suffragette prisoners, 3rd division, Holloway Gaol, 1912
What can I do, but undress
with the others? Naked I wait
for a chemise. The officer
bundles my clothes, thrusts them
on a shelf. I, who was so quick
to speak, stand barefoot,
arms raised, while she prods,
picks through my hair. Do I
keep my hand from slapping?
The doctor who pretends to examine me
slides his stethoscope across my chemise.
The ear pieces dangle between us.
“Are you all right?”
He speaks to my chest.
What is all right? My heartbeats, breaths
miraculously haven’t reached him. He doesn’t ask
to check my tongue, my throat.
The wardress pushes me on and I miss answering.
A dozen more women wait in the queue.
The first one he looks at will change him to stone.
My cell walls are greased with dankness.
Stench lies in my bed. Above me,
a pane of rippled glass, snatched light.
Because I can read, do sums, sign my name,
I’m granted a bible, a hymnal, a tract
wherein a Mrs. Stacpoole dispenses advice:
take daily baths
sleep with windows open
avoid bad smells
Louisa Howerow’s most recent poetry appeared in FreeFall, The Nashwaak Review and Room. This poem is part of a manuscript that gives voice to the rank and file members of the British suffragette movement. Two of the poems in this collection appeared in The New Quarterly, guest edited by Diane Schoemperlen. Another poem in a slightly altered version was published in Room.