With a rootless lily held in front of him
Like someone stepping slowly ahead
of an old-fashioned car, or the person tasked
with carrying the country’s Olympic flame,
he must hold the lily as he walks, sits, speaks, listens.
He holds it low, his arms relaxed,
accustomed to its movement.
The long stem reaches to his breastbone.
The lily’s pale skull barely moves as he moves.
Open and upright, the petals are stiff and fragile.
The yellowy-orange stamen is a risk.
Everyone knows it could stain you.
With each breath he inhales its scent,
each exhalation ghost-feeds it.
Each person he meets will ask
or choose deliberately not to ask.
Each person sees the lily first,
then perhaps the man.
Some wonder what the lily does
when he sleeps. Or what happens
when this stalk, as it surely must,
fades and withers. Some suspect him
of slyly replacing it to freshen its bloom.
Each person considers touching the petals.
There are those who think it distasteful
to bring the lily out into the open.
To them it’s like a begging bowl.
In many ways his lily is no different
to any lily of theirs. Though they’d never
say it aloud, a few have a terrible doubt
that he somehow deserves his.
Sometimes he allows his focus to shift
through its arch-backed petals.
Sometimes he forgets he still holds it.
Winner of the 2019 Plough Prize
Heidi Williamson, from Return by Minor Road (Bloodaxe, 2020)