Author:

Walking Around after Neruda

It happens that I am tired of being a woman.
It happens that I cannot walk past country clubs
or consulates without considering the hags,
skinny as guitar strings, foraging in the rubbish.

All along the streets there are forlorn mansions
where girls have grown up and vanished.
I am vanishing too. I want nothing to do with gates
nor balconies nor flat-screen TVs.

It happens that I am tired of my veins and my hips,
and my navel and my sorrows.
It happens that I am tired of being a woman.

Just the same it would be joyous
To flash my legs at the drivers playing chess,
to lead the old man at house 38
onto the tarred road to lie down
under the laburnum dripping gold.

I do not want to keep growing in this skin,
to swell to the size of a mausoleum.
I do not want to be matriarch or mother.
Understand, I am only in love
with these undrunk breasts.

And when Monday arrives with the usual
battalion of pear-shaped wives who do battle
in grocery store aisles,
I’ll be stalking the fields of concrete and ash,

the days pushing me from street
to street, leading me elsewhere –
to houses without ceiling fans
where daughters disappear and the walls weep.

I will weep too for high-heeled beauty queens,
for sewing machines and chickens in cages.
I will walk with my harness
and exiled feet through cravings
and renunciations, through heaps
of midnight wreckages
where magistrates of crows gather
to sing the same broken song
of unforgiving loss.

Contract

Dear Reader,
I agree to turn my skin inside out,
to reinvent every lost word, to burnish,
to steal, to do what I must
in order to singe your lungs.
I will forgo happiness
stab myself repeatedly,
and lower my head into countless ovens.
I will fade backwards into the future
and tell you what I see.
If it is bleak, I will lie
so that you may live
seized with wonder.
If it is miraculous I will
send messages in your dreams,
and they will flicker
as a silvered cottage in the woods,
choked with vines of moonflower.
Don’t kill me, Reader.
This neck has been working for years
to harden itself against the axe.
This body, meagre as it is,
has lost so many limbs to wars, so many
eyes and hearts to romance. But love me,
and I will follow you everywhere –
to the dusty corners of childhood,
to every downfall and resurrection.
Till your skin becomes my skin.
Let us be twins, our blood
thumping after each other
like thunder and lightning.
And when you put your soft head
down to rest, dear Reader,
I promise to always be there,
humming in the dungeons
of your auditory canals—
an immortal mosquito,
hastening you towards fury,
towards incandescence.

The Art of Losing

It begins with the death
of the childhood pet –
the dog who refuses to eat
for days, the bird or fish
found sideways, dead.
And you think the hole
in the universe,
caused by the emission
of your grief, is so deep
it will never be rectified.
But it’s only the start
of an endless litany
of betrayals:
the cruelty of school,
your first bastard boyfriend,
the neighbour’s son
going slowly mad.
You catch hold of losing,
and suddenly, it’s everywhere –
the beggars in the street,
the ravage of a distant war
in your sleep.
And when grandfather
hobbles up to the commode
to relieve himself like a girl
without bothering to shut
the door, you begin to realize
what it means to exist
in a world without.
People around you grow old
and die, and it’s explained
as a kind of going away –
to God, or rot, or to return
as an ant. And once again,
you’re expected to be calm
about the fact that you’ll never see
the dead again,
never hear them enter a room
or leave it,
never have them touch
the soft parting of your hair.
Let it be, your parents advise:
it’s nothing.
Wait till your favourite aunt
keels over in a shopping mall,
or the only boy you loved
drives off a cliff and survives,
but will never walk again.
That’ll really do you in,
make you want to slit your wrists
(in a metaphorical way, of course,
because you’re strong and know
that life is about surviving these things).
And almost all of it might
be bearable if it would just end
at this. But one day your parents
will sneak into the garden
to stand under the stars,
and fade, like the lawn,
into a mossy kind of grey.
And you must let them.
Not just that.
You must let them pass
into that wilderness
and understand that soon,
you’ll be called aside
to put away your paper wings,
to fall into that same oblivion
with nothing.
As if it were nothing.

THE DAY WE WENT TO THE SEA

The day we went to the sea
mothers in Madras were mining
the Marina for missing children.
Thatch flew in the sky, prisoners
ran free, houses danced like danger
in the wind. I saw a woman hold
the tattered edge of the world
in her hand, look past the temple
which was still standing, as she was –
miraculously whole in the debris of gaudy
South Indian sun. When she moved
her other hand across her brow,
in a single arcing sweep of grace,
it was as if she alone could alter things,
bring us to the wordless safety of our beds.

Love Poem

Ultimately, we will lose each other
to something. I would hope for grand
circumstance — death or disaster.
But it might not be that way at all.
It might be that you walk out
one morning after making love
to buy cigarettes, and never return,
or I fall in love with another man.
It might be a slow drift into indifference.
Either way, we’ll have to learn
to bear the weight of the eventuality
that we will lose each other to something.
So why not begin now, while your head
rests like a perfect moon in my lap,
and the dogs on the beach are howling?
Why not reach for the seam in this South Indian
night and tear it, just a little, so the falling
can begin? Because later, when we cross
each other on the streets, and are forced
to look away, when we’ve thrown
the disregarded pieces of our togetherness
into bedroom drawers and the smell
of our bodies is disappearing like the sweet
decay of lilies — what will we call it,
when it’s no longer love?

Ode To Drowning

is it or is it not
the cold monsoon
bearing the shape
of my dark lord,
speaking of his cruelty
his going away?
— Nammalvar

i.

This is an ode
to be sung
in the latest hour of night

when the rain clouds
have gathered
over shingled roofs

and blue-skinned gods
with magical flutes
seduce the virgins to dance

For there is no love
without music
No rain

without peacocks
perched
in branches

of sandalwood trees
with plumes
of angels

and voices of thieves
pleading for their loves
to return

ii.

If rain signals
the lover’s return
then I am lost

in the desert
burning
like the brain fever bird

looking for images of you
through mesquite
and teak

Because there’s no sign
of you
or what I know

to be as you
only clouds adrift
in a vanquished sky

like vines
of throbbing arms
and mouths

drinking at the shore
intoxicated
with the night

iii.

There are as many ways
of yearning
as there are ways for rain

to fall
slow
incessant
gentle
squalling
melancholy
warm

It’s that old idea
of drowning
in another to find the self

the compliance
that water gives in form
and depth

to something else
But what if the humming bees
are quiet

and the garlands of jasmine
have been laid out
to dry

How long to wait
for everything to turn
heavy with flower
immodestly green
washed of dirt

iv.

It’s desire after all
that spins us
Demands to be praised

as though it were new
like the stillness
before the first monsoon

when the hymen
of the earth
is torn into

and the brazen smell
of damp
fills the air

Must there be surprise
after we’ve thundered
and rolled

and appeased our thirst
when the silence returns
again

In truth
isn’t it a waiting
that never ends

like the chasm between
the cycles of the world
Between separation

and union
longing and abandonment
And somewhere

between the waning
isn’t this what
we’re left with

the music
of uncertainty
the aftertaste of rain

Lament —I

When I see the houses in this city,
the electric gates and uniformed men
employed to guard the riches of the rich,
the gilded columns and gardens,
the boats on water, I wonder,
how to describe my home to you:
the short, mud walls,
the whispering roof, the veranda
on which my whole family
used to spread sheets and sleep.

The year I came to find work in the city,
my wife painted our house white
so it would be brighter than the neighbours’.
I beat her for her foolishness.
The children are hungry, I said,
the cow is old,
the money collector is after my blood,
and you steal like a magpie—
half a month’s wage—to decorate
your nest like a shiny jewel?

The monsoon finally arrived the year I left,
dripped through the thatch,
peeled paint off the walls.
The wells grew full and overflowed.
The farmers rejoiced in the fields.
My son sat with his mouth open
catching drops of water like a frog.
My wife clung to the walls and wept.

When I fall asleep on the pavements
in this city, I try to imagine my wife’s skin
against mine, the kohl in her eyes,
the white walls, the whole village sky
bearing down upon us
with all the weight of the stars.
I think of returning to that life,
but mostly I try to remember
how the world was once.
I want to open my mouth like my son,
and swallow things whole—
feel water filling all the voids,
until I am shaped back into existence.

Contract

Dear Reader,
I agree to turn my skin inside out,
to reinvent every lost word, to burnish,
to steal, to do what I must
in order to singe your lungs.
I will forgo happiness
stab myself repeatedly,
and lower my head into countless ovens.
I will fade backwards into the future
and tell you what I see.
If it is bleak, I will lie
so that you may live
seized with wonder.
If it is miraculous I will
send messages in your dreams,
and they will flicker
as a silvered cottage in the woods,
choked with vines of moonflower.
Don’t kill me, Reader.
This neck has been working for years
to harden itself against the axe.
This body, meagre as it is,
has lost so many limbs to wars, so many
eyes and hearts to romance. But love me,
and I will follow you everywhere –
to the dusty corners of childhood,
to every downfall and resurrection.
Till your skin becomes my skin.
Let us be twins, our blood
thumping after each other
like thunder and lightning.
And when you put your soft head
down to rest, dear Reader,
I promise to always be there,
humming in the dungeons
of your auditory canals—
an immortal mosquito,
hastening you towards fury,
towards incandescence.

Lament —I

When I see the houses in this city,
the electric gates and uniformed men
employed to guard the riches of the rich,
the gilded columns and gardens,
the boats on water, I wonder,
how to describe my home to you:
the short, mud walls,
the whispering roof, the veranda
on which my whole family
used to spread sheets and sleep.

The year I came to find work in the city,
my wife painted our house white
so it would be brighter than the neighbours’.
I beat her for her foolishness.
The children are hungry, I said,
the cow is old,
the money collector is after my blood,
and you steal like a magpie—
half a month’s wage—to decorate
your nest like a shiny jewel?

The monsoon finally arrived the year I left,
dripped through the thatch,
peeled paint off the walls.
The wells grew full and overflowed.
The farmers rejoiced in the fields.
My son sat with his mouth open
catching drops of water like a frog.
My wife clung to the walls and wept.

When I fall asleep on the pavements
in this city, I try to imagine my wife’s skin
against mine, the kohl in her eyes,
the white walls, the whole village sky
bearing down upon us
with all the weight of the stars.
I think of returning to that life,
but mostly I try to remember
how the world was once.
I want to open my mouth like my son,
and swallow things whole—
feel water filling all the voids,
until I am shaped back into existence.

Open Hands

In Nairobi, an albino boy followed me everywhere
Peering at me from behind cupboards and trees,
Chortling with glee: Hello fine!
Here is space. Here is space.

It is open and large and dark here
And I feel open and large and dark.

I’m moving into a scene already imagined,
A life already waiting under the topaz sky,
Under the blue lacquered trees where the dust
Is spiralling up to hide it.

The boy teaches me names of animals.
They are spread out and running under us:
Giraffe, lion, hippopotamus — Twiga, simba, kiboko.

What if it isn’t true that we inherit our homes?
It’s lovely here isn’t, the boy says.
It’s lovely.

So we must make meanings of things:
A carcass of a jackal in a baobab tree,
A man’s fingers pushing up the straps of your maroon dress,
A low wood-beamed room full of misgivings.

The boy holds me in his lanolin arms,
Looks at me as though I were a sheet of glass,
A single antelope facing a row of acacias,
An unending ruinous landscape.

It’s the hardest thing to do —
To take him aside, feel his pigmentless skin —
Explain how there’s so much space
I’ve lost myself.

How I cannot be this woman
Looking to a foreign sky for the day,
Disappeared again, leaving only a dim glow
In my hands to remember it by.

Undertwo

I.
I hold my husband in plastic bags.
He’s whispering like a soft, worn thing,
dropp me here, dropp me gently.

Everything is terribly light — incense,
Ash, the thinness of his voice falling
Into waves, disappearing.

II.

The sea picks up my life,
Empties it across itself.
I see it spilling over, dissolving.
Here are the forgotten parts —
A pink night sky, broken bangles,
A fisherman walking away from the light.

There you are, held up with wind and sails.
If you would turn, you would hear me say,
Come back, my arms ache from all the carrying.
Underneath, you’re lost in a place
Where everything is scraped together
And nothing is thrown back.

You sink. Colours dissolve.
You move hair from your forehead,
Salt from your eyes. You’re left with greys —
Calling out to me, bubbles
Instead of words. It is a silent death:
One I feel before it happens.

III.

Was there a child then? The child I could not have?
With hair that shakes and shines as though a sun
Were gleaming under her roots. I want to stroke her.

Lean over and touch her. Come here, let me hold you.
I want only daughters — a thick rope of black
Around her neck. She calls; the beginning of your name.

If I were really a mother, I would do it quick
And painless, out of love. Take the hair —
Twist, yank, drop; tilt her over like a bag of sand.

It would be done then. There would be less
To clean up. She will never be like me.
The death of her child will kill her.

IV.

If you must collect pictures, take them
When I’m looking away. Here’s a beach again —
The nets spread on the sand drying,
A fish in the corner slapping its tail.

Nothing matters then,
We’ll meet when we’re warm and dry.
Take this picture — my shoulders, the bone,
The shine, the criss-cross of white straps.

V.

I’m eight-years-old, running into the sea.
Run in, my mother says, Go on then like a naked girl.
Nobody cares, nobody’s watching.

The sea pulls me in around the ankles,
Grabs the sand from underneath, shows me
A glimpse of my life, what it will be like later.

It was all calm once, long ago, a teardropp
Between apartment buildings. But here in my life;
Hiss hiss. This one is no good.

This one doesn’t love you.
This one doesn’t know what you need.
Leave, let go, stop.

The frothy fingers at my throat,
The voice pouring into me,
A terrace of vanishing blue.

You will leave this one.
You will leave this place.
For a while you will know nothing.