Pretend You Don’t Know Me
New and Selected Poems
Widowhood in the dementia ward
‘Oh my God, I’m so pleased to see you,’
she says from her nest of blankets.
‘I’ve been meaning to ask –
How is your father?
How is Paddy?’
‘He died,’ I say, remembering 1974.
‘Good heavens, now you tell me!
How lucky he is.’
‘You could join him,’ I suggest.
‘I didn’t like him that much,’ she replies.
Birthday in the dementia ward
We are discussing her eighty-sixth birthday.
She pulls herself up from her cushions:
‘I wonder – I would really like my mother to come –
could you arrange that?’
(Your mother was born in 1888,
even if she were Japanese
she could not come.)
‘I’ll see if I can arrange transport.’
You know how it is sometimes with butter?
How after a free fallow period, you long for it,
how it lies shaded in its pale, soft firmness,
how it calls to you quietly from its cool clay dish
until at last you give in, you make toast:
you don’t even want the toast –
burnt crumbs mean nothing to you –
but you but you but you want the butter.
Well, that’s how it was with you.
I’m saying this in as plain a sliced way as I can –
there may after all be children present:
you were any old slice of toast.
I can’t be more explicit than this;
I can’t slick this on any thinner.
You may have thought you were the butter
but you weren’t: you were the toast.
The abuse of cauliflowers
When I think of poetry scholars –
poetry academics –
I think of the way I make cauliflower soup –
how I hack at the white flowers,
how I toss them about in buttery onions and curry powder,
how I boil them in milk and vegetable stock
and then pound the whole lot up with a mechanical blender
and serve the resulting mess with stinky blue cheese.
I never dwell for a moment
on the cauliflower's pre-soup thoughts,
its pre-soup longings.
It’s as if I don’t care
how once this cauliflower lay in bed beside another cauliflower,
and the two of them made stock jokes, mocked celery,
and whispered, from the very bottom of their cauliflowerness,
about wanting to be loved for themselves.
To adventurers, as far as I’m concerned
There is a climber on TV dangling
from a rope about to die.
He reminds me of the stranded balloonist
parched in the desert, about to die;
who reminds me of the solo yachtsman
with broken arms, 4000 kilometres from anywhere, about to die;
who reminds me of the men who tried to play
and who ended up hating each other, and about to die.
Oh misled, unfortunate adventurers: stay home!
What would it take to make you stay at home?
There’s so much to do: Make tea! Clean out the shed!
Find your inner mountain and climb it.
Find your inner sea and chart it.
Find your inner arid plain and trudge across it,
as we all do, daily,
harnesses in the canyon
crampons in the glacier.
Imagine how much we’d save on search and rescue
if you would only stay at home.
Imagine how many we could save
if you would only cease this quest for accidental death
and talk about your feelings; or clean the shed.
To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair
I just wanted to say on behalf of us all
that on the night in question
there was a light on in the hall
for a nervous little sleeper
and when the bleeding baby was admitted to your care
faraway a Karoo shepherd crooned a ramkietjie lullaby in the veld
and while you staunched
there was space on a mother-warmed sheet
for a night walker
and when you administered an infant-sized opiate
there were luxuriant dark nipples
for fist-clenching babes
and when you called for more blood
a bleary-eyed uncle got up to make a feed
and while you stitched
there was another chapter of a favourite story
and while you cleaned
a grandpa’s thin legs walked up and down for a colicky crier
and when finally you stood exhausted at the end of her cot
and asked, ‘Where is God?’,
a father sat watch.
And for the rest of us, we all slept in trust
that you would do what you did,
that you could do what you did.
We slept in trust that you lived.
from I FLYING (2002)
11 Green house
12 I read the last page first
15 For Oom Piet
16 I flying
17 To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair
18 Census man
20 I have been undemonstrative since birth
21 Nine kinds of silence
22 Teaching Margaret Atwood
24 Kitchen table
26 The idea of you
27 Rule three thousand and ten
28 Fine in the Transkei
30 Under anaesthetic
32 Happy New Year 2001
34 Found poem
from DOO-WOP GIRLS OF THE UNIVERSE (2006)
39 Feeling marginalia
40 Talk, share and listen
41 Freelance writer’s lament
42 Last straw
43 The differences between Middle and Modern English
48 My sister’s fingers
49 Boys we kissed
50 The falling feeling
51 On the roof with Rory, 1976
53 Loving novels
55 Shops of my mother’s imagination
56 Your death
57 The lime-green clasp
59 Doo-wop girls of the universe
from NOTES FROM THE DEMENTIA WARD (2008)
63 Your children, parents, siblings, spouses, pets, bêtes noires, acquaintances
64 At eight-five, my mother’s mind
67 Shift aside
68 Be shared
69 Self-portrait from the dementia ward
70 Hearts of stone
71 Widowhood in the dementia ward
73 An initiative to increase the number of male readers
74 Brief ﬂing in the dementia ward
75 Multilingualism in the dementia ward
76 Odd one out in the dementia ward
77 More advanced thinking in the dementia ward
78 Devolution in the dementia ward
79 Protection from grief in the dementia ward
80 Red rover
81 Birthday in the dementia ward
82 How I knew it wasn’t me
85 Bread roll pun
86 Thoughts on emigration
87 How to use a porcupine as an alibi
89 I am the zebra
91 Summarising life
from CHANGE IS POSSIBLE (2014)
95 Micheál Mac Liammóir came to Cape Town in 1962
98 Wanting to get divorced #1365
99 How sweet the dead are now
100 I gossip with my sister about the future
101 On not liking oneself
102 The consolation of enmity
103 The quest
104 To adventurers, as far as I’m concerned
109 The abuse of cauliflowers
110 The lawmaker
from NEW POEMS
112 Casting the cat and the bull
115 Life lesson
116 To young women, urging them not to become competent
117 To my sisters, on selling the old family home
118 My therapist asks when it is that I cry
119 Dog produces Monet forgery
120 Catch of the day
121 Identity crisis 2016
122 Distant mirror
123 It’s only lunch
124 The problem with this game drawn out in chalk
125 My mother the crocodile-tamer
126 Party invitations
127 Why I love an insult
129 Two bodies could not be less alike than ours
130 One in a million
131 When panicking, think of the recently dead
134 How a house feels when we leave
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