Chicheŵa for "white man"
He turns around, again his shadow flees him.
Mzungu's darkness giggles with children
who have marched in his big steps,
now scattered into doorways, hiding in bushes.
The look he casts over his shoulder is salt:
the taste of their world and his forever changed.
this place is always behind him: his eyes stopped by distance,
smiles that refer back to the red dust of a road
settling on his shoulders.
he is confused by profuse thanks for things he has not done.
So many things he must accomplish before the sun sinks,
fires light up the hillsides
and his night buzzes with worries and mosquitos.
Mzungu never buys boiled mice kebabbed on sticks.
Women and boys wave them anyway.
Mzungu is greedy for vision,
can seal whole villages int his black trap at one sitting;
can catch us, the way we catch mice in wicker.
Mzungu with his eye and his hawk-like nose,
his steel claws, his table draped with cloud.
Sometimes Mzungu stops by the roadside bar
and buys each girl a cold one.
But lately he will only laugh with them;
no longer taking the prettiest to the back room.
Mzungu says there is something in our veins.
and now I know we can never become brothers in blood.
Vistor is dew, our proverb says,
but our land remains hard,
lie baked clay, like an empty bowl.
in New Writing 4, eds. AS. Byatt and Alan Hollinghurst (Vintage,1995) and The Dade County Book of the Dead (NPF, 1995)
The odd warm winds keep up. The sea’s
wrinkling with red weed. It weaves through the water
where slime hardens to stone. This jetty’s
just frayed ropes and rotten planks, warty
with limpets now. Half-sunk, a waterlogged
dory’s choked up on a frayed tether.
The low sun turns distance to fogged
film, sky simmering. The weather’s
so weird these past months. The sea
thickens nightly to a muscled slime, twitches
with the low flap of leather wings. At dawn, bees
swarm over drift-wood and drown. Smith’s bitch
ate all her litter. Nights I swat bugs, scan the heavens
for meanings. Old Ma Jones flicks cards. Paul
and the other others drink. I’d leave, but Stevens
says there’ll be work in the Fall.
I don’t know why I feel so bruised.
Migratory birds flit like erratic needles.
Strange winds buffet their plumage.
They take off, and land again, confused.
in The Pterodactyl’s Wing: Welsh World Poetry, ed. Richard Gwyn (Parthian, 2003) and Esau’s Children (NPF,1991).
Snorkelling – your vision’s a lit globe,
head gone bobbing through a halo of light
that’s warped by ribbed sand in the ripples’ strobe.
From below, the sea’s silver-backed, a bright
mirror you crashed through into a dumb
domain sound-tracked by creaking sea; the wheeze
of your breath’s an accordion through the pipe,
a gullet whining in an offshore breeze.
Fish blips. Suddenly a glittering shoal
flashes telegraphic needles through dark weed
outcrops. They’re storm clouds being seeded
by an aerial burst of silver foil.
White coral knuckles where the shelf sheers
down to depths packed with a shuffling fog
that confuses distance. Fish disappear
or torpedo out of the blue to goggle
you up close. Your mind hangs in water, but
obscure corners writhe with electric eels,
the punch of fists grinning teeth, cables cut
loose. You gulp back a water bolt. The sun reels.
Suddenly your mask fills with molten light
as you burst up. Stars explode in the spray.
The bit ripped out, you cough salt. The big day
surprises you licking free from dreams, from night.
Nympholepsy. 1775. [after epilepsy.] A state of rapture supposed to be inspired in men by nymphs; hence, an ecstasy or frenzy, esp. that caused by desire of the unattainable. Shorter Oxford Dictionary.
In the sudden shock of noon
you seek out that bee-loud glade, the low hum
amplified in the fragile vibrato of a flower’s drum.
All else is a perfumed narcotic hush:
the sway of big colour on unsteady stems,
each bloom astonishing itself into drunken flame.
You follow the gargle of the river down
to where the breakers tumble hugely in your head;
knowing her wardrobe is racked with tricks of light,
think you have almost glimpsed her gown
in some evanescent shift of sky or sea.
There, among the dying surf, there’s that bright
static foaming through the sand…
– You try to catch her misty hem.
Her sleeve is water in your hand.
Come to – is it moments or is it hours later?
clothes ragged, slimy, wet;
face stung by salt and sun;
mouth stuffed with weeds and grit;
one low swollen eye
considering a crab scuttling the beach,
a trickle of blood from your nose,
as your mind is pinned by a gull’s screech.
Wild-eyed, Moses-bearded, mostly;
ignored in their own land
– inevitably; maniacs or manics whose stand-
up routines make wrinklies hurry on, the young jeer.
God’s burning bushes, each thorny mind’s on fire
and put to the production of rhetoric and, often, ginger hair.
This means they stand in the Inferno
but are not consumed, just purified.
Their flames are fanned by the wind
that howls right through them; the desert within,
through which they wander each their forty years.
Then they have the right to blast down from on High
excoriating the weary, the work-bent, the God-shy
grey wash of homing commutation trudging up wet steps
to bus queues outside. As if Brixton
were not terrible enough admonition,
they pass down the Truth in tablet form:
smudged photocopied pamphlets, the toner gone
like all else to dust, staples like tiny bones
that snag your nails, catch your borrowed cashmere.
And on the crowded bus, jostled, mugged up close
with odours of stale perfume, armpit-reek and,
I have to say it, piss,
you read that, after all of this,
you go to Hell.
Well, I guess, the eyes have it: the candle in the skull
or the coals on every tongue.
You know the ones who crucify themselves slowly?
Each Good Friday nailing a piece of wood
(on which they have, painstakingly, pokered the XXIII Psalm)
to their left annually stigmatised, and no real wonder, palm.
Others with hair shirts, scourges,
a missal’s red ribbon sewn into the flesh above the heart
like some SM valentine.
Or, cursed with the gift of tongues,
speaking Hebrao-gibberish, tolling the rosary line
of petitioners for the Two Zone travelcard.
Or, scrawling warnings in the invitingly broad
margins of library books.
The Plague is coming, maybe already here.
they underline numbers people do not see
when the Devil’s in the detail
and knocking minds for Six Six Six.
Or, that divine amanuensis with his spray can uncapped,
taking down the whispered Enochian
of each Angelic Conversation
and putting it up, the writing on the wall:
New Scripture, the Last Testament,
luminous, hissing from the nozzle.
MINUS TWENTY-SEVEN: THREE POEMS FOR A RUSSIAN WINTER.
Here are some poems that appeared as the pamphlet Minus Twenty-Seven: Three Poems for a Russian Winter (1993), and also in The Dade County Book of the Dead. "Through the Forest" also appeared in New Writing 4, eds. AS. Byatt and Alan Hollinghurst (Vintage,1995)
Security either lolls or struts;
in bad-shaves, camouflage jackets,
calf-high boots with steel toe-caps.
They twirl night-sticks, jerk looped cord tight.
It’s that blackjack’s unexpected flip,
the swing that hooks your eyes and traps
them blind into the palm’s slap.
In the dark cellar bar, whispers in Georgian.
Outside wide-boys, biznizmen
and the hookers’ gaudy flutter
to the crystal casino and upstairs bars. Ascension’s
punctuated by the ping announcing every floor.
The glow of a lamp caught in shuffling doors
as if through the camera’s shutter,
catches mascara, designer clutch, blood-red nails.
Official ladies chatter on the phone
to lipsticked friends on other floors
high up across the cold white city, or pore
over magazines. Each has her cache
stashed in her desk, can fantail greenbacks
to make any change. Wads of cash,
grubby folds of Ones –Washington’s
thumbed to a slow fade, or turned blind with flesh,
tucked into a stocking-top.
Down in the hard currency cabaret,
lithe girls in glittery cache-sexes dance artistically.
Weekends, they no longer interpret history:
the struggles, the yearning to be free.
Mornings, they still turn faces to the wall,
waiting for the doorslam that means they, too, are free.
Outside the wind puts you in mind
of nettles in a rusty can.
Tonight, it’s Holy Communion.
You’ll celebrate pockets of filched perfume,
transubstantiate some stuff that really zings (mixed in
with bootblack, insect repellent,
athletes foot remedy, medicated shampoo)
into the cocktail, most excellent,
you’ve decided after all to call
Momma Yeltsin’s Secret Shame,
or, considering the shoe polish,
Black Russian Number Two.
Again today, you see them:
lost ones scavenging the dump.
Rags picking rags, minds and hearts all tatters.
Hopeless, breaking their balls
for a few shreds of tobacco, a lump
of horse-hair or a bladder’s-worth of sump-oil.
The snow is tired, slushed with tyres and fumes.
Kiosks and hawkers where you go down
with the grim crowd. In the Metro for a moment,
below chandeliers and marble, for feel a part of history,
caught on the dialectic’s pendulum swing;
with the masses marching through the Winter Palace,
or long ago, unmomentous with the rabble,
wild-eyed with plunder yet merely living,
breathless in the hiatus between kings.
City of the Dead
New Year 1993
They say that now the winter’s not so cold,
Siberia’s a blunted knife, warming
with the rest of the globe. New Year, new worries.
We change or die, the prices see to that.
Bright domes of working churches, the magnetic gold
of shopfronts glowing on Gorky Street.
– Damn it, Tverskaya! – Dior, Nina Ricci,
new names tell us we’ve joined the world.
You join the shuffle through fast-falling dark,
just off Red Square the kiosks start to sparkle.
You think of statues lying toppled in the park
– your boot upon a horizontal Stalin.
Once, also cold, they lay in state, but now they stare
up from their winding-sheets of last-year’s snow,
to catch a sputnik’s gleam among their stars.
Their House of Columns is a night club now.
There was Dzerzhinsky of the KGB
– another stony bastard gone. But you remember
his like each time you pass the Kremlin,
and look up into the unconquered sky to see
red crystal stars, still burning like persistent embers
above walls tall enough to bury any human in.
Liberated from their bones, can these Undead
look down upon us here and truly see:
the struggle for the crust of bread;
the millions still yearning to be free
– from the gangs, the guns, the bodies dumped out in the night,
the threats, the fears, the palms all greased with cash?
At last the Old Guard have their names in lights:
Cyrillic glints as an odd remaining head
is mug-shot in a tourist’s flash.
Eyes glazed by snow, an iced glaucoma robs all sight,
yet elsewhere shimmers x-ray bones
through chests of medals, overcoats of polished stone.
Some years ago you joined the queue across Red Square.
(The Mausoleum’s closed this month. Repairs
they say.) – Yet even back then Lenin looked sickly,
skin yellow with preservatives. You think of
cyclamates, tartrazine, those new numbers that start with E.
(You know about the junk their dumping now,
wrapped in bread that chews thin as snow.
The West’s revenge for our bistrot!)
But Lenin – shrunk, the body just wasn’t right.
You couldn’t believe in that wrecked relic
– like a waxwork melting under studio lights –
that Soviet science and the embalmer’s art
had kept safe as any saint from corruption.
Perhaps the effigy’s been spirited away
for retouching, care of Lancôme or Fabergé,
those golden names face-lifting Tverskaya.
Or, perhaps it’s in the Ministry of Public Works,
perfumed with formaldehyde, among the jars
of abortions, monsters, extinct species, quirks.
Your granny thinks it’s time to put him in the ground,
a decent burial to lay his soul to rest
and let his body wither like a flower.
Or every night, like some ill-omened bat,
she thinks he’s doomed to fly around
the sky-pointed finger of the Spassky Tower.
In the Novodevichy Cemetery,
sometimes you think you hear the nuns’ ghosts sing.
Snow keeps falling on Chekhov, Shostakovitch.
White erases the stony edge of things.
Staring into his ancient future, Mayakovsky,
his young man’s hair turned white with snow,
reminds you that you bought, last week at Dom Knigi,
for less than the price of one Spearmint Chew
his (six vols. hardbound, illust.) Complete Works
– and Pushkin’s too!
On Novy Arbat: videos, dildos;
they’re shifting Snickers, CDs, booze.
In GUM now, manicured under mannequins
Olgas go lipsticking pale starveling statues.
You watch as those most un-Russian of anatomies
are made fragrant by atomized Chanel.
Remember when the priest came back, the little church?
He swung his censer full of fuming incense.
It was as if you’d died. You were in Limbo,
waiting for either Heaven, or for Hell.
*The House of Columns is where Soviet leaders lay in state.
The French word bistrot supposedly comes from the Russian word for fast, buistro. 19th century emigrés in Paris liked snappy service.
Dom Knigi is (was?) the state-run House of Books.
The photo shows me a quarter of a century ago in front of Mayakovsky's grave.
Through the Forest
Minus Twenty-Seven. The town gives out,
trolleybuses terminate in dirty snow.
Out there it’s clean. You click skis
and head towards the aching sky.
Fangs fasten upon the woods.
Rats’ teeth threaded on the wind
pierce your lobes and gnaw.
Birch trees run out like barcodes
– those western goods eyed on Arbat stalls.
Your mind is as clear as that last vodka batch,
out on the sill, gripped in a handshake of ice.
Already the moon is twisting silver
like a lure where the sky fatigues.
Then it’s gone, loping over your shoulder
as you slither a bend at speed
to catch the sun’s last lick around tenement teeth.
The air’s smudged by a single cloud:
a speech bubble over the lit-up factory.
At the edge of the forest, your blood is hot.
No more than a hundred heart-beats ahead of night,
you pause, pant out stars and wipe
the pelt of frost from your face.
on Esau’s Children
“He has travelled widely and used the experience to provide the stuff of distinguished poetry... He is a poet of real gifts. There is not a dud here. Recommended!” Frederic Vanson.
“Forshaw’s writing is charged with exciting new metaphors. Redolent of ocean and landscape, his poems often read like shopping lists of redefinition in which he casts the ordinary in startling and telling ways. He demonstrates wit and intelligence.” Bound Spiral.
on Strange Tongues
“an inimitable and sometimes sensational poet. The antithesis of hum-drum.”
Mario Petrucci, Bound Spiral.
on Himalayan Fish
“A tour de force of poetic skill and decidedly shiver-making... these powerful and hard-hitting poems prove Forshaw’s claim to our attention.” Ore.