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This poem is taken from PN Review 122, Volume 24 Number 6, July - August 1998.Two Poems
Lines Composed to Test The Idea of Montserrat
'It's like the month of May in Andalusia'
Christopher Columbus's Journal, the Italian sailor on 'discovering' Guanahani (San Salvador) and, later, Dominica.
Your voices change in exile, who's to know
how you will read this line: I'll bury it
in a book for safer keeping.
The young girl on the cover, appley
and wilful, and the man from Andalusia ready
to bite into her, seems about right:
though we don't know yet he's the man from Andalusia
the point is made. I'm writing an autobiography,
was born there, grew up here, etc.
Somewhere I'll lay claim to heritage, why not Irish;
so, to get there I won't start from here, sort of thing.
Here, you see, is the wrong place. Today the US George
Washington, no longer a man on horseback but a ship
(minus slaves) steams towards the Gulf. Today -
a girl, her throat cut by a man roaming round England
unpunished - can't be the way to start.
So let me recross the seas like a sailor with his Journal
which my mother Francisca and Giovanni, my brother
would call a fake. Like the son of a tailor
I've discovered islands where Calibans
and Prosperos cling to the edge waiting
for the world to go round. Here, sea, sun, early-
squawking cockerels seem not to have enemies. OK:
my name, which hasn't changed much, is Pewter Stapleton.
Something by my sister Avril, the child botanist -
one of the Intuitives, don't you know - updates the cover.
So I'll give up on an architecture of my life
vast and cathedraled and accept its journeying through continents,
though sometimes above the ground, at a level
where others live. From Columbus to refugee
will your book impress friends, family low on expectation?
The house is gone, and the island; generations of ghosts
lodged here and there treat us less gently now
when they visit, unannounced, day or night.
This is a half-way house in someone's country
crowded with problems: it will shelter
one of your twelve rooms, the house cannot be got through
customs; the idea of house, transplanted in its own space
is difficult for friends even, to accommodate.
The house, rest easy, is spread over four continents
the better to preserve it. In DC, capital
of the Americas friends gather in your kitchen (736 items
reclaimed - 510 in the main bathroom) - in your kitchen
and talk of old times. In a southern
country where the language is a tease they sit
on your terrace and pour red wine and pledge your health.
Here, where I saw my first black cab, first stage-
policeman, discovered new pleasures in a tremendously
deep bath - here in an English city
I locate the library where generations of preachers
and teachers, and others near myth - poloniusy grandmothers
trading does and donts - can come to browse.
All this I write in preparation for what I write.
Now for the chapter beyond exile:
Our friend in DC, his house landscaped with success
attracts veterans returning to their India. He discovers
next-door, garden fenced from garden, a house
and makes purchase, careful not to trap his Montserrat
under one roof: May you live to biblical age, Sir;
may your teeth outlast many dentists.
Over here, a voyage away, at a point between home and work
I claim a patch. This is where, unprovoked,
thoughts skid into old thought enough to make a pattern:
the raggedness of last night cartoons into new shape.
Low skies of the day before suddenly hint of blue.
This is a healing space larger than home or work
in a drizzly northern town: this patch of spirit
in the body's random trail is one traveller's bounty.
A friend, who is clever, promises to transfer it intact.
All doom and gloom; not a bit of it: no May Day signals here,
no new rituals for the burial of the dead,
no speeches rehearsed to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission,
(Our hands are stained but not with hangings, lynchings, genocide;
and some of us live, mysteriously, in Luton
which is, they claim, easier to say than Andalusia.)
I've been converted to the faith of thank-you letters. So many
soft gestures from strangers who forget
or puzzle over when you weigh in with acknowledgement.
My room for gratitude, like the famous cup, runneth over
spilling into neighbouring country like an offence.
Far off a mountain erupts scarring people
into thought as if at the beginning or end of a play:
One man in his workshop invents a wheel which isn't round,
to save us. Another - can he swim? - sets out to visit
the hundred and ninety two countries of the world, looking
for a seat at the UN and language that will make him
equal to the US, Palestine and Australia.
These and others - a woman called Molly whose business
is private - will crowd our fictions. And me? Ah -
Comme si, comme sa. Ça va. Em Nau. Alles ist Klar, alles is klar
And Was ist los in Luton?
I read somewhere that people tend to die at four
in the morning. Well now, I'll tell you how I saved
some friends. I tempted those at risk to sleep in daylight
and rise for breakfast after 3 a.m. By four, the eating one
is saved. This science earns me credit of red nose
and floppy shoes like others reconstructing the island
from Flood, Fire, Hurricane and Volcano.
The fiction is pre-history, a stressless time and space
free to unbuckle into a life without meaning,
when someone in the garden saw an apple fall and made nothing
of it; and no one has memory of reading Wordsworth
on the verandah. The present is a chapter rich
with private jokes and riddles of being young and free
and reading Proust and grilling sardines in old Portugal.
Till one reader smiles into intimacy. Like something
from the botanist unpressed and green-veined once again:
this flush of kindness restores our faith in magic.
She's leaf-scented, russling a static Sunday into life.
She is, indeed, our entry into light. This is -
She is the month before the month of May in Andalusia.
For the Environment
for Andrew Salkey (1928-1995)
& Martin Carter (1927-97)
It is cold this Christmas
I have no idea what it costs
to heat me: God have mercy.
The corner shop in Crouch End
is now something else. The brothers
with children to educate
have gone back to Ireland.
Here, in Sheffield two bookshops
which made us welcome, have gone
taking the space for browsing.
So we must live within our means
like aged parents
in new surroundings
(And who will respond to the old
jokes: it's the buttons, man,
the buttons rattling
in the new jacket, nothing more).
And I think of Andrew and Martin gone,
that generosity of spirit buried,
Andrew and Martin gone
their literary grandchildren
hustlers below stairs
full of frenzy, full of noise
desperate to inherit the house.
And I think of island and family gone,
and the heritage of remembering
respecting those spaces
new filled with rubbish.
And I am here, standing in
committing such things to memory
while memory lasts.
This poem is taken from PN Review 122, Volume 24 Number 6, July - August 1998.