Friday, 12 October 2007

A Very Old Poem

My first year out of university I lived in Uptown, Chicago. We lived at the top of our apartment building. In the bathroom was a window painted white; beyond it lay a cove in the roof. In the cove the pigeons roosted. Whenever I showered I heard the purr of pigeons, invisible but very near. If I pushed open that white window the bathroom might have filled with whirring wings,I might have been encircled by birds. This is a poem I wrote that year, 1998, about the women I worked with at Deborah's Place.

The company she seeks is
only that of pigeons. The
woman in a dark turban
and draping robes feeds
the birds of the city soft
white bread from her perch atop
her belongings, the heavy bags
roped together on the pavement.
Silent and Samson-like, the
birds are her voice. But one
day when I pass by Moira
is standing, shouting,
crying out at the unheeding
traffic, her pigeons flown
away in fright.

Her self-confidence is a fragile
egg she clasps between ringed
fingers. What should I do
today? she invariably asks at
the shelter, and my spirit wants
to cry, Become strong. But
there are no spaces in our world
to express such hope, and so
instead she sits crafting bright
glittering jewelry like a magpie
decorating its nest.

Doris is small, old, and wild,
coming to roost only at night.
Sharp-tongued, the first time
we meet she defies my feeble
offers of assistance, fiercely
cutting her own tousled hair
with the paper scissors. Tufts
pile up in her lap on a paper
towel like plucked feathers,
and sometimes she opens
her mouth and utters
oracles, leaving us dumb.

Beatrice is a maddened
hawk. Most days she
cries violence down upon
us all. Set yourselves on
fire, she says. But one day
her talons are gone, and she
sits and cries that she loves
us, drowning out the sound
of the television. It’s safer
to fly home, she mutters as I
depart, and I almost feel my
shoulders for the trace of wings.

In the fourth century a Syrian
holy man crept forth at
night to observe an insane
girl. As flames descended from
heaven upon her out-stretched
hands, he cried out: Surely God
loves people who are mad like this!
There are sparks beneath
Beatrice’s nails, wisps of
smoke in Doris’s hair, tongues of
fire at the hem of Moira’s
garments—portents of
God’s fiery love. They
are birds of flame:
phoenixes. Any day
now, I expect ignition.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Some Thoughts on Dirt

I just cleaned the kitchen.
I clean more thoroughly than any of my other flatmates.
I see all surfaces when I am cleaning, with a horrified eye—
each grubby corner,
each ball of lint trapped below the wainscot,
each greasy light bulb specked with moth and fly spittle.

I feel compelled to yank up each and every movable object
and scrub like hell at the detrita beneath,
to poke chopsticks down radiators to reach the hairballs hiding within,
to pry loose screws and nails and matches out of the
cracks between the wooden floorboards.
I am wild about disinfectant, mad for bleach,
fond of tossing out rags and scrubbing brushes
and opening packets of crisp new ones, which
I must stop myself from tossing after one use.

I always stop cleaning exhausted and cross,
knowing that the battle has not been won,
that some dirt has eluded me. I have to stalk away and distract myself,
today with candles and dark chocolate.
I know that this is not a normal relationship to have with dirt.

The brilliant anthropologist Mary Douglas revealed that
dirt is matter out of place—like shoes on the table in America,
no matter how clean the shoes or how dirty the table…
Life in Cambodia taught me the truth of this idea that dirt is constructed
by turning this commonplace Western notion on its head.
My maid’s attention to dirt was the exact inverse of my own.
I would come home from the office to a house
where you could eat off the floor—and you were supposed to…
Cobwebs on the ceiling and dirt on the coffee table, on the other hand,
went utterly unnoticed, these being negligible surfaces to Genta.

At term’s end at my boarding school in Kenya,
those boarders who lived in other countries were taken away to the airport—
we none of us begrudged them this,
for they spent long months away from their families,
often taking midterm holidays with those of us who lived in Kenya.
But after waving them off, we had to earn our freedom—
we were not permitted to leave until the dormitories were clean.
Our escape to the cars and trucks and planes that would take us home,
back to the arms of our families, was so close,
so tangible you could taste the longing in your mouth—
yet a sea of filth lay between.

We had daily chores all through the terms, but this was large-scale
cleaning—scrubbing the wax off the linoleum floors, for example,
and cleaning myriads of windows. Dirt was an obstacle to freedom,
the last locked door between school and home.
These cleaning days were tedious and exhausting.
Fantasia-like scenarios, such as dancing with mops
or strapping your feet to scrub brushes in flooded hallways,
never really worked that well. Sooner or later,
one gave in to the inevitable and got down
on your hands and knees and remained there.
Five years as a boarder and I can’t begin to tally how many hours
I spent up to my elbows in dust and hair
and brittle-bodied moths and muddy water.

You couldn’t just stop when you’d had enough either.
You had to be Inspected, Approved, and Released.
The legendary Miss Debbie, no longer operative in my time, thank God,
used to slip white gloves upon her hands when she entered a dorm
and run her searching fingers over surfaces.
We shuddered at the thought of those hands, those gloves.
Sometimes they actually sent us back in with a checklist
of spots that needed more work.
I’m not saying that all this hard labor was harmful,
but it does help me understand my current habits—
I clean as if my freedom depends upon it,
because it used to.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Two by Janet

roof of the National Galley
Edinburghians on Calton Hill on a Saturday
Our dear Baloo posing in front of Arthur's Seat, which is, believe it or not, right in the middle of this fair city...

Sorry for the lack of writing, friends, the PhD is catching up with me.
And we're having a crazily lovely October,
clear warm sunlit days in the changing leaves,
and I have spent every spare moment running about
in the Meadows, or climbing great hills...

So here are another's words--two poems by the inimitable Janet Frame of New Zealand:

When the Sun Shines More Years Than Fear

When the sun shines more years than fear
when birds fly more miles than anger
when sky holds more bird
sails more cloud
shines more sun
than the palm of love carries hate,
even then shall I in this weary
seventy-year banquet say, Sunwaiter,
Birdwaiter, Skywaiter,
I have no hunger,
remove my plate.

Rain on the Roof

My nephew sleeping in a basement room
has put a sheet of iron outside his window
to recapture the sound of rain falling on the roof.

I do not say to him, the heart has its own comfort for grief.
A sheet of iron repairs roofs only. As yet unhurt by the demand
that change and difference never show, he is still able
to mend damages by creating the loved rain-sound
he thinks he knew in early childhood.

Nor do I say, In the travelling life of loss
iron is a burden, that one day he must find
within himself in total darkness and silence
the iron that will hold not only the lost sound of the rain
but the sun, the voices of the dead, and all else that has gone.