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In The Public Library

Lesbia Harford 1891 (Brighton) – 1927 (Australia)

Standing on tiptoe, head back, eyes and arm
Upraised, Kate groped to reach the higher shelf.
Her sleeve slid up like darkness in alarm
At gleam of dawn. Impatient with herself
For lack of inches, careless of her charm,
She strained to grasp a volume; then she turned
Back to her chair, an unforgetful Eve
Still snatching at the fruit for which she yearned
In Eden. She read idly to relieve
The forehead where her daylong studies burned,
Tales of an uncrowned queen who fed her child
On poisons, till death lurked, in act to spring,
Between the girl's breasts; who with soft mouth smiled
With soft eyes tempted the usurping King
Then dealt him death in kisses. Kate had piled
Her books three deep before her and across
This barricade she watched an old man nod
Over a dirty paper, until loss
Of life seemed better than possession. Shod
With kisses death might skid like thistle floss
Down windy slides, might prove at heart as gay
As Cinderella in glass slippers.
Life goes awkwardly so sandalled. Had decay
Been the girl's gift in that Miltonic strife
She would have rivalled God, Kate thought. A ray
Of sunshine carrying gilded flecks of dust
And minutes bright with fancies, touched her hair
To powder it with gold and silver, just
As if being now admitted she should wear
The scholar's wig, colleague of those whose lust
For beauty hidden in an outworn tongue
Had made it possible for her to read
Tales that were fathered in Arabia, sung
By trouvères and forgotten with their creed
Of love and magic. Beams that strayed among
Kate's fingers lit a rosy lantern there
To glow in twilight. Suddenly afraid
She seemed to see her beauty in a flare
Of light from hell. A throng of devils swayed
Before her, devils that had learned to wear
The shape of scholar, poet, libertine.
They smiled, frowned, beckoned, swearing to estrange
Kate from reflection that her soul had been
Slain by her woman's body or would change
From contact with it to a thing unclean.
Woman was made to worship man, they preached,
Not God, to serve earth's purpose, not to roam
The heavens of thought . . . A factory whistle screeched,
Someone turned up the lights. On her way home
Kate wondered in what mode were angels breeched.

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Submitted on May 13, 2011

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Lesbia Harford

Lesbia Harford was an Australian poet, novelist and political activist. more…

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    "In The Public Library" Poetry.com. STANDS4 LLC, 2021. Web. 24 Jun 2021. <https://www.poetry.com/poem/25568/in-the-public-library>.

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