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