Poems

DOGE

A blaze of blue, that ultramarine,
costlier than gold, carried as chunks of lapis
down treacherous mountains in Afghanistan
then rowed over violent seas to Venice.

White robe of Indian silk stitched with gold,
with flowers and fruit and leaves of light,
like sunset over snow, rich but cold.
Hooded, piercing eyes of the head of state.

Too old for the sword, but you see his active days
in the turn of his head, like a hawk. He saw
galleys on fire, corpses bobbing in blue bays,
then came to power through finance and the law.
A thin smile, a sensitive, scholarly face,
a raptor’s beak. That calm, pitiless gaze.

 

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EGYPTIAN  LABOURERS

Naked under the sun,
patient as earth itself, these men,
inheritors of nothing, worked
with sickles of flint teeth
to cut their master’s corn.

Better the work of the fishponds, wading
among cool fish, though bitten by leeches,
their eyes hurt by splintering light;
worse the quarries, digging stone
with hoes of wood or picks of bone,
breaking up stone with stone.

Humble, soon forgotten,
like earthworms ploughing earth,
like insects labouring,
they lifted pyramids to the stars,
then walked away and left them to dead kings.
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PROTEAS

Leaves like sculptures in dark bronze,
enormous drying blooms, each head
a clutch of clubs furred like tarantulas legs:
my sister sent them from South Africa.
Mum loved them, messengers
of all she’d left there – fever heat,
cicadas shrieking at Christmas, thunder, dust,
the violence she hated,
but also light, space,
red kaffirbooms and aloes, dusty grass of the veld,
long-shadowed afternoons on trips to the Drakensberg Mountains,
and all the small-town, homely things;
classrooms at GHS, girls in green,
Granny waving from her stoep, Granddad hoeing his mealies.

Those are my images. I don’t know what Mum saw,
arranging proteas in bowls on the table.

She lay on the couch in their shadow,
wincing with pain when she moved,
talking about our children and our futures,
delicate and dying, grey
face merging with grey hair,
light as a wisp
of willow herb blowing away.

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EGRETS

(South Africa, middle fifties)

In the gentle light of evening,
flocks of snow-white egrets came.
Every day it was the same:
as my dad and I were walking,

thrilled with joy, we’d watch them landing –
beauty, grace, and perfect aim.
In the gentle light of evening,
flocks of snow-white egrets came.

Once we saw a chaingang marching:
Zulu convicts, tired and lame.
I felt sick with fear and shame.
They passed far off. One was shouting.

In the gentle light of evening,
flocks of snow-white egrets came.
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CHIESA DI SANTA ANASTASIA, VERONA

In pink-suffused and blood-red stone
it glows with welcome. From the door,
admire the high roof and the pillars’ striding,
measured, confident, strong,
over the patterned floor.

There’s a hunchback under the font. He crouches
on a block of stone at the pillar’s base.
Feel how the muscles bulging in
those stubby arms achingly strain
against the skin tight coarse brown sleeves
of the marble suit he’s wearing. Holes in its knees,
pulled open like raw sores, expose
the flesh, death white. As his twisted neck
carries the font’s unbearable weight,
he barely breathes and his pupils, shrunk
to crazy pinpricks, stare at the floor
as if not seeing it, his brain
absorbed in living through the pain
one second more, one more. Whatever man
could make stone live like that
had God in him.

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MOSHOESHOE AND THE CANNIBALS

Loathsome in skirts of human skin, they slunk self-consciously
through the hostile ranks of Mokoteli.
As they knelt at Moshoeshoe’s feet, under his mountain,
their breath still stank of the human flesh they’d eaten.
Reaching his hand to touch their fearful heads,
he alone, in all that silent crowd,
could feel how those creatures, demonised by hunger,
might even now be human.

[My long narrative poem about Moshoeshoe appears in my booklet Their Mountain Mother]

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HEAVENLY BODIES

As goddesses, cloud damsels, court ladies, demons, queens,
swarm in the nude on temple walls, their billowy breasts and thighs
involved in sacred mysteries
above the heads of awestruck devotees,
I picture the maharajah’s wives playing between beds of lilies.

Naked in jewelled belts, warmed by the touch of his eyes
that shine like hidden suns through private screens,
they vie to display their pliant forms, the shapeliness and size
of breasts and quivering thighs, leaping as the flung ball flies,
pursuing one another, fleeing with shrill cries.

It’s different in our gym.
When Miss Patel comes in,
strips to her vest and stretches, ready
– among suddenly self-conscious men –
to hone her abs, her glutes, her thighs,

though the mirror walls are alive with eyes,
her face is still as clear-cut stone; the lasers of her gaze
are locked on the figure straight ahead, the vision of herself,
pounding the treadmill belt to do her k’s.

 

 

You can find other poems by clicking on the links below:

 

Nutshells and Nuggets

French Literary Review

Acumen

The Interpreter’s House

Brando’s Hat