heat seared between her eyes

has passed and gone, her conscience split at the thought of him, a silver birch

straddling the ax

until there's no wood left to cut;

woodcutter woodcutter lend me your eyes:

she would half-believe that she is dead, this indigo winding sheet

close about her washboard ribs, her mother's voice

now calling her back to bed, an angel of death she fails to recognise,

who turns back sheets, places prayerbooks on her pillow

Anglican Hymns,

red, white and blue, blood, death and drowning,

colours woven into a savage quilt

that she will never rest or sleep upon,

the flat lamb that decorates her cereal bowl

Agnus dei Agnus dei

running off into the dawn-streaked sky,

while her fleshless body waits in its cotton shroud

for tomorrow's wounds to close,

those red mouths in each hand that speak,

precious star-shaped scars

And ye are witnesses of these:

her risen son, who flies through the morning rain

with three flowers stitched into his crimson wings:

Mary who carried him, Martha who buried him, and the Magdalen,

who fucks the cross and weeps.


slipped heaven I

lost my body       armless statue

devolved into a hundred tongued sense nations



baby lip

burst vaginal coinage


moon despot

snagged on the horn of symptom


retinude of tiny laid-back stars

slow , broke

pathology of witness

averted syntax


comprehension )

no milk left in these dumb breasts

) incest whores

the unsayable : crutchlike

plated with gold

derision or epidural

proof against kindness

honey that does not destroy

bargaining with wooden

entryways of trust

the eye the esophagus the authentic

DNA of infant demons

nonbeing's fascia

iridescent with human bliss-lusts

holy child , do not swim

to be small

is not a contraceptive


hope : law's

boneless knife

cuts away at face

frail neuroleptic :

tend me while I turn aside my faith

I know murderers

they are not black but white

paper sperm

ensuring minute

social rips




is not contagious silence


take the long view

grief that is not expressed

suffocates future beings

do you understand why you are here

dark integer

stepping through the lock

you cure lucidity

detach retinas of fire

to voyage mentallic , heart-soaked

into the unmedicated beyond

strapped to her cradleboard

unlyred tomorrow doctor

don't drink blood unless it is a toast

I birthed oblivion

it was a small soul

sharp-toothed animal brain

softened with lenses

nest that lived

unruptured by heat song

fathers , dresses , gods

what do you wish for?


blood transit spasm

do you believe


into birdvoice




the chill of

red harm , leaving

epileptic with scarring

no anal sphincter

to speak of


in this context

is paradise

wrapped in a shroud

grace shiver

where is swaddled safety

but the axis


a beloved's ribs

circled by compass needles

hold my feet oh god

grease me with rest

night lice

a scuttled warship's armour

navel of tender slaughter

touched by the hem of light

oh kissed, lost one

let me breathe

your breached sensorium

in scission


aurora'd precipice


into your thousand-saddled wake

* * *

Notes on the poems:

“Annunciation” was written over a decade ago. Italicized fragments are mostly from the Gospel of St. Luke.

35: An Autobiography is a series of 35 poems exploring the role of language in my life, written a few years before becoming a mother. Looking back, they are a riposte to repeated comments on my previous work that it was obscure, too personal or insufficiently disciplined, and mark an attempt to return/ move on to truer, wilder speech.

* * *

Cathy Stonehouse
was born and raised in the UK and emigrated in 1988 to Vancouver, Canada—the city in which she still lives, along with her husband, lively two-year-old daughter (“don't talk to me I'm talking to myself”) and two aged cats. She has published one volume of poems, The Words I Know, now sadly out of print, and a volume of juvenilia, Keys to the City. Her poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a wide range of journals and anthologies, mostly in Canada. She has studied for varying periods of time with Olga Broumas, Eleni Sikelianos and Alice Notley, and is extremely grateful to each, for their work and example.