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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 and see


a halfborn woman
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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I

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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

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.”

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 or a road


it’s like bees buzzing on a hot afternoon
separately, then disappearing

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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

59
60
being Kate’
Kate’ss 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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