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Halfborn Woman

Colleen Higgs

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ISBN: 0-620-31975-5 © Colleen Higgs 2004 First published in 2004 by Hands-On Books P O Box 15254, Vlaeberg, Cape Town, 8018. Acknowledgements are due to the following journals and publications, in which some of these poems originally appeared: Sesame, New Coin,

Bleksem, New Contrast, Aerial, Kotaz, Incanda, Writing from Here 1999, Vocal Chords
The title and the opening epigraph of this collection come from the poem by Adrienne Rich, ‘Upper Broadway’ in The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems

Selected and New 1950 –1984, New York: W W Norton and Company.
Thank you to my friends who read the manuscript, to Anne Schuster for encouraging me in big and small ways to publish my poems, and to Margaret who sees me. Book design: magenta media Printed and bound in South Africa by Mills Litho All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the written permission of the publishers.

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For André and Kate

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I look at hands and see they are still unfinished I look at the vine and see the leafbud inching towards life I look at my face in the glass a halfborn woman and see
Adrienne Rich

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Contents I autobiography ...................................................................................... 13 what I remember .................................................................................. 16 on being left at five .............................................................................. 18 a memory of my parents, circa 1977 .................................................. 19 some of the things I remember about your father ........................... 20 intentions ............................................................................................... 22 summer 1981, Iowa .............................................................................. 23 Ailsa ....................................................................................................... 24 butcher bird .......................................................................................... 25 II plumbing – a short history .................................................................. 29 evidence ................................................................................................. 33 two phone poems ................................................................................. 34 in retrospect .......................................................................................... 35 Boadicea and mangy dog .................................................................... 36 red fly music ......................................................................................... 37 hot words in the steambaths ............................................................... 38 prevailing .............................................................................................. 39 the orange river .................................................................................... 40 abandoned farm ................................................................................... 41 because of you ...................................................................................... 42 a footnote ............................................................................................... 44

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III honey ..................................................................................................... 47 waking in the dark ............................................................................... 48 walls and gaps ...................................................................................... 49 letting go ............................................................................................... 50 eye contact ............................................................................................. 52 enough clues ......................................................................................... 54 another country .................................................................................... 58

IV being Kate’s mother ............................................................................. 61

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autobiography

after Nazim Hikmet
I was born in 1962 the year after Sharpeville two years after the Republic was declared by the Nats a year before Kennedy was assassinated in Texas, which at one, I’d never heard of I like to turn back it’s a compulsion to look back with longing and regret I’ve been a writer since I was eight but mostly afraid to admit it Some people know about plants or fish motor car engines, tooth decay, how to split the atom I know about absence, loss, grief they’re inked into my cells I know about the relief of writing finally to speak the unspeakable exposing its pale naked tendrils at eleven I tore myself away from my family to go to boarding school at eighteen I flew to America I flew bravely, on SAA with 80 other eighteen-year-olds to a small town, a farming family at the beginning of the Reagan administration

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at twenty I went to Wits at twenty-four started teaching people only a little younger than myself At thirty-two I voted for the first time in our democratic free and fair elections worked at the Jeppe voting station for 3 days and 3 nights helping people to vote checking they hadn’t voted already put their hands under ultra-violet light hands of all shapes and sizes men with painted finger nails hostel dwellers from Jeppe most people had never voted before at thirty-three I moved to the Eastern Cape I’ve lied to avoid the truth sometimes so deep in the lie, I thought it was the truth stopped writing for a time afraid of what would come out of my pen Lying isn’t always bad, but mostly it isn’t good for the digestion, it’s like white sugar or mixing your drinks I’ve fallen in love 3 times stepped off solid ground ruptured my life

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I fell in love with a dog too a big black wild dog with quirky ears and strange fears who could have predicted this? In spite of failings and obsessions I can say I live like a human being My heart has been broken but that doesn’t kill you not even slightly

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what I remember Stories of crocodiles stored in a drawer the smell of paraffin a buried sheep near the swing I’m Mary Poppins – it’s a high wind I need someone to hold me down keep my feet on the ground The mirrors in the house reassure and disturb me not ever the same story, not even in the same minute my body lets me down in the mirror the story of my body changes I don’t remember the kitchen I don’t remember my bedroom I remember the dining room and being able to read little red riding hood all the way through

this is your life now this is your life now
He’s not my daddy, I say, teeth clenched good as gold The crow wakes her up from her endless afternoon nap “will you kids shut up –
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I’m trying to sleep” the crow pretends not to hear The sheep died from eating mulberry leaves She always sleeps in the afternoon Years later she phones me on weekends I hear my name ricocheting around the lawns I run to the phone

What does she say? I don’t remember What do I say? I don’t remember
Here spring is a lot like winter except for the blossoms Sunday birds sing in congregations

Goat emotions – I’m here. You’re there.
My body is never silent takes nothing lying down I see a woman sitting with her back to the wall I see a dusty village where the wind blows the people who live there poor as dust poor as clouds, wind, and dune vygies I see a man ride past on an old bicycle the bible in his socks and hymns rolled up in his pockets
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on being left at five My father ’s absence was a promise that one day I’d be a princess again. It tasted like jam sandwiches in a blue Tupperware lunch box. It was the weight and shape of the telephone directory in the phone booth at Zoo Lake. It was like chasing butterflies at second break, the break we didn’t have to line up for milk. It was the colour of the pumpkin I didn’t want to eat at lunchtimes at my Gran’s house on the mines, while Springbok Radio played Hospital time in the kitchen. It was in the photograph of him and her and my brother and me, wearing paper hats for Christmas, smiling at the camera. It was my name being changed on my red table at school before I could read. It was as long as the corridor with the telephone on a table at the end of it, ringing, with news that my sister was born. It was the silence in my heart when we had debates in high school about adoption and abortion. It was as desperate as my longing for a boyfriend as I lay on my bed staring at the fire escape, at thirteen. Absence is a hunger, an ache, a sadness, a nameless growing dread, a powerful erosive secret. It’s a constant companion, a guardian angel, an imaginary friend, a promise, a voice in my head, a wish. It’s the possibility of flight or rescue.

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a memory of my parents, circa 1977 He’s sitting at the kitchen table his glass of cane and coke on the formica his voice thick and dark with anger my fifteen-year-old voice raised like an arm shielding my body from the blows of his word She’s at the table too, but it’s afternoon she’s drinking tea, smoking cigarettes her children crowd her in the kitchen she’s counting on something more than this

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some of the things I remember about your father in memoriam I remember his hands, how he would look through his glasses as he examined something in his hands, a cut or a splinter, or my face that time. I remember the neat way he carved chicken into thin slices, each piece of breast with a sliver of roasted skin still on it. I remember his weak puns, that I wouldn’t always get straight away, but then I’d notice the way he would be smiling. I remember his kindness, his good manners, his gentleness, how he loved fishing. I remember his short pants and long socks, I remember seeing him dressed that way walking the dogs at the river. I remember driving out of Rand Mines head office, we were with him in his air-conditioned Mercedes, nosing into Sauer Street. I remember how he didn’t like to chat, not much of a talker. He liked to jump up and do things that would suddenly occur to him, attend to a task, fetch things, pour a glass of wine, take the plates to the kitchen, look something up in a reference book or on a map. I remember his face, the way it creased when he smiled. I remember him telling me about living in Hillbrow as a medical student after the war.

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I remember when we had tea with your parents at the Country Club, how he came with me to the glass case to choose a cake or a scone. I remember not ever being cross with him, knowing that it was your mother who was uneasy with me, I knew he liked me.

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intentions My eyes die of hunger as I make up my life look for forgiveness, dream onward my face is sour, her face is hungry for a cup of tea, for enlightenment I’d choke her, make a stew of her carcass if I could she has no name, she hurts all over her teeth bleed, her memory hurts like logic her life hurts like liquor, like broken dinner plates

I vow to do it better not to hesitate to bring a child downstream like gold floating in a bowl or a cup

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summer 1981, Iowa It is hot. I am foreign. I’ve only the twins and Curtis for company. Annette has gone to California. There is Liza. But not every day, because I’m stuck on the farm. The soybeans are tall and green and B52 bombers fly over the low hills. Our senior year at Woodbine High is over. I remember kissing Curtis in the dark. I kiss Curtis, my brother. I also kiss Jaime on the bus-trip to New York to fly home. We are so busy kissing, I don’t keep track of Liza. Does she kiss anyone? When she and I part, I weep. She and I do not kiss and later I’m sorry. I kiss two people this summer Curtis and Jaime a pretend brother and a Spanish boy. (I saw Jaime again in Barcelona it was winter three years later I never saw Curtis again now he’s married and it’s fifteen years later which is hard to believe) What I like about Curtis is how tender he becomes he quits teasing me. The twins and Mom and Dad are asleep upstairs breathing and dreaming me and Curtis downstairs kissing in the warm dark his hand in my hair holding me close.
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Ailsa Above the fireplace there is a picture of my grandmother. The smell of lemons reminds me of her so do wet nasturtiums. When she lived in Quthing after the war he was in the mounted police tall and handsome – I’ve seen a photograph. She was known to dance on tables at parties. What did she think of driving home the next day in a horse cart over bumpy dusty roads? It’s not much to go on.

I don’t want to be kept alive if I have a stroke she said. How did she know? I think of the crematorium in East London hard wooden benches and green curtains behind which her coffin slid discreetly after the sermon. Then we sang Abide with me, ‘tis eventide.
I long for something else the rough laughter of men for women in bright fabrics to dance for the smell of roasting meat for storytellers to light fires at night for the warm scent of burning wood. I think of her as I drive along the dusty Highlands road.

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butcher bird

for Geraldine
Grandpa tamed a wild bird, it ate bits of meat from his hand Jacky Hangman Bootcher bird He invited the small wild killer into his home. One day it killed his budgies. Grandpa swatted him in a moment of anger. Dead Jacky Hangman. And then he was sorry. For the budgies, for the butcher bird for himself, that he’d turned his back on the little black and white killer forgotten that he was not something he was not. Sorry that he’d killed the lovely wild bird his long time friend more friend than the caged birds, it came of its own free will.

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II

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plumbing – a short history A series of men tried to fix the dripping cold-water bath tap in my flat. Only one of them was a plumber, he was sent by Mrs Levin, the landlady. He was a bit overweight, dressed in black pants and white short-sleeved shirt, a Hasidic man with a big beard. He didn’t say much and I got the feeling he didn’t like me watching him as he worked. He took the bath taps apart, replaced the washers and used white plumber’s ribbon tape. The tap didn’t drip for several months after he’d attended to it. Then Nico tried – softly spoken, tall Nico. We were both working on our dissertations (his was a Masters in German, mine a Masters in English) when the matter of my dripping tap came up. He was sharing a house with my friends, Liam and Jonathan, in Bedford Street. I was using Jonathan’s computer, and Nico was working on his own, in the same study. It was still in the days of WordStar 2000. We both had season tickets for the Yeoville pool. It was summer, days that felt they’d be better spent out of doors, at the pool in fact, where we often went for a “short” break. Nico said he’d come and have a look at my tap, see what he could do. We didn’t notice the tap in the bathroom that switched off only the water to my flat, so he turned the whole building’s water off. It was a weekday morning. Fortunately most people in the building were at work. He wielded a large shifting spanner. At the time I thought it was a monkey wrench. He changed the washers after dismantling both taps, water gushed everywhere. He also tightened something. He looked so efficient and able-bodied and large ducked in under the over-sized geyser, half squatting in the bath. Tony also tried. I was madly attracted to him. Tony was a computer programmer; he drove a Ford Bantam bakkie, and was the coolest, trendiest person I’d ever known. He was the first person I ever saw wearing those Clark Kent type black-framed glasses. He was bright
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and a bit broken, full of talk and smiles, which went a long way to covering up the emptiness and sadness also there. He brought along an awe-inspiring tool kit. I’d taken the day off work for the occasion. We got into bed first, and then had breakfast. Then he undid the taps and made his diagnosis, which involved a trip to Yeoville Hardware for the white plumber’s tape and a clear gel that hardens into a plastic consistency. When we got back he did various things to the taps, after which we got back into bed again, and then fell asleep. When we woke it was about half past three. There was something desolate and lost about the afternoon, Tony’s tools scattered all around the flat, the weak winter light. We got dressed and went for a beer at Rockerfellas. I so wanted to love him, to let go, but it felt like bungee jumping without a safety device. I resisted. Even when he appeared at work one day, kissed me in the marble foyer in front of the security guard, three Italian chocolates in a brown bag in his hand, I resisted. About six months later he emigrated to Sydney. Gilbert also tried to fix the tap. His attempt also involved a trip to Yeoville Hardware. I’m not sure what we bought. He had a small bag of tools in his white Toyota sedan. I met him on a trip to the United States as part of a summer study programme sponsored by the US government. He was married, and had three children. His wife found out about the affair and mounted a campaign which was the personal equivalent of ‘desert storm’ to terrorise me into giving him up. This was overkill on her part, as I wasn’t trying to hold onto him. She seemed to want to terrorise me into utter humiliation and fear, to prevent me from ever doing anything like that again. I often wonder what punishment she dreamt up for him? The Gilbert story is a much longer story, I won’t go into it here, save to say the tap stopped dripping for about three weeks.
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Patrick also attempted to fix the tap. He was a journalist for a German news agency. He was a small man, nearly ten years older than me, his hair prematurely grey. He carried a bleeper at all times, and had to read all the papers every day. There were phone calls in the middle of the night. It was 1993 and early 1994 when he was in my life, there was a lot going on just before the first democratic elections. It was thrilling, glamorous even, knowing the inside stories on the news in those years, like where Winnie was on a particular night and what she was up to. He bought washers in several sizes from Yeoville Hardware. We had to make at least three trips. It was hot walking to and from the hardware shop. It must have been November, the jacarandas were blooming and the grass in the park was green. We also went to some other hardware shop on Louis Botha, another time, but I think that was to buy paint. That was later after I’d met Denis. It was after I’d decided to move to the Eastern Cape. I planned to paint my flat, but only ever got as far as the entrance hall. Patrick helped me. I saw it as reparation. For many things, for losing control and hitting me. But also as a reparation to himself. Denis didn’t even consider trying to fix the tap. After all I was moving to live with him. All his taps worked. And besides he didn’t have a bath. At least not then. The dripping tap made me feel guilty. Once I left the plug in the bath by mistake, when I came home a few hours later the bath was half full. I felt guilty about all the water that was being wasted when I saw how much water comes from a dripping tap. At nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d hear the tap drip. Eventually I’d get out of bed and position the hand shower hose so the drop of water fell onto it, breaking its fall, and cushioning the noise. When I moved out of the flat, the tap still dripped. The block of flats was built in the 1940s. There were some art deco light fittings and
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bathroom tiles. The only way the dripping was going to stop was if the taps were replaced and the plumbing redone. The wiring could have done with redoing too. Several of the lights didn’t work even if you replaced the bulbs. One morning the kettle and toaster plug smoked in an alarming way, the smell of burning electrical wires was even more alarming. That time Mrs Levin got an electrician in; he did a minor rewiring job, and replaced the wall plug in the kitchen. It drew attention to the smoke-blackened patch around the plug. You could see more clearly how grimy and old the paint in the kitchen was. When I moved out the whole flat was repainted. I didn’t ever see it in its gleaming new creamy glory. Except for the one room that Patrick and I painted. Needless to say I didn’t ever come across a woman who offered to fix the tap. My women friends were all prepared to commiserate about how difficult it is to find a decent plumber, electrician, mechanic, gynae and dentist, and to remind you to hang onto them if you did. But that’s the thing about men; they think they can fix things. Or make them better somehow. Now I live with Paul who knows about plumbing, rewiring, building, plastering, and painting. He didn’t have a chance to try to fix the tap in my flat as I only met him since then. Yesterday he put the roof onto the house he’s building for us. This is not to say he always does the plumbing jobs that need to be done. The gas shower geyser packed up about six months ago, at first he tried to fix it, even bought a new geyser. Then it seems he gave up. Since then there have been other dripping taps and windows that don’t close. You know how it is.

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evidence I found those pictures taken in the Magaliesberg that I thought your wife might inadvertently find one day when she was folding your socks or after ironing your shirts because even though you never seemed like the kind of man who would have someone iron or fold for you let alone a wife you probably are the kind of person who took the kind of photographs you’d rather she didn’t see, let alone come across while folding or ironing or neither.

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two phone poems 1 all day I tried to ring you mostly it rang three times a man’s voice told me to leave a message tonight he picked it up and said “no, he isn’t here. didn’t spend the weekend here. is it sunny there?” “no,” I said “it’s raining.” 2 i hear you sitting listening not answering you screen your calls let’s call each other ’s answering machines maybe they’ll fall in love and live happily ever after the beeptone

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in retrospect i guess i didn’t play my cards right probably because i didn’t realise we were playing cards

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Boadicea and mangy dog every night you’re in my bed now some of your things have moved in too shaving cream, overcoat, clean shirt ... our bodies gleam in the not quite dark my hair falls about my face I am blue Boadicea riding a chariot naked into battle heroic and foolish there is more in the promise of your body than the heat the final breathless moments later you will leave only your shaving cream on the window sill and will keep my copy of We killed mangy dog.

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red fly music How I miss your arm and red fly music. Last month the river burned. She lifted the hem of her birthday dress I held my breath. Remember when they caught stone fish? Your blue lips opened while I watched. Her flesh was kind and damp. Seven roads wind through these hills quiet feet never falter. Here dust tastes like a man who appears unexpectedly in the distance. I’ll wait until the heat and the matt dusk sing.

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hot words in the steambaths it’s Saturday morning traffic hustling outside here it’s quiet, steam hissing naked bodies of women sweating, dripping oil glides, hands slide you speak your life, your tears your husband’s silent rage your words glisten in the steam your body’s crying sweating from every pore hot tears, bitter water

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prevailing it’s december hot and cicadas a month we always longed for. We’re playing in water fingers wrinkled, I’m escaping upwards a leaping seal of flesh just out of reach My dream says you’re dead a car accident. I drive with your parents and brother to the high bridge over the Storms River, we drop tokens into the water for you. I stand on the bridge, hands empty, the water is far below a subterranean lake filled with fishes. I colour them in. I see you kneeling before a fire trying to light it, concentrating the flysheet of the tent breathing in the wind. I long for what I am used to. It’s five a.m. Cooler weather rolls into the valley.

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the orange river all the while the river moves down to the sea muddy green in hot dry days at night blue-silver current tugs my swimming body to the sea in the afternoon the tin roof crackles while wind in the distant trees sounds like the sea the river the dry Karoo things never stay the same it’s always different water moving past

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abandoned farm Did the people move all at once on a day when removal trucks and men carried heavy boxes and chairs children getting in the way shouts across the yard? Or did they seep away one by one imperceptibly till none were left?

I opened a door and entered hot panting fear followed me I couldn’t retrace my steps to shut it

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because of you

for Graeme
I almost missed the train your delaying tactics nearly worked warm autumn afternoons don’t last. I wave to you my heart speechless. In the cement light of Joburg station your blue shirt blurs into the gloom. All the stations ahead pull the train along. My suitcases propel me forward or backwards. Fields of sunflowers and mielies beckon us towards evening then nightfall. A stone angel statue in a European city watches the armies of history march up and down the continent across centuries. It’s a cardboard project. A white marble virgin offers a piece of bread. There’s laughter in the distance. Candles burn.

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From the dining car headlights in the dark a signal from elsewhere a message that others are alive. Knives clatter, ice clinks in glasses cheerful music swirls its petticoats. A vision of dead snakes in piles on the verandah on the bare sanded planks (did I kill them?) Because of you I long for Bucharest Addis Ababa rose-scented geraniums The red earth, the orange aloes, the erosion. The countryside keeps its peace impervious to idle glances from cars and train windows. Tonight a cow lows through the darkness like a christmas carol. The front door shifts uneasily in the wind. The Karoo is not far from here nor is the sea.

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a footnote I’m writing you a letter a thank you note for the bathtub you bought me on my birthday last year plucked from the demolisher ’s shed a pink bathtub with iron feet it’s a note from me your old ardent supporter off on my own cohesive journey while you sit on the couch the dog grunting now and then on the floor nearby the cat allowing you to stroke her thick fur i’m writing this letter like rosemary in my bathwater i’m writing in surrender to this solution I won’t resist or strain against you any longer or hold you back as I set off my passion has begun to soften no longer all that rage instead, tenderness draws in like nightfall like acid creeping up a litmus paper

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III

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honey honey is a potent food stolen from workers so industrious they make more than they need it’s sweet and dangerous a food for shamans transports us into wild sweet places buzzing with visions & patterns from the ancestors our deepest beings from God, Tixo it’s a food of dots zigzags prefigures entering the crack to the darkness, to the other side they knew

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waking in the dark It’s the clatter of metal cladding and a shout outside that wakes me my back pressed against the mattress And it’s you again standing on the roof in loose linen pants and blue cotton shirt while birds fly in and out of the clerestory windows The salty smell of your eagerness reaches me even here there’s a line of energy earthing you your shoulders and back As familiar as if I’d spent years observing you in a life drawing class You’re more familiar than my own feet I’m hearing voices in the dark again a bat brushes against my cheek leaving the cool smell of mud and leaves Pears in a bowl gleam on the sideboard Whisper your name to me I’ll tell you mine in return get drunk with me and let’s feel no remorse

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walls and gaps While the cool morning dust sleeps, I pull on my jeans in the cold frostbitten half light. The hill across etched into my memory like breasts lifted for a camera. Clear light on whitewashed walls: shadow and light falling always desire and regret. Birds brush and fluster the air above my head. Didn’t want to admit that I love you too disruptive didn’t want to take off my clothes at first didn’t want to see you outside my window every time I looked. You complain of walls and gaps as though I’m an incomplete building one the workmen went home off on Friday and didn’t come back to, ever, any Monday to complete. being happy is not a thread or a quilt it’s like bees buzzing on a hot afternoon separately, then disappearing or a road

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letting go You can have a perfect afternoon up on a hill, above a valley, it can be overcast, full of love, the grass ripe and if you lie on your back you can see the sky through the grass, and it’s like seeing the face of God, and still and yet, you know you have to let go, you sit above the railway line and hear sheep across the way bleating and you also bleat, loudly in different octaves. It’s like waiting – sitting there, not for the train to come, because it’s already come and gone, not for night to fall, because it will, not for it to start raining, not really for anything, just for itself, waiting for a bit of time to pass and because there isn’t anywhere you’d rather be just then, than exactly there, and then it becomes time to go, to get up and he knows it too. The two of you walk to the car, parked at the gate, you cross the tracks, climb through the fence, open the car door, let him into the passenger seat, call the dog to get in too and then you drive home. And it’s evening, sunset, and there are the animals to feed and the hose to move to the next pecan tree and supper to eat. And all the while your heart is breaking and you can’t breathe, because you know you have to let go, because you can’t carry on like this, you can’t write or breathe like this, there aren’t enough empty spaces, blank pages, open hours, and you need them like you need water and air, and yet your heart which you didn’t think could break again, is breaking and you know that you have to let it, you have to let go, because you can’t do otherwise, the dreams of choking won’t subside, and you know that you won’t live or work in strength, if you don’t let go, and you don’t want to, but you know you have to, and you love him so, love how your bodies fit together, love his tender vibrating hands and his lips, and the energy coursing in his body, you love him and you have to let go, you don’t know why, just that you do, and you think of the face of God, the grass on the hillside, the clouds, and the line of the hill, and of all the beauty that is there for its own sake and of all the suffering. And you think that the
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earth is our mother, our old mother who holds us to her breast even when we bite and kick and deplete her, still she holds us in strong arms, her heart beating, her heart breaking in love and suffering and she’s very old, almost eternal.

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eye contact

in memory of David, my stepfather
I Every night I wake into the darkness several hours pass as the dogs breathe and dream nearby on the boards and next to me, my love sleeps soundly. Like a bat, I move through the house in the dark, sensing the furniture, the doorways, seeing into the darkness, trusting it won’t rise up won’t drown me. I begin to fathom the mystery of my father. II He went suddenly one clear Thursday afternoon on a golf course. He fell down. His body fell down. My brother was there. At the wake, my brother stands on the lawn his eyes glitter and shine as he talks too loudly My father ’s death changes how I feel about the world.

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I picture him in his tennis whites tanned legs, and arms Fine, dark hair, combed just so in the style he wore his whole life The undertakers got his hair wrong which upset me the most I tried to fix it, but couldn’t. III Mostly I didn’t look at my father, into his eyes. I always looked past him through him, to the side of him. My life is emptier now windswept, barren yet more full of the present: the quality of light the still unfamiliar weather swallows filling the evening sky the dogs running in front of the bakkie teaching me the sheer joy of it. It’s only now he’s gone I want to make eye contact hands outstretched in the dark.

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enough clues Perhaps it would have been easier to come to terms with if there had been more clues. There were always roses in my grandmother’s house. My sister seems unreachable, her voice on the answering machine makes the hairs on my legs stand on end. My mother has tried more than once to take her life. It was a hit and miss affair. What are my chances? We never went swimming together as a family. My father liked to drink. My father drank. How shall I put it? It’s what men do here. I can only speak of the men I grew up with. White men, who set off to work in dark trousers and white shirts. They had company cars. It’s how they relaxed and unwound. Drinking. They played sport and later they watched it. They talked about a rugby game, about soccer or cricket. There was always something to say. Sometimes I hear her scream – just as I’m falling asleep. She cries in the dark, an animal calling for others of her species. A young animal calling for her mother. A mother crying for her young. A sentry warning the herd of danger, of a hunter, a predator nearby. The door is locked from the inside that is the clue. I wonder how to get out from behind myself. There are more poems in the palm of my hand than you’ll ever guess.

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Even now my heart is chipped and tarnished from so long ago, memories of imperfect love still lodged there. Will you love me forever? Will I love you beyond your death? Will you die before me? We fight, trains on different tracks, later there’s a tinny taste in my mouth. I’ve stopped going to bed with strangers. I couldn’t think of anything better to do, it seemed preposterous to say no. Over time I have learnt how to. I live in a field of tears here, my upper arms hurt in the place my mother might have rubbed them, might have held me. My library books are always hopelessly overdue. Next time I must remember to find one on the Lascaux cave paintings. I’ve watched her reach into her bag, pop two yellow tablets out of the foil and swallow them with a gulp of Coke from the tin she always has nearby. Flu passes through my body like cold fronts, every few days for months and months. I long for the milk from my mother ’s breasts sweet and enriched with an awkward love. Later she gave me pills and potions to make the pain go away, to help me sleep, to clear an allergy. I pick up the piece of dark cloth, coins stitched into the fabric. The stakes are low, in the games of chance I play. I cut branches of pink blossom, put them in a vase.

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You ask me if we’d closed the gate. I would remember if I had closed it, the memory would be in my body the metal cold on my hands, the heaviness of the gate. Your body is heavy. I ache and long to sleep. That is how it is between us. I’ve become deaf from the ear infection, it will clear, but for now I hear only songs on the wind, songs from forgotten radio stations playing in empty rooms. I’d like to polish the words of your poems with beeswax, hold them close to my nose, sniff them like fresh washing, like an early peach. The train stops and you see people sitting there one afternoon of their lives. You buried your dog under the milkwood tree outside the kitchen, your dog that scratched, always scratched. There is the washing to hang up. When I wake up coughing in the night, the bushes outside seem to be buck or baboons. When it rains, the trees become ghosts in the soft grey light. The squadrons of insects in this place frighten me, especially in the dark, I don’t hear them buzzing in my temporary deafness, I feel their small wings vibrating, feel movement where I expect stillness a deep fear in me dislodges, I sit upright. The room is full of moths, beautiful velvety ones. Flies in all the stages of their life cycle settle on the kettle or on a plate. The flies chase each other, vacuum up particles. A large rain spider lives inside a glass tumbler in the kitchen.

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It’s bigger than me, all the life and movement, the wind, the cats, the insects, the spiders, and the snakes. I imagined we’d be like Lilian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. But you struggle to breathe as you sleep, the air is too thin in your house. Sometimes the wind here is dry and relentless, sucking every drop of damp from the soil leaving the portulacca and the plumbago gasping and wilting in the heat. When I wake my eyes are puffy from all those tears I cried in my dreams. You expect me to take up your interests like knitting I’d left in a basket. The door is locked from the inside, that is the clue.

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another country When my father died I crossed into another country, more human than the one I’d left behind. It’s easier to travel by foot. People take time to greet each other. The only food is mealie meal and vegetables. It’s a poor country. The past was too bright, too hot, too white. What’s left over, left behind is a long piece of string. It’s almost impossible to find out the truth but we keep going, as though motion itself will save us. If I lose my foothold there’s no-one here to catch me. I’ll fall forever.

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IV

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Kate’s being Kate’s mother I make small spaces for myself otherwise I feel too angry and too suffocated. This is one of those spaces, 6.30 a.m. Kate’s asleep. André is walking the dogs. I’m writing. It refreshes me, the knots in my neck and shoulders unclench, as I unravel and uncoil. Kate sleeps a lot, feeds hungrily. Sometimes I find it hard feeding her at night. I long to sleep. I wish she would hurry up. She has this sweet way of latching, eyes closed, contented and entitled, cherubic mouth, she snuggles up to me, rooting for my nipple, her hands together. I feel her presence, her dignity, her person. And yet I long to sleep. In lucid moments I’m aware of how short the time of her being a baby is, she’s already not a tiny baby, she doesn’t do the same things as when she was, like lying on my chest and stomach and me rocking her to sleep. Now she resists this. Now she smiles. She sits up on her own. Soon she will be crawling. The other night I dreamt she was talking, imitating us, like a small human parrot. It feels so important for me to find out more, for sure, about who I am, and what I’m like from being a parent, a mother. Otherwise it’s all hypothetical. It’s too easy to be critical of my own parents and others who are and to think of how I would be better. But I don’t know till I try – till I am initiated. I am finding out. I feel myself breaking open, thawing out, warming up, loving in places in my being that were numb. I feel sore and tired and used up, in a good way – parts of me would have been fallow, otherwise. I am full of need, aching to be held and comforted as I comfort Kate.

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Sometimes I find myself feeling full of rage at Zandile, that she can take care of Kate all day and I can’t. I’m angry that she won’t do it as well as me, but perhaps she will be better too, she’s calmer. It won’t be so stormy and turbulent and intense as with me, and she’ll have that too. I miss her and am relieved when Zandile looks after her and I can sneak back into my old self and my old life at work for a bit. I love Kate so much. My heart is full and overflows. I feel that deep primitive thing like a lioness, like all the mother creatures in the world. It is fierce and strong and violent and passionate. She brings me to my knees again and again. I feel forced to pray, a semi-believer, non-church-goer, in a crisis, a tight spot, desperate. Keep her safe. Make her breathe. Till now most of my praying has been to ask St Anthony to help me find a parking space. I’ve been cracked open by a force much larger and more powerful than imaginable, it’s made me humble, broken my will and my ego. I now see that this is good for me, as a writer and as a person, even though it is painful and sometimes at 2 in the morning, I think I can’t do this anymore, Then I find I can endure, to the next moment. Being a new mother is an ordeal in the sense that knights had to undergo ordeals in order to prove themselves worthy to their kings. I think I try too hard, to be the perfect worker, perfect mother, rushing to and fro from work and home, breast feeding Kate at lunch time, multi-tasking like crazy. The first months Kate was home from the hospital, I couldn’t get enough sleep, she woke me too often; I suffered the famous sleep deprivation of new mothers. I wonder at the Darwinian sense of sleep deprivation for the caretakers of small infants, surely it puts them more at risk? Or perhaps it is one of the ways your will is broken as you submit to this new way of being in the world.
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I set exacting standards for myself, but I am learning and relearning that with a baby you have to be endlessly flexible, open, malleable. That’s what is hardest about having a first child later in life, I’m too formed, too set, it hurts more in the places that have to be broken, like my neck, my lower back, my heart. My heart’s been broken many times and in many ways, but the daily minute breaking that having Kate brings is something I’m not prepared for, yet I do it, and want to and have to. Having her brings me such joy – yet it was all unexpected, her early baby-bird-like arrival at 29 weeks, the endless weeks at the ICU, the way I am totally charmed by her, bowled over by her smiles, and the way she plays with her voice, like an instrument she is learning.

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Colleen Higgs was born in 1962. She spent most of her childhood in Lesotho, her adolescence and young adulthood in Johannesburg, and more recently lived for five years in Grahamstown. She now lives in Woodstock, Cape Town, with her husband and baby daughter. She has worked as a teacher, a teacher trainer, a materials writer and an academic development lecturer, and is currently programme manager at The Centre for the Book. Her poems have been published in literary magazines over the past fifteen years.

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