They Came With Backbone – a poem for International Women’s Day

Our new poet in residence, Shirley May, has written this poem for International Women’s Day, inspired by some of the women whose stories are found in our archives.

They came with backbone

When the morning fills the room and the sky is endless in its blue
What does holding on mean? It’s rooted in things familiar, 
Like a hand that was not afraid of love and reprimand.
It’s things left behind, small trinkets given at special times.
It’s as if the purple-blue and pink hydrangea spoke volumes 
Of home and what women had to sacrifice, things left
just outside grandmama’s yard.

Between twelve and two, the earth was no one’s friend
except those indigenous to this place.
Like Tomlina and her watering can, 
She dampens down the yard earth until pristine;
only small barefoot children,
Could change how the earth laid,
they taking dominion over this place, playing there until tired.
And the endless sky turned black-blue,
refilling itself every night with the Milky Way.
It was there they learned to stargaze.

Fear of change is washed away after the first hurricane
You experience. It’s as sure as spring and summer rains.
They came to England in 1955. Just two of them, they the first wave. 
A cool, cordial ordeal was their greeting. Not much accommodation
in a city that rained daily. It was a reflection of the times.

A hurricane can take a roof
like a machete in a field of unprocessed molasses,
Its swiftness in its truth,
if you can’t stand in your power, 
you will bend,
So you remember when the elements took the roof of grandma’s barn,
the flower garden, and Tomlina’s water can…
The chickens were freed from their coops to wander drenched.
That’s how England felt.
Only like a carpenter’s spirit level,
your foundations have been laid in the yard that children played in 

Nursing school, for her, the buses for him.
She a fledgeling who would become an Eagle
In the NHS, delivering the city’s babies,
pushing the boundaries, making people feel
uncomfortable about the times they lived in.
He drove the 192 until purple, blue and pink hydrangea.
Lay on his grave.  It’s the way of this place,
They stood in their power and lived by grace.
So many named after her, two decades and some.
She wore a gold medal the Queen
gave for service to the rainy city and its people.

When the morning fills the room and the sky is endless in its blue
What does holding on mean? It’s rooted in things familiar, 
Things left behind, purple-blue and pink hydrangea,
just outside grandmama’s yard, It’s hurricanes remembered,
And the power you hold to change things forever.

In our next blog post, we will be talking to Shirley about her inspiration and the importance of the stories in our archives, and sharing some links to some of those stories online.