I wrote the following poems during a Cinnamon Press Workshop last week. I hope you like some of them. They will appear in my forthcoming collection ‘Why I Left The Island’ in Spring 2020.
I have also taken to writing more about my Jewish experiences, and about my uncle Robin. I include one or two experimental pieces that will form part of a prose-poetry project about his time in Yemen in the 1950s.
On Saturdays, when all things must have hurt
I would visit Pam’s House, Liv, Belinda, Als
Marley the Hamster and Basil the Goat.
Liv called me Longshoes. I was forever dubbed.
We would crowd round the kitchen table
like I had never crowded. Then Pam brought back
the head of a manikin from her foray in a skip.
We glued on a long blonde wig and hung it
from the ceiling to cover a huge crack.
And beneath it, Me and Liv watched Wimbledon
me rooting for McEnroe versus Borg
my arm aching to reach around her shoulder.
It was where I thought I would have been able
to love most. Next morning, near a pagan site
in the middle of Hampstead Heath, they found
the charred bones of what might have been a goat.
Films I Am Still In
I am with my best mates
hunting down a dead boy’s body
in Stand By Me
willing to shoot a bully
watching a deer on the morning track
up all night for my buddy blubbing
on a dragon ride
in Never Ending Story
talking Italian to my confused Papa
before Breaking Away
on my back, legs and arms waggling in the air
under a tree with Gregory’s Girl
forever in goal on a muddy pitch
in ballooning shorts from Lost Property
swinging on the rickety bar
broken by a dead kestrel
I want to slip down to the river
I was pictured here once in a knitted pullover
dwarfed by a pink rhododendron bush
smiling. Fixed. Seasonal.
I am in need now
of the long breath and dropped shoulders.
A girl in jeans with a flowery knee patch
reaches up for the hanging branch of a willow
a couple take it in turns longingly
to photograph each other by the blossom
positioning the camera any which way while
fluffy cygnets pursue their decisive mother
down to the water. I slip better now
no longer held by the lens.
But Much Is
It is hard to avoid the difficulty of sadness
whilst listening long-distance
to another’s song
as when strangers curve into each other’s
unlikely bodies, whiteness
of mute swans
muttering quietly, then mirroring a heart.
But much is to do
with that thin brightly-lit sorrowful
stuttering attention. Pain
is what binds love.
We set out, the rain stubborn in its hammering
and tried to clear the valley
but the silver waters draining the hills
had pooled the roads and the small car too low
to get through lakes rising between towns
more powerful vehicles than ours struggling
settling at an angle, two wheels on the pavement
slushing past, no other route out of, or around.
Even to go back the way we came risked waters
we had come by gathering themselves up
and heading back the gale was stronger
rain at the windscreen so hard, I felt a breaking,
a frenzy of wipers in the brain, landscape closing in
the road only just making itself out through the whiting
tops of trees in the seething river breasting the brown waters
sheep sheltering in the crevices of rocks.
Now we wait it out. I spend the afternoon
making sure my paperwork is done
so I can get home unruffled tomorrow
or the day after. I like to think the hills
did not want to loose their hold. Or that the rain
was like harsh words that force you to be more slow
with love, with so many fools gone before us
come unstuck, whittling us back to only what we need.
The Bread Knife
I feel as if I have been stolen away
like the black-handled bread knife that disappeared
from my mother’s kitchen. She was old by then.
We looked down the backs of cupboards, under the bed
and exhausted all her usual places.
We fell to imagine what must have happened
and made up stories to fill the suspect silence.
Do knives have a mind of their own? We feared
the kids had it for some extra-curricular project.
Sometimes we sensed, mustard-keen that it was close
and sharpened by its singularity.
But after a while we forgot and got on with other things
deserving a rest from our feverish speculations.
We never found it.
Where do knives go?
Sometimes you are left without reason.
I Am Wished Away
this time by a gentler wind
threading blue smoke ghost-like through the pines
across the faces of the hill rising above the valley
rivulets like fingers reaching down for the curve
into the sheltering town within our silver bus,
a blackbird on the overhead line, gulls on parked vans
by the cemetery and post office and chapel and pub
easing into one slow final turn, readying for arrival
bright as grass after rain, golden lichen feathering
the black bark, red as a letter box, quiet as stone.
Being the Jew
Unnoticed, he wondered whether he should say anything
thinking that perhaps being unable to blend in
might be both easier yet more difficult.
Let it pass.
Life goes on.
It was slight enough to have been
nothing but a slip of the wine-loosed tongue.
Who means it these days?
Anyway he had met too many bitter Jews
and it was late in the evening
all those around him
seemed to be having fun.
Memo on the Aden Riots, December 1-3, 1947
From here, you can still see the skeleton
of the gutted Jewish boys’ school.
It is not that we are not used to pogroms.
But in Yemen they were rare
religiously motivated outbreaks of violence
and one relatively small riot
in May 1932 when a few Muslims
accused the Jews of hurling excrement
into the courtyard of the mosque.
The Farhi synagogue was desecrated.
Now there was radio, ‘Voice of the Arabs’
and incendiary UN declaration on Palestine.
At first, it was just bottles and stones.
Jewish shops and homes were ransacked.
The second day brought guns and rifles
and innocents on both sides were fired upon
in the Port Towns of Steamer Point and Tawahi.
Then the curfew in Crater failed
and military (so-called) were brought in –
1,800 Aden Protectorate Levies –
who, they said, shot indiscriminately.
At the end of three days, they counted
76-82 Jews and 38 Arabs killed
(six unidentified) and 76 Jews wounded.
More than 100 Jewish shops were looted
and 30 houses burned. Like a typical
Russian pogrom, the hooligans were unleashed
for several nights and days after which
the police would step in
to arrest the Jews who had resisted.
British officials received all unburned cars.
The head of the Jewish community gave his
to his erstwhile friend, the chief of police.
The aptly named Harry Trusted
led an official enquiry and put most of the blame
on Yemeni “coolies” temporarily in the country
who “have a low standard of life,
are illiterate, fanatical and, when excited,
may be savage.” The Brits meanwhile
in embassies around the world whispered:
How could they urge the Arab States
to protect their Jews when they themselves
had been unable to? And I heard later
at a dinner party, that many Arabs and Indians
had sheltered their Jewish neighbours.
In The Courtyard of the Yemenite Jewish Silversmith
We are the labbe necklace
airy, open, interlaced
strung upon a cotton or silk thread
We were silver wire cut
and concealed within ashes
then heated to become droplets
We were soldered together
one beneath the other
in the shape of a figure-eight
We are a spider’s web
of rhomboids, squares and rectangles
round beads or rosettes
We have been placed upon
a patch of woven cloth
to protect the skin from abrasions
We will once again be studded
with pearls and amber
coral and coloured glass
We are worn
sunken in the hollow
beneath the Adam’s apple
All poems © 2019 David Gilbert
If you liked these, do order ‘Elephants Fragile’ which contains others. From Cinnamon Press https://tinyurl.com/yyluw7j3
And see my other blogs at http://www.futurepatientblog.com