Monday, January 5, 2009

Nat Gutman’s Wife, Warsaw 1938

Nat Gutman’s wife
was twenty-six when this one was taken.
She stares out at the stale crusts of bread
and bits of herring that are supper tonight,
and seems unable to resign herself.
Her forehead is already deeply wrinkled,
and there are brooding shadows beneath
her eyes. She worries. Her beautiful, full lips
are closed, settling into some expression
she won’t like if she gets old.

Nat Gutman’s wife looks at the stale bread,
the bits of herring, and thinks of
how to make it stretch.
Today her child played in the street
with a bandage wrapped from jaw to skull.
Awakening at four with a toothache,
she tied a bandage around the child’s head. The child
cried with pain. There is no money for dentists,
when your husband loses his job because he’s a Jew.
The child is quiet now, waiting to eat its evening meal
when darkness has fallen.
Such are the markers of meal times
when hunger is day long.

Nat Gutman’s wife is worried,
her world narrows down to a day,
and perhaps the next, and the struggle
to feed a family.
Nat Gutman’s wife’s has lost her name
in the photographer’s memory.
A woman who lives while the photograph lives.

She has a name, Nat Gutman’s wife,
it’s hiding there, just beneath the heavy
lidded eyes and the high cheekbones.
Just beyond the frame.

(Inspired by a photograph in Roman Vishniac’s A Vanished World)

Published in Fidelities XII, October 2005

Wear red, play dead

The invite said: Wear red, play dead,
Put your head in a gilded cage.
Come as your favourite rock star.
Wear black, change your name,
buy a dress made of safety pins.
Come as your favourite Disney character.
Come, even, as yourself.

She stared into the mirror, smoothing her face,
Angling her cheekbones in shades of naked dusk
Her hair curled out of its chignon, along her neck.
Would he be there?
Now, this time, after so long?
Would he recognise her?
Her lace-gloved hands fondled the glass stem of the wineglass.
Gently, she lifted it to her mouth.

The combination of lace, leather, thigh and bottle.
On six-inch heels she grew tall and bold.
As she stepped out of the car, her dress rode up her thighs.
Transformation was complete.
Ahead the lights ribboned across the garden
like snakes of desire,
Twinkling a path to the front garden.
You came! They air-kissed, she and host.

There was the taste of salt and sugar, crisps and wine.
Corks popped, gold foil curled among the trays of party food.
How have you been?
Where have you been?
Had it really been so long?
She drank, she danced, she answered questions and flirted.
The night ticked on. The new year was approaching,
And now she was spinning, flying ....

He found her there – on the soft white carpet, shoes kicked off,
Head under the table. A Mickey Mouse mask grinned next to a shoe.
Streamers draped across the table,
balloons lay plump and purple.
Where have you been?
Where, and not why.
It’s been such a long time.
I’ve missed you.
You’re so beautiful.
What was Nepal like?
Did you find yourself?

He’d found her instead in a suburban house
with an A-frame pitch.
His hand curled around her thigh,
the leather dress crinkled.
They leaned into each other,
she arched her neck against his face, the beard prickling through.
He wrapped his hand against her smooth, flat abdomen.
Again he said: I’ve missed you
They heard the countdown in the distance
a faint sparkle of hope entered the room they stood in.
She leaned into him, whispering now as cheers filled the night.

Published in Cape etc magazine, December 2007/January 2008

Pet shop in Málaga

It’s the kittens in the window
that draw us together, a grandmother with
grandchildren, and me, passing through.
We bend close, she shows the children
the fluffy animals, and we all smile together,
Bonita,” I say, and the woman’s face falls,
just a fraction, it’s barely perceptible,
but now she knows. I’ve opened up my mouth,
revealed I’m an extranjera, a stranger, and she
moves away. I fooled her, perhaps, with my looks,
but the spell is broken,
I have betrayed her trust with my accent and faulty grammar.
She moves away, eyes wary now, and I’m guessing
she doesn’t even know why.

I’m one of them.

She scurries away into the night,
and I, too, move on.

Published in Green Dragon 5, 2007

Foreign ice

Frost covers the grass, the trees, the shed,
the benches in the garden.
It looks like snow.
The pavements are icy.
I crunch along, leaving footprints.
The ice melts slowly, but appears again by morning.
The sky is almost cloudless,
aeroplanes take off, trailing two
white streams as they ascend;
these curve across the sky and fade.

My boots are ten years old.
A decade ago they also walked London’s streets.
But it was different then,
it didn’t seem so blue and sunny.
I was warmer then,
was twenty, a student
in love with being a foreigner.
I was seeing it for the first time,
and nightmares came only at night.
This time the exile seems so cold
and uncomfortable.
London is strange and foreign.

This time I choke on English bread,
and can’t find the foods I am used to.
This time I tread resentfully on
foreign ice, wanting to make my flat vowels
stand out among clipped ones.
This time the weather is cold,
a bright, brittle cold.
This time I have to live here.

Exile’s icy. You will never be English.
You will never be a Londoner
rushing along the pavements at
breakneck speed to catch a train.
You will never share memories of frozen childhoods
with people who spent winters wrapped in parkas,
hands wrapped around mugs of sweet tea.
You don’t know about making snowmen,
or days when school was cancelled
because of raging snowstorms.
Instead you listen incredulously to a woman on TV
complaining that there aren’t enough types of contraceptives available.
But you come from a place where contraception is not always a given,
where bread and butter is exactly that: a meal,
something to avoid starving,
not a debate on TV among sophisticates
who have never been hungry,
and want, instead, a supermarket of contraceptives.

The ironies lie there, in the crunch
of boots, the jarring clash of
haves and have-nots,
slam up against
my amazement at the complaints when
trains are late
(aren’t they grateful they come at all?),
or that the national health system is in tatters
(aren’t they glad to have one?).

In Harrow the shopping district
has been closed off to traffic
and cinnamon pancake smells fill the air.
Familiar shops cluster along paved walkways:
Marks and Spencers, Next,
New Look, Barclays Bank.
We huddle in our jackets
at one with the crowd of shoppers,
people on leave, buying Christmas presents.
At one and yet so separate from these shoppers
with their jobs and accents,
and shared memories of English winters.
We stare from the outside,
spending pounds, handling the Queen’s face.

Harrow becomes a part of us.
I’ll remember it months later,
recreate it in dreams.
So quickly that transition from winter
to summer, only a flight away.
I’ll never be a Londoner,
I realise this as a bus takes us down
an unfamiliar street
on a cold English day.

Published in Isis X, Botsotso Publishing 2003, edited by Alan Kolski Horwitz

Carnival City, Brakpan, South Africa

Waiters in plaid shirts and cowboy hats
take our orders for hamburgers, ketchup, French fries.
At the fish restaurant there’s a queue
twenty minutes deep.
Lights flash, girls dance on the counter of the bar,
faces bared in lascivious grins. Midriffs bare.
A man gyrates on the counter,
a Stetson on his head.
Machines roll through the possibility of numbers,
apples and oranges flash among the digits.
In the smoking zone I watch, glass protected as
gamblers suck urgently on their cigarettes,
desperately clinging to something.
Tapping ash with one hand, eyes mesmerised,
focused on the flashing racing numbers.
A man in sneakers and combed-over hair stands,
bigger than the machines,
dominator of his destiny.
In two weeks time a group I’ve never heard of will
sing Afrikaans songs in the theatre.
And after that, a famous American comedian
will hold the stage.
In the sweet shop I look for liquorice All-sorts
and buy a can of Coke.
Eleven at night, there are more people coming in
than going out.
Electric heaters line the walls outside,
heating up nothing in the chill night.
I remark on this as we turn to look back,
candy-coloured turrets brighten up the black sky,
a candy floss wonderland,
we could be Anywhere, USA.

Published in New Coin 44, number 2, December 2008

Wits in Winter

The sky is as high and blue
as it was all those years ago.
The air is crispy, crunchy clean,
sharp. Campus is quiet,
students sit on the benches I sat on. Read books.
carry the heavy bags as I did. They stroll in groups.
The air is still: stopped. Life here
exists outside of the rush of work
and traffic, it’s an oasis, calmed on the
edges of the city.

Climbing the spiral, outdoor stairs,
I cling to the railing, don’t look down,
slightly full of vertigo,
as before. Memories come back suddenly,
alarmingly. Twists of the past, intertwined with now.
I could be eighteen, nineteen, twenty again, slightly too
plump in black leggings and oversized top.
But, I’m not. A lecturer passes and I’m closer in age
to him that the students surrounding us .

But it’s there, making me catch my breath,
as though there isn’t enough oxygen here.
Caught between then and now, I’m finally time-travelling,
poised on an edge, here, but somehow there too.
aching, pained, unhappy, lonely,
her face young and bare of make-up, too pale for the day that awaits.

Published in New Coin 44, number 2, December 2008

That Night

There were sixteen years between us,
three children, your wife, a whole life.
There were thirty kilos between us, a couple
of hundred thousand rand, not to mention the house.

All day we drove, through Pretoria, and then on
to Sun City to watch a blue movie. The Chinese porn
star had stretch marks on her hips.
And, then, on and on. We ate dinner at a
Mexican restaurant, and you said you’d drop me off
but there was just something you needed to get
from your rented cottage.

The night was like black dye, soaking us up.
You had car magazines in your lounge, and
copies of Getaway magazines by your bed.
You didn’t believe that I could be a virgin,
or that you could be my first.

The next morning stars exploded, the world had
changed, even though you still weren’t my first,
never would be.
I wondered if everyone knew about this secret, this thing.
I felt initiated, finally, even though, as I said,
you weren’t the first.

That night I drove. Three in the morning,
and in fifteen minutes, running stop streets,
I had brought us home.
The journey should have taken half an hour.
Exhilarated, gunning the engine,
flashing through the night.

Yet, years later,
when I’m almost the age you were, then,
all I feel is that sick thing,
that nausea, that slightly ill
bilious feeling, when I think of you,
that night.

Published in New Coin 44, number 2, December 2008