A name he should not know

Of all the ways to encounter loss, I picked the one in which it arrives as a stranger. A stranger who emerges from the bowels of a subway station, into the sunlight, as I hurtle down the steps into the darkness, directly in his path, looking away, refusing to meet his gaze, only a strong musky scent of an unborn morning , staining the air as we pass.

It returns sometimes, that fragrance, like a wind from a faraway place, come to moult its memory skin . Or like a pigeon that flew into a room that it doesn’t know how to escape, thrashing against the glass pane, screaming at the walls in low, gurgling sounds, rising and falling, rising and falling, trapped, afraid…alone.

On some nights, the stranger stops and calls my name. A name he should not know. A voice I should not recognize. A longing that should not be. For a morning, yet to come.

what should we call it,
the sky that does not know
it is the sky?

A sacred middle

We build bridges. Bridges between our realities.

Temporary bridges. Retractable bridges. Bridges that will bring us back. Bridges made of dreams. Bridges made of fear. Bridges made of want.

But bridges don’t unite realities. They become an alternative. A sacred middle. Not belonging. Not owning. Distorting space. Distorting distance. I stood for long on a bridge that night, below a restless moon, above an endless landfill of broken bridges. Here the questions change. The premise changes. The headwinds scatter, directionless. Silence erodes into a roar. Time starts and stops. Starts and stops. Like the staccato hymn of a universe, spinning into itself.

At that point between truths, even then, the answers remain the same.

no road
no destination
but what if we had continued walking?

How does it begin?

I think it is the simplest thing I have to say, but it must negotiate a labyrinth of pride and bile with nothing to light its way. Last night, I studied its paradoxes through the evening’s strawberry haze. How does it begin? Wasn’t failure the first consciousness, wasn’t death the first precept. We know these things like the taste of our own mouths. Not as a taste, not as knowing. Still, we elevate their antonyms — a god, a love, a lover, a time — we embellish them with the infinite, the eternal, one thing containing the other, with victory. How else should we process our own defeat? How does it begin? Always, always with a desire for how it should end. And then we are working our way backwards while trying to move forward. How then, does it not get trapped in the middle? The simplest thing I have to say wants the complexity of your understanding. The first suggestions of darkness appear like clues across the sky.

a different wind
a different night
why would silence be the same?

The conviction of jasmine

As if I sit, silent, fishing gear suspended over dry
earth, the ocean, far away, pushing against an

indifferent shore. While all the love has escaped
into the sky and become the sun, the sharp May

heat a reminder of what it could be like, closer,
higher, if we dared to leave the shade. I dream of

asking the questions that matter. Not looking for
answers. Why someone is. Why someone left. Why

I never win the memory games I play with myself.
Nothingness must have the same intensity as

summer, the same trigger as damp skin, the same
conviction of jasmine, the same postulation of a

first kiss. The same hope that waits for a fish to bite,
the end of a question trembling in the deep quiet.

The unanswered grumble

How will you spin fermented want into a poem? Doesn’t
ugliness propagate inside a clever turn of phrase? How can

you return to the place where it all began to go wrong? Don’t
understanding and awkwardness have different half-lives?

Can you imagine holding the sea to account? As if the waves
have learnt to settle scores with the daytime moon? The

unanswered grumble, one within the other, touching,
scratching, screaming: Where the hem of the sky brushes

the water, what is wet? That cloud, that cloud, that masks
the sun now, what was it hiding before? When desire burns

itself into longing, when waiting for nothing is still waiting,
how long does night walk before what walks is morning?

When rain is no longer rain

When rain is no longer rain, when what is left is only
a puddle, the colour of the dirt around it, that sees the
patch of unencumbered sky that still clings to it, the

sky it does not recognize as sky, what then is left for
the clouds to say? What of the puddle stained pink by
the flowers around it? And what of the one stranded

in the middle of the street, watching the flash of soles
that hop across, the undersides of trucks that rush past,
uncaring: is there a hierarchy of falling, of chance, of

stilled rain? And what of the one just out of the shadow
of that tree, where the woman stands alone, her eyes
empty, her clothes wet with the failure of escape, all her

longing pressed into the lines on her brow, ordinariness
in her swallowed swear, in the line of her shoulders
unable to hold up the grey sky? What of that puddle

that looks up at her, the lady who wants to leave, the
puddle that wants to follow her feet? What is left after
the rain is no longer rain, after a reflection disentangles
itself from a puddle that didn’t know how to hold it?

Around 10:15, last night…

The pub was noisy, a debate raging over how the
world would end, the degree of inebriation deciding
the vector of war, of climate, of pestilence, of broken
supply-chains. The more grotesque the imagined

dystopia, the more reason there was to drink. The
world-order won’t change tomorrow, someone said,
but you will wake up one morning and the couches
and chairs would have turned away from the

TV to take in an alternate reality. She giggled
and shifted around, seeing, as if for the first time,
the rest of the bar. He sat in a corner, typing steadily,
looking in their direction from time to time. She

walked up, the question obvious. He shrugged.
Yesterday’s arguments were more interesting, he
said. A lot more technical. Also someone choked
on a fish bone. Imagine that, a man almost died.

Margin Notes


(1)

around the military cantonment
the way this city has grown:
a camouflage truck, a school bus,
an ambulance,
wait together for a green light

(2)

past Danang and Hue
a few miles from the DMZ
the guide pulls out two cans of coke —
one day soon, he says, 
he will move to California

(3)

origami cranes
one, two… a thousand —
waiting at the Hiroshima memorial:
things fall
things rise

(4)

the invisible wars:
the invisible dead:
“what big eyes you have,” she cried,
“the better to see you with, my dear,”
the wolf replied

(5)

on a quiet street
in Luang Prabang
the unexploded ordnance centre —
a grandmother covers
a little girl’s eyes

(6)

downtown Berlin:
in a dozen languages
they ask for directions —
to the topography of terror
to the palace of tears

(7)

at the bottom of every sea
a ship, a plane, a soldier
asking evolution
the same question:
“why?”

(8)

on large banners
in the Warsaw museum
bits of resistance poetry —
outside, a man dozes
in a rush-hour bus
heading to the new old town

(9)

folding a world map
war zone collapsing into war zone
someone will die
from something that will fall
from someone else’s sky

(10)

late March in London
a fog-laden sky
goes from pewter to troubled black
somewhere the sun has set
somewhere the sun has to set

(11)

space and time morph
at yet another border crossing —
she bows under the weight
of an entire lifetime
stuffed into an old backpack


(12)

Kanchanaburi war cemetery
so many people
so far from home:
here lie so many stories
unheard/ untold

(13)

adrift, afraid,
on a refugee boat:
home, already
a memory
limp from cold sea-spray

(14)

ringing in the desert air
children reciting the alphabet
A for anti-aircraft guns
B for bombs, big, bad, bombs
C for compassion that still hasn't come

The inevitable question

How did we let it come to this? The inevitable is an
imploding rainbow, startled by an inopportune
moon, a fuchsia trail of lost stars, all that remains

of it, if you know how to look. Ask them, the people
who cannot hold up the sky, who cannot reach it,
who cannot even try. Ask those who died from

misplaced faith, from an impatient minute, from a
virulent silence because life was all out of chances
for those who hadn’t learnt to scream. Ask him

because the last thing he saw was unfairness and
after all this time, he still didn’t recognize it. Ask her
because the last thing she asked was why but didn’t

understand the answer. What are we supposed to
make of life? What is life supposed to make of us?
Whose is that last light in the sky? Whose is that sky?

*****
The editors at Via Negativa have been unbelievably kind. My poem “They Said” has found a mention in their Poetry blog digest – week 10 . Earlier “Black Kite” was included in their Week 9 compilation.  Both poems came from the swirl of information and emotions churned up by current events. Human vs human, a many-headed hydra raising its hood in so many different places.

But, everyone is writing about the war(s). So much poetry, so many threads, so many opinions. Put your hand up if you’ve been reading these poems and you aren’t a poet yourself. I wonder now, like I always do, why we write, what poetry can do and why it is supposed to do anything at all. But write we do and write we must… perhaps.  Or read from among so many, so fine, already written. Here’s a must-read from one of the best in the poetry business. 

They said

Now’s not the time to tell your story. They said. Not when the
skies are ablaze, not when we wonder if the edges can be pulled

together again, not when a contrived dystopia keeps spawning
reasons for the anticlimactic end. There is a hierarchy of suffering,

a taxonomy of hurt, your role now is to pause, to witness, to
gather shards of cloud-grief and sew them into the first rain. They

said. In ashes and smoke, there are no real choices: thunderstorm or
tomorrow, open wound or pregnant river, right…no, righteousness or

the farce of empty parentheses? How will you frame your mistakes?
Save your story for another ear. For another night that will not

touch naked skin with battle-stained fingers. Waiting or the cry
of wild jasmine crushed underfoot. Choose one now. They said.