English

Miss Sally on Love

In my time, I was a girl who like to spree.
The whole world would open fi mi

if I shift mi hips to strain
the fabric of mi skirt, just so.

Still, I did learn mi lesson
where love concern: if snake bite yu,

when yu see even lizard, crawling
with him belly on ground, yu run.

Now the gal come to mi, say she fall in love
with man who have a plan fi change.

But she nuh notice him also carry gun?
And, lawd, how she nuh see

who running the show and who
keeping house same way?

The Art Room

for my sisters

Because we did not have threads
of turquoise, silver and gold,
we could not sew a sun nor sky.
And our hands became balls of fire.
And our arms spread open like wings.

Because we had no chalk or pastels,
no toad, forest or morning-grass slats
of paper, we had no colour
for creatures. So we squatted
and sprang, squatted and sprang.

Four young girls, plaits heavy
on our backs, our feet were beating
drums, drawing rhythms from the floor;
our mouths became woodwinds;
our tongues touched teeth and were reeds.

Psalm for Kingston

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem
------------------—Psalm 137

City of Jack Mandora—mi nuh choose none—of Anancy
---------prevailing over Mongoose, Breda Rat, Puss, and Dog, Anancy
------------------saved by his wits in the midst of chaos and against all odds;
---------of bawdy Big Boy stories told by peacock-strutting boys, hush-hush
but loud enough to be heard by anyone passing by the yard.

City of market women at Half-Way-Tree with baskets
---------atop their heads or planted in front of their laps, squatting or standing
------------------with arms akimbo, susuing with one another, clucking
---------their tongues, calling in voices of pure sugar, come dou-dou: see
the pretty bag I have for you, then kissing their teeth when you saunter off.

City of school children in uniforms playing dandy shandy
---------and brown girl in the ring—tra-la-la-la-la—
------------------eating bun and cheese and bulla and mangoes,
---------juice sticky and running down their chins, bodies arced
in laughter, mouths agape, heads thrown back.

City of old men with rheumy eyes, crouched in doorways,
---------on verandahs, paring knives in hand, carving wood pipes
------------------or peeling sugar cane, of younger men pushing carts
---------of roasted peanuts and oranges, calling out as they walk the streets
and night draws near, of coconut vendors with machetes in hand.

City where power cuts left everyone in sudden dark,
---------where the kerosene lamp’s blue flame wavered on kitchen walls,
------------------where empty bellies could not be filled,
---------where no eggs, no milk, no beef today echoed
in shantytowns, around corners, down alleyways.

City where Marley sang, Jah would never give the power to a baldhead
---------while the baldheads reigned, where my parents chanted
------------------down Babylon—Fire! Burn! Jah! Rastafari! Selassie I!—
---------where they paid weekly dues, saving for our passages back to Africa,
while in their beds my grandparents slept fitfully, dreaming of America.

City that lives under a long-memoried sun,
---------where the gunmen of my childhood are today’s don’s
------------------ruling neighbourhoods as fiefdoms, where violence
---------and beauty still lie down together. City of my birth—
if I forget thee, who will I be, singing the Lord’s song in this strange land?

Dear History

Believe me when I tell you
I did not know her name

but remember the colour of her dress:
red, like my own school uniform.

I did not know death could come to a girl
walking home, stick in hand,

tracing circles in the dirt,
singing as she went along.

I did not know death
would find someone

for wearing the wrong colour smock
in the wrong part of town.

My parents spoke in hushed tones,
but I heard the story of her body

dragged from street to gully,
left sullied in semen and blood.

I heard the song she sang,
the one I wish I could sing now.

Truth is, I was that girl.
Truth is, I was never there.

Miss Sally on Politics

He is a one-eye man
in a blind-eye country.

But how him can do better
when no one want to see

what going on. Every time
party man come around

him jumping up and down—
lickle puppy eager fi please.

Him tell mi is not woman
business, this election.

Is not fi mi fi understand.
Mi tell yu all the same what I know:

If yu see jack ass,
don’t yu must ride it?

The Waves

We walk into rooms that wait for us to enter them.
We walk into waves that threaten to drown us.

But they don’t. They fill us instead
with salt, sand, and their own light.

As a child, from a small boat, I watched my father
swim away, ignoring my mother’s pleas—her voice

sucked into the wind, my own no match
for the undertow or sharks I feared.

There are moments in a life
when everything comes apart, is ripped so clean

who you are is laid bare. My father returned to us
that day, but he was not the same man

I had seen enter those waves.

My Mother as Penelope

Lemon rinds in the dried brook bed,
fireflies failing to light—

all, like me,
suffer the occasional drought.

Outside my window,
no islands of foliage

block my view to the shore.
No river noises trickle in.

Listen, after years of waiting,
I tire of the myth I’ve become.

If I am not an ocean,
I am nothing.

If I am not a world unto itself,
I need to know it.

Penelope

Long ago I was the vision you needed,
image soldered in the mind’s furnace:

girl awaiting your arrival,
watching first light lacerate the sky.

You fancied the sea
a playground for your dreams,

but storms have entered you
like sound enters the skin of a drum,

changing its course.
After years adrift, you return

wanting to know how I exist
apart from you and your myths.

Husband, I learned to bear rupture
by staring down dawn,

to weave as daybreak
split open my rib cage.

Tomorrow when you leave our bed,
the sea’s call already filling your ears,

you will find fishermen
hauling in nets, shimmering fistfuls

of fish with bloodied gills. Listen to me:
raise one flopping creature from the rest

to inspect the arc of its dying;
see how struggle inscribes itself on air.

Then say a prayer. Offer a blessing.
Acknowledge your power

to deliver from your palm
whatever life pulses there.

A Grammar for War

After a day when reports of casualties
crackle out of the car radio,

pursuing me as I enter the house at dusk,
eyes wide with seeing,

ears fitted with knowledge
I know neither how to hold nor let drop,

I lay keys on the kitchen table
and scan the air wishing

again I could invent
a lexicon for grief.

If language could recover losses,
words might offer solace

the way a flock of geese follows
a preset trajectory of flight,

the way dawn’s arrival restores the ginkgo’s
mottled shades of green,

the way the mockingbird sings its song,
conjugating the squandered night.

First Love

In this poem there will be no dreaming of spiders.
In this poem there will be no light snow.
It wasn’t winter, winter had been cut to shreds
and fed to wolves, they had devoured winter.

There will be no back yards,
nothing will be kept by fence in this poem,
there will be no windows to see the light snow
in the back yard, sudden, without question
although there would never be winter again.
Do you hear me? Never.

In this poem no small hands no cold hands. Don’t ask me.
My hands are not cold your hands are not small.
There will be no green cowboy boots in this poem.
You never walked beside me you never smiled no.
There won’t be poetry you won’t read to me.
There won’t be beautiful in this poem.
It was taken on the train with winter. Yes, on the train.
Though there are no trains in this poem and no girls.
No cowboy boots, no rolling windows, the tenements
won’t flash blood color through the long afternoons
behind laundry the trees won’t shake
the fields will not shine and wait in this poem, no girls.

There will be no letters. The mailbox is being held
without ransom, the white door hangs open all day
on the loose street where winter will never arrive.
Your handwriting will never arrive,
not my name made real by it, no.

There won’t be a kiss.
No reeds in the marshland and was it cold, I don’t remember.
We won’t walk back. There will be no lemon tea, steeped
too long, we pour it down the sink, the cold tea
is dark and strong, my body is being held without ransom.
No not in this poem. There will be no Nina Simone, songs
will not enter songs will not break.
No bedrooms, no postcards on the walls no tulip petals dropping.
There will be no waiting in this poem. There will not be waiting.

Winter is lost forever here, the kidnapped mailbox
long forgotten. The train
is an idea, like the moon. My heart,
searching the street those hours for your tan car,
is a fingernail. Is a hard, shiny, small thing.