POEMS by Abbey Khambule

I see you

(for Tshego)

You have my mother’s eyes.
Unassuming.
I see her
in your selfies.
Updates, Posts, Statuses: reshuffling
of your thousand smiles, profiles.
Apple of my eye, ebbing away with
the ever-changing timeline.
In updates of your becoming I wonder
did I miss your new post;
status of your belonging to a new world?
I see you
in her Kodak eyes.
It’s always been you
extending her; extending yourself;
extending the cosmos; reaching,
calling unawares against
my unmaking.

 

Winter in Bophuthatswana

Fire ants fall
from a winter tree

Coppery skeleton army
warring with the cold wind

Like a shepherd boy
I lead one warrior to my dry cold feet

Let him sting the skin between my toes
so I can burst into summer

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POEM: Trying Not to Think of Seamus Heaney

BY ANTHONY WILSON

I ease the mower
beneath blackberry stems
and think instead of my mother
who has just called me Angus

Stooping to pick a few of the immense dark
planets I try not to think
of my mother already losing
the word for blackberries

who picked blackberries as a child
and took them home to her mother
who knows blackberries
in three languages

each planet of thought
soft between my thumbs
Trying not to think
of my mother I think of grass

EXTRACT: Dissecting Wobbles

In this extract from his memoir, ANDREW MARSHALL recalls the aftermath of his diagnosis with the degenerative neurological muscle disease, Friedreich’s Ataxia.

In the months following my diagnosis, we didn’t know which way to turn. We’d met the brothers in Boksburg, which may have put my parents’ minds at some kind of ease, but mine was still being beaten to a bloody pulp. Life had tossed a brick in front of my bike. Now I was flying over the handlebars towards an impossible, uncharted future.

We’d heard about a school that taught a wide spectrum of disabled children. We went to check it out because we didn’t know how much longer I’d be able to walk around the other one. When we arrived, the end-of-break bell had just rung and all the kids were filing back into their classes. Some were walking normally, but others had crutches and walkers and were brandishing very distinctive gimp gates. Some of them were pushing other children’s wheelchairs. One guy was laughing and battling to catch his breath. He reminded me of the monster from The Gooneys. I burst into tears and sobbed. I was slowly coming to terms with the future me. I was one of these guys. Me.

That evening, while pretending to study for a history test, I had a long conversation with myself. I had to face this thing head on. I was going to become increasingly similar to them. I should leave my normal school and grab the disabled bull by the horns. In my mind it was a done deal. I was going to leave Ferndale as soon as possible. I would go and be disabled. Meanwhile, Mom had it in her head that we should keep living as normal a life as possible, for as long as possible. In her professional position, she had witnessed other parents of disabled children molly-coddling them to the point of suffocation. Unbeknownst to me, she had another meeting with the headmaster and some of heads of department. They decided I would do better in a normal school environment. When I was told about it all I protested, angry. I had it mapped out in my head already. I was ready.

Still, a part of me didn’t want to let my old wheelchair-free life go. In the end, I decided to keep trucking. The school was fantastic. The staff did everything in their power to make my life easier. But they had to let the other children know why I was allowed to use the staff staircase instead of walking an extra hundred metres like everyone else, and why I didn’t have to participate in any of the sports. (I also had a few parents report me for being intoxicated. I will never forget the look in one teacher’s eye as she pulled me out of line and tried to see if this was the case.) They decided to make an announcement to the school at Friday assembly. I knew this was going to happen and as assembly drew nearer, my necktie got tighter. I felt as though the old, un-sick me was being led to the gallows. I stood by the doors at the back of the matric gallery while she explained about my condition. No one could see the humiliation and terror swirling inside. I was always a little different, but now my distinction had a label. I was petrified people were going to view me as a freak. I felt like one of the ants I used to torment and then finally incinerate with my gran’s magnifying glass. I slipped out back and ran down the corridor into the toilets. My head was a giant pressure cooker. I really didn’t think I could handle it. After twenty minutes of staring at the wall – twenty minutes of trying to work out how I was going to face my peers, I heard a stampede of kids leaving the hall. I had no choice.

I stood up, stuck my game face on and went out to greet it.

Find out more about Dissecting Wobbles on its website or visit its Facebook page.

POEM: A House

BY BRUCE MCRAE

A house shaped like a tree.
A house in the form of a stone.
A ship that’s a house.
The river-house.
House on the moon, the dark side,
its porch light on always,
attracting moths and meteors:
something to hope for
when seen from a long distance.

                        *

My house sings beside a ditch.
My house struggles with its conscience.
My house falls up a hill.
It’s where I live;
I go home because I’m not there.
Because I am.
Because I have to be somewhere
Because I have to be.

*

The house in my head
has eyes and legs and lips and a heart.
The mind-house is one room
inside numberless rooms;
a wooden dreamscape,
a child’s nightmare of bricks flying
and doors that won’t open.
There’s something unsayable
under the floorboards.

*

The portable house –
you can take in anywhere
and everywhere.
You can never leave or arrive.
It follows you to school, to work.
It’s hands-free.
It’s no bigger than your mouth.
Just deflate and fold
and you’re on your way.

*

In one house that I lived in
the cat was king and dog a citizen.
In one house the ghosts
took turns frightening themselves.
In another house
the furnace stayed on no matter
what we did or didn’t do.
And the mice were very intelligent –
saints to the roaches’ sinners.

*

The house is on fire, then underwater,
then invisible, then in outer space.
The house is black, then red, then purple.
The house is edgy, divine, sanguine, undone.
It has hair and teeth and principles.
A circle, it thinks it’s a square.
It’s lost its bearings.
Someone suggests: Let’s go there!
But we can’t go there.

*

The house of sod.
The house Bosch built –
doors only on the inside,
the floors up a wall,
its furnishings in people-form.
Set in its ways,
it’s the planet which is shifting.

*

Come in, you’re out.
This is the room God sent you.
Here is where we store the clouds.
That’s the closet that death was born in.
This is the hall we can’t get to.
The light enters here
then gets lost along the way.
The air decides for itself –
because we’re all free-thinkers here.
We all live somewhere else.

*

The house is abandoned now.
It seems to be (but it isn’t)
always late autumn – inside and out.
The penultimate leaf waves farewell.
A torn curtain shudders
in a last-gasp effort
to prove its existence.
The dust is barely disturbed
by the ghost-whisperers –
that handful of lonely spectres
who refuse any notice of eviction.
Like little flames, one by one
by one, they flicker out.
They can’t come to the door right now.
Try again, in the next world.
Knock louder.

POEMS by Jeannie Wallace McKeown

BY JEANNIE WALLACE MCKEOWN

Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs make themselves at home
in my garden.
Strutting, preening, pecking
at the earth
as if it is theirs –
worms, seeds, old fruit.

They know that this territory
is contested;
with alarm they arise, flustered,
glide between trees, calling
urgently to one another
as the cat stalks, forgets, stops to wash.

Settling again, alert and ruffled,
they watch.
It wasn’t always this way, glinting eyes hint.
“When we had teeth,” the birds chirp, the birds coo,
“careless mammal, it was you
who was fleeing from us.”

Melamine Cowboy

The melamine cowboy plate broke.
It lasted longer
than much of the china crockery.
That cowboy lived in our kitchen
for over a decade.

Now he’s in the bin.

But that melamine cowboy
won’t biodegrade.
He’ll ride the landfill express
into all our sunsets.

Should humanity survive
to vacate, he’ll be there
to see silver craft shoot upwards,
people queuing to leave the earth behind
having covered it in plastic straws,
disposable nappies,
single use coffee pods.

With their departure,
perhaps new grass will finally
grow over him.
He’ll ride the deep earth,
content:
substrate cowboy
with a story to tell.

REVIEW: My Life on Legs

SHIRLEY MARAIS is delighted by Hailey Gaunt’s debut poetry collection.
my life on legs
The cover of My Life on Legs — featuring a delicate etymological plate by Andrew Breitenberg, beautifully positioned on a background of palest “mint-moss green” (Morning walk) — give a sense of the poems and themes inside this collection: detailed, in-the-moment, idiosyncratic insights into Gaunt’s relationships with friends and family, and her relationship to the natural world, filtered through the stained-glass wings of her poetic mind.  

The collection takes its name from a line in Morning walk, which ends with a picture that makes you draw your breath in, quite literally:

I want to shed my clothes, shoes,
my life on legs,
throw my body back,
leave the whole shell of it behind
shoot across the wave in one wet line.

I am struck how Gaunt quite naturally and easily uses phrases and lines like ‘magical happenstance’ (The beginning), ‘effulgent runway’ (A pledge) and ‘playing at rumbunctious games’ (At the pool) without ever being pretentious or ostentatious, because she is so consistent – and so consistently and beautifully precise – in her careful stitching of these poems. Her consummate use of language serves the intricacy and detail of her narrative imagery, adding bright points of light, rather than weighing her work down.  

Her relationship with her world, and the people in it, is so intriguingly detailed and reverent, as to invite unselfconscious participation from the reader, even in her most intimate poems:

And I tell you something else —
part apology, declaration, pact:
“I’m willing to start over
as many times as we have to.”

This poet is not afraid of intimacy, but never jolts the reader, except very gently – I am thinking particularly of the line ‘rude and kind as a tongue’ (from Patronage), which speaks of her father’s habit of pushing a roll of banknotes into her hand as he says goodbye, and the last stanza of Caress:

And I’d slip between each adult embrace,
minnow my hands in a parting prayer –
it was around that time I prayed
the small, stiff buds back into my chest.

Although gentle, Gaunt’s work is neither bland nor predictable. Each carefully crafted poem holds the reader to the end and makes one want to go back later and read it again. The narratives are full of surprises and pictures that turn the everyday into the extraordinary, as in For the first time (second and third stanzas):

Turning it over,
I stare through the shell and soft wall
to a place within,
and somehow I’ve slipped
into terrifying territory – and yet,
my body softens.

I see a tiny hand
spread like a star
and all over as delicate
as the traces
of a nail’s paper rim:
it’s reaching.

Gaunt’s work is proof that being strongly rooted in ordinary ‘middle-class’ life and sound, loving relationships – so apparent from the many poems about her lover and her father (the ‘great-big fix-anything move-the-earth father’ in He can’t hear) – can also be fertile ground for beautiful poetry. 

The exchange is one of my favourite pieces in this collection. Like many of Gaunt’s poems, it is so rich in both inner and outer detail that it plays out like a densely woven art nouveau movie in miniature. Here is the final stanza of the poem:

She says nothing but her free hand
sweeps my wrist in a gesture so succinct,
barely perceptible and without a name.
I turn back to the bookstore and cover my wrist.
Now I am bursting, burning full of words –
oh, but I would give them up!

I certainly hope it will not be Gaunt’s last collection of poetry. I find myself constantly returning to the book to look again for a phrase, a word, an image, that I want to re-meet and re-explore. I hope she will continue to burn and burst with words, and give them up – to paper.

My Life on Legs is published by Aerial Publishing.

POEM: The First Day of School

BY ADRIAN SLONAKER

Since the labour pains promptly followed
the devouring of a veggie vindaloo,
the baby was named “peppery”
in Esperanto, the lingua franca shared by
her Hungarian panjo and Turkish paĉjo,
and it’s still the only language
six-year-old Pipra can prattle in
to her gepatroj, her hundo or anyone else.
Initially home-schooled after
being bundled off as a baby
to Ameriko from Germanujo
she is now being relegated to
Pleasant Prairie Primary
to learn la anglan lingvon and make friends
since “a child is not a sunflower
and cannot bloom in isolation.”
Yet Pipra’s locked up
in linguistic quarantine
because she can’t comprehend “cloakroom”
or “closet” or even “please,”
and she’s as much of a blinking curiosity
as the toad in the classroom aquarium,
stared at by a lopsided ring of wide-eyed faces
that mock and giggle and spit out confusing strings of
strange nasal words that end with a thud in consonants
because kids are wicked
to the weak and the weird,
and the teacher is too overworked
to notice or care.