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'Brustbild Einer Arbeitfrau', colour lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz, Austria, 1903. Museum no. E.6208-1906

'Brustbild Einer Arbeitfrau' (Portrait of a Working-class Woman), colour lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), Austria, 1903. Museum no. E.6208-1906

She could be either of my great grandmothers,
hair strict, strand licked forehead,
carmine tipped ears ring-less.

Winter sun shawling rippled shoulders,
implicit beauty in her fledgling bones.
Eyes yearning: perhaps for a husband
lost to the pit long years before
(down the yard, her listening still,
for his homeward trill);
or memory of letting down her hair 
one gaudy afternoon, rust 
shot water down her back, then
tender touch of coal scarred hands.

Whatever shaped her eyes' longing,
bodily she's rooted, sending me
thinking of great grandmothers
known from hand-me-down tales,
inherited features, handbags,

Breathe in.  There's carbolic, red
and black lead, Donkey Stone,
bagged Reckitt's Blue.  Knuckles
crinkle like poppies waved back and
forth through suds.

Now, I'm alert for whistling, but catch only 
vanquished echoes from the pit's vast gullet.

About the author

Deborah Tyler-Bennett went to Sutton Centre Comprehensive School. Her first collection was 'Clark Gable in Mansfield' (King’s England, 2003). Her second, 'Pavilion', is published by Smokestack Books (Feb 2010). 'Revudeville' is forthcoming from King’s England. Deborah also co-authored the V&A’s Creative Writing in Museums feature, and wrote this poem during that project.

Deborah was inspired to write this peom by a lithograph by Käthe Kollwitz's (1867–1945) lithographic 'Portrait of A Working Class Woman', 1903. She says:

'As a long-time admirer of Käthe Kollwitz's art, I find her working class portraits to be both enigmatic and revealing. The woman's portrait from the V&A's collection reminded me of the scant knowledge I have of my great grandmothers (particularly one of whom, on my father's side, who lost her 36-year-old husband in a colliery accident in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, on Valentine's Day, 1914) ... The Kollwitz piece lent itself to 'free' verse, or 'open form' with the occasional rhyme thrown in, as it was based upon changes in my trains of thought on first looking at the woman's face, and, therefore, needed to be open to those quick changes of idea that 'free' verse suits so well.'

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