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Killing Time

Killing Time

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Published by Electric Book Works
Whether describing the wonder and fright of a crab giving birth, a visit to the dentist, or an estuary full of bodies and shimmering birds, Arthur Attwell shows how the ghosts of our childhood, relationships, and the course of history continue to find and startle us.

“Here is a first collection which, combining the elegance and precision of an American master like Richard Wilbur, has an enviable capacity to contain very large matters in discrete forms.” Stephen Watson

“Attwell’s poetry already has the grace and sweep of greatness . . . Not only is he a craftsman of the most particular focus (prosody), he has the knack for observation as well the ability to select exactly the right word (musicality), without — and this is the magic — losing the dreaminess and longing that makes us read poetry at all.” Diane Awerbuck, Sunday Times

“The poems in Killing Time are the product of ingenuity and labour. Here are dashing images, verbal cunning, original metaphors, layers, inversions, surprises -- all the panoply of poetry. But also music, for Attwell well knows that poetry begins and ends in sound.” P R Anderson, Sunday Independent
Whether describing the wonder and fright of a crab giving birth, a visit to the dentist, or an estuary full of bodies and shimmering birds, Arthur Attwell shows how the ghosts of our childhood, relationships, and the course of history continue to find and startle us.

“Here is a first collection which, combining the elegance and precision of an American master like Richard Wilbur, has an enviable capacity to contain very large matters in discrete forms.” Stephen Watson

“Attwell’s poetry already has the grace and sweep of greatness . . . Not only is he a craftsman of the most particular focus (prosody), he has the knack for observation as well the ability to select exactly the right word (musicality), without — and this is the magic — losing the dreaminess and longing that makes us read poetry at all.” Diane Awerbuck, Sunday Times

“The poems in Killing Time are the product of ingenuity and labour. Here are dashing images, verbal cunning, original metaphors, layers, inversions, surprises -- all the panoply of poetry. But also music, for Attwell well knows that poetry begins and ends in sound.” P R Anderson, Sunday Independent

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Published by: Electric Book Works on Jul 01, 2009
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Killing Time
Arthur Attwell

CT Writers Series

UCT Writers Series Number 4 Series editor: Stephen Watson Acknowledgement is due to the Percy Fox Foundation for financial support of the UCT Writers Series. This edition published in 2008 by Electric Book Works and the Centre for Creative Writing, University of Cape Town. First published in 2005 in association with Snailpress. © Arthur Attwell 2005, 2008 ISBN 978-1-874923-69-5 Cover photograph of Arthur Attwell c.1983 by Celia Els Design and typesetting by User Friendly, Cape Town All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright holder, who can be contacted at Electric Book Works, 87 Station Road, Observatory 7925, Cape Town, South Africa.

For my mother and father

My father’s churchyard


Finding crabs Frog The visitation Killing time Eohippus The War Museum Jim Wayne’s railway Hornbill Before thirteen My first England

13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Postcard First kiss Bully Root canal Every Seed’s lab You leave me for work in the morning Leaving the trail for the small, hidden bay Your gravity Their labrador This burnt place Salvage Ecstasy or torment

27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 38 39

Karoo letter, 1900 Officer’s log, the wrecked Cabalva, July 1818

43 44

The ghost lakes The Robber’s Grave Three impressions from a window at the docks Vigil of the exploding marketplace Carthago delendum est The estuary Notes Series Editor’s Note Acknowledgements

45 47 48 49 50 51 53 55 56

My father’s churchyard
Confetti petals fog the trampled grass. The crowd has left my father’s church and hillside yard for somewhere they’re allowed to celebrate. I stand below the hill to see the way the chapel steals into the sky above the cemetery, my father’s garden tool-shed, rising from a wide parterre of souls. The rocks have spilled about and over. But beside the headstones, wreaths are flowering up: as over there (a wedding-goer’s impromptu homage) lies a freesia boutonnière, plucked neatly from the jacket of a passer-by; a ginger lily placed across a name; geraniums gone awry and rooted to a mound of settled earth. And still I see him here, explaining how those dead are part of us. The hill, its churchyard, flowers – all this was his botany, as here he nurtures back to mind this son and father’s bonhomie with wild confetti. Were he standing here, he’d say: ‘This garden is in bloom. There was a storm of petals here today.’


On days like this we set out finding crabs

Finding crabs
On days like this we set out finding crabs in the stream between the waterberry trees, bending low to peer into the banks, to stab our reeds into the slope, to feel the tug – and he’s there hanging monstrously, stupid, and as we lift him off the branch, two fingers under the hard shell, his legs uncurl and curl, his straining eyes gaze like periscopes, stretching out, sizing us up, sizing him up, two fingers under the belly, easy until once I felt the fleshy underside of a crab giving birth, an open crab freeing her offspring in the water, releasing her young, sowing crabs into the gaping caves where she saw the spikes stuck deep in the dark mud, and us running home, downstream, screaming at her soft unguarded belly.


When I’ve got time, I take the river road to sit and stare into runnels there and wait for frogs. The water slims them down and turns their urges graceful: in one swoop their reflexes explain the riverbed’s elaborate calculus. When I was small I fished for tadpoles here and took them home raining in their buckets and their jars. But as I watched them mottle, grow their legs, my nerve would break, and every spring I’d run and gurgle every glass out in the stream before the creatures lost the grace and poise of the marine. For when a full-grown frog lands, arriving squat and bottle green upon a rock, its glistening, swelling throat expands and falls, expands and falls; its eyes are dimmed and dull, its legs lethargic, bulged and grievous. Nothing mine could ever be so honest to its defects, so resolved to not plunge down at once, not try resist the slender tadpole’s metamorphosis.


The visitation
Wonder and fright are the selfsame thing: remember the see-through egg in the magic vinegar? It took the shell right off, lifting from the marrow like a person becoming an angel. The springy membrane held it taut as skin, organ-slippery, as dry as a snake. I remember that look on your face when it burst at last: eventually the fat little angel just water-ballooned, slapping down like a great eye, its yellow pupil staring for a moment – wonder and fright – then gone, and dripping slowly off the table.


Killing time
Just after dusk, our parents in the church, we gathered outside on the patio killing time. What brought us, then, the gift of a bat in flight? Its manic leap and dodge wild and fizzing in the night’s black air, whipping in my brain’s sac like a fish? I stood and thrashed a long stick in its path till I felled it with a smack, its crumpled wings folding under, the sudden, sick resistance in the wood and the small, slack body lying there, hot flesh on a dark wish. Our parents found us playing. And all the time just underneath the churchyard hedge the bat’s heart fluttered in the curdling dust.


The stables swallow me into their smell, the thickened air of horses, tack, and hay. It’s always dark where they are kept, so huge and sudden. Some are thoroughbred, some dray, each one ideal, Platonic: none to say ‘that is a perfect horse, and that one not’. Remember also eohippus: small, four-toed horse of early Equidae, whose teeth were shorter, and who only knew a prehistoric world. ‘Ideal’ too. These horses do not know, I do not think, their origins; but in their eyes sometimes appearing in a morning paddock’s gloom, I see them search the air for traces still of that new, archetypal animal. Soon the mist will clear and leave them startled by their own proportions. They whinny anxiously: I find it there, and hear beneath their shaken breath the dawn-horse, grown to giants in its heirs.


The War Museum
For my grandfather

The choice was always Zoo or War Museum. But I think you always knew I wanted the Museum, its park of cannons, the miniature and tunnelling escapees burrowing out. Its halls dangled with Messerschmitts, and the huge torpedo hung dissected there. Before the naval mine, its bloated shell black and spiny as an urchin, I tried to imagine you, composed behind your Royal Navy sweeper’s guns, calmly blasting out that floating steel. And then, my favourite, the German mini-sub like a black cigar with a man inside. I read its blurb each time, unlatched the top and sniffed at its excitement, at its sour metal smell, the marvel of its human fishness. Today it’s naval exhibition day; the base is turned out in its finery. We stand and watch the sea come falling in. You mention it again, and I think, ‘I loved that mini-sub,’ and say so. ‘I didn’t,’ you say, stiffening for a moment at the recollection, black in the swirling water. You smile, and look away towards the boats, calm as ever in the maddening sea.


Jim Wayne’s railway
I’d pack the car in a blur of sorcery. The road was a slow, strange magic, a hundred milestones when I last lost count between the outskirts of our country town and bright Johannesburg. I burst to see my Grandpa Jim Wayne waiting quietly in the big old house I loved, where I believed his railway, steel and earth in his back yard, would keep its engine steaming round his lawn forever. Polished up, its three-inch gauge had gleamed for eighty winding, swooping feet since I was born. Of course, a few years on, I found it standing worn and overgrown, and chose, as people do, to live with that. I’ve thought to build another, but I know I couldn’t match it since I learned to live without those powers, spells and confidence. The road to that Johannesburg is now a scientific distance from my home I’ve calculated – nowadays I’m exact – as seven thousand hundred ninety two returns on Grandpa Jim Wayne’s railway track.


Tockus flavirostris

We know you at our campsites, your great moon-beak swinging like a bludgeon from your small, grey head, the crazy fruit of acacia trees, the bogey’s pod swelled with the seed of the dirt you shuffle in. There isn’t any mouthpiece in the world more fitting to your cry of thorns and gravel, a stutter in your anguish. And then silence, as your ugliness settles over you like a shroud. But in the air you are the wind’s trapeze, the stroke of a brush on its canvas. Nothing flying compares to your dip and ride, to the feather-tipped lunette in your flight’s dome. When we saw it first we knew the gag was over, dumbstruck at the proof that grace – the slow parabola you carve from the very air – can find its way from place to place, alighting there, cast in the bone of your wing.


Before thirteen
When one is young everything is physical; when one is old everything is psychic. Wallace Stevens, Adagia

Child, you’ll be ruined, for everything will seem as close as a finger in your eye. A sibling’s impregnable menace is worse than falling from the roundabout. Dogs that have rolled with you in the grass will pass away at the vet’s own hands. A best friend’s disappearance will burn holes like the hush after gunfire. A teacher will carelessly stop your heart like a wrench on a tap. And you have to choose to live in it, this world as close as sweat, or grow, like most of us, further and further from everything.


My first England
Why you want to go to this cold thief place? Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

Below the floating aeroplane blackbirds sprouted from the red roofs and the hillsides puffed with white sheep: it was my first England and my brain was greedy as a plough. All my reading life I knew I’d come. This, this is my fistful, I said – clutching my ticket to Leicester Square – of all my childhood’s English things, the rooks in snow, the filthy Thames. And all that day, I’ll swear, my head, my shaking head was England’s. Show me rain, the empire, that cuisine, or foxes in a hunt, and, even this, I could not think a thing amiss. It was my first England and my brain was greedy as a plough. — Months in, the trap’s the cash I’m earning. I stink of it. I cannot find a house without TV. I cannot find a child without a phone. And then the paradox, the paradox is the beggar hunched beneath the vacancies, a deserter of fortunes.


And so I cannot feel at home, though everything longs to belong to me. Your beggars have stolen my certainty, that clear line in the storybook’s window that as a child I traced like a promise, my finger darkening imperceptibly the clean page. — Why you want to go to this cold thief place? Jean asks again, this time in the icy screech of Bond Street’s Underground. For years she has been like a stone in my brain, and I can’t answer her. Except, this time inside that metal shriek I hear a sound that brings it back. Leaving my child mind I have forgotten the prophecy of the storybook. I have forgotten that I ever remembered the sound of a field crumbling in the plough, and the cry of a stone in its blades. — As pale as frost, I shift from foot to foot until the blood regains my ankles, calves, my thighs, and fist to fist I recognise the rub and slouch of denim in the rain. I’m standing here like Turner in a storm, deliberately, to realise art is all the fabrication of experience. The burst of water in my hair and ears


is not aesthetic; neither is the way I’m gently sinking in a surge of mud. And what will count, when I am somewhere else, is how I lie about this trip so far, and whether, like the rest, I tell it all in metaphors: this was the path along the natural traces of my history, the long, resolved migration of a swift.


The junctions of your living in my day

There are no secrets here, the postcard’s limbs expose themselves to the sorter’s eye like an uncouth act, a paper overcoat unfurled and flashing like it doesn’t care if I insert my own pen here and there, and carve a slightly different sense in it, juice-up its pulp, its raw material, change ‘miss you’ to ‘I miss your lips’, parenthesise the lesser bits, make bold the sexy parts, add this PS: Come see me soon, bring wine and bring your kiss. I carry pens of every sort for it. Like some, I could deliver them as is. What good is that? So rare the privilege to sink a needle in a sagging vein and drive the pulse and wonder in again.


First kiss
Our first kiss in the public swimming pool, a part of me lifted away, floating to you at the far other side, sweat and skin and loosened hair dancing under the swells like smoke to your own saliva circling in the water. Our mingling secretions. Goodness. What a time it was, not touching, deep end or shallow, our glands speaking volumes to each other, millilitres slipping out to you and back to me, like virgin slime in an ancient sea. A little mucous can’t be helped, spilled in the desperate romance of it, the silent intercourse of body parts sheared from their moorings.


Something in the city’s voice last week called me to the mouth of Castle Street, where I stopped to watch an iron hulk demolishing the flower market. It clambered up the pavement on its tread, smoke farting from its belly, its arm raised, a great spike thrusting at the brittle roof like a finger, its grill steaming in the ecstasy. It broke her down like the toffee on an apple. Since then, the market’s found a way to bloom despite the mess. I’ve seen the stalls return, and workmen haggling over daffodils. And now and then, the monster seems confused by all the rubble, as its burly trunk dips among the market’s fallen stones, and nuzzles its remains like an old lover.


Root canal
I thought that he was kidding me: a root canal? The filling’s cracked, the nerve’s bewitched and slackening like old banana in its skin. A root canal, they’re dirty words, like triple bypass, geyser’s burst, your card is maxed, you’ve blown a tyre, you’re fired. The marks of adulthood, as sure as wrinkling, when a man can grind away your tooth’s own heart for money. All the scars add up to this. My dentist says it’s changed, that kids these days take fluoride pills, that soon this rubber plug I’ve got will be extinct. He winks. I know it can’t be true, the myth’s too great: a root canal’s that metaphor, the trick your dentist teaches you when you’re just old enough to know the crap you can compare it to.


Every Seed’s lab
I worry, in the goggled keep of embryology, that science should lay mistaken eggs, that its first sheep are merely knots in strings of DNA, for I suspect that on this fragile film of warm, wet rubber, still the slightest, yellowing, nucleic form depends on God, or magic, to be born.


You leave me for work in the morning
For C.

When you leave then I know that I want you, because I lift your hair from the shower’s drain, the string of you pinched in my fingertips, wet and close, and you’re electricity coursing and burning and blinding like a flashbulb recasting the sun’s arc. So I wake and I look for the shock in your traces, for the course of your spoon in the cereal bowl, for the moisture in your hand at the window’s edge, where you looked out briefly then took your sweater and your sweet head and left me for work in the morning.


Leaving the trail for the small, hidden bay
The sand got in deep, got in everywhere, reminding me later how quickly the tide was rising in us, heads filling with each other, how your hands were making all your promises, and the gasping waves, dancing and reaching, unfurled the beach in those long white sheets. The sand got in deep, got in under my skin, how it rubs like a stone in the back of my head, like grit in my belly, an itch in my bed.


Your gravity
Everyone loves making love to the moon. The moonlight on the water, harvest moon, sonatas on her still maria, all our weightless daydreams. I have even seen a flagpole thud silently into her soil to germinate a new America. But when I’m here its pockmarked head crumbles against the window, its rifts and creases older and more broken than deserts. When I’m here and choose instead to lie against the mending of your body, against the pulse and tremble in your skin, I’m inches from the earth’s blood-heavy heart, and light years from the glass eye looking in.


Their labrador
I visited the couple afterwards. They found it hard to say that he was gone, their labrador, who saw the way for them along the paths around their lampless home. They had it built in stone beneath a slope of pine and fynbos, on the leeward side where the mountain’s smells were strongest. Every day they’d walk, the dog beside them sniffing up the track and brush, and, seeing more than them, narrating everything. He could announce a bird nearby, or the boiling up of cloud above the house in time to hurry back. Of all they said about their seeing dog they said the least about his final night, that as his breathing stopped they feared, at last, their briefly separate bodies out of sight.


This burnt place
Cagsawa haunts me like no place before: with every dig, my finds explain what I am really looking for: the archaeology of what is mine and what is yours, the memory of all the years since eighty-nine, when you and I saw Herculaneum, consumed by tephra with Pompeii and now less famous a museum of pumice and disaster. But, for me, with more to see, if only for that day, and for your company. I wish you’d join me. Since that day with you I haven’t had another soul to show my favourite places to. I’ve gone as far as one man can, perhaps, to dig for ghosts and understand Cagsawa’s end. Here are the maps and lists of what you’ll need to bring and know. When you arrive, take in the church entombed by Mayon’s lava flow: the steeple leaning from the igneous ground as if to plead for those inside whom faith betrayed and magma drowned.


Come be with me. When I’m alone, I think one-eyed, as if the depth of things depends on our two minds in sync, the junctions of your living in my day. We understand these injured towns, but I can’t see with you away, the light is fire, the silence frightening. I’m waiting here, in this burnt place whose ash I breathe and stumble in.


I waved as you glanced back along the deck, your hair the wind, your stance the sea’s own. You were all I knew of oceans, standing there remembering that each torch-lit wreck had shown how salvage was your spirit’s salvage, a dual sense: the ships recalled such loss that joy at moments of discovery compelled some resurrecting double-cross. You waved, and you were gone. This salvage here your spirit’s salvage, too. Except I drew no buoyant, double-edged ambivalence at that black depth, with some parts new and old parts resurrected. In this boat, while some are working out chronologies and explanations, my mind, undeterred, rehearses drowning off the sunburnt quays. You are the ache inside my throat, as cruel as the ship emerging on the ocean floor when we descended, pushing through our lights towards your wetsuit’s lost and sunken store.


Ecstasy or torment
A small noise in a minor key, a beetle is simplicity – I saw one at my feet as I passed by, a drop of amber or of tiger’s eye writhing in such ecstasy or torment, in such a careless frenzy, that jealously I had to ask if it saw me, too, but could not grasp the wonder in my eye at the fury of its spinning, or whether, at its own unwavering pitch, it knew a thing beyond the ecstasy or torment of its utter simpleness.


Explaining how those dead are part of us

Karoo letter, 1900
After the winter of coughing blood, the mud of my tuberculin, my body’s rack laid bare on cots and tables, I have watched the air come parched and sunlit off the scrub Karoo. I said I’d live – I know I promised you; but I’m no better, and I fear our child will have no living father. Strange, this proud, new century of science: it gave to me instead of fixtures, rather than a cure, this desert’s ancient, petrified motifs of recapitulation. To be sure, despite our thumbs, our eyes, our industry, we are the slow, unplanned phylogeny of simple organisms, of our brains a billion years before we noticed them. I’ve watched the boil and nurture of the sand, how you and I can trace, from where the land surfaced death-sprung from the fossil sea, the moulds of our evolving ancestry. Now you’re unfolding in your swelling womb a new biography of our design. I knew I’d not return to see you there when I found, revealed by wind, the rocky shells of ammonites below the hill. The air came parched and sunlit off the scrub Karoo, unearthed their dusty graves, and drifted through.


Officer’s log, the wrecked Cabalva, July 1818
As I had thought, the men have come to me. I’ve said ‘we’re lost’ to some. Or stopping short they’ve seen the caves, the bulging shore, the dogged waves and turned away. I cannot know their fury. Seven men will go beyond the headland. We will burn the ship, for smoke, till they return. The ship lies splintered near the crew. The air is cold, the land is new. It’s dawn. And high as I can see the seabirds circle silently.


The ghost lakes
Nothing moves up here, though everything shifts imperceptibly: the grass and fynbos lean into the air, still as a galaxy in the shimmer of its own dance. From higher above, the silver ghost lakes lie in the mountain’s teeth, offspring of its waterways, home to crabs and frogs and the grey heron. Not strictly lakes, though like lake-water. Five stone dams dreamed up in the mad eye of empire. Woodhead first, then, twice as vast, Hely-Hutchinson, the Disa River’s store, whose cousins fall to drying Victoria, De Villiers, and Alexandra. I recognise the names no better than the men who built these dams, labour in wartime, quarrying the mountain’s rock while, far below, two scrappy realms nipped at the heels of their history, Boer and Englishman, dogs at the hooves of a great horse. Each stone, of thousands in a wall, dominion’s monument and headstone, capstone on its power, flagstone on its low road, keystone in its dialectic arc. Most are three by two square feet, though each with its own shape cut to the needs of the master mason inch by inch with a chipping tool, then hoisted from the quarry to the wall, buckling the steel crane, the boiler’s coal-fired head near bursting from its two-ton chamber as the screams of steam and the metal in the derrick climb in the hammer of a hundred chisels and the crack of rock, and climb above the foreman’s bellowing till the tools drop, for a moment, as his men look for his voice in the bedlam – like passing under a bridge in heavy rain, the startling silence – then exploding again as the dam-stone crashes in. It’s quiet now. A library of ways to ache and sprain, of grind, of one man’s cracking bedrock for another, of the legacy that cruelty leaves when coupled with design. Last refuge, too: the Table Mountain Ghost Frog’s only home, clinging to the rocks in streams beneath the sluice gates, scarce as old stories faint and waning, thinning as their details disappear:


the workmen huddled round a new-cut stone, the talk of troops advancing on their homes some miles away; the anger of the quarry boss at laughter on a slow day; the gentle bandage in the first-aid tent; how a man remembers first swimming out in Woodhead. Where it’s wet and spilling fast below the dams the Ghost Frogs keep watch over history, their numbers diminishing each time the sluices close and strand them, vanishing between the dams migrating heavenwards, and the mountain settling closer to the earth.


The Robber’s Grave
Pilgrim’s Rest, Mpumalanga

Crouched low, I try to read the robber’s name. But flush against the rock, the engraver’s work has vanished in the wind and grit. Or else there never was a name. To know such scorn he must have been a terrifying thief: where all the other graves lie facing east, his own lies perpendicular to these and faces south. Laid out beneath the scrub his bones will always, only, feed the hill where lichen scales the speckled sides of rocks, and here and there pyrites breaks the sand. And when the others rise, he will not see the coming of the Lord, the swelling east. I watch the town below the cemetery and trace his final course, his careful steps where, many years ago, the robber slipped beyond his powers of cunning and surprise, and spotted in the place that banished him they shot him dead. By morning you could hear the diggers chip methodically away at the hardened churchyard soil. Throughout the day the townsfolk climbed the hill as I have done, along the curling, foot-worn path and on into the yard, where now the drystone edge lies scattered loosely, where the new-dug graves have spread unhindered past the failing walls. And I’m as drawn as they were by his death. I turn away, complicit with the day that no one knew him, when they stood around and stone by stone secured him in the ground.


Three impressions from a window at the docks
Setting out
As the harbour lights flickered off to the sounds of daylight, two sailors moored a failing skiff to the second quay. No one knew them, nor knew why they sailed by night like dockyard ghosts. Leaving on foot, they turned inland just as the last trawler cast off, dry nets heaped among the fishermen.

The harvest
Seals flashed like lithium in the tide as the evening swells slapped on the jetties. Everyone was waiting. Slowly the horizon began to prickle with masts and mizzenmasts, till we could just make out (anticipation rippled on the wharf) the decks of kingklip, here and there a yellowtail skipping on the boards.

In darkness
Every boat had docked for the night. Doors closed and curtains joined like eyelids. Swollen clouds powdered the sky below a full moon. And I could have sworn I saw (as for a second, a mismatch of time and circumstance displaced the century) in dreadnought coats two men put out to sea.


Vigil of the exploding marketplace
If you couldn’t see the TV from the sink you’d never think it, daughter in her bed, groceries settling in the cupboards, the long day’s shopping stiffening your legs. The news was on, that’s how you knew that you were near-to-last to leave the crowded mall before it burst like a dropped glass. Nearly you, browsing with your child, then dragging her, before you knew it, like a heavy sack. Your mind plays tricks: for moments you are there, her body torn like a bag of apples, spilled and bruising. There’s the shiver and the chill at the horror of the horror, and your mind that finds this image in itself. Then go and see her sleeping, how the dark allows her growing there, in spite of everything.


Carthago delendum est
In Carthage, soldiers battered down our door, unshaven Romans chapped with salt, two days on the northern sea to find us gone, though hiding in the roof’s loose tiles. Baghdad, the young Americans in tanks like a film’s horizon. Real, though, as the blast that shattered our house around us. How does it help that we lived? For after dark, at last, the Roman soldiers found us there and tore the cloth from my body. That’s when they took him from me, with his mouth as wide as a cry that couldn’t break from him, stuck without electric power, the night wind blew thick with sand off the battle fields, grains rich with depleted uranium left to burn inside my child’s soft lungs, in his choking throat, the terror and the silence. At last they left. I lay there on the roof and watched their army finish everything: emptying bags of salt across our crops, poison in our own home’s ground. My son survived six months with his leukaemia, lived a half-life out in front of me. In Carthage once, the Roman army marched sowing salt, their casting arms as tireless as a mother watching, dread’s hope burning holes in her falling chest till her child is gone from sight, and the wheat dies with her for a thousand years.


The estuary
It’s no longer a surprise: between the lights upstream and here are bodies in the water, ghosts of ghosts. And where I am the beach is sending boats out for the haul. The villagers as well no longer try to seek or to explain it, for they know or do not want to know. For many nights we talked of nothing else. We quickly learned they come at night, have drifted for a day, and so past settlements and border posts, swim lifeless through the forests, breathing nothing but the stream around their heads. As if we have exhausted all the ways to speak of bodies in lagoons, we notice now the shimmer of a bird among the reeds, the hidden sun alight behind the clouds. At dusk we wade into the bay. The boats are out and waiting. Almost out of sight a body makes its way, negotiates the rocks and driftwood. No one points it out. Around us blackfish jump, or silently a woman fetches water from the pier. These vigils hold us to the river. See how perfectly the dark shearwater dives.


Notes Page 31 – ‘Every Seed’s lab’: In January 1998 Chicago scientist Dr Richard Seed proclaimed: ‘Cloning and the reprogramming of DNA is the first serious step in becoming one with God.’ (TIME Online Edition 7 January 1998) He claimed he was on the brink of cloning a human being. I found no explicit comment on his marvellous surname. Page 36 – ‘This burnt place’: Cagsawa, a small town on Luzon Island in the Philippines, was buried by the eruption of the Mayon volcano in 1814. Many of the townsfolk had gathered in the church to seek shelter. Today only the church’s steeple is visible above the ground. Page 43 – ‘Karoo letter, 1900’: Millions of years ago, the now semidesert Karoo was a sea, and its watery past has left it filled with fossils. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, some Western physicians believed that the dry air of the Karoo could help those with tuberculosis to recover. Page 44 – ‘Officer’s log, the wrecked Cabalva, July 1818’: On 7 July 1818 the 1200-tonne Cabalva ran aground on a small island in the Cargados Carajos Reef, some 200 miles north-east of Mauritius. The captain was drowned, as a result of his own fear, according to one account. For some time the crew had no idea where they were, or whether there was any chance of being found. Over two weeks later, the Magicienne rescued the beleaguered crew, who had not been getting on very well. Page 45 – ‘The ghost lakes’: The five dams on Table Mountain were built from blocks of mountain stone over about twenty years spanning the South African (or Anglo-Boer) wars. Victoria was the first, completed in 1895, Woodhead in 1897, Alexandra in 1903, Hely Hutchinson in 1904, and De Villiers in 1910. The dams provide 5 million cubic metres of water a year, one per cent of Cape Town’s water needs. The Table Mountain Ghost Frog (also known as the Thumbed Ghost Frog), Heleophryne rosei, lives only in this part of Table Mountain – nowhere else in the world – and is considered highly endangered. Its tadpoles, which have a large, sucker-like mouth for clinging to rocks in fast-flowing mountain streams, develop very


slowly over two seasons, so any drying-up of their waterways kills them before they reach metamorphosis. Page 48 – ‘Three impressions from a window at the docks’: Kim McClenaghan includes a dark, industrial reinterpretation of this piece in his collection Revisitings (Snailpress/UCT, 2002) called ‘Three convictions from a window at the docks’, which takes on my romantic ghost story, describing the docks as urban factories lined with grime and unhappiness. He worked from an earlier version of my poem (published in New Contrast), in which the line endings and a few phrases were different.


Series Editor’s Note This series, with a view to its future expansion and development, has been renamed the UCT Writers Series. Previous books in the UCT Younger Poets Series published in association with Snailpress: No 1: Fiona Zerbst Time and Again No 2: Kim McClenaghan Revisitings No 3: Sarah Johnson Personae


Acknowledgements Some of these poems have appeared in New Contrast, Magma and Carapace, and I’m very grateful to the editors of those magazines for their support. Earlier versions of several poems were included in my portfolio for UCT’s MA in Creative Writing. Thanks to Stephen Watson, for years of careful reading and commenting, and to Gus Ferguson and Jo-Anne Friedlander who are a joy to work with. To the brave friends, family, and teachers who read early drafts of these and other pieces, I owe an unaffordable debt of gratitude, for both your honest opinions and your less honest tact—AA.


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