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Saturday, 27 September 2014

Mother Tongue

All these years, and you would not play it for me.

Sometimes, you would reach for it,

rest it across your thighs, and strum, haphazardly,

a few incomplete chords.


Why won’t you play? I wondered, afraid to ask,

but wishing for it as much as I longed to hear

you speak in your mother tongue.


(You were washing the dishes,

and looking out the window-

Say something for me?

And, gently, you spoke words

that swooped lazily across the sky

caught low in my backyard.

I asked what you had said,

and you told me you had made a poem

about the playful sweep of a brown bird

from walnut tree to roof.)


One time, you plucked carefully,

with the gentlest of moth feet,

and you sang a lullaby.

But, oh! so quickly, it was over,

and all that was left behind

was uncertainty,

the way that you can hear a windchime

in the distance, and stop,  in silence,

to wait, unsure, for the sound to repeat itself.


I don’t know why you decided,

after so long,

to lift the timber torso onto your lap

and start to play,

with your big, calloused hands-

the big-knuckled, square hands of a

hardworking man.

Your square fingertips fumbled the strings

and you bent your silver-fox head forward

and started to whistle- breathily-

the tune of a sad and haunting song.

And then you started to sing.


And then it was one song after the other,

and, soon, I sang along with you,

and, after all these years, it was a communion,

it was the blameless coming together

we had never expected to have.


I didn’t want it to stop.

It was like when you find a white wallaby

grazing in your backyard by the sea, on an island,

in the dark, and you stand, frozen,

your bare feet on buffalo  grass already icy with frost,

and you hold your breath,

not wanting to startle the creature-

alert, and white as a bowl of milk in the night,

and poised, ready to halt, to look in your direction

and spring away, barely ruffling the leaf litter



like one of those fleeting things

that you know may never happen again,

but that remain in your memory,

glowing and milk-white.





Aloneness Took Me

I should have done this before:

I should have let the light in-

its eggshell blue.

I should have let the new morning in.

I should have seen the branches

of the old paperbark tree

shifting, should have seen the borrowed flush

of the sky cast over the sea.


I have been closeted with my aloneness

like a bride on her honeymoon.

I have been  adjusting

to the smell of aloneness on me,

to the strange, intrusive stickiness

of our embrace.


Aloneness thought he had me, at last,

all to himself.

Aloneness was greedy.

He used me up.


One long, dry summer,

we were as close

as an electric storm on the way,

and the sweet, toasty smell of your

corn husks hanging in my pantry

was the perfume of a dusty, Southern longing.

I thought you an old man-

selfish and virile-

but really only sixty-three.

I once cut your sparse, grey hair,

while I secretly bled,

repelled by the deep, ingrained cracks

in the leathery skin

of your sun-toughened neck.

We met for bitter coffee, most weeks,

and you brought me piles of library books

smelling of applewood smoke,

and you lent me a recording

of Spanish songs se llama ‘Cantemos en Espanol’

(El Unicornio, Ojala, La Maza)…

I used to drink gin and smoke bindies

and listen to Mercedes Sosa’s

beautiful, sad groanings

in my orange vinyl and plywood caravan-

would lie weeping, heavy, lethargic,

my inner thighs itching with sweat

on the orange foam mattress,

and I’d be filled to a hot aching

with a new desire,

and with the sweet, burnt dust-memory

of corn shucks.

Secretly, I would play a tape

on which you’d recorded yourself

reading ‘Sunstone’ in your graveled tones

(or perhaps it was Borges…),

the Spanish words a sand-sifting, a delicious seduction,

a secret fever that I kept hidden.

You were almost indifferent to me-

I knew that-

but it seemed you had dryly breathed me back to life.

My troubled core an earth-oven of longing,

the aftermath of my closetings was always tainted

with the smoky, toasted musk of corn husks.



In the tomb of Saint John many find nothing but manna...

...for some men say his body was translated to Paradise.  And you must understand that Saint John had his grave made there while he was alive and laid himself in it alive; and therefore some say he did not die, but rests there until the Day of Judgement.  And indeed there is there a great marvel, for men can see the earth of the tomb many a time stir and shift, as if there were a living thing underneath.

Silk Road

Chinese dulcimer fingers deserts of rubble,

stones between the toes of tired camels,

and a setting sun near midnight, when, finally,

the air softens like dried tea dampened with brine.

The mothers fill their cheeks and spit tannin

onto their babies’ oiled arms, legs, creases.

Today, I touched your buttocks and your inner thigh

with my toes;

to me your buttocks are like bread loaves,

and I can’t get by for a day, without having them nearby.

How I love to sleep with the window open,

and the air undulating over me.

It is a rudimentary lovemaking-

the cool sliding of the night air over me.

When I wake, my hand always seeks my breast

in a benediction- it is a comfort

to remember my breasts;

it is a comfort, to stir in the night

and to feel the touch of the green-blue air,

to feel the black shadow of the trees,

black in the night,

deep in the night,

moving just enough, in the damp.


I could be in a tent in any desert;

I think I was born with a tent in my heart,

in the way that Greek boys are born

with a ship in their salt hearts.

I could be under muslin in any desert;

I could be breathing in the smoke of dung or of tamarisk;

I could be listening to the harsh sound

of the fellahin’s song;

I could be lying back, looking up at the sky,

reclining to the scratching and padding

of elegant, calloused fingers

on fish-skin drums.

I could be shuffling my leathery feet in the dust,

while the tamarind of the sunset lights up tiny motes

and purple puffs of fine talc.

Once upon a time,

you walked the markets with your man-friends,

your face covered in beard,

your body clothed in a long shirt,

holding hands,

sitting to drink mint tea.

Mater Misericordiae

How to let go?

how to breathe again?

how to unlock the tiny door

to the Tabernacle of my lungs?


How to let the tiny bird of my breath

out through the open door

of its wicker cage?

how to let the flapping birds of my breaths

explode from my belly

like Tarkovsky’s swallows

from Our Lady’s heavy skirts?


Oh, let it go, let it go!

The cage isn’t made from wicker but from pride;

the door isn’t locked with metal

but with anger.


Let them fly, let them fly!

The little birds butt against the walls

of conceit and hubris

woven together into an armour

that binds the spirit tighter

than a torturer’s iron corset.


Let them fly, let them fly!

Oh, let them fly!

Old Love

Sometimes it seems

that the world is full of old love-

men in handspun jumpers,

women in berets,

old people trudging the sand;

old men at the wheels of their cars;

tiny women slouched next to them

barely  able to see over their car bonnets;

cranky old men,

their dentures loose in their mouths,

sitting on the edge of their beds

where beautiful old ladies lounge

like odalisques,

their faces radiant with intimacies;

a gaggle of old people up the far end

of the beach,

while muscular dogs

lunge into the waves;

an untidiness of gulls

littering the air like

so many paper scraps

thrown to the wind.