WORK IN PROGRESS - poems and prose

The collective noun for a group of cormorants is a gulp! These are
regulars at the Marina in Brighton. 
Prose

I call it 'the South African book' and sometimes 'the bloody book' because the title for this work in progress has changed three times from Venda Sun (my favourite but impractical) to Road from the North (lazy and boring, I decided) and now The Birds Carry a River (a phrase from a poem of mine), which has a little more movement and life in it, plus that element so essential to an Aquarian, water.

I am on a second major edit but am under no illusions that it will change and change and change some more. What's most important, though, at this stage is I feel I know more about it now. Before I dithered when someone asked what it was about. Now I can say, well it's a travel memoir about going back to the same country four times over 18 years, because my children needed to know their family and their heritage.
African grandmother's house in Orange Farm, also 2004
She is on the far right, next to her is Joyce her neighbour

It's a start. And strange coincidences happen. Recent Airbnb guests - a woman and her 17-year-old daughter were visiting Brighton from Germany purely to go to Charleston farmhouse. The girl was doing a project on Vanessa Bell. When the woman rang me before they arrived, she said she was nervous, she'd never been to England because for most of her life as a mother the family had spent every holiday in Croatia, her husband's birthplace. It was so the children could know their grandmother and his family.

When she said that, without prompting, without knowing me or anything about my family it was like hearing a small piece of a wooden puzzle fit into place.

Mrisi and Giya in 2004, visiting Noria Mabasa,
renowned South African potter. She waters
her garden from the river we look to. 

Poems

Since Woman's Head as Jug, I've had new poems published by Mslexia, The Dark Horse, Magma, The North, The Rialto, Warwick Review, Wenlock Poetry Festival Anthology 2015, Boscombe Revolution and The Needlewriters Anthology 2015. Two poems, The Origins of Music and In the Library of Dust, have been published online in Killer Whale Journal. Two more poems are forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review.

The South African poems

This batch sustains a theme that began with a substantial number of poems in my second collection Party in 2000. Those poems recorded many impressions of my first trip to South Africa in 1994 with Risenga Makondo, my partner at the time and our two children. That was the year of the first elections, the year the children were able to meet their South African family.

It seems that every collection since has featured more poems from this country that became so important to me because of my children's heritage, because of the family I became part of when I met Risenga in Brighton. In 2017, an anthology of poems celebrating the life of the American poet Gwendolyn Brooks, a poet whose work I admire enormously, will come out. In it there's a poem of mind based on one of Brooks' own poems about Johannesburg. The Golden Shovel Anthology, New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks is edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith.
Two women from the village of Nwamatatane in the north of South Africa.

Axes

I hear dogs hunting at dawn, the puppy whimpering
outside our door. A boy from the village has taken its mother. 
Around the fire last night we listened to the two of them 
crash through the bush, the puppy yelping, trapped somewhere. 
Was she teaching it her paths, where bush pigs graze? 
We shone torches and called, threw bones into the dark. 
This morning the pup cringes out of reach. I find leftovers, persuade 
it to stay with me when everyone leaves - and all afternoon, axes 

knock at the bark, the heart of wild fig, ironwood, sweet thorn, 
violet trees, that contain cures for everything: wounds, cuts,
eyes closed by pus, gonorrhoea. Cures are not what these men
are here for, disturbing the bush-baby in its hollow, risking hornets
and wild bees. They travel from villages where trees have vanished.
Their rhythm keeps perfect time – certain as hunger and thirst.

(Mslexia magazine 2014)

As we drive away from Orange Farm

they walk out of the night, following a fence,
an invisible path, or halting at crossroads
to hold cigarettes for sale, one by one, invisible

until they’re close enough to touch.
The road and night roll together in dust,
releasing people into cities, onto empty verges,

reveal them in twos, alone – a man
made into a giant by the trolley he pulls,
a woman whose child is a curve on her back.

Thin men in tracksuits are dark as the charred
marshlands they cross. They are you and me,
strangers to everyone, alive only in headlamps

                        between here and there.

(Needlewriters Anthology 2015)

Writing in the Kruger National Park, 2014
On not making it to the peak, Solomon

Lizards scuttle off the path, undergrowth
crackles with paws or hooves.

The smoke of forest fire lingers in the scrub
as I pass a grove of old, pale trees,

bending over a fallen trunk.
The way to the peak is blocked, Solomon

so I refuse to climb any further, even though
the moon is full and it’s your funeral night.

On the track twisting back to the village
I step over shadows as you did, thinking them solid.

How does it compare, the only landscape you saw
before asking ‘who’s pulled the curtain?’

You were four - but now, on the southern tip
of your continent, among leadwood and guavas,

the moon on a grass roof reminds me
of our walk up a mountain in Yorkshire,

five or six of us, behind a farmhouse rented for a week.
It started to snow. You stopped by a rock,

faced the storm’s blank view and wouldn’t go on.
You could outargue anyone, so we left you alone,

until a party of walkers came out of the blizzard
and showed you the way down.  It’s winter here too

and a tornado the other night could have been you,
visiting. Are you that white-breasted bird resting on a log?

Or the leafy-winged bat I watched disappear
into the lace of moon, mountain and forest?

(Warwick Review)

Poems about ageing

Inevitable, probably, these started with a sequence of menopause poems in Woman's Head as Jug, which were themselves kicked off by a rogue poem, Concerns of a Mature Woman in Commandments about change. I never consciously wanted them to be funny but they've generally emerged with a fairly ironic tone. Part of the sequence was published in The North. It continues to build. 

Incipient old age
                                               
Hanging around in duty free, buying crimson lipstick
three times the price that doesn't suit me, hair clip sparking
the alarm at security, the patting down, gloved fingers
prospecting for metal in my waistband and bra.
Spraying my wrists with my mother's scent
and the first my father bought me, L'Air du Temps, time
browsing accessories, paperbacks, gadgets,
to decorate a life that won't be mine and I won't buy,
before the glass corridor where I surf a procession
of walkways moving me quickly to the gate's pulpit,
fused seats, uniformed priests and Boeing 737.
Where there's more waiting - identifying the exit,
flight attendants' flailing arms predicting lift off, strong
mints for my ears, flavouring all that could go wrong.

(Wenlock Poetry Festival Anthology 2015)

from Being and Becoming

Becoming an age-defying cream
Closer than a lover lying skin
to skin, I'm lanolin on an old ewe, huddled
in a sheepcote against driving snow.

I build a house over myself
A house of scraps, sewn on an old treadle machine,
making bricks stuffed with underwear.
My house will do, one day, as a soft room
where I can throw myself against the walls.

Being a crate
I picture myself at the docks
full of oranges or bananas, home
to a tarantula, stuffed with straw, stamped
with a red, yellow, blue label
from the Tropic of Capricorn.
Emptied. Filled. Empty. Full.

Becoming my hair
Badger, my friend's husband called over the wall.
First I thought of corpses on the way to mum's,

then their sounds, playing at night in the street,
their paths through summer raspberries,

the sweetcorn they have such a taste for.
I was on all fours, by then,

knocking down rows of broad beans, feasting.

The damage I could do.

(The North, 2015)

Poems based on letters

I found an old suitcase in the loft when my daughter left for university and the house was empty. In it, old letters from friends. These poems are part of another group that looks back as well as acknowledging the present. I wish I'd kept more and I know there are more poems to come from other letters I haven't been able to do justice to yet. 

Letter from Graham

I drive you in turn to the train - one at 7, 
one at 4, come home to stand in your rooms. 

I listen for the end of a laugh, text, "Lovely
to see you" twice over, hang up headphones 

you've forgotten, shake out your tunes. 
Footsteps in the hall belong to my neighbours. 

I smell their coffee and toast. When their dog barks 
I'm mute as a suitcase, the bath. 

The kitchen table's how I leave it - my glasses 
look into a polka dot cloth. I'm surprised 

how the house doesn't drum, only the cat 
composes her scales. I'm grateful for creases in clothes, 

hanging like skins to dry off. After work, I hesitate 
with Jane, walk home as the sun's consumed by distant estates. 

Cyclists remind me of torches flashing through rocks 
on the hillside where "that tree smells of piss". 

There you are at the top, looking down 
past me, past your Dad. The silence I open the door on

is felted wool, still as mug, plate and spoon. I creak 
into the chill of the loft, and bring down a folder of letters - 

Graham has written from Aberdeen "all the love 
in the universe from me and my bicycle chain."

(Rialto 2015)

My favourite pony, a strawberry roan
at a gymkhana in Frensham
Brighton and family poems

I have writing habits and subjects I always go back to - there are always poems about family and where I live. The poem about my brother took 10 years to write. The poem about skunk is a homage to Robert Lowell's brilliant poem "Skunk Hour", but I had to twist it. I anticipate more allotment poems. 









Brother

You are blurred on a path by the river, Waverley abbey ruins 
on the opposite bank, where a wren picks up the speck of a chant 

and stone windows arch over turf. We walk, the dog kicking up leaves. 
In your camouflage jacket, you blend with trees and moss 

as you meander away from Mum and me. You were dead as we drove west, 
past a vast excavation of chalk feeding the voracious moon,

past Stonehenge. That moon kept the van on the road until we arrived. 
And from a terrace, waiting for permission to see you, 

Mum willed the sun to come up. It sent a column of light over Devon, 
over the Cessna broken in a field - a pillar made by ice crystals as they fell 

from cirrus clouds. We hadn't spoken for years. Not about Dad's funeral, 
our camps, the half-decade between us, the eclipse, your sky diving 

and Elstead's resident kingfisher. We were invisible to each other, 
lying low in our childish woods. But this is a leap year and it's February. 

I know you’ve been back, pumping swings on the rec, splashing 
down the stream. Today’s yours - it always was – and I wish we could traipse 

the sandy tracks round Frensham Pond, over Hankley Common, 
that the rift fracturing us was a gully we'd jump for a dare.

(Winner 2014 Wenlock Poetry Competition)


Skunk
(Homage to Robert Lowell)

She bought sleepers, retired from the weight of trains,
to raise beds for runner beans behind her tall hedge.
They shoot red flares at us in summer, crawling
up their canes. And her son paces the street,
examining leaves so closely for blemishes and veins.
I was climbing the hill tonight after 48 hours of bad coffee

and remembered our street shrouded in skunk,
how the smell appeared like fog rising from the marina,
out of drains, boarded and forgotten wells,
neighbours sniffing the air as if it was spring.
A broken Vent-Axia, a dormer left open -
it was unmistakeable. For two days we woke to it.

Anyone waiting for a bus, kids on their way to school,
breathed it in. It lingered in Bernard Road
and Totland, round the cemetery gates like a mongrel.
The young man who walks like a monk, considering
his next step for as long as it takes to buy bread
and get home "is not right". But nor am I.

My head's full of politicians,
I can't turn the radio off, it empties endlessly
into the graves. Just before Christmas,
his mother, skinny as an heiress, stopped me
by the offie. Fairy lights drooped in a window
and dangled from a blueish tree

as she described the pavilions of her son's mind,
how she laid down lines of stones for him,
unwound silk thread, strung it between lampposts
to mark his path, keyed their postcode into the GPS.
At the kitchen table, he would stare at her
as if they were on opposite banks

of a wide river growing into an estuary -
an ebbing, flowing stain. I stand at the window at 4 am.
Outside, badgers are playing - cubs chitter
under dark cars, while by the passion flower hedge,
that clings on, displaying its wounds and nails,
the mother keeps watch, keckers and yelps at them.

(The Rialto, 2015)

Butterfly on borage at the allotment


European Fire Ant

It’s one of those rare hot days—rain’s forecast tomorrow—
when compost falls away and the rope of yellow nettle roots
isn’t so hard to loosen. The afternoon hesitates.
Ants scramble onto my gloves. Purposeful, they’re tending
a herd of aphids on the artichokes, milking them for honeydew.
The European fire ant trades protection for food
and is studied for its corpse carriers and paths.

My spade slices through a nest. The soil teems, speckled
with pupae, glinting with ants rushing to the rescue.
I stop digging, here’s a labyrinth—alive, organised,
built like a brain. An expert navigator, the fire ant’s colonised
the world in container ships, surviving far from anchorage,
in the offing, on the horizon. Which is where I still
mourn you because we had that in common, the sea.

And something else in this shattered nest makes me think
of your lit window in a warren of terraces, and Hecate,
midwife of exits and entrances, Persephone’s companion.
Perhaps it’s an underworld joke, how some butterflies survive?
Their larvae secrete a disguise, are dragged underground
by the ants, who feed them like cuckoos until they are fit
to crawl out of their chambers and unfold their blue wings

(The Dark Horse, 2015)