FIONA ZERBST’s fourth volume of poetry, Oleander, is due soon from Modjaji Books, and will be launched alongside volumes from Sindiwe Magona, Joan Metelerkamp and Helen Moffett. Here are four poems from Oleander:
At night, they bloom to light, like buds that burst
for air. As if they had no wings, they startle
into glass. That muffled knock
again, again, again –
they are like stars that break against the darkness,
break like vases,
tiny insect vessels of a great hope; longing
for the light; even dying for it.
Hart Crane, 1899-1932
Prodigal, shucking off the first-class hell
of being you in bar and cheap hotel,
you leapt. The S.S. Orizaba churned
on anyway; propellers flensed and burned
the waters battering towards New York.
A fellow passenger, who saw you leap
and thrash, watched only for your body’s cork
to float up. As she shudders into sleep,
the juddering vessel, droning, is the bell
that sounds your verses, amplifies your voice,
American Rimbaud. Given the choice,
would you have gulped the broken world as well
in sober hopelessness? Your sailor’s voice
must first be lost in fatal tides to tell.
India’s alarming Pakistan.
America is rumbling, after oil
and vengeance. And I’m fumbling with one
completely dud, half-burnt mosquito coil.
It’s winter. Still, those insects will attack.
Lights go out and houses in the street
begin to flicker. Candles offer heat
as much as arguments do, and looking back
it seems as if we’ve argued far too much.
The world’s an angry red; the smudgy blue
of dawn-lit ash is arty, but the hue
is cold-cut bloodless; flesh you dare not touch.
We stutter with the paper’s platitudes.
A drive into the country’s dull and sad.
Not even death can end the bloody feuds
that families have and so I’m very glad
we don’t have kids, my grandfather’s dead
and nobody but you and I can suffer pain.
Last night, in a clumsy leap from bed,
I smeared a big mosquito as a stain,
against a wall. I wiped the dry remains
away this morning. Commas of our blood
were brown, unreadable. And later, floods
came swollen, breaking on a white-flat plain:
a natural disaster. Sheep and cows
went under, surging to a muddy end.
You held my hand. A multitude of ‘nows’
came crowding back. Of course I won’t pretend
you haven’t stung me, gutted me, deprived
my life of air. I’m grateful all the same.
All’s fair in love, war, etc. Your game
remains apolitical, hopelessly contrived
yet pure. The Middle East is poised for war.
Relief’s been sent for victims of the flood.
Food and candles. Fresh-donated blood.
You reach me, wordless, as I cross the floor.
In praise of loss
Until the loss
Lose at cards.
Refuse to play.
That it doesn’t matter.
The men you know
To other women.
Refuse to play.
It’s no shame
To spare your neck.
Let it in,
Of this loss
That is dying, living.
© Fiona Zerbst, 2009
© Modjaji Books, 2009
(Thank you to Fiona Zerbst and Modjaji Books for granting permission to have the poems appear at Groundwork. See below for details of the launch and a sample from Moffett’s book, Strange Fruit.)