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This poem is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.Two Poems
The Book of Sudden Lights At Night
for Michael Moineau, almost mugged
An American friend who has not lived in America
for years, who has found for himself love and a room
in Germany filled some days with the great clacking
of his keyboard, on others, with quiet consideration
of each word typed - tells me, while shaking,
of a boy in Berlin who demanded his wallet.
And so I would understand his impulse to shout
'motherfucker!', as if the blade pressed against his belly
had pushed up and out his throat all the anger of exile,
he describes to me fear larger than the spilling of guts -
of losing yet another country, and a language
he had just begun to dream in - how he knew then
a wallet was more than credit cards or euros -
it was his woman, and a room he refused to let go of.
Praise then to the book that shall be completed,
dedicated, perhaps, to salvation which did not come
from heaven, but from two stories above -
one light turned on, and then several - a whole avenue
beaming out in response to a cry for help, illuminating
the face of a would-be-robber who dropped knife and fled.
Praise a decision so small - the flicking of a switch -
that could give a man back his life. And praise
to the neighbours whose faces are still unknown
but whom I imagine fondly as squares of yellow -
how magnificent the suddenness of yellow
that can puncture the belly of evil, and night.
O that we each, in our hours of greatest need, be rescued by light.
'Kei, I've noticed in your work the constant absence of an I'
- Tanya Shirley
All that time I was writing about coffins
filled with johncrow feathers,
bells that chime five minutes past the hour,
smoke and tall hats. I was hiding
behind sleight-of-hand, behind birds
and unruly clocks - metaphors
that said nothing honestly.
My sister who is contemplating tattoos
asks how I choose my words.
She says hers will be everlasting,
the world being so full of the wretched
who carry lost lovers on their asses,
outdated mantras on their arms -
how awful, to be permanently tied to ruins.
The only word worth sewing on your skin
she says, is your name
or perhaps, 'God'.
If I were to write honestly
I would write about fat,
about close fitting linen shirts
that once hid the soft fact of breasts.
I would write about the love
of men and the fear of stones
which in my country is the same thing.
I would write about the fear of inheriting
sugar, and the fear of lumps,
lost teeth and doctors.
I would tell you how for months
I stopped writing or opening doors
because it was me, on the other side,
wanting to be let in.
Tanya, on that island of podiums
I saw myself suddenly,
big boned and asthmatic,
and my important tongue went cold.
I was avoiding my voice,
full and divided like cupboards:
the school I left,
the way I gave up on god,
the way I gave up on drums
which is the same thing;
a voice full of all my names
and full of the day he came to me
in a space between track silent,
angelic. His name is not important here
but he is beside me
and is a hymn.
My life has been asphalt and gravel
like all lives, though
I wanted it to be different.
I wanted to wear shoes
without a constant pebble in their bellies.
But the dying bequeath us all their roads;
slipping from their beds into eternity
they tell us: walk good.
My grandmother only worshipped in tents.
something was arrogant in stone
and in cement -
as if one could ever reach, as if life
was not asphalt and gravel,
forty years of wilderness and circle,
as if we should not be able
to fold up our churches
take them with us on our backs.
When the televangelist came to Jamaica,
Heroes Circle became one big tent, shivering
with tambourines, swollen with sickness
as if hospices had been emptied of the not-dead-yet.
In that awful congregation of yellow eyes,
sunken faces, dirty bandages and deep
coughing, people were holding their faith
bigger than mustard seeds. And a blind woman
being pushed through on a gurney, shouted
'I believe! I believe!' to ward off the darkness.
When the televangelist left
and all of the well went home singing It Is Well,
they packed up the sick like rags; and a man,
blind to all the offence of his youth
told the blind woman he had pushed through
'Faith, sister. You never had enough faith.'
I used to pray for hurricanes. I had never seen one
but could imagine how, in the wonderful
non-metre of its rhythm, the freeness of its verse,
houses could be picked up and turned
into nothing. One June, a woman standing in mud
confessed to news cameras that during the storm
she lit candles in each corner of the house
and prayed; that's why she was spared.
But while announcing her faith
a small pile of zinc and board sailed
down the gully. She turned around to run,
to chase her house, to chase her god.
It's the same thing.
I am trying to tell you how I got here;
why I would have thrown away faith
if it was something we held like pens.
But faith is interior as bone;
it is the way I stand
and the way I turn my head.
It cannot be left out -
the day I waved a red banner
and tongues broke like water
from its vase. It cannot be left out -
the rhythm I once played on a djembe drum
that made missing men dance home,
finally, to their sad children.
Today, a frog with a padlock through its mouth
leapt through a courtroom downtown,
and every witness fled into the streets,
their testimonies suddenly locked
within their throats; police refused
to take the frog in for dissection
to find inside the stories it had swallowed.
Tanya, I think of the poems I have written
and the ones I haven't. I think of our country
and all the unsaid things. This plague
of frogs and padlocks rising around us,
the Hope River turning into blood.
I am piecing it all together now - 'each line
proceeds before I do,
each line is another stone out of my throat.
It cannot be left out - the day I kissed him;
the years spent in the company of another heartbeat
I cannot love completely in this country.
But he is a hymn. On your favourite CD
the overwhelming moment is in the space
between tracks, full of the last song's echo and full
of what is to come. That is how he came to me.
He has broken every coffin and scattered the feathers.
He has smashed every clock. And what I thought
was wood and nails and varnish and velvet
and hour-hands, turned out to be silence.
So I break. I break the rule. I break
the ground we will dance on;
I break my mother's heart; I break the fast -
it did not work. I break the chain - lines end
with me. I break the body, the bread, the words.
I break the ceiling. I break the bone and the jaw
and the habit of hiding. I break the stone. I break the curse.
They are broken. I am written.
This poem is taken from PN Review 179, Volume 34 Number 3, January - February 2008.