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Three Poems

Mariah Whelan

Pitt Rivers Museum


In the Archive
The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

When the door closes
we let the quiet of the archive
settle around us.

The chilled air
from bales of frozen film
comes to a stop

and the room begins to fill
with the hum of the corner unit
rinsing air clean

of contaminant on our clothes,
proteins in our breath.

The curator lays the album on the foam cradle
and we stand shy of each other
like friends at a christening

unsure of where to stand
or what to do with our arms,
not letting our voices drop

to break the silence.

The curator begins with the facts:
Mr Phillips reported how the Juju City
reeked of human blood.

Sir Harry mustered a force of 1200 marines,
Mr Bacon had reason to believe enough ivory
would be found to pay all expenses

removing the King from his stool.

I have come to understand
there are various kinds of violence.
A boot in the mouth,

a ring of bruises around an upper arm,
the way that inside this archive
each fact slips so prettily beside the next

like a horse’s bit lies across its tongue.

History is the things
that have happened, the facts
of a body and its breath

that come to us through the records and lists,
the photographs and their captions
curling in neat, even script.

In the silence of the archive,
all I can hear is the hum
of the corner unit

rinsing air clean
of the dust and acid I bring
on my skin and hair

and the white space,

page after page of it—
the absences still bearing
an administrator’s mark.


White Gloves/Totem Pole
The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

I pull on the white cotton gloves
free of acid and colour

When a native community

to read the object by touch:
wood carved into claws, wings, teeth.

touches its missing objects like a totem pole,

Inside the gloves my fingers grow damp
and fumble on the thick seams.

words come out from where they’ve been lost.

I feel the acid rising inside me:
imprinted, packed into every pore,

Haptic receptors fire, the sounds come back

the violence of my sweat and salt.
No matter the care I take

and when they don’t new words are made

I cannot get away from the damage
built into my body by habit.

out of the traces: leaving the language fuller,

I wear clean cotton gloves and leave
the imprint of myself all over them,

marking the gaps.

letting their whiteness
absorb the stain.


Parks Road, Oxford

This morning, light pours off the spines and struts of buildings. One of those mornings between autumn and winter. Trees bare, paths licked clean by frost and air over the gravel sharp as a blade. For a moment you can’t see which is the bike lane and which the path. You listen through the light for the ping and clack of gears.

You tried listening to the archive this morning. You wanted to write a poem translating its silences. You wanted to pin the chatter of the photos and battle ledgers and hold that violence to the light. What does that make you? A witness? An ally? You remember Claudia Rankine said, No one can be an ally as long as they are trying to be a white man.

In this kind of light, there are so few shadows to hide in. You take on writing jobs and get paid in exposure. You teach at the university for £2.17 an hour. You take photos and post them and each time you do, you feel taller. You feel your hips get narrower and sometimes even forget about the fact you take up space and focus on the work. That quality of mind.

You have spent a life pinning back the parts that slop over. Pared back, spoke less, worked harder, abandoned writing about love to write about history. You want to stand and feel clean and hard like the light on the metal spine of the museum, this almost-winter light that erodes and scours but under its weight you become an object again. The woman you have been trying to erase. You bring your hands to your mouth and taste acid: the ambition of your body, the complicity in your fingers.

Mariah Whelan is a poet and interdisciplinary researcher based in the Centre for New Writing at The University of Manchester. She is the author of the love i do to you (Eyewear) and the rafters are still burning (Dancing Girl Press). Her poems have been shortlisted for the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award, The Bridport Prize and won the AM Heath Prize. Mariah also co-edits bath magg a magazine of new poetry from established and emerging writers.