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