A Swamp, a Poet and a Rope
some swamps suck you in.
you sink in slow mud that
grips you like a people-eater plant.
Knee, chest neck-deep, the bog
squeezes your last breath, smothers
and buries you in one slurp.
as sludge oozes over throat
you long for solid ground,
for a passing cowboy or girl
with stetson, boots and stallion
to drag you out of the slime,
nostrils above mud, against gravity.
no matter how deep the quagmire
may the poet in you arrive here
with lasso to fling a word circle
under your arms, drag it tight,
as this horse, snorting, tugs you
up from the muddy grave.
The Face of Meditation
there is something
of the death mask
in this sitting still
before the wick of
fingers of air
scent and shape it,
imprint our cheeks
eyebrows, forehead, chin
with furrows of the fall.
lips rest with each other,
lovers silent, abed.
lines round the eyes show
the journey of bow and arrow
and the travel’s end.
the blood and breath retreat
asleep beneath the skin.
the archer peels back
the mask and places it
in the museum of memory.
the face shows now
the one before we
were born. becomes
in personal farewell
at last translucent.
A Bedroom and a Chapel
sixty years on, I visit this childhood
home, a small Victorian with
stoep, corrugated roof,
three tiled fireplaces
and a front door with a bird
set in stained glass.
the Catholic Bishopric,
a grand Victorian brother,
stood solid as faith next door.
the fence came down
when the Church bought
and blessed the house
after our departure.
in a timeplay overlay
I walk room to room
to the murmur
of a confirmation class.
in the kitchen that held
the Aga icon and an eight-seat table
nuns ladle Friday soup
to vagrants who queue
under the old lemon tree,
bitter-sweet on the tongue.
Hildegard and the Abbot
once a thousand years ago
you, mystic, musician, visionary,
buried a fallen man
in consecrated ground,
one whom father church
with its heavy ring finger
had demanded intern
outside the walls.
when the Abbot insisted
that you exhume his bones,
you refused for you felt
the sphere of his repenting.
his body had been anointed
and oil adorned him.
the Abbot ordered
his troops to do the digging.
so you removed the cross
and smoothed the mound
on the grave with your spade,
slapped flat as the Abbot筑s world.
out-trumped with other texts,
the official imposed silence
on you and yours.
so you dug deeper into that gift,
into the undersoil
of all forgiving.
the silence slipped into
the Abbot’s stopped ear.
he recanted, lifting the ban.
and there was Edensong
and first bird twitter
gracing that green garden.
to watch a monk’s walking
meditation is like watching
a lunar eclipse (Barbara Brown Taylor)
at Plum Village a monk walks
in slow motion, barefoot,
the way only humans walk.
heel first touches the earth.
then the arch curves down
as in the lowering of a bridge.
the ball follows in a slow step
dance, with foot two, in tow.
five toes arrive, one by one
to land on the grass,
a royal flush laid on a green cloth,
ace big toe the last to fall.
a woman in a wheelchair attends
to the monk’s amble, as she
inhales each subtle shift
in angle, posture, skin stretch.
and the monk’s step instep
enters her lame limbs, and
passes through pores, ankles
down to her quiet feet.
in his arrest and mid-stride gait
entrained in a moon glide,
her breath begins to walk
among the stillness of the stars.
like the child who walked once
upon her father筑s feet, moonlighting,
she no longer knows whose footfall
caresses air or touches ground.
A Snap in Time
the three of us stand Kodaked
beside the house with corrugated roof
half squinting into the sun,
Sunday dressed for church.
my mother in a navy frock
with white trim around her neck,
my sister in a flared mid-fifties dress,
both with bags and matching hats.
me in a black and white blazer
a size too big, grey shorts,
school shoes, grey socks
Brylcreamed hair, arms hanging.
behind us rests the A-frame swing
with flaked paint and two slatted seats
facing each other like a couple
hooked to a shared footrest.
weeks before his finger click stills
and the coffin lid snaps shut
my father’s morning shadow, unsuited,
falls onto the edge of the photograph.
we fox-trotted the floor
numbers on our backs
a modern Ginger R and Fred A,
high-scoring in applause.
then somehow as in a dream
we dazzle-stepped onto a stage
where a floor collapsed, sudden,
dropping you into the underworld.
still in your fox-nose sandals
silver-rimmed and strapped.
and I spun clutching air, by your
new dance D partner, outfoxed.
How to Stay the Sultan’s Sword
how did she stay that morning sword?
night after night in the king’s chambers
as the moon rolled through its crescents
full to gibbous to three days’ gone.
after the sex, sleep and wakefulness
the wise, the witty, the well-read and bred,
Scheherazade, her hair lustrous
and tressed with ribbons and snakes of tales
beguiled #Shahryar” Shahryar with jewelled words set in gold.
he who beheaded each night’s virgin wife.
as dawn broke its fast, she paused
the tale. cliff-edged, midsentence.
left him longing for and then?
in daylight hours did she absorb stories,
learn poems by heart, carrying in her belly
the seed of the climax and denouement?
knotting a kelim in her consciousness and cortex?
or did she in the moment
allow it to arise as a self-surprise,
spontaneous as a nightingale
glittering as a scimitar suddenly unsheathed
as she in skill and craft breathed and
awaited the light of each new day?
perhaps a touch of both modes,
rehearsed magic and moment,
pace and pause, timing and tension,
taking her cue from his eyebrow twitch
seeking amazement in his open mouth.
Scheherazade in slow moon mode seduced,
civilized the Sultan, till the tale entranced,
by the time of the 1001 once there was
crowned her his Allah-given story queen.
Essentials on a Hike
at the first hut at the head of the track
black boxes wait, looming large
against a stone wall, to be ferried
daily ahead of us on this Whale Trail.
sixty litres seem a lot to leave behind
on a slack pack hike, until you squeeze in
sleeping bag, that gravity jacket
and each morning and night’s meal
to the power of five.
it’s a little like shedding for death.
I pack, unpack, repack, discard
a ball of string, tin of tomato,
boots, shaving kit, novel.
sit astride the lid to clip it closed.
I筑ll be a bearded readerless sandalled man
these days, light of heart.
another hiker straps her box with
the grin of a secret hid inside.
with a daypack slung with water
energy bar, avo sarmie, hot flask,
we trudge through mist and angled rain
along a rocky mountain saddle.
then through high tide ankle sand
into the northwester, shirts flapping.
arrive on the third evening at the beach hut.
she unstraps her box and smiles.
and suddenly there she is
alone at the sea edge.
with the kite rearing like a breaching whale,
arms outstretched like a diver.
she holds this wild horse, Pegasus
kicking into the wind,
cantering light across the sky.
and she rides it bare back
Road to Enlightenment
the story might be that we won’t
arrive at Nirvana City, ever,
unlike Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress.
for it’s always the road, the road,
through valley, across mountains,
the city lights dazzling
their mirage far in the distance.
the shadow falls ahead of us
as the sun swoops behind our backs.
we arrive at twilight at the lakeside inn
where attachment catches us
by the coat tails and sleeves.
the eyes of the waitress hold us
as she serves the roast pork platter
and pours low cut the jug of red wine.
the night cool on our skins,
we sit and sip on our stoep
under a moon enchanter
next to the dark water.
we’ll never plumb its depths
nor descend with the loch monster
for we seek surface fearing the bends.
tonight we’ll dream of a bird
escaping a cage to flit into
a larger cage then one larger than that
hopefully with thinner mesh, ad infinitum.
certain of uncertainty we leave at first bird
find our staff which the innkeeper hid
in some understair broom cupboard.
we learn light of step to love
the lore of the endless road,
dragging dream-infused, a dawn shadow.