In 2008 Arts Council England invited poets to commemorate the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by writing a poem on the theme of enslavement.

Helen Dunmore is a poet, novelist, children's writer and short story writer. Her latest collection of poems is Glad Of These Times (Bloodaxe 2007), and her most recent novel is House of Orphans, published by Penguin in paperback 2007. She was the inaugural winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction.

I owned a woman once

so glossy fleshed, so high-coloured
my blood swept in my veins
she was rich and heaped in the belly
as the Bible says
she was fertile as the banks of a river
when the flood falls and the mud makes food,

I clothed her as I wanted to clothe her
I housed her as I wanted to house her
I put food on her plate to fatten her,

I owned a woman once so high-coloured
so dark and rich in the eyes
my blood would not be still in my veins
my eyes would not stop watching her -
a callous on her heel made my belly quiver -

I put food on her plate to fatten her
I put oil on her hair
she was fertile as the bank of a river,

I owned a woman once so high-coloured
so slow and sure in her walk
that all eyes walked with her,
I owned her from broken toenail
to breath that misted my mirror

and I clothed her as I wanted to clothe her,
her flesh hidden, her body shrouded
while she fattened with my child,

yes, mostly it was sweet to own her
but sometimes I had to punish her
for her eyes everywhere looking
for the moist folds of her body hidden
and the rich darkness of her eyes looking.

Soon it came to her time
and this woman I owned lay on the ground
in the room I kept for her
with the midwife I paid for her
but her belly would not release the child

And the cage of her hips would not let go the child.
The midwife said she came to it too young
maybe, this woman I owned

but believe me
she was straight out of the Bible
so glossy-fleshed, so high-coloured
so heaped and rich in the belly
with one bare callous on her heel.