• (I WANT) SOMETHING TO SHOW FOR IT

    I'm not the kind who treasures
    love notes in the sand, laid bare
    for the lobstered swimsuit mob

    to stare at, for the tide to lick
    away. I want a token,
    solid, in my hand. Something

    with staying power, not easily lost
    or broken. Do you understand?
    You murmur, puzzled by my greed,

    "What is it that you want a thing
    to show for, anyway?" You may
    well ask. It's just a zero,

    universal emptiness. It
    brings forth nothing except need,
    and the truth is, souvenirs

    won't do the trick: no poseur
    snaps, no neat, insipid
    diaries, no sickly rock,

    unusual pebbles, musty shells. I want
    the shining cliffs, the posh hotel,
    the whole shebang. The waiters

    running across emerald lawns,
    their heavy silver platters
    raised in skilful hands. I want

    the tacky postcard carousels,
    the smugly clinking tills, the dumpy
    women sweating at their counters

    every summer, summer-long,
    as well. I want their oily husbands
    grinning now from ear to ear -

    I am the sea come to swallow the pier.... more »

  • BACK IN THE BENIGHTED KINGDOM

    I'm sorry to see
    my mosquito bumps fade:
    the love bites of a continent,
    marks of its hot embrace.

    If anything is dark,
    it's this damp island
    with its sluggish days,
    its quieter, subtler ways
    of drawing blood.... more »

  • PLENTY

    When I was young and there were five of us,
    all running riot to my mother's quiet despair,
    our old enamel tub, age-stained and pocked
    upon its griffin claws, was never full.

    Such plenty was too dear in our expanse of drought
    where dams leaked dry and windmills stalled.
    Like Mommy's smile. Her lips stretched back
    and anchored down, in anger at some fault -

    of mine, I thought - not knowing then
    it was a clasp to keep us all from chaos.
    She saw it always, snapping locks and straps,
    the spilling: sums and worries, shopping lists

    for aspirin, porridge, petrol, bread.
    Even the toilet paper counted,
    and each month was weeks too long.
    Her mouth a lid clamped hard on this.

    We thought her mean. Skipped chores,
    swiped biscuits - best of all
    when she was out of earshot
    stole another precious inch

    up to our chests, such lovely sin,
    lolling luxuriant in secret warmth
    disgorged from fat brass taps,
    our old compliant co-conspirators.

    Now bubbles lap my chin. I am a sybarite.
    The shower's a hot cascade
    and water's plentiful, to excess, almost, here.
    I leave the heating on.

    And miss my scattered sisters,
    all those bathroom squabbles and, at last,
    my mother's smile, loosed from the bonds
    of lean, dry times and our long childhood.... more »

  • SHE COMES SWIMMING

    She comes swimming to you, following
    da Gama's wake. The twisting Nile
    won't take her halfway far enough.

    No, don't imagine sirens - mermaid
    beauty is too delicate and quick.
    Nor does she have that radiance,

    Botticelli's Venus glow. No golden
    goddess, she's a southern
    selkie-sister, dusky otter-girl

    who breasts the cold Benguela, rides
    the rough Atlantic swell, its chilly
    tides, for leagues and leagues.

    Her pelt is salty, soaked. Worn out,
    she floats, a dark Ophelia, thinking
    what it feels like just to sink

    caressed by seaweed, nibbled by
    a school of jewel-plated fish.
    But with her chin tipped skyward

    she can't miss the Southern Cross
    which now looks newly down on her,
    a buttress for the roof of her familiar

    hemisphere. She's nearly there.
    With wrinkled fingertips, she strokes
    her rosary of ivory, bone and horn

    and some black seed or stone
    she can't recall the name of,
    only knows its rubbed-down feel.

    And then she thanks her stars,
    the ones she's always known,
    and flips herself, to find her rhythm

    and her course again. On, southwards,
    yes, much further south than this.
    This time she'll pay attention

    to the names - not just the English,
    Portuguese and Dutch, the splicings
    and accretions of the years. She'll search

    for first names in that Urworld, find
    her heart-land's mother tongue.
    Perhaps there's no such language,

    only touch - but that's at least a dialect
    still spoken there. She knows when she
    arrives she'll have to learn again,

    so much forgotten, lost. And when
    they put her to the test she fears
    she'll be found wanting, out of step.

    But now what she must do is swim,
    stay focused on each stroke,
    until she feels the landshelf

    far beneath her rise, a gentle slope
    up to the rock, the Cape,
    the Fairest Cape. Her Mother City

    and its mountain, waiting, wrapped
    in veils of cloud and smoke.
    Then she must concentrate, dodge

    nets and wrack, a plastic bag afloat -
    a flaccid, shrunk albino ray -
    until she's close enough to touch

    down on the seabed, stumble
    to the beach - the glistening sand
    as great a treasure as her Milky Way -

    fall on her knees and plant a kiss
    and her old string of beads,
    her own explorer's cross

    into the cruel, fruitful earth at last.
    She's at your feet. Her heart
    is beating fast. Her limbs are weak.

    Make her look up. Tell her she's home.
    Don't send her on her way again.... more »

  • THE GROWING GIFT

    You've no idea, those proteas
    you gave me - somehow scavenged bunch -
    how those huge soft-furred goblet flowers,
    are travelling with me, still.

    There was a time I wouldn't have thanked you
    for such stubborn heads: hard-hearted,
    stiffly-ranged, supremely practical,
    the nationalists' tough bloom -

    I hated them, so vulgarly
    indigenous. Now, roses, snowdrops,
    hollyhocks, yes, these were flowers
    one could call beautiful,

    would plant and nurture, even twist
    into your hair. These are too huge
    and dense for that. What use are they -
    unscented, heavy, blunt?

    You filled my arms with them, that night,
    the upstairs restaurant. You made
    the waitress light a fire against
    the Cape's mild winter,

    warm and beautiful enough for me,
    the wrong end of my holiday
    back home. But I was glad of it,
    light leaping to our table,

    how the fire kept answering your gift,
    its milder glow - still flames propped
    in a silver bucket - as we laughed,
    speaking in Afrikaans

    and English, hardly thinking which
    was which. Past midnight, then,
    my B & B's prim basin swelled,
    a southern coronation,

    an astonishment. In daylight
    I leaned over them, using - your word -
    aandagtigheid, attentiveness;
    slowly absorbing

    all that I had missed, their delicate
    geometries. The untranslated
    captures it: at once both felted,
    soft, yet also guttural:

    the palate tongued, first slowly, then
    a final snap, and in-between
    a purring, gently, in the throat.
    The woody stems, those rose-

    tipped assegais, the pale cream
    inner cone, with fronds as tender
    as lambs' eyelashes. I stood there,
    on the chilly, gleaming

    tiles, stroking the hearts of flowers.
    I couldn't bring them back with me;
    even such silent aliens
    are dangerous. I chose

    to split them - single sticks holding
    their own exploding heads - left them
    with loved ones, who, familiar,
    might also feel contempt.

    But I'm a convert now. Treasure
    my photograph, a clumsy shot
    that lops me at the knees, but shows
    what matters: mammoth blooms


    cupped in my arms. The elbow crooked,
    as when I'm pictured cradling
    my godchild niece; the weight about
    the same. So are we anchored,

    always, even from afar. So,
    in the night, scented with roses here,
    I feel the tug - those ancient stems,
    breathing a fragrant sap,
    come reaching down my spine.You've no idea, those proteas
    you gave me - somehow scavenged bunch -
    how those huge soft-furred goblet flowers,
    are travelling with me, still.

    There was a time I wouldn't have thanked you
    for such stubborn heads: hard-hearted,
    stiffly-ranged, supremely practical,
    the nationalists' tough bloom -

    I hated them, so vulgarly
    indigenous. Now, roses, snowdrops,
    hollyhocks, yes, these were flowers
    one could call beautiful,

    would plant and nurture, even twist
    into your hair. These are too huge
    and dense for that. What use are they -
    unscented, heavy, blunt?

    You filled my arms with them, that night,
    the upstairs restaurant. You made
    the waitress light a fire against
    the Cape's mild winter,

    warm and beautiful enough for me,
    the wrong end of my holiday
    back home. But I was glad of it,
    light leaping to our table,

    how the fire kept answering your gift,
    its milder glow - still flames propped
    in a silver bucket - as we laughed,
    speaking in Afrikaans

    and English, hardly thinking which
    was which. Past midnight, then,
    my B & B's prim basin swelled,
    a southern coronation,

    an astonishment. In daylight
    I leaned over them, using - your word -
    aandagtigheid, attentiveness;
    slowly absorbing

    all that I had missed, their delicate
    geometries. The untranslated
    captures it: at once both felted,
    soft, yet also guttural:

    the palate tongued, first slowly, then
    a final snap, and in-between
    a purring, gently, in the throat.
    The woody stems, those rose-

    tipped assegais, the pale cream
    inner cone, with fronds as tender
    as lambs' eyelashes. I stood there,
    on the chilly, gleaming

    tiles, stroking the hearts of flowers.
    I couldn't bring them back with me;
    even such silent aliens
    are dangerous. I chose

    to split them - single sticks holding
    their own exploding heads - left them
    with loved ones, who, familiar,
    might also feel contempt.

    But I'm a convert now. Treasure
    my photograph, a clumsy shot
    that lops me at the knees, but shows
    what matters: mammoth blooms


    cupped in my arms. The elbow crooked,
    as when I'm pictured cradling
    my godchild niece; the weight about
    the same. So are we anchored,

    always, even from afar. So,
    in the night, scented with roses here,
    I feel the tug - those ancient stems,
    breathing a fragrant sap,
    come reaching down my spine.... more »

  • VALENTINE

    sweet fallacy the heart
    this heaving muscle glistens darkly
    something like a toad... more »

  • WEATHER EYE

    In summer when the Christmas beetles
    filled each day with thin brass shrilling,
    heat would wake you, lapping at the sheet,
    and drive you up and out into the glare
    to find the mulberry's sweet shade
    or watch ants marching underneath the guava tree.

    And in the house Mommy would start
    the daily ritual, whipping curtains closed,
    then shutters latched against the sun
    and when you crept in, thirsty, from the garden,
    the house would be a cool, dark cave,

    an enclave barricaded against light
    and carpeted with shadow, still
    except the kitchen where the door was open
    to nasturtiums flaming at the steps
    while on the stove the pressure cooker chugged
    in tandem with the steamy day.

    And in the evenings when the sun had settled
    and crickets started silvering the night,
    just home from school, smelling of chalk and sweat,
    Daddy would do his part of it, the checking,
    on the front verandah, of the scientific facts.

    Then if the temperature had dropped enough
    the stays were loosened and the house undressed
    for night. Even the front door wide now
    for the slightest breeze, a welcoming
    of all the season's scents, the jasmine,
    someone else's supper, and a neighbour's voice -

    out walking labradors, the only time of day
    for it, this time of year. How well the world
    was ordered then. These chill machines
    don't do it half as true, the loving regulation
    of the burning days. Somehow my judgment isn't quite
    as sure when faced with weather-signs. Let me come home
    to where you watch the skies and keep things right.



    For Ann and Harwood... more »