During her Spring 2023 residency at Quay Words on the theme of ‘Threads’, Davina Quinlivan wrote the below three poems, and a long prose piece, The Map Makers’ Daughters. Taking inspiration from Davina’s work, letterpress printer Jeremy Speck produced a set of special prints which are on display at Exeter Custom House in early 2024.

The Wool Dyer’s HandsFalse RiversWater Dragon

The Wool Dyer’s Hands

Her finger points out a shape in the sky,
Caiseoipé,then an Leon and an Scairp,
burn bright over Dartmoor.

Enchantment in her infant’s eyes,
mother and child swaddled in their patchwork

Her dreams shiver and fold into each other’s night,
an obsidian geology: Haldon Hill, Brampford Speke,
a half-forgotten chapel on the Culm.

Thought is buried in time,
soil scattered rhyme, beneath the where or how
of all things lost.

Lyme’s fossils cannot compare to
the relic of her mother’s hands,
their gentle voyage around a fallen russet.

Interpreter of skies,
plucking at the pegs on her washing line.
Three days rain will empty any sky.

Clutch of ice at a window,
dawn suspended between her palms.
She boils water drawn from the River Exe.

Liquid mirror, it had carried the flight of three geese
and a raven over Fore Street,
curved shadow line of two swans near St Thomas.

All the spilt, tiny ruins
of pebbles, siltstone, Devon clay,
hay fallen from a cart near Rewe.

Then once more through the passage of the ships in the Quay
and the ancient hymn of the cattle market.
A murmuration of starlings dissolved by a single flame.

Dim reflection in the eye of a barn owl,
burial ground for three field mice in the river reeds.
Clouds make a memory of the air.

A falling dust beckons a strange forest
which once was the kitchen table.
Like this, she is able to alter the weather of her house.

Quiet, concentrated assembly of her tools,
wooden spoon and tongs, a measurement of iron,
particles of copper, gorse flowers, undyed skein.

Familiar spell, sinuous smell of oak bark, moss and alum,
their flight between her fingers
before they meet the hidden language of the river and the shepherd’s fold.

In the city, her city, the men use the dyeing frames up on Exe Island,
rackfields in the summer, matted cloth on tenterhooks.
Coins for the Crown, straites for the County.*

But she has made a rack of the orchards and her trees are her frames.
Feral fibred object,
ghost of her mother’s hands.

* In 1513, a law was passed by King Henry VIII permitting Devon wool-makers to produce straites, a type of light weight, white woollen trouser.

False Rivers

In the film Blade Runner, the detective performs his Voight-Kampff test in order to check
if the person he is speaking to is really human, or not.
Non-humans are given fake memories so that they might
be able to better control their emotions.

Unlike those postmodern pyramids I watched on screen,
I once sat in a room with the curtains half-closed and saw
small town suburbs and Manhattan skylines, intergalactic wars
and Big Bird.

Safety was found at the bottom of a bowl of rice
and peanut butter on toast dipped into tea.
Years and years in that small room while my mother did ______
My father resided at the local bookies.
He would bring home chocolate and
a giddy grin, if he won.

In the future, 30 years from now,
I’m shuffling through the pictures,
but I can’t seem to find the
ones I desperately need.

I’m very frightened.
People call out for their mothers in times like these. Don’t they?
Or, maybe they wear a woolly jumper and eat chocolate cake.
They use the telephone. I reach inside the data stream.

My dog, or someone else’s dog running with an orange ball.
A girl singing while walking up a staircase, red haired and red-lipped.
The limbs of a child’s small bear caught Christ-like in a hedgerow.

Why can I only see pathetic story arcs and vanishing points.
Crane shots pulling away from the closing moments.
Heroic tales and discoveries, warm embraces,
Smiling faces
in close up.

I know something is wrong, because when I’m frightened,
It’s those reels that I usually want.
my mum’s head superimposed onto the face of
Cher from the film Mermaids, and my dad
leaping from trains like Harrison Ford.

I tell these stories to myself, filling in the blank spaces.
I know these to be false rivers.
Now they do not bridge the wound.
Yellow-spotted lichen has flowered from my wrist,
Oakmoss tender at my neck.
Becoming real, at the mercy of nature and the river’s end.

Water Dragon

She was born in 1940, the Chinese Year of the Dragon, in Rangoon, Burma, and she was schooled in Calcutta, India until the age of 16.

Instead of folding napkins, years ago she folded sheets in a laundry in Acton, West London, one of the jobs she took with her mother when she arrived in this country, still a child.

I see their movements now, up, and over, up, and over, air smacks another swiping tail: two dragons, perhaps. Chinese laundry/Dragon lady.

They carry their washing to their laundry-home, which is also the riverbank, water tank.
My mother hung out the laundry in Acton Launderette as her mother folded the wide folds, wider, in the churning steam room.

Her daughter is not even a Dragon yet.
In the future, I stare at a Blue Dragon, On the side of a white all,

Local laundry on the Uxbridge Road, across the street while I eat outside the store with the videos in their rental jackets.

What is a Dragon lady?

She is not one of us, but one they made to carry us inside her thin armour of many, many movie-shades, movie blades, Blade Runner, Big Trouble in Little China.

The pretty silent ones in the Chinese dress tip toe, tip toe.

I think, all of my life, I am searching inside the sheets for my mum, but all I can see are movie screens.

The Wool Dyer’s HandsFalse RiversWater Dragon