A City Examines its Conscience

Bless me, dear reader
it’s 800 years since my last confession.
There are still women for sale on my streets
with diseases, hungers, children.

Some may tell you that I did not honour my masters.
They may be right. But you must weigh this –
I never knew my just duty, not then.

How could I stop the dancing, gambling,
whoring, singing – voices rising to strings?
As well try to dry the sea from my mouth.

From my castle to subterranean tunnels,
from workhouse to cathedral
I was always aware that much was not in place,
not in its rightful place.

Yes, I have lied,
held up graven images,
done nothing about the eating of flesh
on prohibited days

but I am not alone
in my failure to make reparations.

Then there is the cargo
I try to forget.

Sometimes I feel The Unity rise from the river fog –
see two female chattel lowered from the gibbet,

in some dreams they live.

In other dreams I raise The Thetis and the newer dead.

Worst of all I remember the cocoa, sugar,
tea, silks, dyes, nutmeg, rice, spices, chains
and the coffins that the ships became
pulsing like troubled consciences
above my black waters.

By Pauline Rowe