This carting life
I met History once, but he ain’t recognize me.
– Derek Walcott, ‘The Schooner Flight’
On pilgrimage down damp steps, deep inside
the British Museum, among boxes stocked
roof-high, I rummage. And sniff like a dog
and pause, snout snuffling for my nearest quarry,
for the tacks to my own, final shit.
Which box fell from Father’s cart
knocking about through the Karoo, farm to farm
as he tendered his art to anyone
who’d pay him a bauble or some jot of tripe
for shearing a sheep, planting a split pole?
In regulation tatters, did we children
skulk behind Mother as Father would
talk over terms of trade with the farmer
or foreman: yes, you may pitch there
draw water here; firewood you find yourself?
Did we all pitch in? Unpack and pile
box and sack and pole? And Father swore
and hammered, tied all into a bigger box,
our pitching home for a few days
until we had to cart it off again?
Did I search for the giant spiders
tempered overnight into tangles of dead wood,
their many legs that make good kindling
shadowed like webs under gutless bodies?
Did I drag back bundles, scoring long lines
that led to our fire at night?
And how then we did dream. Learning to play
the bow, did I pluck at hamstrung song, coddling
my instrument? And the others rocked?
Swinging his dregs out in a dark arc
did Father cough and rise, and from his box
fetch shears, a jar of used, black oil
and a heavy lump wrapped in greased cloth;
then, hands trembling as if it were our saving
charm, bare the ever-dwindling whetstone?
While my string thrummed, stopped, quivered again,
like the incomplete tongues troubling in me,
was the slap and slick of stone on iron
Father’s reluctant percussion?
Did he sing? And Mother too? The young ones
staring at the flame and coal? And I fixed
on the stars to try hold the course of my string?
Was this how sleep stalked us, as song rung
in our cambering heads, the children
soon propping each other, then carried
to bed down in the smells of smoke and sand,
of gods and people, burled like kooigras?
And we did sleep until dawn brought the clang
of cup and shears strung to Father’s waist
as, stooping, out he went to work?
Did I later take him shards of potbread
spread with fat? Kneeling on the spine
of a sheep, did he withhold his shears, look up
and say the sheep are nearly done, tonight
we roast tripe, but tell Mother to pack
we go north tomorrow, yes we go north …?
Did we then lose the box, when we left?
Fallen from the cart over some unbidden bump?
Or with wind in our heads did we forget
the box, a lone tombstone among footprints,
the tools a rattle of charms, like bones,
like runes without which we were turned
from farm to enclosed farm? But north,
always north we trekked,
until we hung from the cracked lip
of a vast, somnolent desert?
And did we stray there many days?
Did we turn south again and, hungry
at the first fence, did Father unroll
his bow and quiver,
But all that came later. And somewhere
in these many cunning passages must lie
a box that holds our shears and whetstone.
For now, I reach for the nearest box.
It shifts and pitches in my hands
as unknown weights rollick unbound inside.
I steady it and place it down, kneel
and blow at the dust. Then wait for history
to settle around me. Is this box my own
making? To hoard a craft predating carts
and shears? Or did I roll into it
among others tossed too like bones?
Predicting life running, wandering, skulking?
And death? And after death
enclosure in boxes? And kept from
boxed-in earth and sky?
Did we see it coming? And now can do
nothing but roll and bump our heads?
And stare visionless, with sockets
hollowed by science and filled with baubles,
at our own lives our interrogators?
My lips drawn but caught in mid-cry
as I screamed not for help but yearned
the province of the mantis? Stalled
in prayer, cut off from grace?
Because in supplication we refused
the first fences that already ran
from sun-up to where night pummelled the sky?
And kept our arrows trained on cattle?
Belly-slow after a feast,
could we not run fast enough? And sought
to meld with moon, rock, inadequate shrub?
Close to the ground, did we hear the hooves
drum, the horsemen, the dedicants of prophecy?
Did we crouch and wait
for seven muskets hanging from the clouds
like unequivocal fingers of some foreign god?
And then lead balls did prod us
to silence for the real work
of bayonets punching stars in our bodies?
Stagnant stars that in days would turn blue?
Blue stars by whose unsounded frequencies
vultures would tack on course, dip into
cartwheels and circle unseen above us,
to triangulate the closest hopping distance
so that in feast they may unburden the earth?
By then our disremembered bodies
asserting their span of land only
by the reach of that temporary smell
of bloat? All this unseen by us boxed-in
heads, heading for port?
How we did feel the thrum of blades
on our necks. Like gods run amok
under the skin, the madness that sings
before the first nick; as the nick promises
the first inch opening, and so on,
unzipping further as bayonets sawed
through our necks. Was I alive still?
Even as in their cold ecstasy stars
untimely had spangled my body like some pox?
And I did feel and smell the hand
that tilted my jaw and had not charity?
Did I scream then and it was cut
out of me, stopped short of godhead? And how
did they negotiate vertebrae, cartilage?
And did a bookbinder, fingers adept
at pampering vellum, tuck flaps of neck-skin
under our jaws, sealing thus the servants
of the praying mantis in their foreheads?
Our souls now caught as recompense
for some flank of beef just-begotten?
Is this then the infirm box I stall before
and play at wiping gloves of dust
from me, as an intercom intones
closing time: five minutes to go
before I’m enclosed in the museum?
Will I leave this box unopened too,
heads unrolled onto my lap, and break
into a brisk walk into damp London?
And will a drizzle soon clot the dust
on my clothes as I run for shelter,
fugitively wiping at my knees and elbows?
(from This Carting Life, Kwela/Snailpress, 2005)