Week 545: Adjustment, by Molly Holden

I suspect that although they may been far more fortunate than Molly Holden in the matter of health, many people will still identify with the sentiments of this poem in one way or another. Personally it is a long time since I had any vanity about my appearance, but I confess to resenting bitterly the inevitable decline in my physical powers, such as they were. This was brought sharply into focus last month when I was laid low by an amazingly incapacitating attack of what turned out to be polymyalgia rheumatica, fortunately soon treated once properly diagnosed. I could myself manage nothing more dignified in response than an existential howl: ‘So only a month ago I could still do thirty pushups and run a decent 5K, and now I can’t even get up out of a f—king armchair!?’. Molly handles the subject with rather more grace and wit, though certainly with no less rue.


I thought my bones would last. Good bones I’d read,
preserve the beauty of an aged head,
and so I hoped my structure might remain
shapely, whatever age I might attain.

Skulls do not change but I’d not gauged the force
of time correctly, reckoned without the coarse
deposit of disease and grief – the double chin,
the softer jowls of middle-age, the cobwebbed skin,
that now have overlaid the thirtied grace
of what was once a pleasing enough face.

What the mirror tells me must be true. Shoulder,
breast, and sight confirm I’m getting older.

Now my portrait of myself must change, truth
forgo the bright advantages of youth.
My children see me comfortable and kind –
so there’s my present image right to mind.
Shape’s hoped endurance must be laid aside
and any slighter beauty that was cause for pride.

Now only I shall ever see
the fine-boned crone I’d thought to be.

Molly Holden

Week 420: Photograph of Haymaker, 1890, by Molly Holden

I realise that I have already featured several poems by the excellent Molly Holden over the years, but as Auden says, when poets die they become their admirers, and it is then up to those admirers to do what they can to keep the memory alive of those they have shaken hands with in their hearts. This, then, was the opening poem of Molly’s fine first collection, ‘To Make Me Grieve’, published in 1968, characteristically combining her elegiac feeling for the passage of time with an acutely sensuous perception of the natural world.

Photograph of Haymaker, 1890

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,
stems damp still where their neighbours’ fall
uncovered them, succulent and straight,
immediate with moon-daisies.

Molly Holden

Week 301: Hospital, by Molly Holden

I was at a bit of a loss when asked my religion the only time I was ever admitted to hospital. ‘Well, I like churches, but I don’t know that I actually believe anything’. ‘I’ll put you down as C. of E. then, love’. ‘Oh, OK’. This had the advantage that I was left alone, while poor Molly Holden, more positive in her reply, was plagued by a whole string of visitations, which gives this valiant sad poem her characteristic edging of wry humour.

A note on the last line: ‘against great odds in a narrow place’. This is a quote from the work of the scholar W.P.Ker, who uses the phrase to characterise the classic final situation of the doomed protagonist in Norse heroic literature: Gunnar defending his home at Hlitharend, for example, or Hrolf Kraki and his twelve berserkers taking on a whole army, though it might equally apply to the Spartans at Thermopylae or Roland at Roncesvalles. Molly Holden was well acquainted with Icelandic saga literature, and would surely have known Ker’s seminal works ‘Epic and Romance’ and ‘The Dark Ages’.


They sought me out, the ancient consolations,
now that I lay helpless in their reach,
with well-greased shoes and oily conversation,
hoping to net me on that painful beach;

helpless indeed I lay, in that white bed, hands outspread,
legs useless down the length before my eyes,
and could not care a deal for anything they said,
kind though they thought themselves and wise.

Jamaican nurses spoke of Christ, wheelchair conversions,
souls brought to God who’d never seen the light;
quietly I nodded when I could, without aspersions,
was grateful that they cared to help me fight.

Catholic nurses said they’d pray for me, raising
their rosaries, promising aves every day;
a priest put up a meaningless blessing, praising
a courage I did not have, and went away.

The Church of England would have liked discussion,
seeing I’d admitted myself: ‘religion none’.
I held my own a while but without passion
and asked to be excused a dialectic run.

And all the while I lay, under the words and attempted curing,
seeking inside not out for a human grace
that would give me a strength and a courage for enduring
against great odds in a narrow place.

Molly Holden

Week 237: Holidays, Explorations, by Molly Holden

Back from holiday last week. At a certain age it is natural to start to wonder just how many more times you will come over the brow of a hill to see the wide curve of a beach below and a tall sea glittering, or look out of a window at night to see a bright half-moon riding above a dark headland. For Molly Holden, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the curtailment of her adventuring, as she poignantly relates in this poem, came all too early.

Holidays, Explorations

How can I bear it
that journeying’s over
while still the heart’s un-
regenerate rover,

still longs to visit
strange hamlet, strange river,
to feel at view’s width
the authentic shiver?

Now I must practise
good grace at parting,
to wish others joy
though I am not starting

the ride through the sunrise
to valleys of vision.
I fix on my smile now
with summer precision.

Molly Holden

Week 169: One Evening, by Molly Holden

There are many poets that I take pleasure in for their prowess, but relatively few that I return to over and over because I find them important to me in a way that transcends mere prowess: call it spiritual resonance. Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas, Robert Frost, A.E.Housman, R.S.Thomas – and Molly Holden. So I make no apology for featuring another of Molly’s poems here, particularly as she seems to me never to have had anything like the notice she deserves, perhaps partly because her concerns were not overtly feminist but simply and unfashionably human. I see in this poem a powerful image of her conflicted life, its storms of illness contrasting with a vision of serenity beyond, glimpsed through those closing gates of light.

One Evening

I came on to waste land
at evening, at the edge of the town,
where the hill drops away to meadow,
lane, and different distances of trees.
The wind was wild and the clouds

As I looked ahead
my eye’s vision seemed halved
for the earth was dark and the horizon
just as dark with clouds, but above
a sudden space of clear sky captured
breath. For above was the last
light and the first stars, edged
by the insane tumbling of black clouds,
brought up from tremendous distances
of night, framing sudden serenity.

All seemed so close, so furious
that I shrank, and then stared through
that lessening space at space itself,
withdrawn and permanent,
the gates of light now closing
on a stormy night.

Molly Holden

Week 151: I have run, played, climbed…, by Molly Holden

It seems I have known too many women die before their time: a schoolmate, a friend at work, a sister-in-law, and most recently a neighbour at only thirty-two, leaving a daughter of four. I think of them when I read this poem, that balances so finely gratitude for life and grief at leaving it.

I have run, played, climbed…

I have run, played, climbed,
made love, given birth,
cooked, washed, devised a home,
planted seeds in earth.

What more could a woman want
than such a life without tears?
Only to see it continue
more years, more years.

Molly Holden

Week 71: Illness, by Molly Holden

I thought this one might make an interesting comparison with last week’s poem on the theme of illness by Heinrich Heine. A very different sensibility is at work here, one that takes its bearings from the natural rather than the social world, and that seems to me fully to justify that overworked epithet ‘exquisite’.


Poetic justice is imperfectly exemplified in me
who, as a child, as a girl, was persuaded that
I felt as earth feels, the furrows in my flesh,

buttercups curdling from my shoulder blades,
was what I saw. The rain would fall as pertinent on me
as on the lichens on the flint-embedded wall.

I had always a skin too few, identified
with sun-hot blossom on the far side of the road,
felt beneath my own warm envelope of flesh

the foreign winter that calcined the delicate
bones of the organ-grinder’s shuddering monkey.
A ploughed field poniarded my chest.

So now it seems a wry desert that youthful
ecstasies, my earthly husks of joy,
should be so turned about by this disease

that feels like mist upon my fingers, like
a cold wind for ever against my body, and
air and chill earth eternally about my bones.

Molly Holden

Week 2: After The Requested Cremation, by Molly Holden

Molly Holden is one of my favourite poets of recent times. She suffered for many years from multiple sclerosis, and blends a sharp loving observation of the natural world with a kind of wry valour that perhaps finds its finest expression in this poem of wistful acceptance. 

After The Requested Cremation

A steady north-north-west wind preferably
though an east wind would do as second best
and so my bones’ smoke and innocent ashes
would carry into Wessex or the west.

I’d like my dust to be deposited
in the dry ditches, among the fine grass of home,
on hills I’ve walked, in furrows I’ve watched making
in Wiltshire’s chalk-bright loam.

If not that then Wolverhampton’s chimneys
might send me Severnward: that would do instead.
Those rose-red farms, those orchards, have been precious.
I’d like to fertilize them when I’m dead.

Make no mistake, though, it’ll not come to choosing.
There’ll be a west wind in the week I go.
Or else my southern dust will fall on hated highways
and be for ever swirling to and fro.

Well, as I’ll never know, it doesn’t matter.
I’m not, in truth, romantic about death.
Only I’d like the right wind to be blowing
that takes the place of breath.

Molly Holden