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