The Horse - A mother and son's relationship through illness

by David Gilbert

September 27, 2015

Mum was on the Kindertransport (look it up if you don’t know what that means – you should). This explains the refugee in her, and perhaps in me. My writing is a way to mine meaning from the void. This is as true of my mother’s silence about her travels and travails as of my years of depression. When I am fed up (like now) writing is my solace. I hope you get something out of this too.

These are poems that may also open a different window (that's what poetry does) on the relationship between carers and the cared for. And how that song shifts with the seasons.

Mum tried to look after me when I was ill. I tried to look after her when she was ill. We did our best.

By the way, the formatting of some of these poems may not appear correctly on a smartphone.


I often resented my mother’s emotional repression, and was scared of her anger simmering beneath the surface. But this is a poem of forgiveness (as many of these are actually).


The girl’s words were lost in the blizzard
of emptying towns

as her refugee train reeled across
border lands.

And when she found herself at nights
simmering bones

for chicken soup (more tranquiliser
than penicillin)

and learned to pass canapes and half-
forgot German,

she began to think that mere love
and double glazing

could displace those inescapable howls
banked up like snow.

(this poem first appeared in Smiths Knoll)



I don’t think I was a very happy child. Not unhappy. Anxious mostly I reckon. The nearest to happy I got when little was in our garden. And doing this…

Folding the Sheets

I loved to help my mother in the garden
take down sun- and wind-dried sheets
from the sagging washing line, propped up
in the middle by an old wooden pole.

She’d unclip the clothes pegs one by one,
drop them in an empty terracotta pot
and offer me the edge of a crinkled sheet.
We faced each other: partners in a dance

peering across vast cotton waves,
arms spread out, gripping our corners,
watching each other’s every move
bringing together the opposing leaves,

folding, refolding… until she reeled us in
to meet halfway. She kissed my nose
and whisked the bundle out of my hands.
The linen piled high in the wicker basket.

Now I can mirror her with eyes closed,
senses narrowing on the task and line,
opening up to the sound of sparrows
from the branches of the damson tree.

(This poem first appeared in my pamphlet, Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus, published by Templar)


Auguries, not of innocence. Easy in hindsight to mesh a collage of images that spoke to a worrying future. And, there in the centre is my mother again. Cultured, a little distant. Fragile?

Glass to be Smashed

There’s always glass to be smashed.
The ball sailing to the shed
mum open-mouthed with the secateurs.

Or her, red in pearls and high heels
weaving between the guests
with a tray of sherry and canapés.

Or when they divorced.
The men carrying the lithograph
to the white van.

Or later on the ward
Robbie walking to the window
too slowly and deliberately for my liking.

Or when Debbie broke it off.
I’d had it with her aquarium.
Those fucking guppies.

(This was also in Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus)


I think I was always a little scared of my mum. She carried herself so well, emotionally and practically. But I sometimes heard phone conversations in a strange foreign language coming from her bedroom. Her voice seemed so unlike her. German was her secret. I wonder how she felt about the language that she had grown up speaking – the language of the destroyers. This was my imagining…


A stranger's voice came from the bedroom
speaking quietly but urgently in German

a language so clipped and far removed
from your soothing familiar tone, I swore

an intruder had stolen in. But it was you
on the phone to your mother, or perhaps

the Viennese seamstress I hated to visit
who wore pearls like yours and reeked of cabbage

and offered stale pastries from a silver plate
both to me and the Alsatian with black teeth.

Whoever it was you were talking to
I imagined you then as suddenly afraid

not of whatever you were talking about -
but of the language of war itself - as if

it had re-emerged from its hiding place
snarling, to track, snare and drag you back.

Who was that on the phone? I asked later.
No one you know. I dared not ask again.


In 1987, Just after returning from San Francisco, having had the first seismic eruptions of panic that preceded a nervous breakdown, mum thought a holiday would do me good. It didn’t. Nor did it do her or the horse much good either (sorry).

Then With The Other

Mum thought the climb would do me good, fresh air
get me out of my crazed head, but I dawdled.
The rain began to belt across the headlands
misting us to silhouettes, I cut

towards the cliff, overseeing gulls and spume,
calculating the time it took for fear
to reel her in. She came as expected,
stumbling down the slope. A horse appeared

its body steaming. I crunched a ten pound note -
a trick I'd learned - and as it ambled nearer
and nearer. I held out one hand, then with
the other hurled a stone that gashed its flank.


I wrote this one last week. The image is based on two pictures of her, the first one real: as a child coming out of the bath, I remember her waiting on my bed, as I walked in covered in a big blue cosy bath towel. But she was biting her nails. Odd, I thought. The second was imagined, but also real to me. Her sitting on the same bed two decades later after I had been admitted to psychiatric hospital – her baby. Where had he gone? And why?



When he disappeared, she trawled
The obvious memos of the mind
Fade of photos, flight of circumstance.
There was so little to alert them then.

She went in to widen the search:
Ocean, desert, jungle, mountain
Determined to locate the wreckage
Fixed on the wrong before the downing.

There will be weeks, months, years of this
Before discovery: the heart’s black box.
And even then will she understand
The data logging those Westward turns?

Those fluctuations! Why the gauges swang?
How engines always eventually fall
Foul of the storm? Staggering, she hears
Conversations at imagined controls

(In the background screaming). Here comes
The mild captain, hundreds of years’ experience
His voice is even, calm. Then there’s just
The radio’s hum. Or far off crackly jazz.


This is a nasty poem in some ways. Many don’t like it. I tried to kill myself a few times. This is a poem that is about my guilt. How can a son put a mother through such hell? Surely, sometimes, this stoic survivor of Nazi-occupied Austria, must have wanted this other hell to end. And must have been guilt-ridden herself by unbidden thoughts. In an odd sense, this is a poem of forgiveness too.


Think of him as a child, the time wasted
as he flipped between chocolate and vanilla,
sauce and flake or neither. Now it’s tube, blade
paracetamol or ligature.

He’d haemorrhage beyond recovery
with luck, while waiting for an ambulance,
though more probably, he’d scrape to A&E
and spit gratitude at the consultant.

You care too much to watch him gather dust
in psychiatric corridors. The damage
done at the precipice must be addressed:
Lead him gently to, but leave him at, the bridge

above the Archway Road, or let him down
peacefully on the Northern Line Southbound.

(this poem was first published in Magma)


The last ten years of mum’s life were a third hell. After the death of her husband, Richard, she went into a rapid decline. Depression, neurological illness, deafness. In some sort of ironic denouement, the task of caring fell to me for about six years - the same duration as my illness (and of course the war). As all carers know, it was a time of terrible disturbances, dislocation and de-identification. This poem tries to echo that – on re-reading it, to me it feels like a macabre lullaby - and is set in the nursing home in which she finally died. The original poem is set out as scattered words on the page, but I am useless in WordPress 🙂


How we found her

One a.m.
at the bed
with black-handled scissors
sheets in ribbons
unable to recollect
where she’d got them from
or how she’d ended up on the floor
at the foot of the bed
the foot of the bed

Three p.m.
tea-time in the lounge
red-eyed and panicky
beckoning to
pleading for diazepam
looking to me to remember
if she takes one or two
sugars in her tea
sugars in her tea


How odd. I have just realised that this about a horse again (animals often sneak into my poetry). Maybe it’s the same horse. That would be nice. Anyway, it led her to peace. Or so I like to think.

When Mum Describes a Horse

When mum describes a horse
She has seen from her low bed
Galloping across the white wall
Or through it

We cough and fetch another
Glass of water. Slip back
Resume the wait and look past
The ward to where

The prints of hooves
On the muddy path
Tracking the edge of the car park
Are heading home.

Riderless, walnut-brown
We see it
Race to the lip of the hill
And turn a final time.

(This poem was commended in this year's Hippocrates Medicine and Poetry competition)


Seamus Heaney likens his pen to a shovel (in his first book) with which he will go dig. Maybe that was in my mind when I wrote this. But Heaney had a multitude of rich memories upon which to draw. Mine is mostly digging in the silence that gives way to an over-abundant imagination – a blessing and a curse. My words are an attempt to smuggle meaning from a land of silence. About the only thing I know about her journey as a nine year old is that she smuggled out the pen. I would not be alive if she had been caught.

The pen                      ­                                                           

She stole the gold pen from her father's bureau
And the memory of its violet ink
Looping across bright white paper

The night before the 8:39
Vienna-London train

And she smuggled it deep in the inside pocket
Of the sheepskin coat stitched by her mother
To harbour trinkets and packets of sweets

The night before the 8:39
Vienna-London train

And she knew that if the pen was discovered
She'd be sent back. Or worse. She kept schtum
Sipped her cocoa and packed her case

The night before the 8:39
Vienna-London train

And only once, many years later
She tells the story to her nine year old son
Then it's silently pocketed again

The night before the 8:39
Vienna-London train


And then, of course…

Is                                  Was

after the                      relentless
decline                        mother’s

grip                              loosens
and how                      we talk

about her -                  the tense -

what was                     is
is now                          was


p.s. If you liked these poems, there are more of mine (about my mental health years) here and more prose about my mother (and father) here

All Blog Posts
what we do

3 comments on “The Horse - A mother and son's relationship through illness”

  1. Reading this too late, David, to say anything comprehensive but, while deeply moving, your beautiful use of language comes across in everything you have presented here. Your carefully-crafted poetry rings with clearly delineated sounds and imagery. I have to admit I usually find poetry hard to read but your writing flows into it so naturally, it seemed the perfect medium for your storytelling and contemplation. Your relationship with your mother, its closeness and complexities, came across strongly and hauntingly and I could relate to many of the feelings you describe, especially the anxiety. I have felt very similar things and also write for very similar reasons.

    1. Thank you so much. I love it when people feel poetry becomes less of a locked window. It can be such a gift. Please try other work. Get yourself a copy of Staying Alive or another in the trio of anthologies by Bloodaxe. Happy (?!) reading and writing

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *