No 14 - May 2001
She was black, beautiful, and in a lime-green trouser suit,
loose-fitting, of some soft silky material;
sitting at a right angle to me, facing her man,
who was white, slightly balding. She looked happy, at ease,
with a fullness of body and spirit. They clearly were
in what is called an animated conversation,
though I could not hear a word of what they were saying.
Were they courting? Were they married? Were they ‘just friends’,
as the idiom goes? Or ‘partners’, as in the latest lingo?
Why did I have to know? I don’t know the answer to that.
But the need to know was overwhelming. That’s how it was.
Now she was choosing her first course, something special
that had to be explained to the waiter, menu waved,
hands too, and her face
so expressive, meanings bouncing off all its shining surfaces,
so black, so radiant, so beautiful.
Orders given, she sashayed to the Ladies,
her lime-green costume flapping softly around her,
like a climber swaying in the summer breeze, heavy with leaves.
She came back. Her first course arrived too -
a platter of miniature pizza triangles, like canapés,
which she ate with obvious enjoyment,
framed by the sea behind her, directly before me,
that still, sun-flooded, perfect September afternoon.
Just watching her was my first course. Serene moments.
Her next course was a pasta, looking ten times more delicious
than my fish, which was dry, a flop, and left me frustrated,
wishing I’d ordered exactly what she had,
but sure, I didn’t know
which one it was amongst all those names on the menu.
A Sunday lunch in a city we were visiting
because Igor was working there, newly employed,
after a long spell at home without a job,
and this was a treat for him, likewise for us.
Afterwards, we took a stroll by the sea,
and I glimpsed that couple getting into a car
in the restaurant car park. And I thought, that was that,
except that I must write about her someday -
she being etched on my mind like a woman carved
orthogonally to the viewer, in a niche
in some historic cathedral one visits
on a lazy Sunday with nothing else to do.
The very next Sunday I am back in the same city:
a sudden, unforeseen invitation.
I have to read poetry in the town hall in the evening;
before that I am sitting at dinner round a table
with special guests, and a black woman arrives,
whose face seems vaguely familiar.
I ask her, curious, ‘Where have I seen you before?’
And she says, beaming, ‘In the Italian eatery by the sea
last Sunday. You were having lunch
with your husband and son. Are you the Bengali poet
reading tonight? May I sit beside you?
Isn’t the world a small place? Ah, there’s your son too.’
It turns out she had observed me just as closely
as I had her, except that she’d had the advantage,
for every time she’d turned her neck she’d seen
my face frontally, whilst I of her
had mainly got the profile, the strictly right-angled view.
‘And who was that man you were with?’ - I have to ask.
‘That was my husband! And I am carrying his child!’ -
she answers, her smile even brighter, - ‘Isn’t the world
a small place? Strange that we should meet
just within a week - ’
‘And eating again!
But this time next to each other.’
‘I still don’t know your name.’ ‘My name is Joy.
Just ask for Joy. They’ll know. Joy’s enough.’
And I thought, how apt.
A long tine back I had seen another woman
also black, who was joy incarnate -
joy absolute and pure. That was in Barbados,
in a public toilet.
I was washing my hands
in one of the basins, when she’d breezed in beaming,
gone inside a cubicle, and hark -
as she pissed, she sang loud and clear,
her waters gushing like a waterfall, and above that
her voice rising like an ascending lark’s.
She knew I was there, listening, but wasn’t a bit embarrassed.
And I had thought - Lucky, lucky woman!
And this can only happen on an enchanted island.
Happy is she who can sing thus at urination
without a thought of being ridiculed,
like a tropical Eve still frisking in her Eden,
pissing in the shade of a sun-filtering tree
while birds call jubilantly above.
If only like her we could be lightened and free
to release our pent-up songs from captivity,
let our words, caged in frets of do and don’t,
fly into the blue and encircle the clouds!
She’d taken me back to my own childhood years,
when I used to do just the same thing - joyous days
of unselfconscious art long since squashed,
suppressed into silence, for fear of the world’s sneers,
though my mother - bless her - had herself never
asked me not to do that, - rather, had always said:
‘She sings because she’s happy, and by herself.’
And now what’s left is trying to fit the key
of bursting joy, inherited from those years,
into the world’s locked keyholes, wherein my key
refuses to turn: so I peep, and see
sights that must have been there all along -
even then - although veiled from me -
and now unveil themselves in cold clarity:
faces of parents whose children cannot be traced;
children whose parents and siblings have disappeared;.
machines digging to expose the shallow graves
of mass murders, planned exterminations,
yielding a harvest of dead, decaying bodies -
history’s rich humus, which experts pick over
with gloved hands, saving them for the Millennium;
and stark, standing walls ridden with holes,
against which men have been shot, at which I stare blindly -
gaping through holes into holes, gaps that hopelessly recede,
star-sockets of a thinning universe,
drilled hollows of misery instruments cannot measure.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The