Lord Strange Examines a Premonition of Bad Things to Come
A toadfish washes up in Woolwich
and the river children march round –
poke its serrated tail with their broom stails.
Its gills, they say, are shaped
like the brittle hands of a man;
its voice the uneasy squeal of a mouldy old witch.
Lord Strange is called upon –
dispatched from Derby - with a troop
of armed and honest men.
He is a diviner of premonitions, an augur of fish –
a cold cleave, a base-tapper, a man
of temperate aristocratic blood.
The troop rides through counties
all ashiver with civil war. In Oxford
they make merry
with cully-rumping and good ale.
In Reading they shoot a farmer
who refuses to bow down.
Woolwich, they all agree, is a slewer of shit.
The toadfish still lives – it flaps on the wharf.
Its rubbery lips pucker, its fins twist and twirl.
It speaks: “Ach! Ach! Ach!”
Crowds gather round the noisome pit.
Older women swoon.
A girl unburdens herself of the ghost child
in her delicate bed of love.
Lord Strange cannot bear the stench,
demands a nosegay and a veil if he’s
to drive the devil out.
The children titter as the toadfish’s throat is cut,
its gloopy head kicked
to the marshland beyond.
Only one person declares that all life is precious,
that in the eyes of God a toadfish
is a premonition of bad things to come.
She is shouted down – marked
as a mardy-bag, beaten with a stick,
sent well on her way.
Lord Strange raises his standard; a victualer taps a barrel.
A cheer goes up and a curse is well-spent
upon Fairfax, Cromwell, Prynne and all the rest.