‘I heard a full choir, Ma’
I saw you last night
I saw you as you were, last night
I had brought a friend home
I hadn’t warned you
You opened the door
Your face was soft as it always was
Suffused by the magic of twilight
The open door let in.
I said, Ma, this is my colleague
You smiled, your eyes a melting caress
You stepped back to let us in
Your dining table was laid, expectant
Behind you. You walked effortlessly
To the kitchen to bring in an extra plate
Your quiet acceptance flowed
From your inherent generosity
Before unannounced strokes
Froze sections of your once discerning brain
And you altered to the unquestioning presence
That wasn’t and yet was you,
But I saw you last night
Not as you had become in the post-twilight years
But as you always were
And will be for me, my mother.
Darkling I listen
It was in the stillness of midnight when the goslings
Had retired with mothers from their springtime dance
That my friend called me to step outside
While villages slept in the south of France.
Under the stars that lit a magnificent chapel
I could hear the deafening chorus of frogs, delirious
With song, who, my friend said, were tiny denizens
Of the world with voices ambitiously searching the stars.
But these were not the vocalists
She wished me to hear. She told me to walk round
To the other side of her home, and there I heard
A heavenly choir that drowned the sound
Of the throaty clamour that had surprised me earlier.
‘Listen to the nightingales’ my friend urged
And I did, hearing the trilling and twitter,
The chirping and whistling, the harmony that surged
Through the branches above me. I was bewildered.
I asked, ‘but which one is the nightingale?’
I could hear the smile in her voice as she said
‘Only nightingales sing at night.’ And in the pale
Starlight, a line I had carried with me
All my life was suddenly suffused with illumination.
Of course, Keats could not have heard the bird
Singing in full-throated ease seeking its twilight destination.
He heard it in the stillness of the night
And I heard a full choir Ma, with a whole language
Of harmony, calling and answering
Improvising in ecstasy with freedom and courage
That comes with the knowledge of dominance
And excellence as all other songsters slumber.
So Ma, I heard the nightingales singing
Their full repertoire just as Keats had done one summer.
BASHABI FRASER is a critic, poet, editor, children’s writer and translator. She was born in West Bengal in India. Bashabi divides her life between the two countries she loves most – India and Britain. Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh Napier University, she is the winner of the Saltire Society’s Outstanding Woman of Scotland Award in 2015, the Rabindra Bharati Society Honour 2014, the Women Empowered: Art and Culture Award 2010 and the IAS Prize for Literary Services in Scotland 2009. She has written for many publications, has three other collections of poems in print, as well as an epic poem and has been included in a number of anthologies. Bashabi has also written children’s stories as well as commissioned a shadow puppet play and has books on the Geddes-Tagore Letters and the Bengal Partition. She is also a classical Indian dancer and choreographer and now lives in Edinburgh with her husband and has one daughter.