Only a nine year old understands the power of 10
The night before his birthday,
“I don’t want to be ten,” he says.
The number 10 circles his room
touching toddler counting books
hands he learned to add on
now holding tight to mine,
animals paired on the mobile.
It circles and multiplies into centuries,
millenia, transforms luminous stars
on his ceiling into a universe.
The number 10 won’t stop there.
It adds noughts until it makes a number
neither of us can say, as if he’d kept
his finger on the calculator,
stood two mirrors opposite each other
their twin tunnels surprising us
with the view they offer into eternity.
My daughter closes the door to her room,
pins on a note: “No Jackies”. I knock
but she won’t open, screams: “Go away!”
and I stand on the stairs, summoning up
mornings she’s walked from her bed
to ours, hair tangled around her face,
announced by a loose floorboard in the hall.
She brings her warmth and sleep,
slides back into both as she squeezes
between us, arms flung out and kicks us
to the sides until one of us gives in
and traces her steps to the space she’s left
by a pink cushion, dolls without heads,
hairbands, loose beads: a tourist
in this island of hers, unsure of the geography
but trying to read the map of roads
and bridleways, directions she leaves
in notes around the house. Her territory’s
marked out in lists, of best friends, love
letters, apologies, “I hate mum” copied out
five times. I stand outside her door
with the other Jackies; know I shouldn’t disturb
her as she draws her maps, feathered
coastlines with bays named after cats.
There’s Claire’s Accessories and Butlins.
I have scraps of these maps in my purse,
sometimes find one in a notebook,
halfway through. One day she’ll come across them
as I do, in the treasure box with tags
from her newborn wrists, milk teeth, school reports.
She’ll visit those places again, maybe remember
me outside the door calling: “Please let me in.”
The other boy
A smell so fine, unknown, nothing can wash it off
until it’s erased by his own perfume, created
like memory. A secondhand jacket, bought
to replace the one he lost, “still smells
of that other boy.” Childhood places
he’ll always remember - that tree on a hill,
a path through the park, a view of oast houses
at the roundabout on the way to his grandma’s
for Sunday lunch. Just as every woman recognises
her baby’s smell even better than his cry,
my son, like a spaniel at Heathrow pursuing
the scent of poppies, can detect another boy.
Watch him line up at his peg after PE
in a class of 10 year olds sniffing clothes
which cover the year six corridor.
And so he sniffs again, wondering
if the other boy’s a skater too, what face
goes with that absent embroidered name?
Now see them, in the Royal Albert Hall,
reviving smell concertos, chanting
for their favourites - heavy chocolate, mixed
with vanilla and the beach on a hot day,
farts, blueberry flavoured lipgloss.
All the impossible combinations they’ll create.
A pair of sequinned slippers on the floor.
A rug thrown over a chair. The cat washing
herself. My son looks out of his bedroom window
for a fox. There’s blood on the sheets. Twice
last night I was up, rinsing it off my legs.
What matters is the moment you know
someone has died. My daughter’s lips
are chapped with cold. She pushes her hands
up my sleeve to warm them. Betty’s back
in South Africa with her brother’s ashes.
One day we’ll be able to talk to the dead
I remember once hearing
you could capture a voice
tracking soundwaves through space.
That all we’ve said is still travelling;
admissions, lies, promises
we make when there’s no witness.
What a party, untangling
lost conversations of Vikings, Koisan,
instructions on how to make an axe,
messages from one valley to the next,
a confession soaked up by granite walls,
every version of the same story, ever told.
After all, we already own their faces,
the delicate embroidery of their DNA,
we can spy on the dead in videos
of days when their hair still grows.
So stand outside on a quiet evening.Watch the first stars. Listen to them.
In a forest of fever trees there’d be no night.
At full moon, it would glow like a city,
illuminate every path and nest.
See how the ants crumble its bark to dust,
carry it underground. In a forest of fever trees,
there’d be no shadows. Its light is lemon
like a northern sun. It should be growing
where there’s snow, alongside silver birch,
for winter days, and nights which go on too long.
Going to Venda
The sun, red, sits on the fields, waiting
to be kicked into another time zone.
I’m tired. Let’s build the long thatched house
with a porch held up with branches, inside,
20 drums waiting to be played. Let’s pick
mangoes and paw paw from our orchard,
you can fry the silver fish a boy’s caught
in the dam, the children can play with grey
kittens and we’ll watch the enormous moon
rise again, stare towards the Milky Way,
the Southern Cross and Ursae Majoris,
its two planets in orbit 51 light years away.
Let’s enjoy the smell of that herb you burn
to chase away the blues. Play me a rhythm,
I’ll imagine the saxophone’s stories
wandering in from woods behind us;
You may hear dogs
call to each other
but light talks for you;
the full moon’s shadows,
a dark path to the loo
among maize and lemon trees.
Wood burns for supper,
goats settle down for the night
and you listen to clouds
forced towards you,
heat gather for tomorrow,
dust ready to rise
and settle. Outside,
the sky shared
you celebrate the absence
When the drum in the cellar
is brought out into the sun
it remembers the Soutpansberg
Mountains, where it learned
its deepest tones.
It remembers how it listened
to the tribal council discuss
village politics in its shade,
the four four rhythm
of a steady middle aged walk,
the offbeat of a child.
When the drum in the cellar
is brought out into the sun
it demands to go to the beach
and learn how waves are pulled
by the moon, the crunch of feet
on stones, so it can make the most
of its new life. It’ll make you piss
blood, it’ll give you blisters
it’ll hurt your ears and back.
This is not much to pay, the drum
feels for what it gives up.
The kids don’t want to see
the Museum of Apartheid
with its room full of nooses,
they want Thunder Mountain,
the descent into a mine.
Their African grandmother queues,
anticipating the sweet fear
of plunging in a mine wagon
towards a cool stream.
Their English grandmother,
whose lost brother died here,
a mine engineer,
is queueing too,
above a lattice-work of shafts -
the pits, the tunnels
beneath both families
at the molten core.
|The Museum of Apartheid, next to Gold Reef City,|
where there's also a popular casino
Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn
It’s a rock with a small metal plate on.
We can’t get out of the car -
it’s too dangerous in a game park.
So we keep the engine running
and snap the rock. Hiding
in the undergrowth is that moon
tasting of mango, smelling of red earth
after a thunderstorm. It surrounds itself
with mosquitoes big as footballs,
the smell of spices on London wharves.
Thousands of chickens and goats
graze under centuries old trees.
In dried up rivers, wide as cities,
frogs are buried, waiting for rain.
Listen to the children bang tin cans
into cars, women weaving baskets
from insulating wire. On pavements
around the moon are rows of sweetcorn
baking in charcoal. Guns too, laid out
on bright cloth, mobile phones
and enormous wardrobes, big enough
to live in. The sun’s eclipsed by this moon,
and the millions of stars none of us
will travel to, or all of us will travel to.
I take back
the sun on Ellis Park Stadium’s three blue pools
the sun on the road in the Kruger, so hot I dance
the sun baking clay pots and houses to a hammer note
the sun ripening sweet mangoes, exactly the size of a hand
the sun catching crystal in paths through the Maluti mountains
the sun suddenly leaving, giving way to the moon
the sun pushed out of the sky by lightning
the sun drying us out after another afternoon storm
the sun painting stripes on shoulders, around eyes
the sun in Jecksani’s ice cold coke - the blood of Christ
the sun sneaking into the fridge as the door’s opened
the sun in beads threaded so carefully into bracelets
the sun in the madness of the sculptor’s wife
the sun in the silence of their daughter’s back
The dust of that remote village is in your hair.
A bag full of mangoes, guava,
peaches from your mother’s garden,
cooked in syrup; names on your tongue -
telephone numbers, songs I’ve never heard.
Your hair’s wild, beard straggly. Birds
escape as you clean your teeth and panic
in our house, every window stuck shut.
One by one they disappear. Spiders the size
of a hand crawl from your shoes and hiss.
On the kitchen floor, a caterpillar concertinas
and straightens, looking for masonja trees
beside the unnamed roads in your irises,
overhung with thorns, tracks only goats can use.
You carry the darkness of December’s eclipse,
in your pupils. They release that earlier eclipse,
in Devon, when I too felt the cold of the night,
boat lights sparked on and birds went quiet.
You pull us into a circle - 150 pipers at a barracks
in Messina. An 80 year old woman claps
and dances. I saw none of this, but on the phone
I heard music, people chatting sometimes
in Zulu, or Tsonga. Mostly when we talked, though
you could have been in town or down the road.
And me? I spread myself over our bed, changed
the rules. Do you see the timetables scrawled
on the walls? We swap late Christmas presents
like strangers, wary, gauging reactions. I apologise
for the cold as if it’s my fault. Your words come out
in the wrong order; English forgotten, you translate
each heat drenched phrase too literally for me.
We’ll need an interpreter for weeks.
So we lassoo each other to the old fighting pit,
tie each other to the fence with the same knots,
lash until the other’s showing teeth, spit
as we re-open, rediscover, our ritual cuts.
Now, those monkeys, porcupines and snakes
are leaving, a fish eagle hovers over terrace
houses off the seafront, along Lewes Road.
I’ve spread out all the food I know you’ve missed -
olives, bread, houmous, cheese, salad and nuts,
coleslaw, plum tomatoes, vegetable puffs.
And with it, slices of dense paw paw; its lushseeds containing the orchard you planted for us.
Marauder, Liberator, Vampire.
We released myths into the atmosphere
the way in 1783, Montgolfier
first set free his paper bag.
We invested machines
with the power of weather - Hurricane,
Thunderbolt and Whirlwind, as we name
our kids after singers and queens.
We envied predatory birds, the Gull,
Eagle, Sparrowhawk, enough to borrow
their identities; and the strongest god,
Hercules, carried to Olympus on a cloud.
A Valkyrie was among the first to fly;
her name, “chooser of the slain” a premonition
of the Blitz and Dresden or the last calls
to earth from those infamous planes.
Over shots of red wine, supper of baguette
and mussels, the fishermen are curious
about visitors who occupy their island’s
only rentable cottage. Its long picture window
is a cinema screen, advertising a table, crowded
with artichokes, Muscadet, a box of camembert
from Normandy. Tonight, two young women,
two men, sit by the fire topless, playing cards.
The women are warming their breasts.
When they look out of the window
they don’t see fishermen staring in,
hear breakers bang at the cliffs, they see
themselves, against the dark. A storm
brings the fishermen to look, while the men
stroke the women’s shoulders, and they take
on colours of the fire, as if they could set light
to anything they come near. The fishermen,
though, own the sea, the night. They can pull
the sky down to cover them. They can drop a net
down to catch anything. Women and fire.
We start with white
but as the evening grows
the red is slopped
over tablecloth and clothes
which piece by piece
end up on the floor
the bottle, still half full,
the bed, a little more
Each time I hear him
on the stairs, arrive home,
I want to delay the moon.
Full, he draws my blood
until the house
erects a cordon
around itself. I live those
in silence, deference, stealth.
One moon too many,
into sweet Moscatel - Temazepan.
The hatchback clear, I lay blankets,
towels, proofs of my fear,
and lead him to the car,
promising unimagined thrills.
This common land is SSI
with sundews, the only peat
for miles. So like the rusty
swords, my love, that this bog
preserves - you and your
Tuning the engine with a tuning fork
Piffard couldn’t fly without singing.
But he had to be in tune
and each engine
hits its own note
like a peewit or lark.
The pilot sings of how he flattens