The Love of Unknown Women

Young women with damp hollows, downy arms,
Bare burnished legs – you see them striding
Towards their plant-filled offices, riding
Bicycles to flatshares after work; lunchtimes, you stare
As secretaries, backpackers tanned from birth
Peel off their things and stretch on sun-warmed earth.
A few of them stare back…. As if they’d share
Their world of holidays and weekend farms
With you! They step more lightly every year,
A glimpse of neck-hair, a scent that lingers, girls
Who, swinging bags with shops’ names, disappear,
Trailing glances, into crowds; each one unfurls
Her special beauty like a fragile frond
Before your famished eyes. I am what lies beyond,
They seem to say, beyond the mortgage, car and wife
I am what you deserve, I am the buried life
You will never live. Are they pushed laughing onto beds
By hands that unhook bras and yank down briefs?
Do they wake with tongues thick-furred, heads
Hot and unremembering? Crave water
Running over them, cool as their long fingers?
Each one a cherished daughter…Schubert, jazz,
It’s all the same to them. As are your little griefs.
It isn’t fair. If you’ve not changed, what has?
What is that slipping, shifting, like the sands
Heaped up along a barren stretch of shore?
In simmering parks, on summer streets
Where they wait but not for you, furtive, you explore
The curves of eyebrow, cheek and lip –
Of other things too; you search left hands
For seals of love, or ownership.
Moving on, they can smell your old defeats.

from A Shorter Life (Chatto, 2005), Alan Jenkins 2005, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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