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This poem is taken from PN Review 140, Volume 27 Number 6, July - August 2001.Fourteen Poems
Man in the Bowler Hat
I am now the dislocated stranger
Stationed somewhere in your thoughts,
Dreams, or on the mundane streets you walk:
My back turned, face concealed or obliterated.
Although I am everywhere you fail to notice -
Bunched amongst myself and alone.
I can never speak but only ever stand;
A whole legion of myself, an entire place
Of a faceless face - obstructed or draped.
Like Magritte's men I am now that clad-dressed
Man with all the inessential elements left out.
Drawing up to a stop-street,
The hawkers approached -
Drawing themselves thinner
By pulling in their elbows
And holding goods over their groins.
Squeezing between cars,
One holds polystyrene model gliders,
Another license stickers,
One, below the red stop-sign,
Holds a poetry book
With my name beneath the title.
He looks like me.
He has my smile tucked within
His left hand shirt pocket.
We retrieve seasonal blankets from the linen closet,
Wear heavy socks that disguise our crippled feet,
Hiding frost marks of where we tread at night.
Sesame buns and bowls of onion soup
Sit on the kitchen table in impatient light
That rushes off, falling over the slope of the horizon -
Missing all trees, anthills and waking noctivagants.
8:10pm, the radio shut off. We stare at the dead
Bar heater on the cold hearth of the fire place
As the gas lamp's flame hums (its blue sternum stiff -
And bright white head dispersing);
Mother cuts the cold with the flick of a page,
The leather cover of her bible frozen in the lap of her
Knotted rug. She whispers Amen with another slice;
Father's ghost sniffs behind the glass -
Revealed between the curtains' gap.
Entangled in the thyme bush lay an adder's slough,
Left there to keep us wary as we plucked the needle leaves.
From the scullery window, overlooking borage and fennel,
Was the view of the pondweed's tall thin stipes.
We'd go there - surrounded by dragonflies and anopheles;
Reap bulrushes' velvet heads, place them in creels of plaited reeds -
Then sit beneath the willow peeling green stalks of papyri,
Drying their pith, in the sun, to stick-pens that snapped with ease.
Within the shallow pool a great lizard lay belly up -
Flies sailed upon the white bloated bulge, and the buoyant under tail
Formed a quay for more flies to land.
We'd smell the stagnant water air, pinch our noses tight,
Hold our breaths then breathe the air again.
Nothing could be wrong, not even the swale's putrid smell
Kept us from doing it all again, the next day with our return;
Reaping bulrushes' heads, barefoot, in the cool mud.
The barefoot pedestrians of Norton town walk the glimmering tar of John O'Groats road, past the small hospital, across the railway track, to the high-density suburbs littered with bottle stores. The streetlamps, orange neons, pave the shadows' path with gold.
At dusk the tar the barefoot residents walk upon shimmers. Some cars drive by - spilling silver on the road; and still they walk - the barefoot residents - past the hall, past an enclosure for vegetable hawkers. They walk on along the street of silver and gold.
They walk to where streetlamps and car lights do not follow, where dust gleans any speckle or glow, along the dusty stretch to where women are elusive shadows and children cough hoarse fruits of phlegm, where no fire burns yet - where houses smell of smoky tin.
Revisiting Hotel Rooms
At night, always the curtains drawn over a wide view of a city without a moon. The beds - always a pale colour. The carpets - a sturdy scrub of deep earth tones, quick foot-steps vacuumed.
No mints beneath the pillows anymore - just dreams cozened by compliment cards, soft music, dimmer-lamps, lifeless reproductions of Gauguin, Klimpt, or watercolour landscapes frozen beneath a floe of framed glass.
Next door is always a couple. They order room service, drink white wine or champagne, fill the passageways with trays of unfinished meals and half empty glasses. They fuck loud - thud against the wall, watch late-night television, sing in the shower; you know them at reception - she holds his arm and whispers in his ear.
When morning comes the light takes time to settle. Keys rattle in the narrow passageways, doors slyly open, trays and sheets are loaded on squeaking trolleys.
You draw the curtains and somehow the windows were never that small, that loud last night; and the streets below, adorned with tiger stripe sun and shadow, are uncomfortably foreign. Unsealing the window all time escapes rashly; and yet I let my sight fall to the ground below - my eyes comb through the intrusion of tall buildings upon the sky.
They dehorned the bulls not far from the house,
By the cattle dip - that was always upwind.
The smell of burning nails would enter the windows,
On early mornings between six and eight.
Father was there - leaning attentively over
Wooden beams painted with carmabellum.
At breakfast he came into the kitchen
Smelling of cattle dung, treated wood, fresh sweat.
He had a full breakfast: bread, tomatoes,
Coffee, and fried eggs.
As we realigned the chains on our bicycles
He casually walked out of the yard,
Back to the paddocks from which the
Smell of smouldering horns came.
We rode down to where he stood,
Leaning over the beams of treated wood;
'Father' we said, 'doesn't that hurt?'
and the labourers laughed -
Calling us varungu,
And we'd hide behind father's sturdy frame
With our cheeks pressed tight on the khaki pockets
That sloped over his buttocks.
He would say 'No', calmly -
And the air filled with the smell of burned hair
Reminding us of grandmother's iron comb
Heating on the burning stove.
The cattle jerked as each one's neck
Was held in the iron girdle,
Their feet stomped, heaving dust to where we stood.
We looked at their eyes, bovine holes of fear;
With our cheeks pressed tight on the khaki trousers
That sloped over father's buttocks.
Captain of the Lighthouse
The late hour trickles to morning. The cattle low profusely by the anthill where brother and I climb and call Land's End. We are watchmen overlooking a sea of hazel-acaciagreen, over torrents of dust whipping about in whirlwinds and dirt tracks that reach us as firths.
We man our lighthouse - cattle as ships. We throw stones as warning lights whenever they come too close to our jagged shore. The anthill, the orris-earth lighthouse, from where we hurl stones like light in every direction.
Tafara stands on its summit speaking in sea-talk, Aye-aye me lad - a ship's a-coming! And hurls a rock at the dumb cow sailing in. Her beefy hulk stupidly jolts and turns. Aye, Captain, another ship saved! I cry and furl my fingers into an air-long telescope - searching for more vessels in the day-night.
Now they low on the anthill, stranded in the dark. Their sonorous cries haunt through the night. Aye, methinks, me miss my brother, Captain of the lighthouse, set sail from land's end into the deepest seventh sea.
Father hangs in the open closet,
A body with no hands or legs.
His shoes - in the shadow beneath;
Side by side, shoelaces tied -
Feet could still be in them.
It hangs like a carcass in a cold-room.
A black piece of meat - headless.
Hung by a hook curling over the rail -
Shoulders drooping, a numbered
White tag pinned to the lapel.
I shan't sleep tonight - staring there,
Staring into that vault where things are hung;
The last thing of him, the one thing I will never
Dare to wear.
The breast pocket could be a heart. Empty, still.
The Small Room
The men with the same face are talking all at once,
One is a theorist, another is a theorist,
The rest are all theorists.
Behind the unsealed door a masked man listens -
The sophist with club in hand;
He too is a theorist. And somewhat drunk.
What name shall I give the deaf man
Who closes his eyes and places
His fingers in his ears -
Neither wise nor foolish,
He faces the outward view of the same
Street which the blind man, beneath
The balcony, has discovered and rediscovered
Over the years with his hand over his mouth.
And eyes bursting open.
The splashes were throngs of panic in themselves, accompanied by Mother's pleas for help - that night when all calm shattered like frozen glass. We rushed out to find Father in the pool submerging himself against all resistance, wrestling with arms trying desperately to pull him out.
The reverend conducted the wedding ceremony before the backdrop of two lions' heads spurting water into both shallow and deep-end. The first marriage in the family, where rings were exchanged and vows spoken in front of the sculpted fountains - the water falling through air, looping into the pool - as blue as truth and nearly as clear.
It was a concrete excavation filled with a blue cool heaven, our saviour from the heat and long weeks of boredom; during the holidays we'd splash them away, being as innovative as ever, killing time, cursing the clouds till evening came.
It also killed. When the pool was out, unattended, its murky green surface shone like despair. Insects, bloated frogs, bobbing rats cordoned with thick slimy sludge about the fur, usually succumbed to its open trap. And our dog, the one we loved for years, he too was found there one morning by the gardener - afloat like a buoyant ill omen.
Snakes would dial on its surface, in the sun, like lightning through an opal sky. Ladders of frogs' eggs failed to join everything, but hung horizontal as though the surface had a height you could climb.
At night was the music; amphibians croaking as though they sung for dear life. And as the water evaporated away the sound echoed more so, deeply - as though someone turned up the volume, gradually ...
Now it lies empty, no one swims, no one is here to swim. The lions' heads, mounted on stone, are silent - their hollowed out eyes stare into the orchard where grass and weeds engulf the fruit-trees as the sun sets behind them, casting their shadows into the stained empty hull where the echoes of rustling leaves can sometimes be heard.
There was something mystical about it, the way the sun pierced the foliage - diamond blades of amber shafting through the soft ground bedded with pine needles.
Perhaps it was a secrecy in the shadows or the sweet sticky perfume exuding from the barks, or the way the wind breathed through the cover, with a serene winter-'hush'.
'Come out, come out wherever you are!' The whole grove remained deathly quiet, the bed of needles cushioned every movement - you were playing the game with ghosts who did not ever want to be found.
Six Francs Seventy Five
We bought wine from the supermarket, not far from the Seine, where a deaf teller read our lips. It was the cheapest wine we could find. The teller always smiled - as each time we handed him the right amount in silver coins that jingled into his palm: six francs seventy-five.
Then we'd return late in the evening, fumbling through rich Parisians who made their way to restaurants for dinner. We returned for more wine and entered the supermarket.
In summer you always wore an old white T-shirt, time nibbled holes where your shoulder bones stuck out; we looked like vagrants, and you loved the feeling of being that free. In winter you wore your thick cashmere overcoat, dipped your hands within its pockets - searching for warmth; your face was prickled pale. In winter we dressed expensively.
Each and every night we'd pay at the counter where the deaf teller looked at us inquiringly. Remember, last summer, when we figured out what he asked behind his mute lips, 'why not buy four bottles in the late afternoon rather than come twice?' You laughed, and the following night returned to his inquiring face and said, 'It's our habit', and left it at that.
From then on, every night he'd look inquiringly and shrug his shoulders as the change jingled into his palm; he'd lift his finger, wait for us to say, 'It's our habit', and then laugh silently, air gushing back and forth from his mouth. It became our game, to return and play this ritual - the deaf teller, you and I; and all we needed was six seventy-five.
Then you left and only the two of us remained behind - the deaf teller and I. It wasn't quite the same, though he and I still managed to laugh as the change jingled into his palm. Not knowing for sure, I think he too missed you.
On the last night, before I left and went away, his eyes and mine met as the coins slid into his open hand. I heard him speak beneath his quiet stare as we smiled, 'It's your habit, and exactly six francs seventy-five'. I shook his hand, tapped him on the shoulder, he wrote his name and address on a tattered piece of paper - tapped me back and smiled.
I sent him a postcard last year and still await his reply.
(Untitled - from October)
One by one Father would take us into his arms, cradle us for a moment - rocking us; then from his god-like strength we were flung like memories into the unsure as we soared up, fell and splashed into the pool.
There was a safety and imagined danger in this game; he stood at the edge of the pool like a machine manufacturing joy as we ran into his arms like components into an assembly line, to be hurled into absolute completion, again.
This poem is taken from PN Review 140, Volume 27 Number 6, July - August 2001.