Fire: a song for Mistress Askew

David Harsent

fythynesse, rust, menstrue, swylle, mannys durt, adders egges, the brede of lyes …
                                                                                 Johan Bayle

The firebug rises whistling from the fire. Slats laid
on the overlap, branches at a pitch, as for Anne Askew
wordless under torture, so broken the hangman’s crew
carried her to the stake, a seat where she sat astride.

There was rain in the air as I built it. Bramble and thorn,
lumber and junk. Dead stuff. Whatever would burn.

*

Charge and denial; the bald accounts of martyrdom;
the mechanics at work, their gift of transformation.
Torchlight and stone. She stripped to her shift
unbidden and climbed up to the machine; when it took hold
she was lifted clear of the bed, her body hard strung,
the wrench and crack of greenstick.
                                                                                 Notebook: She bell’d
but speke no worde and sylence alwayes her gift.

*

The frame of her in the fire, black to the bone. Her head
a smoking cinder, smiling, smiling, smiling.
Some stood close enough to catch the haul
and roar of flame in the summer wind as it fed,
close enough to hear the shrivel-hiss
of burning hair, to see her sag and slump, to witness
the pucker and slide of her skin, the blister-rash on her eyeballs.

In the fire lies your salvation, Anne, they said. What greater thing
than the brush of His hand as He stoops to take up your soul?

*

Notebook: (Her Newgate poem) –
A woman poore and blinde:
more enmyes now I have than hairs upon my hedd.
(She stood her ground.)
Then the byshopp sayd, I shuld be brente.

*

Anne, you are nothing to me. Only that you knew best
how to unfasten your gown while they waited at the rack.
Only that she was hard prest
which I can’t now shake from my mind. Only that black
flux flowed from you, that they let you void and bleed.

*

I set this fire in a hard frost: early evening, the garden’s
winter leavings, the unretrievable, the piecemeal burdens.
Paraffin to start it – that dry whoomph! – and I saw her ghost
chained there: the woodcut from Foxes ‘Acts
and Monuments’ that hung on the chapel wall
beside ‘The Light of the World’, a mild-mannered Christ,
his jaunty crown of thorns … The minister’s stage-effects
were rage and unforgiveness, his colours red and red again
which were heart’s blood and hell-fire, the least of us already lost.

*

Notebook: (Johan Bayle, her apologist) –
By the fore heades understande she the hartes
or myndes of men. (And then): Christ wuld speake
in darke symylytudes. (And of her judges): They brede
cockatrice egges and weve the spyders webbe.

*

That they gave her cripple-water; that she ate
spoiled meat; that this was her penance; that she saw
those long nights through bedded on stone and straw;
that women in the garden by the White Tower,
turned to one another, amazed: ‘What is that animal?’
                                                                                     The river beat,
hour after hour as they racked her, back from the water gate.

*

That job taken in hand by Wriothesley and Richard Rich.
Then the pyre at Smithfield; those there to watch:
Norfolk, Bonner, Bowes, priests, judges, one and all
the Devil’s dishwashers. Before they lit the stack,
Shaxton preached repentance. Broken, she listened.
The crowd stood round in a ring, ten deep, and felt the scorch.

*

Notebook: (Johan Bayle, in sorrow) –
So had Anne Askewe the flamynge brandes of fyre,
nor scremed until the first flaym reched her brest.

*

My dream of her puts me in close-by: her poor bare
feet, her shift just catching a flame that chases the line of the hem …
And when I wake in sunlight, that flare is the flare
in her eye, that rising note in my ear the singing deep in green
branches, that low rumble her blood at a rolling boil;
and what she screams from the centre, now, as her hair
goes up in a rush, as her fingers char,
as the spit on her tongue bubbles and froths, as she browns from heel
to head, as she cracks and splits, as she renders to spoil:
the only thing she can get to me through the furnace, as I lean
in to her, is yes it will be fire it will be fire it will be fire …