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za ISBN 978-0-9802729-7-0 Book and cover design: Natascha Mostert Lettering: Hannah Morris Printed and bound by Mega Digital. 7760.com http:/ /modjaji.books@gmail.Publication © Modjaji Books 2009 Text © Fiona Zerbst 2009 First published in 2009 by Modjaji Books CC P O Box 385. Athlone.book. Cape Town Set in Palatino 11/13 pt . South Africa modjaji.co.
Thanks are due to the following people: Tanya Rojinsky. Carlos Miguel Fernandes and my husband Omar Mustafa Hamed .
Contents Remembering S-21. 1899-1932 Shepherdess Death of a dog Beach-town revisited July Possibilities Volcanic Politics The dying fish Crime fiction Butterflies North star Reading Thom Gunn Wings The Temptation of St Anthony Leaving the summer-house Beyond Laguna Frias. Cambodia Moths Relics Learning to box Impermanence Comfort Red plum blossoms Hart Crane. Patagonia Touch On a lake in Patagonia Legacy – after Frida Kahlo In praise of loss Fasting Burials Shredding Patterns In Saigon Light Beside the Nile 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 19 21 22 23 24 25 27 28 29 31 32 33 36 39 41 42 43 44 46 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 .
drew his captor’s head. starved. helpless. II. Oleander scented the sunlit courtyard.Remembering S-21. prisoners taken from their families. They were beaten. with blackboards. Obedient. herded like children. they still starved. This was a school. Children filled the concrete stairwells. the painter. shackles. Kept alive on a whim. Vann Nath. This was a school before it was wire and silence. Then it was wire. fed a gruel of watery rice. whiteand-tan-tiled floors. Cambodia – for Vann Nath I. he drew each line 8 .
’ ‘Death stays close to us.like a precious. III. it is a lovely garden. Under the oleander. enjoyed the morning sunlight. IV. in the silence. 9 . before their parents fetched them. before dark. Vann Nath drew and sculpted. ‘Just let things be. Nothing else for him to do but stay close to the enemy. Children must have played here. living thing.’ he said. keep silent. Each line a lifeline as long as his captor’s vanity saw likeness there. A worker told Vann Nath.
they bloom to light. like buds that burst for air. brown containers. again. they startle into glass. As if they had no wings. tiny insect vessels of a great hope. again – they are like stars that break against the darkness. 10 . That muffled knock again.Moths At night. break like vases. longing for the light. even dying for it.
. in the dusty well. Touch a rotting comb. Here’s a girl in stone. sacrificial. overgrown with weeds. On the flaking wall. Like a lonely ruin. names we can’t quite read. And we hold its best at arm’s length.Relics Hold a broken bowl. History offers relics. 11 . afraid to say we’ve broken into tombs and found them empty . this is how life seems. Here’s a man in bronze. heavy. . secrets that we guess at.
I started throwing punches in my sleep. And yet. in my sleep. I didn’t dream of the ring.Learning to box After a year. Fear and sweat were far away. 12 . the will to live. as they are when finally it is just me with my footwork. or fights. I began to throw the kind of punches boxers only dream about. A right hook. A left jab. I didn’t see my opponents. natural speed.
as it always does: we drown in unprotected sex. observing as the stunned world grieves. Asia coughs. yellow buddhas. year-end nothingness. Milky lake of sea from all these windows. 13 . Tiny wrecks. Broken lines of Christmas trees. Sun sets. half-drowns as two tsunamis leave the beaches torn with corpses. rings and smashed-up history. We pause.Impermanence Windblown. Lights now perilous and faint through leaves of palms.
where I sat and waited for my life. at my window. . . . Now the rain’s magnanimous. How the wet earth seethed against a tree vertical and blackened by the rain’s long strokes . Its wet hands pat the sullen earth. its porous falling. brought me to that moment. as if no day could pass without my needing comfort. And wet salt shivering on leaves is like an omen: what was once alive. winter’s rains were uttered with a guttural grating in the drains. Just like a child who comes into a circle holding out her hands. what can be again .Comfort Rain’s residual salt. 14 . . In the year of our divorce. how the river had no need of me but let me add my few tears to the stream. and finding new hands not unwilling to allow a stranger comfort. loosening the tears in me. below my window. when I saw the chalk of clouds break open. its tiny drops are pinpricks of my former pain.
This is unsurprising. 15 . Red plum blossoms Sharpen his taste for art. The Master of Cinnabar Hill. Dark red wells up suddenly Out of the dazzling whiteness. Red plum blossoms. Is painting blossoms. dusts the snow To read the canvas.Red plum blossoms Yao Shou. Yao Shou Claps freezing hands Together.
A fellow passenger. 16 . is the bell that sounds your verses. propellers flensed and burned the waters battering towards New York. As she shudders into sleep. 1899-1932 Prodigal. Given the choice. The S.Hart Crane. the juddering vessel. you leapt. amplifies your voice. who saw you leap and thrash. American Rimbaud. droning.S. shucking off the first-class hell of being you in bar and cheap hotel. watched only for your body’s cork to float up. Orizaba churned on anyway. would you have gulped the broken world as well in sober hopelessness? Your sailor’s voice must first be lost in fatal tides to tell.
Alexander Pope In the room.. shabby toughness of an anonymous citizen. not a beauty. we cleaned your cupboards.Shepherdess ‘Think not. You were ugly. your silence. marbly blue and rosy-cheeked. the tiny.. your age set in. tilted chin. That all her vanities at once are dead . You had the tired. or not painted. all shall fade. as you said. and the stumpy feet. Powder caked your wrinkled skin. when woman’s transient breath is fled. unsubtle scents of burning cigarettes. So we rallied round you in the weeks before you died. we came to know the stale. even then. I touched the little dimpled hands. anxious: 17 . the blonde bun. And she who scorns a man must die a maid’ – from ‘The Rape of the Lock’. I unearthed a plaster shepherdess. Once. homely and grotesque. Since painted. You were quick to hover.
against my palm – slightly heavy.Don’t drop it! – so you said. And that hideous girl-ideal plastered virgin who could kill with a frozen. bow-lipped smile. 18 . nestled there. faintly cold – petticoats not caked with mud. sheep safe in the fold.
Death of a dog
‘Lie down, dog. The fire is nearly dead.’ – Ruth Miller, ‘The Fire’
Driving through these morning hills here below the sleeping mountain we can see it, weaving in and out of darkness, through the trees. When we brake, ahead, it falls as if our stopping checked its motion somehow; and its little strength became our needle’s quivering zero. Mongrel bitch: her skull a cap; her ribs a ruined architrave. Eyes that pant with each new breath. Every nerve unravelling. Then we see the dark, defining mark, the blood that seeps on through the wound of every aftermath. She must have hit a passing car. As she tilts her bony head sideways, just to look at us, we are witness to the death moving in her grinning jaw.
So we hunker down beside her, watching, as the moon goes down, and a yawning dark approaches – like some shadow on a lawn – moving; watching; moving in this cold, clandestine dawn.
It would be good, of course, to go again – return to that salt hill, its dried-out beauty shorn to black and tan; some lonely cry quite clear; an airborne seagull’s creamy wing completing the unravelling of the sky. And you, who took it in with tired eyes . . . I focus on the hill, the bleaching sea, that festival of grasses tinged with salt like icing, very powdery, and stuck, dry, to every living thing. (It burns the lips the way a tear can burn them.) As you turn, I sense the blur of me begin to burn, to want you back, intolerably, trying to think of some excuse, to sing some words . . . A seagull perching on a ring of rocks that waits until the wind permits a take-off . . . I haven’t any answers, but I offer the best of me, aware of what’s at stake. It wasn’t right for six years, but I’m calling your name, the only name; and watch waves break.
distraught and useless words. as shadows pass a lamp. as doves. lose the will to chat or sing. or like a field of trodden grass. A solemn cry. even smug. and all my dull. I can’t forget the light. resisting. now settled in a palm tree’s dry enclosure. blindly. like hair. to my boots. The sodden grass. these flightless birds. glossy. And leaves that cling. July. My eyes are sore. damp. And I can’t forget July. I can’t forget the things that cannot pass before the eye.July July. 22 . This light is wet yet brassy. and minutes pass the way a drop will slide across the glass: too slowly. The way it shimmers.
A monk is here. cool and hopeful. just sitting here. where a word is scrawled. A way of life like walls. hands on his knees. Or two words. the crows rake through the black-holeblack of trees. Anything happens. 23 . Outside. but not restrictive. a chair. Raw light reveals the weave of a sheet. three. More like visions. A bed. No dust.Possibilities The possible is a room like the cell of a monk.
is element. and this is good. I cannot turn. so ash will spill on lids – residual tears – and flame will kiss my mouth.Volcanic Risk and aftershock. though dead. Reminding me this love. though rational. but attaches to the deeper heat around the mess of colder ash. and fire can never really burn out. I know. now. and we. 24 . I cannot turn my face from you. this love that leaps desire. that the waters boil below volcanic ash. are pure catastrophe.
Still. Of course I won’t pretend 25 . I wiped the dry remains away this morning. the smudgy blue of dawn-lit ash is arty. after oil and vengeance. against a wall. unreadable. The world’s an angry red. Commas of our blood were brown. It’s winter. but the hue is cold-cut bloodless. A drive into the country’s dull and sad. Not even death can end the bloody feuds that families have and so I’m very glad we don’t have kids. floods came swollen. A multitude of ‘nows’ came crowding back. surging to a muddy end. Last night.Politics India’s alarming Pakistan. my grandfather’s dead and nobody but you and I can suffer pain. I smeared a big mosquito as a stain. those insects will attack. And I’m fumbling with one completely dud. Candles offer heat as much as arguments do. in a clumsy leap from bed. We stutter with the paper’s platitudes. and looking back it seems as if we’ve argued far too much. America is rumbling. half-burnt mosquito coil. flesh you dare not touch. breaking on a white-flat plain: a natural disaster. Sheep and cows went under. And later. You held my hand. Lights go out and houses in the street begin to flicker.
you haven’t stung me, gutted me, deprived my life of air. I’m grateful all the same. All’s fair in love, war, etc. Your game remains apolitical, hopelessly contrived yet pure. The Middle East is poised for war. Relief’s been sent for victims of the flood. Food and candles. Fresh-donated blood. You reach me, wordless, as I cross the floor.
The dying fish
I’m drained of strength, a fish too weak to thrash for sea. On flattened sand, I sense my end in milky threads of seaweed, or a scooping hand. The air of me is clotting to a drawstring line and hook. My mouth’s hard bubble bloats against the dryness of a rock. No wave consults me on shock or movement. In the sun-warmed slime of self, I am a paragon of need. As patient as a leper, watched and rotting.
There’s always a lake, a body on ice, a man alone. Slab-cheeked policemen, frigid women, the silent phone. Controlled addiction, dictionary clues, a cross-hatched bone, a broken marriage. foibles of life lived out at home where money’s scarce, children intrude, peace is hard-won. There’s always the night, a sequel to write, a crime to condone. I’m drawn to the scene, a place I’ve been to: innocence gone.
life.Butterflies I. In salt-worn shells. fynbos. a sudden rising up of blue-black. rose on flaky wings to beat as living things. 29 . a beauty much too strange to hold. almost purple. lilies. II. not too far from sea. like duty. the core of death lay hidden but. It was more like seeing nature panic than unhand that stir of wings. the salt-stung spray of waves and foam on bone-like rocks. On that shore among the grasses. unbidden. butterflies. I saw among the sand-strewn pathways of the day’s demise.
lilies. 30 . I took a shaky breath. a glass jar. A foam sarcophagus. One can’t ignore the paradox of life-indeath. IV. like hair. the net. that brushed my hand and brought me back to life. the roar of sea that shuttles like a frenzied loom and lies in wait for us. amalgamate with burning air. segmented wings divide or shut. With death all twisted round me then.III. a hopeless ache to save the thing that writhes on rocks. for blue-black butterflies. among the grasses. And I saw. soft. wings.
the north star through the avocado leaves. the verified night-blindness of the night. I saw a clearness beyond that mass of leaves and clouds.North star The garden brooded. future or fear. as bright and true as mirror is to mirror. a negative of some night-bird on the outlined lawn. It was my self I saw. they seemed like chaos. noise and not much more. In a tableau. The guests were laughing. I saw. With house-lights on. these epiphanies make me doubt both vision and so much more: I saw. seeming able to sail without compass. but I found myself staring into the after-rain strangeness. In principle. I fixed on that star like a mariner. heavy with after-rain bruises. tipsy with port’s after-dinner richness. They dazzled each other. doubtless. through the pane. 31 . after all. as well.
Nor did I pause or hesitate but pushed the book away from me. admitted light was colder than it might have been. unquiet mind and Death’s now visible head. The lines in Gunn’s Collected Poems were fading even as I read and only words of rational and lustrous death stayed in my mind as light gave up and bluntly fled. Evening’s thin. about this age that is my time. was far too late. 32 . But it was late. I watched it sharpen on the floor and try for lines of radiance. Gunn is unbearably kind about the affliction of the age. about a straining.Reading Thom Gunn I sat beside the open door.
Every feather in its place. so angels fluff out the silken impositions of their wings. Just look at Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. It pains them to see we take the sceptic’s view of things.Wings Angels have the downy wings of swans. Of course. 33 . Miraculous. They get around. unruffled. They don’t complain. exceptional. As women comb their hair. they’re gold.
You’re a butterfly. was all he could aspire to. You can’t lie on your back. They’re not your playthings. Well. The angels laugh to see men fly at all. Angels dream their downy wings away. What a mad fool. a swallow. a searing fall.And Icarus? He dreamt of heights improbable. They’re always perfect. 34 . very streamlined in paintings. A wobble at that speed. someone has to suffer some indignity with wings.
of miracles. really. to pass on Divine messages. or promises of painless death. of pregnancy? 35 . But what would ancient painters think to say to angels who came hobbling by. on sore feet.They’re dowdy and unfashionable.
No escape from this varnished panel. Like a swarm of bees. on my back. and plucked and tugged at with each breath. the demons: my undoing. Are one’s demons fashioned in the oily hells and feathered scales of madness? 36 . Shrivelled branches. attacking. as by sickness. In this altarpiece. Don’t look human.The Temptation of St Anthony ‘Outwitting hell With human obviousness’ – W H Auden I’m stretched out in an altarpiece by Grünewald. a pack of dogs. Ice-white hills. Struck down.
glassy eyes It seems that. Choked with fangs and antlers. they do look human. They’re familiar. Pox-wealed bodies. time itself compresses into foreground and their stewing brew of hatred mocks me. the rough and wooden staves. 37 . after all.I can’t stare enough at claws and beaks. More than dried-ice hills of dreams. or death-charred beams of buildings laid like trellises across a landscape.
38 . At long last. that I recognise.Far. I hold fast. demons. Face to face. Welcome. It’s these. avenging angels come too late. my neighbours.
then a swerve of road and spray of pebbles. disintegrates in movement where the skirting meets a tufted curve of grass that may just be a nest. A crawling thing. feral entirely other animal? A half-wild thing to prowl at the perimeter. where grass that looks like sorrel tends to straggle. its knotted fence? Or did you think the world’s defunct magnificence could keep your house in order. your view of me still rigid to a fault. Let’s drive out on national roads again. But did you stop to think it might become part-owned by some dark. the creaking world. a planet untroubled in its orbit? Here.Leaving the summer-house A muted field. dull. towards a further town. The droppings of a mouse attest to this. But weeds have blown along the taut ridge of the shore and seaweed flattens against a glittering rock. this house. then the sprawling house. You’ve left it uninhabited and sagging. a crescent on some hillside. beside the sea. yellow-staining grass and love’s corrupt enclosure. half-dark. No-one can abide 39 . This could be more than just another landscape. for spiders and the filaments of dust and air that seem to come alive.
As we leave. as light arranges.an animal abandonment: and yet you’ve made the house as plain. the judgment falls to strangers. 40 . hospitable.
I ache for more than life can offer me. dew and fruitlessness. I take the route of thorn and lavender. Awake. more and more. I hunger for the dreams that take me. that inner. of thistle. beyond that shut. The little stream. the sanctuary.Beyond Let me fall asleep. of loveless words. are not enough. 41 . and how much is at stake. Let me go to sleep. I pause before that inner door and wonder what I listen for. door beyond which is a lake.
near water. below. you barely roll across a teasing gauze of waves – Hallucination of this time that freezes here. and here I stand. cold. as green as Venus in the night. a faceless clock. My wide-hipped boat. 42 . you lie in crescent peace.Laguna Frias. in bone-white air. reeds and towers of rock. And now a condor veers to snow above this planet. Patagonia Cold lake.
What would you give – an extra hour of travelling. and to be warm inside? 43 . your elbow. Wool on wool – a warm arm finds your hand.Touch Someone brushes up against you on a crowded morning train. Then he’s gone. side by side. dream-like. in that winter crush – to feel that touch.
in these mirror-lakes. neutral. making notes in spiral-bound books. Careful amateur. a diligent mariner. tiny eggs. And you glided close to snow. Tails of moss and fists of rock. somehow not seeing undergrowth’s footprints. Convocation of gulls and wavelets. legal.On a lake in Patagonia Gods and monsters left these shores as fabled as Ithaca’s. 44 . an amber memory. Chaplet of weeds. mermaid-killer. the nebulous green of constellations in this water.
hidden. How to trace them. icy with age. delicate. this chafing jawbone.A swill of darkness within a shadow. as bad-tempered Andes touches the border of Argentina. these living mythologies? Eyes of green and legs like splinters. 45 .
This is what is left to those Who linger in the courtyard. dry ears Of corn. This column of air. II. This flesh that speaks. torn as petticoats. Water gods. If Mexico is Frida. It is also Fig and prickly pear. we must dream with our hands’ – Octavio Paz I. Vanilla jar of dead water Circled by a peacock. Tears of pomegranate: A broken column Painted as herself. These nights of broken stone. Her legacy of nails in flesh.Legacy – after Frida Kahlo ‘We must sleep with open eyes. 46 .
That flat plate of brow Is a golden canvas To feast from. Then it is also Paintbrush and suffering. Reflected in her mirror. This heart that frills the sand’s Dry life with blood. IV. 47 . If Mexico is Frida. V. As we watch. spine of jewelled bone. These nights of broken stone. A butterfly sticks To coils of her hair. As she paints. This column of air. Now vertical. Frida dreams in turquoise. She dreams with her hands. her bed A crushed infinity. This flesh that speaks. Icon of desire.III.
It’s no shame To spare your neck. The knowledge Of this loss That is dying. Lose at cards. 48 . Words. lose The men you know To other women. Fold. Don’t invest. Let it in. Hold yourself Aloof. Fold. Be certain That it doesn’t matter. Refuse to play.In praise of loss Lose Until the loss Feels right. Don’t respond To provocations. living. Refuse to play.
strange longing. Organs shrink softly.Fasting You leak like a raisin. With sunset. Mouth shut as purses you lighten. 49 . relief.
Bones and crosses. a woman crying at this touch. tea-coloured fingers pick at blankets. Frail. 50 . Nobody wants to cry above the sound of the now-dry river.Burials Plague time. or the sough of wind. Burials. A dead bouquet. A dozen losses knot up. as grief builds in the throat again. They want it to go away. Plague time. Two hands rub along the beadwork nubs of spine. like a weathered rope. Rags and crosses dot the sand. as touch is only pain. or hear of this. Nobody wants to tell of this. Sand fans out around the morning.
they press into the green. they duck. All pewter heads and hunched-up. bamboo: my swab of garden.Shredding My garden blooms with naked. Autumn bleeds on through in muddied water. these cockerels of the underworld. speckled guineafowl. They tear my ferns and stripes of shade. 51 . These birds peck in sonorous chorus as they scritch in mulch and leaves. nervously spike their feathers with redly carving beaks. They shred the core of what remains to shred. echo each other. nervous plumpness. They peck at my door. bob.
the body’s parts protest and shunt. creak into life. working cogs. go on with will and blindness. 52 . This poem aches and chafes for the belt to stop. Gravity makes its noise.Patterns There is no peace on earth. for lines and threads to finger a pattern of birds or flowers on a rag of silk. a factory hum.
A young girl touched a gun’s rusted nozzle. It was humid. I forget its official name. 53 . It showed a handful of cranky tanks. It was all so sad like a flower show of dead blooms: brown heads finally silent. sent back to soil to fill the darkening future’s holes.In Saigon The war museum was rather small. Men poked unmoving propellers of aircraft. A one-legged man sold books and begged.
In a little mosque I found the light once hidden from me. Now my eyes are weary of this world. All things aligned. tucked into the mind of time and longing.Light Golden tiles in golden flowers. 54 . Golden tiles on gold walls. Arabic the fabric.
the city’s guttural murmur is an undertone much like a prayer sent out among some chairs and tables as waiters offer coffee served in chipped cups… On a hot night in spring. city beaten to pale gold under silver. cool. there was nothing to regret. its lap-lap at its own sides. its mute feluccas. city that never ceases to thirst for its own inner light. through the flow and hum of cars.Beside the Nile On the banks of the Nile a city stoops. and the Nile flows through my hand and comes to land here… On a hot night in spring. cerebral breezes… and while I remember women crossing with strings of lotus flowers in their palms. I see you still. 55 . and finally nothing left but the evening prayer… I sing to the Nile. oh Nile.
Nile that knows a hundred crimes. Nile that watches the watcher look at the water.beyond the sales talk – arch papyrus merchants in their cheap shops – I hold out my hand and here you are. you will know my features. When I return to pray. excuses… Wait for me in a century of arches. 56 .
More wideranging than Zerbst’s previous volumes. the aftermath of war and genocide. She works as a freelance writer and has a Masters degree from UCT. Parting Shots (1991). Zerbst refreshes a tradition of lyric poetry without gimmicks or recourse to exercises in form. She has lived in Johannesburg and Cape Town and is currently based in Rustenburg in the North-West Province. Malaysia and Egypt. She spent six months in Ukraine and Russia and has visited Argentina. The Small Zone (1995) and Time and Again (2002). both beautiful and poisonous – love. revelation. With Oleander. death. her fourth collection. thus staying true to her metier. travel. religion. Her poetry draws on its ancient lyric roots. I remain enthralled. unashamed to be poetry. In my view.explores life’s complexities. I have been a devoted fan of Fiona Zerbst’s work. rather. unafraid to sing or lament. she achieves this by staying true to the spirit of a tradition. Previous volumes of poetry include Parting Shots (1991). – Rustum Kozain FIONA ZERBST was born in Cape Town in 1969. Oleander charts experiences through which the self may be transformed. Cambodia. Zerbst further establishes the sense that the poetic is her metier. Ever since her ﬁrst collection. art. ISBN 978-0-9802729-7-0 . Vietnam.
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