On visiting Denis Severs’ House, a recreation of a London household from 1724 onwards.
Spitalfields, one hundred and fifty years from a light switch.
Intruders, we scrutinise wall hangings by candlelight,
divine meaning from half-empty teacups and clusters of walnut shells.
Pulled from our own century to these rooms, this bright kitchen
with part-toasted bread on the oven and gushing tap,
and the sense (in the sugar mice on the shelves, the earrings
on the table, unopened mail) of characters who live here. Lived here.
It’s hard to get the tense right, and what gets me more than anything –
more than the handwritten rules of the house on the wall
of the tenants’ lodgings, precious makeup laid out in a bedroom,
curls of brown tobacco in the corners of the rooms –
is my own reflection in the drawing room mirror. It catches our black
coats, sleek hair, bobbing headphones at my collar. Out of place here,
where we’re surrounded by buff trinkets, matte couches, honeyed wood.
At any moment the family might catch us. I startle easily –
like we’ve actually gone back, and all I’ve brought with me
is these clothes a headful of thoughts and a phone in want of satellites.
First published in South Bank Poetry.