we used to think our gate sang like a swing

 

Cat Bluegate

 

we used to think
our gate
sang like a swing

Copyright © 2020 by Cat Bluegate

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced without written permission from the author/photographer, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews.

 

bluegatereview.com

 

ISBN 978-1-7349704-0-1

Cat Bluegate

 

we used to think
our gate sang like a swing
as it swung open
and swung closed
on our days

*

stories, moments, fragments, notes, remarks

Much never turned out as expected in the Bluegate world. We did our best to keep life organized, but our (short)comings and goings turned out unplannable, haphazard, and we kept leaving our gate ajar, allowing all sorts of people, events and situations to slip through, changing our days, our moods, our ways – changing us. Our stories and moments were big and small, serious and silly, important, insignificant – everything contributed to who we became. It happened through our gate.

I accept it

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I was at home crying. Tears landing on the folded laundry. Even the tap was dripping. Then the doorbell rang. Everything stopped. Suddenly it was Beforeland in my mind – it might be you! But then I took a breath and was back Now again. I wasn’t going to open. What was the point? It wasn’t as if you could have been reassembled. It wasn’t as if – even if you were – you could have come to my front door or walked at all. And yet I went to look. I wanted to check out the contours of the figure out there beyond the glass. Just in case. The height was right. But the head… too round? Inconclusive. Flushed face. Held breath. I opened slightly, and sure enough. It wasn’t you.

accidental

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our teacher

fell asleep

the car

along with wife

and kids

crumpled up

in a ditch

on his return to school

colleagues greeted

him with arms

around his shoulders

and warm words

students glowed

with compassion

he taught us mathematics as before

equations, logarithms

x, he declared with a sweeping gesture

and y

though his eyes kept wandering

looking out the windows

far away

beyond the car park

and his voice

came out either

thunderous, or

in a whisper

as if, in between

there was nothing

actress

I know I’ve seen too many Hallmark movies when I see one of their trusty work horses – a young actress who has performed countless supporting roles as friend, sister, co-worker – in a new Christmas movie, and am genuinely excited for her that she got the lead!

two afternoons

one afternoon

we have a moment

which leads to a larger

MOMENT

and we end up leaving late

for the airport

somewhat disheveled

then the traffic

is horrendous

and we reach the gate

in a mad dash

to make our flight

it’s a packed flight

and we are not sitting

together

I have a window seat

next to a young

pretty woman

from Russia

I understand

who is also separated

from her travel companion

and is getting acquainted

with the flattered

young American man

in the aisle seat

chatting happily away

in loud Russian-accented English

she is drawing

disapproving glances

from sleepy passengers

it’s all about

having gone to the airport

far too early

because she and her friend

were afraid

to miss the flight

and wanted to be

in “god” time

but the ride to the airport was quick

and they ended up just waiting

around at the gate

she is endlessly fidgeting

touching her waist-long

blond hair

as she gesticulates

the strap of her tank-top

keeps sliding off

her shoulder

so she has to keep pushing it

back up again

(a carefully devised design flaw

no doubt)

such a long and boring

afternoon at the airport

she complains

to the beaming American

who makes some indistinguishable

sympathetic noises

I believe her boring hours

are over

I am idly listening

to their chatter

contemplating the idea

of “god time”

what such a concept

might involve

angels singing, harps?

furious thunder and lightning?

I smile out the window

with the memory

of my own afternoon

now who do you suppose

would be more likely

to almost miss the flight

because of wild sex

in the afternoon:

the middle-aged woman

in blouse and jacket

or the attractive busty blonde

in the loose-fitting tank top

and miniskirt?

most people, I imagine

would assume the younger woman

how wrong

would they be

ahoy?

drops

of grey rain

clamber down the windowpane

forming new paths

as they make up

their course as they go

our disoriented abode

steers slowly through November

noticed by no one

inside, we rummage

through drawers and wardrobes

each other

or look out the windows

into the dark

staring, staring

but dawn always arrives early

– before we win our night back

in the daytime

we go on walks

of discovery and laughter

with the kids waving

their red, green and yellow

buckets and spades!

all the same
(dream)

I am in some kind of educational situation. We are a group in a classroom waiting for our professor. Here he comes, walks straight up to me and hands over a pile of papers and a package. “Hold this for me,” he says, turns swiftly around and hurries out of the room. I look down at the brown paper-wrapped package and notice it’s addressed to Herbie Hancock. Wow. I turn to my fellow students, approach them one by one, point at the label, saying “Look, I get that it’s not THAT Herbie Hancock, but it’s pretty awesome all the same!“ Nobody seems to get it. Nobody knows who Herbie Hancock is, and when I try to explain, nobody is the least bit interested or thinks it’s remotely awesome.

global angst
for kids

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The TV brought those in need into our room, victims of the latest bombing, famine, floods.

The weeping man, the armless child—for them we dropped another coin into our special box.

“It doesn’t help!” the children cried, their hands touching the hard cold screen.

The injured, starving, traumatized kept streaming endlessly towards us.

I’d taught the kids to help and care for those who needed them, and if all that could be done was be there, to be there.

Sometimes, I’d assured them, an arm around somebody’s shoulder is enough.

But how to push their arms through?

They had to toughen up, stiffen their lips, forget.

Human casualties inhabited their home, globalized out of their reach.

One day a homeless man set up camp outside a local store.

We stiffened our lips, as had become our way, and hurried past without a word.

This man’s misfortune too seemed globalized, beyond our reach.

my appeal

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as a young woman I was mostly

appreciated for my shoulder

 

for guys to cry on

and ask why, and how

 

to win her back again

would flowers work, eau de parfum?

 

rarely were such ventures a success

the brunette was lost, but then a blonde

 

would smile and raise her glass across the bar

and another woman after her

 

I made attempts to be that girl – I held up

a glass of red, a G&T, a pint

 

but I always got greedy

seeking permanence:

 

too afraid to offer my heart

and risk the end of the companionship

 

I’d soon slip back, offer my shoulder

become the steady

 

woman at his side, helping him

move on – oh the guys

 

I gave away, and among them

I gave you

 

I gave you

arm

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suddenly

a heavy

arm

around her shoulders

it is her husband’s

arm

so she does not call

for help

although she wants to

call for help

army

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they are marching

to the music

everything has to be

straight

arms legs backs necks

weapons

in good order

as ordered

good soldiers in straight lines

march straight-backed straight on

oh the collapsible

symphony!

an arrival

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art

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Art lies somewhere between imagination and reality. It is both and, and neither nor. Imagination has no bounds, and reality A LOT. Hence the tension.

 

avocados

If you are a little lonely you can go to the grocery store and feel the avocados. There, strangers stand next to each other for a good while feeling one after the other. More often than not you will shake your heads and sigh together over the rock-hard or mushy fruits, exchange a few disappointed words, or even a recipe. Once, a man stood close and asked what plans I had for dinner. “Well nothing with avocado, that’s for sure!” I replied, and moved quickly to the carrots.

bassist

When I feel a little low I remind myself of something I found funny in the past. Here is one joke I first heard years ago. Who was it that came up with it? It goes something like this:

 

A musical instrument maker has developed a new design for a bass guitar they are to manufacture. It has six strings instead of four. Now I’m not a bassist – but that’s just too many.

beastly

It was always Carina teasing Ellen. Pretty Carina with her following of girly girls. “She thinks she’s better than us!” said Carina with a sneer. “Look how she acts so superior!” I couldn’t see what shy Ellen was doing that was so offensive, but I was new in the class, and no particular friend of hers, so stayed out of it. But then they started pushing and shoving, and the problem could not be ignored any more. Parents were informed. A psychologist was called in. The class was taught about this thing called bullying. Though this was not about pointing fingers, the psychologist assured us. Bullying was a complex matter. We must have sympathy not only for the bullied child, but for the bully too, who surely had problems of their own – a broken home, perhaps, a violent relative. Along with the bullied, bullies were unfortunate victims of the bullying situation. Anyone involved was a victim deserving our support.

The bullying was its own beast, we understood, a dark aggressive being that descended on our unsuspecting schoolyard, pouncing on our hopscotch and our marbles, tangling up our skipping ropes. Having thus caught our attention, it pointed with its shapeless arms, assigning roles to us hapless bystanders. One was picked to play the lead bully, one the bullied. Victims both.

The bullied child was often one seen as different somehow, so we were told, but there was nothing wrong with being different, nothing at all! “Be yourselves!” the teachers urged us, then proceeded to advise the unfortunate Ellen: “Try not to be so timid,” they said, in their helpfulness. “Stand up for yourself. Don’t act like you are unusual and special.”

For weeks the psychologist held class meetings and we had to talk about the PROBLEM OF BULLYING. It was boring. Afterwards we all ran out for break. I tried to sympathize with Carina as she pushed and kicked Ellen into a corner at the back of the building, assisted by her band of friends. I thought of Carina being a victim too, and considered how much support she needed from me. It’s the beast, I hesitated, we are powerless to stop it. But Carina didn’t need my support, by the looks of things. She had plenty. Now Ellen was on the ground, scratched and beaten. I ran for help. The teacher on duty, Mrs. Larsson, hurried there, and they all ran off. “You will die death,” one of them hissed at me in that peculiar turn of phrase, sending a sickening chill right through the sunny day.

“Poor Ellen, poor little dear,” said Mrs. Larsson and wrapped her arms around the stone-faced girl, while her tormentors stood sniggering among the trees. “Can’t you try?” she sighed. “If you could only be a little more like the others.”

beer

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From what I understand, having a beer can lead to such questionable activities as dancing and cavorting with wild women!

beyondward

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dusk, a shade of dark

 

you were in the other room

 

were you waiting for me to bring the tea?

 

I was standing at the window, looking out

 

the apartment blocks opposite

stood as shipwrecks around the green

 

black windows

ghost facades

 

as darkness fell

the identical buildings began

to light up

randomly

as if a new universe were being formed

all the lives in there!

having meals and sorting papers

some were shouting, some were touching

one was smiling at a mirror

in a kitchen a woman cried

over the sink

 

what made them all keep going?

 

my view restricted

by all there was to see

part of me flew

into the night beyond the buildings

where I knew a journey travelled

blindly on, unchained

I wanted you to come just then

I couldn’t move

 

when I was little

I froze

at the top of the slide

all the kids down below were shouting

twisted mouths I couldn’t hear

that time

somebody came up from behind

pushed me

into the angry

breathtaking

world

blood apple

my classmate runs

straight through a glass door

crushed glass, blood

all over the floor

a lot of blood

I throw up

get to wait in the office

 

Mother arrives

we drive to the beach

it is packed

families, bath towels

sandcastles, swimming

on an ordinary school day

 

Mother opens her bag, hands me

a large

very red

cold

apple

blood apple, blood apple

blue jeans

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boat
in the bay

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boo!

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bossy

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the bottom

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break

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Brixton,
Brick Lane, Soho

when I was a child

some kids at school

used to mix

sticks and gravel in

with the snow

 

their snowballs

exploded in our faces

like nail bombs

and melting snow and blood

streamed into our mouths

 

nothing

went unnoticed

in our school –

if it wasn’t glasses

it was a spotty nose

laughable accent

frizzy hair, or yes, why not

a perceived superior air

 

and if it wasn’t snowballs

it was shoving someone’s face

into the water fountain –

bleeding noses, teeth

 

always someone crying, always

 

the grownups promised we were all

warm and kind, given the chance

and we would all grow up and settle

into good ways, given time

 

but in London

April 1999

still we live in fear

of those at war

with fellow classmates

fellow human beings

fellow selves

the call

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People say I could have gone professional because of my love for football, but I believe that in life, each person has their call and vocation.

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camouflaged

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Do not direct attention at me. I do not stand up to scrutiny. I have achieved little. I have not trailblazed. I have not moved and shaked. I am a non-doer. A fader into the background, merger with my surroundings, melter into the wallpaper. A faint presence in the remotest corner of my times. What I am up to is anyone’s guess.

Annie get your cannon

Unbeknownst to most, she had played Space Invaders before. Low tech black and white – being the early eighties – with some primitive controls, on her brother’s home computer. Hours on end, shooting, shooting those cannons, blasting those aliens. One weekend, she travelled to the big city with a girlfriend. They went to the amusement park. At the arcade, two guys were playing Space Invaders. They invited the girls to join them: “Hold this, press here, have a go.” Fancy controls – being the arcade – and colorful displays. Easy! Shooting, shooting those cannons. “Hmm…” Her victory was obviously a fluke, said the young men – ah, those capricious cannons! They smiled in a manly manner, then let her play again. So much easier than at home! “Hmm…” And again. They couldn’t understand it. What are the odds? They said her luck was remarkable. A statistical anomaly. She kept blasting, blasting those aliens. The guys stared at each other. It was a freak thing. So LUCKY!

career woman

this morning I woke up

with a horrible taste

I felt inside my mouth

and found a pink

guest soap

in the shape of a seashell

I looked up

soap in hand as a question

and met the hard stare of

Husband

he was sitting in bed

a pile of cute

pink soaps –

seashells and flowers –

in front of him

 

he offered me one

on a spoon

take care, caretaker

older than her

but still a young man

he came about

the recurring problem

with the heating

knocking on the pipes

examining the radiators

except the last time

when the procedure

was somewhat

modified

as he knocked

on the pipes

examined

the radiators

kissed

her

slapped

her

burst out through her door

stumbled down the stairs

staggered into the office

gave his notice

 

on the third floor

the young woman

was unaware of that last

development

on the third floor

the young woman

was holding her burning cheek

deep breath

deep breath

 

years later

she has forgotten his face

many men’s faces

but remembers the tenderness and longing

in that kiss, being desired

like that

a carwash
story

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castle in the air

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cavalier

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Time doesn’t care

here it goes again

ravaging our lives

in its cavalier

manner

a clumsy indifferent partner

it doesn’t care

where it steps during the dance

what it crushes

a toe, an ant

a soul

Time –

a ruthless cavalier

death, cha cha cha

As Ally’s best friend and a singer, she thought of writing a new song – a worthy tribute, to be sung at the funeral. She set to work, but the somber mood would not arrive. Ally was meddling, looking over her shoulder, being a bad influence, as always, not sensible at all: the sadder the words, the more upbeat the tune came out. Lost her hair, la la la, deep despair, cha cha cha…

At the funeral, she held a quiet black speech, much the same dignified words as she had tried for the song. Bla bla. Worthy teaming up with wordy. She could sense Ally’s “Stop whining!” rising from the flowered white coffin. While she stood there staring at the floor, murmuring, Ally was hiding in that box, being bored to death – she remembered when they were little girls and Ally hid under the table avoiding helping with the dishes, while she herself stood next to it, trying to detract Mr. E’s attention. “No, I haven’t seen her, Mr. E, honest, maybe in the bathroom?” Mr. E not being fooled at all, of course, dragging the hiding giggler to her feet. “Up you get, Miss Lazy-Hands – to work!”

Now, black for Ally, tears for Ally, shrunken faces, the situation serious – Ally deceased and her family and friends gathered, accompanied as they entered by that horrible march by Chopin – desperate tones, are there no limits, who chose that caricature of grief? Composed by a sick mind, that one. And Ally will not be dragged out.

She held her hand in front of her mouth, as if about to clear her throat, but couldn’t stop the wailing giggles bubbling out. The mourning congregation found such despairing cheerfulness distasteful, wholly inappropriate. She stood chuckle-gulping next to the white coffin, while a monument of silence slowly built around her, separating her from the black-clad near and dear, even Mr. E, their heavy figures shifting in the pews, those neat orderly lines. Then the organist, a perceptive and sensitive family man, played the introduction to the next hymn.

a childhood

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there never was

a monster

– lacking much

imagination

I could not conceive of one

still it was hard

to fall asleep

what with the snakes

beneath my bed

and the furious voices thundering

outside the door

only if I lay very still

tucked in tightly

under the weighty woolen blankets

would the snakes stay hidden

lurking in their resting place

and not emerge as savage shadows and

engulf me

bring me down

would the voices stay

outside the door

would I be safe

 

curled up blind

in the blackness of my room

I held my breath, awaiting terrified

the slow, deliberate turn

of the squeaky door handle

as someone would walk in, turn on the light

and calmly, coldly make it all

– the voices and the snakes –

official, inescapable

his childhood home

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The building I grew up in was a sorry sight. The window next to the entrance was cracked. In the bushes behind the swings crumpled-up beer cans lay in a pool of sick. A few floors up a woman was yelling at someone, and a group of kids were kicking a football against the now-graffitied walls just by the windows, though surely, just like me and my buddies in our day, they must have been told a thousand times not to play right there. I remembered when our family first came, all those years ago. Glass and concrete. What modern architecture! said my dad. Such a well-designed layout! The newly built empty flats light and airy, the playground surrounded by picnic benches. And my mum said the flowering yard looked just like Kew Gardens! Us kids, we kicked our football around and didn’t find out we lived in a rubbish area until years later, thank goodness.

chopaganda

Worn out and slumped down on the couch I find an onion is being chopped on TV. Again. High state of entertainment. Wait for it… into the pot, drizzle and sizzle. So much to learn: rapeseed, olive, sesame, sunflower, or why not safflower oil. Red, green, orange or yellow peppers. Sea salt, rock salt, more or less salt. How to blanch, how to sauté. Answers!

Tomorrow I’ll invest in the finest cuts, in turmeric and fresh oregano. I shall cook for hours, make a big fat family meal. I shall have all the juicy cooking smells. I shall have a smiling family with sparkling eyes and glowing cheeks. Chop! I will not ask for job security. Chop! I will not demand world peace. Chop! I will not insist on clean-up of the oceans or measures for the homeless, poor, disabled. I shall chop my onion.

Years ago a singer came onstage. She was presented with an onion, knife and chopping board and asked to sing her current hit song. I would own millions, if only tears were gold, she sang, chopping away.

clichés

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I am trying to impose

my will

on my sick body

to have faith and engage

my fighting spirit

a positive outlook

as encouraged

will help me

beat this thing

and rise up

like some phoenix

all I have

are clichés

cliffhanger

To be aware you made it to the top by default – not having been the first choice, or even possessing the required qualifications. To know you are hanging on to the edge of a cliff and pin your hopes there, trusting you have something to offer that somehow matches what is desired. To annoy your surroundings by choosing to live on that edge, always unsure of your grip, always fearful of the precipice. You can while away your years there, hanging on to the clifftop, legs dangling in mid-air, noticing the roughness of the rocks beneath you, feeling your fingers turn into frantic claws. You were not the first choice. You are not qualified. And all around patches of long yellow grass reach upwards as prayers towards the merciless afternoon sun.

terms of cold

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icy air across the face

halting the breathing for a moment

the snow

blocking and concealing any road

one might consider taking

a frosty leaf

hanging

sword of Damocles-like

from a despondent branch

there is only room for this:

the shoveling

and this:

the listening

frozen lakes

snowy fields and forests

the padded silence that they are

hold a seashell to your ear

– hear the sea

alone in a white forest

– hear yourself

the terms

of snow and ice

how they claim the space

between before and after

the earth must start again

young snowdrops

the gift of structure

forced upon the life

 

to go back there!

to wrestle down that resistance!

colleagues
in cold

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the conditions
we live under

a packed carriage in rush hour

sweat and squeeze, and now

ringing

a man elbows me as he fumbles

in his pocket, pulls out his phone

“Hi, I’m on the tube

I may lose you at any time.”

I think about the meaning of his words

I think how they are true

contract

at the kitchen table they talk

about Kevin next door

how he met the new girl

at a bar

a possibly natural blonde

willing

apparently

to be his wife

and now

it’s best man

stagnight

wedding gifts

and his son’s furtive glances at her legs

“would you be tempted too?”

she asks across the cooling coffee mugs

“you know

no stretchmarks…”

“and go through all this again?”

he laughs

males a gesture encircling her

and himself

lights another Marlboro

“forget it”

“I hope,” she smiles

“it won’t come to that

you know:

fifty-seven

ponytail and beerbelly

flash car stereo

young girlfriend”

he blows the smoke

out through the open window

“everyone would laugh at you,” she adds

“now that really puts me off”

he says, while she can see

in the corner of his eye

he too is watching

Kevin and his girl

park outside

walk giggling up the path to his front door

close together as if guarding a secret

bouncy steps

and hand in hand

the commitment
conundrum

sometimes I think

it’s too hard work

with you, too much stress

too many silent

questions

about your whereabouts

when you are not

with me

it would be easier

I think on such occasions

if I took off to be on my own

if I were just with myself

someone I trust and can rely on

but then I think

with nobody to answer to

I would get lazy

come home from work and eat

out of containers

allow the dust to gather in corners

the grime build up in the bathroom

skip shower and toothbrush

declare there was nobody here

anyway

even though I myself

would be!

I would let the house go, myself go

and sooner or later

I would find myself

insufferable too, and be forced

to leave, and go

my separate ways

crispbread, the conversation killer

I am at a party, sitting down to dinner. Make conversation with the man beside me – how do we know the hosts, what do we do, where do we live. Our casual chat turns animated as we discover a shared childhood memory. As expats we both had the experience of a rare treat: those desirable round paper packets with crispbread, acquired by our parents from some Swedish ship visiting a nearby port. In my case in Greece, in his further afield in Argentina. We laugh at the memory of brushing off the ants inside the packet before digging in. How could we consider crispbread such a delicacy?! We finish the appetizer, join a discussion with other people around us for a while. And here comes the main course. We turn again towards each other. But the conversation has stalled. We struggle to find engaging topics. Animated no more. We try to latch on to what worked before. “Those ants, those ants,” we smile. We shake our heads. “That was CRAZY.” As dessert arrives we have resigned ourselves to the limitations of our conversation. We both turn away and talk with the people seated on the other side of us. Occasionally our eyes meet again. “That crispbread…” “I know, right?!” Getting up from the dinner table we nod to each other, silently acknowledging that we have nothing more to offer one another. We found ourselves in a relationship made up of crispbread crawling with ants. There was no reason to linger.

blow my cover?

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arts and cracks

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

– Leonard Cohen

 

In my youth I was a jigsaw piece of gel. I could fit in just about anywhere. Even where I looked a right fool. But the years have made me stiff and brittle. At each attempt I now make to squeeze into a new shape, among new acquaintances and expectations, I crack within, as if made up of biscuits inside a squashed packet. I curse those crumbly cracks. Who knows what they are for? Their only function, as far as I can see, is to keep me on the sidelines, in life-loneliness. But now and then, these days, a break: there will emerge a sudden sigh, a distant rumbling, or a rustle… and a string of words leak out uninvited from a crack. Or a shade, a tone, a dance step – one I’ve never known before. “Let’s try it on,” I’ll tell myself. And oooooh…!

crash

the wounded moose

disappeared

into the woods

the crumpled-up car

lay on its side

blue-blinking lights

swarmed the scene

methodically searching

shifting, removing –

to the forest

another pack

of predators

crowding around

their bleeding prey

to secure

the meatiest bites

crispbread

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They say we must think our childhood to bits in order to understand ourselves. In Athens, Greece, in the sixties, now and then a ship would come in, carrying Swedish foods. Excited expats as we were, we got knäckebröd, with Father transporting it from the port of Piraeus as if it were a prize, offering it to the family on outstretched arms. We could only have some if we’d been good. Open up the paper wrapping – and there it was, inhabited by hundreds of ants. We brushed them away, enjoyed. Learned to embrace what was there, even in the presence of what was also there.

the crutches
made me do it!

my mother is concerned

I have become dependent

on a man

my father used to drive her

in his white Cortina, to restaurants

and cinemas, providing flowers

meals and tickets, until she realized

how male-chauvinist that was

and enrolled in a computer course

as mother, woman, role model

she proudly worked to give me rights

she had not easily obtained

I, of course, am wasting

all my education, and daily require

more transportation than my mother ever did

I also appreciate my husband’s other little treats

such as a roof over my head

food on the table, and the occasional

comedy video

that can be brought to the house and watched

without me having to move

from the couch

unable to rely on my legs

I have rendered an unsuspecting man

sexist

dandelion clock

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we are blowing

the wind

of the world

 

puff

 

what time to we make it?

 

the hands

of our questions

are grasping

at the flying

seeds

the dark

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NOT afraid of it. NOT afraid.

darling!

In the Swedish film Darling the upper class young adults are extraordinarily heartless and self-centered. After watching it I have an impulse to look up the director. I want to pat him on the shoulder, let him know I think his film is excellent, the acting superb, but the portrayal of the characters is surely a bit over the top, isn’t it, dear. A bit of artistic license there, right? Like giving the villain a huge scar across the face as well as a hook for a hand, in the days such features were deemed suspicious, to make sure we would not miss his villainous villain-ness.

But then there was that woman at work. I was nineteen. She was a couple of years older. She was part of the posh set and used to go wherever those places were in central Stockholm, where their kind went to be seen and admired. Though rather blasé at work, she spared no effort when it came to designer shopping and night clubs.

One Monday morning she trotted into the office, slumped down on her chair, sighed heavily and declared that the weekend had been difficult. It was all because of this friend, she said. He had been injured in a fight a few months earlier and was now paralyzed in a wheelchair. It was infuriating: he believed he could still get special treatment from the bouncers and sneak past the lines outside the clubs with his friends, as before. But that’s not how it works! she said. You need to be discreet. And how be inconspicuous in a wheelchair?! she asked me. It ruins it for all of us!

Not having previously been confronted with such a dilemma, and anyway being routinely directed to the end of any line, I was hardly an authority on the matter. I was unable to come up with the right thing to say, or anything at all really. In any case, it was such a bother now, with this guy and the wheelchair, so she and her friends did not want to bring him along anymore when they went out.

safe before dawn

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mercy of night

the black car

smooth driving

the cat curled up

asleep beside me

warm ball of yarn

I see you up ahead

in a star

falling –

not yet fallen

wish

drive

all night duty

all night blindness

but the light…

the horrible dawn light

must bleed

into the world

deaf
ears

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death

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I think that when we die we will go to a place that looks like Richmond Park, except that the ponds will have joined together and formed a winding black and murky river to keep the park apart and safe from the living. Our death park will be idyllic, full of jumping deer and naked people, who will skip about while raising their arms in the air and chanting joyously. We won’t stand it. But the gates will be bolted so that no one can leave, or enter Death by mistake. Legends will be told about a few who hid in Charon’s boat and sneaked back to Life while dead newcomers were being admitted through the gates, though none of us will know anybody who managed such a feat. There will be a flower plantation where we will go to remember and honor our living. When Charon is not busy collecting newcomers from the other side, he will take us on daytrips on the river. If we are naughty and try to lean over and look for our missing reflection in the water, he will hit us over the ear with his oar. He must guard us closely so that we don’t fall into the river deep and drown. That would be terrible.

there is no dent
in my day

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I stepped out into the cloudless world outside the hospital, and immediately froze. There was a dent in the side of my car. No note on the windscreen. As I approached, the dent disappeared. It was the reflection of an innocent tree trunk. The car door was a distorting blue mirror, teasing me.

I saw leafless winter branches in that mirror, except that they were swaying palm trees, and the formidable hospital building was a luxury hotel by the sea. Passing cars were limousines, and I observed the reflected movements of hospital staff coming to work – eager-to-please waiters, I decided, fetching drinks. One by one they were devoured by the revolving doors, and in the end I was alone in that metallic blue scene, waiting for blue drinks to be served.

a departure

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The holidays are over. There is tremendous family activity – loading the car and general hugging. Dashes through the sleet. Wet luggage. Wet faces, frosty drops on wool coats. Driving away, waving. See you next time. Turning around, looking through the fogged up back window. A memory: an elderly man on the steps. A different house in snow, decades ago. Wheeltracks.

detach

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But how were we to know that my thoughts would detach and abandon us.

gone to Devon

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suddenly you

here in London, everywhere

unexpected and unasked

so welcome, and no mercy

 

your voice, your hands, your shirt, your gaze

 

your face was in the sheets I changed, the dishes

my bath (especially the bath), the window panes

 

the children’s eyes

 

I found your smile under the couch, when I

knelt down to reach an empty yoghurt carton

 

whatever it was doing there

 

the weight of you within my walls

 

I knew next week when you are back

from where you go to find

those things that are not us

must be like last week:

 

casual, I urged myself

easy, the way you like it

 

but it wasn’t any good

 

the thought of you, undressing, touching you…

 

I was a taut and trembling string

trapped inside a breath of lead

 

and I really wished you hadn’t gone

to Devon

in the diner

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a dip
in the pool

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Every day we somehow lower ourselves into the pool, assisted by our physiotherapists. Some of us have handed over our crutches. Others are more visibly reduced, having left essential body parts behind. Mostly legs, though everybody has at least one. High above, our physios stroll alongside their patients while instructing, encouraging, scolding. Stretch! Lift! Bend – if limbs are present, if what’s left is long enough.

We splash about as best we can. We’re not doing so well – helpless guilty giggles skip between us. In the wide world, outside the hospital, we inhabit different corners. Peter can’t come next time – he’s going on the moose hunt – but retired Alice will never miss a session – it’s the highlight of her week. For now, weakness of muscle, and the weighty water teasing, warm. Session over, we are helped out of the pool. Push, lift, pull.

We retrieve our crutches and our limbs. We equip ourselves to face the day. The warehouse, the office, the grandchildren. The moose hunt. They are all waiting.

at the disco
in the seventies
in Stockholm

we had quite a few

to choose among

but we preferred

Angie

 

there was Big Brother, of course

with the hardworking DJ Sydney

always laughing

spreading that hip and joyful

atmosphere

how he loved the records

loved shaking his maracas

and we loved him back

though the music was too loud to talk

 

Bobadilla was too big

Domino too rowdy –

the age limit was just 16, and it showed

Phonograph

with all-black décor

a stone’s throw from Angie

was too cool –

people in black went there

to look cool

and dance cool, with their cool

bored-looking friends

 

then there was the place

I forget its name

located on a top floor

which could open up the roof

so we would dance

under the stars

 

we avoided our suburban

Bromside

mostly frequented, as it was

by beercan-waving

fifteen-year-old boys

who more often than not

found themselves caught up in fights

or throwing up over the stairs

Bromside kept the ever-present social workers

occupied

 

no, we liked Angie –

not the hippest place, but

warm and friendly

at Angie you got asked to dance

and the music was not played too loud

 

we met new people there

had conversations

 

but at school

when the cool and cliquey students heard

we went to Angie –

ooh, the face they made:

isn’t that place full of immigrants?

they inquired

in a suspicious tone

for this was at a time

when mixed couples were

frowned upon in certain circles –

a self-respecting Swedish girl

should not be seen

as one forced to resort

to guys from Finland, Turkey, Greece

or Yugoslavia

 

so you dance with immigrants

our schoolmates said, and forgive us

we did keep our Angie visits

quiet after that

– though we considered the perception

of the clientele

both irrelevant and off the mark

 

the disapproving students were the same

that in more formal circumstances

such as class discussions

showed off with eloquence

their enlightened and unprejudiced

view of the world, saying

of us native Swedes

how dutiful, how serious

how inhibited and wooden we all were

bottling up our personalities and feelings

and how grateful we should be

for everything the immigrants

contributed to our society

with their joie-de-vivre

eager gesturing and love of family

and their willingness

to work so hard

in our factories

and all those pizzerias –

not to speak, they added

of their catchy music, and

flavorful spices and foods

that enriched

our own bland cuisine

 

in fact the freshest spices

– these native Swedes happened to know –

were to be found in market stalls

run by immigrants – ah, how much they had

to teach us!

 

though a disappointment, clearly

at the discothèque

those delightful people

nonetheless enlivened

our dark and frosty North

with their colorful traditions

 

such vitality, our schoolmates insisted

such richness

a disconnect

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we thought we’d stay young for longer

but now we’re old

we thought we’d keep each other warm forever

but now we’re cold

dishwash

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dolls

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We are playing in the park. I have picked some thick dark green leaves from a shrub and torn them, and try to draw with the damp edges on a smooth stone. A woman approaches. She smiles warmly and wonders if I like dolls. This I cannot deny. She holds out her hand and says to come with her and she will show me the wonderful dolls she has in her car. “Come, come!” She has a kind pretty face with very red lips, and curly blond hair. Where is my brother?

doublesplash

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milk dress

C:\\Users\\Catharina\\Pictures\\Bluegatereview\\Gate\\IMG_8374.JPG

 

A multi-achieving biochemist fashion designer from Hannover, Germany, has, in a bout of professional efficiency, developed a fabric that is soft and easy on the skin, out of milk protein no less! Have I wasted my life? If I had applied myself, could I have been her – with that knowledge and imagination? As things stand, I lack inclination as well as education: neither successful nor a biochemist, neither multi-achieving nor a designer. Neither is she me, and she does not, therefore, proudly run her hand over the shiny smooth material of her elegant red creation on the table, and rhyme thus:

 

they thought

it was

a dress

of silk

but

I made

it out

of milk!

generational drift

when I was young

the purpose of being a child

was to grow up

in a responsible manner

into a responsible

adult

 

even as teenagers

we were expected

to dress appropriately

and our parents

made it clear that drugs

and smoking

were out of the question

along with wacky art courses

and Hare Krishna

 

find yourself?

no no no –

go forth and become

something sensible, such as

accountant, nurse

or school teacher

here is the application form

rock band?

never heard such nonsense –

finish your steak!

 

the cooler of us rebelled

travelled the world

in hippie gear

though most of that lot too returned

became accountants

nurses, teachers

 

our children, on the other hand

we encouraged

to try it all:

the art, the travel, the torn jeans

drinking (though we asked for moderation)

– even playing in a band!

 

certainly, if that is what you want

sweetie

try it by all means

see what you think

 

and did they become

the gracious, generous

free spirits we had hoped?

 

as we took up our late revolt

in middle age – indulging

our inner desires

wearing tight leather vests and jeans

high heels and push-up bras

flirting at the office –

our own kids turned on us

 

furious and disgusted

they put out our cigarettes

accused us of murder

when we put steak on the table

demanded we serve tofu

dye our hair

back to discreet

stop dancing

to the Black Eyed Peas

and singing

especially

to stop the dancing –

that really

got to them

easy on the drink

they admonished us

 

and no more lusty glances

at the neighbors!

 

so here we are, a small

gathering of greying parents

huddling together

smoking, boozing

out here in the cold

taking care that neither

the kids nor Grandma

catch us

 

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we were fine as long as the tap was dripping

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the plumber gone

the tap quieted

 

no more ominous dripping

accompanying our days

like a ticking alarm clock

that never rings

never awakens

no more gathering

around that enemy

 

but months of irritation

had to go somewhere

now freed, it sneaked

out of the kitchen, hesitated

in the dusky hall

 

and then moved on

feeling every wall

sniffing every corner on its way

catching up with us

in living room and bedrooms

 

ambushing us from behind, until

an invisible draught

had spread it

to every floor

 

making the house

a menacing colossus

the home

of ceramic dolls

who never unfixed

their expression

but lived in endless

fear of cracking

at their next

encounter

dusk
and waiting for you

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dustpan

in the Paris back street

after getting lost

boots wet and aching feet

streetmap soaked –

we turned it up and down and around

and tried to understand

the speedtalking man

who pointed down the hill

with the dripping dustpan

full of snow

dwell

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to stand on a street corner and watch

a house through the falling snow

to feel at home there, as if

the white cover has obliterated

time and concealed the gap

between once and today, made them one

and the same

to stand in the silent snowfall

in front of a house

yearning for someone who once

dwelled in it

our dying
bird

I held our love

gently in my hands

believing what we had

scruffy as it was

worth saving

like as a little girl I held

a dying sparrow in the park

fearing it may be too late

taking care not to hurt it

I let it rest there

in the cradle of my fingers

blew softly in

among the feathers

to see if it could be made

to stir, look up

eavesdropper

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effects

all that lack of money

and all the lack that cannot now be tackled

by money

 

all that missing money

and all the missing that cannot now be lessened

by money

 

all that loss of money

 

all the loss that cannot be assessed

in money

an escape

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that day

she finally decided

to escape the interior

domestic space

and head for the world

the atmosphere was electric

“GO ON! JOIN THE CIRCUS!

WE’RE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU!”

the rest of us cheered her on

waving from our front steps

the felled

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the trees were aching

with screams

their displaced bodies

pining

for the woods

how to reach their kin?

they strained, ununderstanding

they did not yet know

the impossibility

the irreversibility that had afflicted them

at the hands of the woodcutters –

those who would call them

lumber

a feminist
approach

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tree filigree

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finale

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She stood by the window, pencil and sketchpad in hand. He sat at the piano, where the sunlight leaned in through the window and fell on his left shoulder, arm and leg. The light did not touch her. It stretched from left to right just in front of her, like the light from a torch—everything not caught in its brightness barely visible. As he played, she drew him from behind. His contours came out vague against the black piano, the sharpness of its edges. The tones bounced up and glided down, wings spread out, making grains of dust dance in the sunlit air. Then he got stuck on a chord. Again, she thought. He kept playing it out of tune in the same way, using the same wrong notes each time, as if his chord was a law of nature and Mozart had made a mistake. She studied her sketch. She had drawn him very small, allowing the blackness of the piano to almost swallow him. She filled in his body with sweeping strokes to make his presence more alive. The sunlight licked his side, like flames not quite managing to start a fire. Most of him still lingered in the dark room with her. He played the false chord once again. She failed to get the shading right. Non-arrivals. Familiar non-arrivals, comfortable. This was before the marriage, the kids, the terrible silence.

fish dish

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For the reunion party I made fish from a recipe I picked up at the grocery store. It involved tarragon, lemon and cream, and lay on the counter in its flat existence as culinary possibility. What I cooked usually turned into an anonymous overcooked mush, so on this occasion I stirred the pot anxiously, splash on the recipe card.

“You are a real gourmet chef when it comes to cooking fish!” said Eva’s husband, waving his fork elegantly. He mentioned that he had a real treat at a seafood restaurant recently that reminded him of the old recipe for salmon in mustard sauce that I used to make, in the early days when Eva and he were dating, but not as good. “Do you still make that dish sometimes?”

Salmon?

Mustard sauce?

“Hey,” I later said to Eva, who was chatting with some other middle-aged previous classmates. “Eva, I think your husband must have mistaken me for some other friend of yours, one who cooks delicious fish.” “Oh well,” said Eva, smiled warmly and said it was good to see that I had lost weight and had been working out.

“Lost weight?” I said.

Working out?

Who was the chubby doppelgänger who cooked salmon in an unforgettable mustard sauce, who made such an impression on people with her doings in her own life that she took a role in mine?

when we were fishing

Rosemary taught

my boys to fish

in the light

summer evenings

we gathered on the dock

 

with her long greying hair

streaming in the breeze

she baited the hook for the boys

belly-laughed and called them squeamish

when they balked at reaching down

into her yellow bucket

and picking up the squiggly worms

 

the fish they caught

one or two, no more

were too small for dinner

and were placed in a grocery bag

and given to the neighbors

for their cat

 

year after year, this was

our summer ritual, until

one July when Rosemary

did not show up

she stayed sometimes in hospital

sometimes at home

nursing a tumor that in treatment

multiplied into a dozen

inside her stomach

 

the boys were puzzled

by her absence

when was Rosemary to come

down to the dock again

with her yellow bucket?

what were these tumors –

were they like evil fish

swimming around inside her belly?

 

we let them think that –

it seemed an explanation

 

one evening Rosemary came down

to see, she said, the glorious sunset

she had no hair, could barely stand

but tried to smile, and then she did

not come again

 

we did not fish

after that

under the flightpath
(my ill friend)

this glorious day

shades of blue and green

the calm of clear weather, but also

the regular overhead rumble

of plane after plane

on its way to land

at the airport a few miles away

beneath the skylight, each plane

becomes imposing, shading

her face where she sits, the eternal

crossword on the kitchen table

spread out in front of her

 

although she should lie down and rest

she persists in sitting

stubborn woman

she likes to sit there

beneath the skylight

to be hit by the shine from each day

this is how it has become now

how she craves exposure

in spite of it all

placing letter after solitary letter

in the squares

 

and the planes keep passing

between us and the sun

they cast their shadows on her face

one after the other

as she slowly solves

the puzzle

flock

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my boss brought me flowers

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he said I had not made

one single mistake

 

he was impressed

with my professional skills

 

he said I possessed

an organized mind

 

how fast I worked

and how smoothly!

 

he said how pleased he was

to have employed me

 

I had to stay for always –

he could not manage without me

 

he said I was attractive too

in an unobvious sort of way

 

he tried to keep me

in my place

thank you for the flowers

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The flowers you sent have tired of watching me.

Their rosy faces have lost their glow. They are offended by not being spoken to, and the lack of fresh water annoys them. They have got fed up with watching me dab my swollen eyes with your shirt, and blow my scarlet nose, then spreading crumpled-up tissues all over the floor. They have got bored with me writing our names on the wall, then crossing them out, after trying in vain to erase them. The flowers have bent down their necks and look sympathetically gloomy, as if forgetting that a short while ago they stood tall and amused, secretly smirking.

forbidden

last night I dreamt

somebody touched me

who – even in the dream –

should not

woke up with a giddy smile

this morning, and did not

tell you

you know him well

and, I imagine

would not want that image

in your head

but in my head, all day

the pleasure of his

warm firm hands and lips

on me, that longing

was lingering, spinning

me slowly, undressing me

it was just chaos in there

I remembered when you

caused the same sweet

devastation, years ago –

did you wonder earlier

this evening – I drew you closer

I know he too

would not betray you

but how can I not blush

next time we see him

(and his wife), how make

coherent conversation

while remembering his face

when he was with me

the forest

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As a child I feared the forest. I was terrified it would reach out and grab me with its long gnarled arms, and gobble me up. Then we grow up, don’t we, read some books, write a few paragraphs, assemble our IKEA dressers – realize it is we who devoured the forest.

forever

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forget-me-nots

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the forget-me-nots

are giving us a lot

of sweatwork

the way they keep spreading

their perky prettiness

taking over the flowerbeds

making sure, for sure

that they will never be

forgotten

thank you, your fortress

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fragrant merry welcome

spotless hostess

in a sequined

European statement

trailing on the floor

 

its waves!

its billowing waves!

 

meet, said she, this handsome Mr—

delighted, I’m sure, said he

here the buffet, she went on

here the wines, and now if you’ll excuse…

arm in arm they sailed

 

dead dishes

on white tablecloths

closed groups of gesticulating men

in smooth and shiny suits

velveted women

porcelain backs turned

 

ice walls

 

those slippery ice walls

 

that, and the absence of gear—

of ladders, ropes and axes

framed
girl

I’m watching the dance show. The school auditorium is packed with proud parents. I arrived late. I have to stand in a small crowd outside the open back doors. I crane to see. I have known these girls since they were toddlers. At nine, they dance provocatively, pop video style, though in little-girls’ dresses. These are my daughter’s friends, and nothing is as easy as their dance moves. Marie’s mother is having her second breast removed. Will she make it? Who knows. Lisa’s out-of-control big brother thought he could fly out of his bedroom window last month, fractured pretty much everything. Ella’s dad went off with some woman he met at work. Who could have known, when they were little, that things would turn out so broken. But right now, here’s Marie’s solo. I watch her from a distance through the brown door-frame, straining to see over the bobbing parent heads in the audience. The dancing girl swirls surefooted around the stage in her baby-pink dress, ponytail swinging. Solo over, the scene seems to freeze within the frame as she faces the applause with a little curtsey. It could have been a charming painting on a gallery wall. Degas. The despair hits me as I watch. I want to scream. Doesn’t she know her mother is dying and there’s no point to her dance? But of course she knows. The steps are the point. Learning them, perfecting them, performing them. The beaming girl looks to me carefree, as is her birthright, and I see her as the idea of childhood itself, one of Plato’s eternal forms – not some shadow temporarily at play on a cave-wall, awaiting who knows what fate.

framing

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free

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As a boy he was happiest lying for hours in tall grass where he could watch the house between the straws, from a distance. The knowledge that the house was there, but not the need to be part of it. His own peace. His own master. Nobody to say whether he was a protector keeping an eye out, a predator stalking his prey, a harmless dreamer… The grass tickled or itched, but he never went inside the house.

As a man he hurried up the gravel path. It was being strangled by weeds. He half-ran right up to the house, tried the door, looked in through the windows. All the rooms had the curtains drawn, except one. And it was empty.

waiting for bone marrow
with friends

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Helen says the specialist she saw this morning had long greying sideburns that blew around his face like unbuckled furry ear flaps when he explained the latest results – which he did in a surprisingly animated manner considering there was no change and no donor has been found yet. Those sideburns made him look somewhat like an impostor, and she had an impulse to grab them and pull hard. Alas she didn’t, and now we won’t know. But we have a good laugh at the prospect that they could have come right off in her hands!

Helen says her husband cancelled their Tenerife vacation. The scoundrel! She could have had some fun! She might have gone to the airport with a set of chef’s knives or a dainty wrench hid in her carry-on. She would have been caught in the screening, grabbed her tools and warned people to stay away. Would have been arrested – seen that other side. Mrs. Helen – in security – with the wrench… We have a good laugh at the thought of her – the accomplished one – turning to crime.

Helen says her son’s friends, five years old, asked why she wants to look like a bald man. She told them ah, because her head is such an attractive shape, she wants to show it off! Lisa agrees the shape of her head is something to write home about for sure. Helen, beautiful Helen, runs her fingers lightly down her head, studies the bony lines of her skull in the mirror in the hall. Poses like a model. “Show-off,” Lisa mutters. And we start laughing.

And we keep giggling, drawing out the moment. We can’t stop. We double over. We are teenagers again, in stitches. We are having a blast, and Helen says our days were never this hilarious when there were more of them remaining. But Lisa and I disagree. Oh how we laugh and disagree.

his funeral

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the funeral was quite

a cheery affair

 

arriving at the church

we ran into

family and friends in black

some of whom we had not seen

in the longest time

– and it was good to see them

we fell into each other’s arms

with helpless sobs and smiles

in cordial reunion

 

it was sad, of course

during the service

with the hymns and music

and the readings he himself had chosen

and walking past him

saying our goodbyes

 

but after it was over

chatting

over cake and coffee

– how lovely to catch up

on news about career success

new boyfriends and new grandkids

and hear gossip

about distant cousins

and old friends who moved away

 

griefstricken we all enjoyed

a splendid day together

and at the end

we hugged again

promising to see

each other soon

just like he would have

wanted

a gap

long, late afternoon shadows

I was there, and you

both young, walking

I don’t remember where

a grey-haired woman cycled

round the bend, into the sunlight

she was pulling a white dog

on a lead – it struggled

to keep up beside her

on its fluttering mini-legs

a young boy in school uniform

walked leisurely on the cracked

pavement, face crunched up

in a squint against the low sun

the bus, its huge shape darkening

the street, drove past the request stop

the convenience store lay in shadow

a bearded man outside the store

lighted a cigarette

 

nothing happened just then, between

one moment and the next

I don’t know why

I should remember it so clearly

we must have said or done something

just before or after, I imagine

something that somehow changed us

am I over-thinking this?

possibly, prone as I am

– indisputable, though

us walking there

the presence of the people

in the street, their position

in relation to each other and the store

how shadows fell

the gaze

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those times

when you are together

and they gaze at you

and go away

even though they are right there

you never know

where it is they go

you know you cannot reach there

and you keep speaking

more words, faster

to fill the void

they left behind

gigantic

I was a piece of sea

in a gigantic jigsaw puzzle

I tried myself everywhere, but

nowhere was the right fit

so big the sea

maybe if I asked others to place me?

maybe if I changed my color,

my shape, everything I am?

glow

A duck swimming in water Description automatically generated with medium confidence

make her go away

in a poem by Bruno K. Öijer, the poet

rang up his childhood and spoke

with his seven-year-old self

he told him he missed him

tried to get

the conversation going

but nothing

he said or explained

would keep the impatient young boy

engaged, or stop him

from pulling away

 

I have the opposite

situation

my seven-year-old self will not leave

me alone, refuses

to let go

visits me at home, at work

when out with friends

in her nasal

moaning voice

she constantly insists

I “could do better”

reminds me of the times

I should have been

stronger, fiercer, truer

more informed

she knows my whole life –

I should live, she says

with more panache…

she does say panache, I wonder

where she picked that up

and she mentions all the days

I left unused

when I should have found out more

stood up and said something

dug a little deeper

pushed through, displayed

my sharper elbows, been

a better friend

 

you are a poo, she says

(she is just seven)

pointing out all these

my failures

 

I have been hiding out

playing it easy, lying low

all I have accomplished

is poo

and nothing I say or explain

will appease the young girl

or make her go

away

we go on

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remember that winter?

 

minus twenty-six and whiteness

the earth hard

 

wrapped into chubby parcels

we scuttled

 

over the unforgiving icy surface

into the snow-padded home

we had built for ourselves

 

we mostly stayed trapped there

feeling the frozen world gain on us

 

it seeped in through the walls, occupying

room after room, thinning out our words

 

the fear of freezing pipes

 

but we huddled together, didn’t we

kept the kitchen tap running

 

a steady thin stream just above zero

a good
day

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I go to pick up Daughter. Today she looks happy to see me and does not cry. I carry her Bambi backpack over my shoulder. It swings back and forth as we walk home hand in hand in the sun. We don’t see the neighborhood teenagers, so we take the shortcut across the field. “Kitty, kitty!” She starts running, but the cat gives her a disdainful look and takes off. It’s warm, at last, and no rain. She tells me about the drawing she made today, of Miss Eva with long purple hair. Miss Eva put it up on the wall. I tell her we’re having meatballs for dinner, yum. She lets go of my hand and skips ahead towards the slope at the far end of the field. She rolls down it and ends up at its foot, covered in grass. She stays there, on her back, arms and legs spread out, waiting for me, giggling.

good fortune

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in a restaurant on a beach

you could once see this man

asleep after a good meal

and maybe some good beers

what good fortune

to be lounging

under an umbrella on that beach

sipping an ice coffee

hearing the waves roll in

the children laugh and splash

to be watching that man

enjoy his peaceful nap

gravitational

you are in the maternity ward

you have spent countless hours nursing, then pacing up and down the corridor pushing the baby to peace

now the creature – who wondrously slid out of you and has been noisily announcing his arrival ever since – is asleep at last

you tiptoe into the shower with your sore and sticky leaking nipples and sour milky smell

the water streams down your body hot and comforting, but suddenly you wobble: what was that?

a rush of urgency; you snatch the towel from the peg, open the bathroom door and step dripping towards the baby

but he is still asleep, the new teddy from Grandma watching over him

so you breathe again, step back into the bathroom, dry yourself down properly

but then once more you think you hear him, and the walls appear unsteady

are you unwell? you ask yourself

did you lose a lot of blood? you speculate

– incorrectly, unaware of what your body knows already

you have never given birth before and do not yet know the consequence:

from the moment he is born, in a blink he is moving on

where will he go, will he be safe?

your center of gravity has shifted, relocated, been displaced, has forever passed outside you, to a point between your baby and yourself

here you will always stand alone, unsure, unsteady

– as alone as you are beginning to feel right now, in the maternity ward, realizing this

A person that is standing in the grass Description automatically generated

the great unknown

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grief

I was trying to write

about death, my mother

being dead

attempt after attempt

but all I got down on paper

was the word Mother

over and over again

Mother

Mother

horrible hairdresser’s

A picture containing animal, book Description automatically generated

 

A man dreamt he was a scandalized politician. He went to a trendy hairdresser’s, where the customers sat in the black high-backed chairs, and stared in amazement into mirrors taller than French windows, as their hair was being pulled hard, away from the head, left and right, up and down. Their skin stretched with the hurting hair in all directions – eyes and faces distorted, grotesque – to the scraping metallic sound of scissors. He was led through heaps of fallen hair to one of those chairs, sat down and glanced at the mirror. The next thing he knew, his hair was being assessed and deemed to be dandruffy, greasy, licey, and generally poorly maintained. But I shampooed it this morning! he cried, while all the staff gathered round, waiting in line to not miss this revolting specimen. Embarrassed fellow customers laughed in disgust and relief. Their hair had passed without comment, although surely some must have used that same shampoo – such a popular brand. The whole time, he was trying so hard to be heard. He used his deep serious voice, begging to have his straight hair curled, his curls straightened, whatever. But no one would touch his hair.

half-seen

What happened in that film, on TV years ago? A weeknight – I abandoned it and went to bed. It may have been James Stewart. He is an aircraft engineer travelling on a plane. He has just worked it all out, new revolutionary calculations: a plane will break apart after a certain number of hours in the air. Soon, soon—it’s about to happen on this particular flight! But of course no one will listen. Not the pilot, a smug idiot—the script must have killed him off later on as punishment. Not anyone. Fools, the lot of them. But there’s a young pretty air stewardess who seems quite spunky… So how did James Stewart prove his point? Was there a crash? Some obligatory casualties to join the punished pilot—disposable goody-goody characters, so decent and kind-hearted it would be horribly unfair that they should die? There are always noble-minded geniuses who know the appalling state of things. They claim their victims. In real life, of course, people are never disposable.

handbag

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In her old age, Aunt Nina lived in an uncertain world, which often left her exasperated and confused with its persistent maliciousness. She became suspicious of people she had known for decades – convinced the butcher was ripping her off, giving her cheap cuts at the premium price. Not to speak of the postman, who was clearly intercepting her mail so that she never received the letters from her son in America. (Who was, in fact, no longer living.) After she had left and gone home one evening, we found her brown handbag on a chair in the family room. The next morning we rang to say she had forgotten it in our house. She hurried over to pick it up. We were mistaken. She had not forgotten it OF COURSE – rather she had left it behind on purpose, because she was sure she would see us today again, and there was not much point lugging it back and forth, was there?

Hatman

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headache

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hearsay

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not a happy hen

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There is a hen in our guest bathroom. It is not our hen. Somebody gave her to us for safe keeping over the weekend. We don’t know why. When we open a crack in the door and take a peek she sits on the lid of the closed toilet. She cackles in protest. The stench is unbearable. By Monday morning there is hen poop all over the toilet and the floor.

Hereford (her grief)

Oh Anna – who now to keep me on the straight and narrow, to remind me of what’s worth preserving from each day, and what’s just empty nonsense to discard? Who now to stretch me, make me look outside, and have a hearty laugh at my obsessions? Who to cheer me on? Your funeral day so grey, with all those gloomy people that I didn’t know, coming down from Manchester and London. I prefer remembering you last year in your new house, the old forge across the road from the large field. Your cozy low ceilings with beams, and Angus’s excited barking. It had rained relentlessly that whole cold spring, but the day I got on the train to travel to your new town, the sun was out. I got a window seat and marveled at the blue sky outside. At Slough a large group of boisterous young women got on. One of the girls was particularly exuberant; she was positively glowing, and her joyful voice reverberated through the carriage: “I don’t belieeeve it – the sun is out, just in time for our reunion!!!” I couldn’t help but smile at them all. I love this climate where no conditions are assured, where any event can be washed away in minutes. There is a special kind of happiness available to people prepared for stormy weddings with woolly jumpers and umbrellas, soaked ceremonies and muddy picnics. I sat there, all smiles in my seat, passing the sunny English countryside. Green and pleasant indeed. I arrived, walked through the station building out into the street, and there you were, leaning against your car and waving in the sun, and me still smiling from the train. Big warm hug. I noticed you seemed thinner in my arms. In your new home we talked and giggled, laughed out loud with food in our mouths, and had rather too much of the Drambuie you found in the cupboard. And we kept chatting, having not seen each other for months, interrupting each other with all we had to say. So much to fit in of news and memories: our kids doing so well at university, my move, your move, your politics – the seat you lost in the elections, some scandal in the party, some criticized new policies – you set me straight on a few issues there. When I wasn’t teasing you about spoiling Angus, I reminded you of that time when you, very ill-advisably, shook my son’s hand for being a fellow smoker among the ever-dwindling numbers. And then we remembered years ago, when I got suddenly unwell at a restaurant, and you led me to your car and drove me to that idiot doctor (my “pal Archie,” whose fault it all was), and the next time I suggested we go to lunch you were all “I don’t know, dear – is it safe?!” You talked about your new area, your new church, and your new doctor, another patronizing medical professional, who had suggested that you cultivate happy thoughts and refrain from wallowing, thank you very much. At which you had informed the man that in the last few years you had lost your husband, lost your mother, lost your job, and lost your home and had to move away – that shut him up. And then we went out to have a look at the cows in the field. The sun was still out, our shadows long, and the cows turned towards us with those ridiculous yellow tags in their ears, and I – daughter of a mother from a long line of farmers – I said “Oh look what they have done to those dignified animals!” And you, no-nonsense as ever, set me straight again, saying “Well, better than branding them with a scorching hot iron, don’t you think?” I know, I know. I am sitting on the train this cold and overcast February afternoon, having left you buried, with just a bright orange gerbera for goodbye, and I almost get off the train again before departure, knowing part of me is left behind. As we pull away I know that this place, the sunny and the grey, where I only ever came in order to see you, will always live inside of me. Mostly I linger in that day last year. When we went back inside after the cows – now where was that half-empty bottle of Drambuie? Angus was barking, we cooked dinner together, and the sun was still out. All day I couldn’t stop smiling.

hotel

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A worthwhile hobby is to hang out in the snobby lobby of some exclusive hotel. How to behave in such an elegant locale? As if you belong there.

in the hospital

in the dream

our farewell

in the pale room

was one of a thousand film scenes

at a railway station

in black and white –

the hard platform floor

the clattering comings and goings

the decisive clangs of closing doors

the anonymous workers:

nurses, doctors

stationmasters –

same efficiency

same finality

and then the staring

the unbearable staring

between the abandoned figure

on the platform

and the departing stone face

behind the rainy window

the difference of course being

there was no glass between us

no rain

and now you were not staring

not looking back at me at all

anymore

I lifted your hands into mine

then put them back

in truth it was nothing

like a station

or a departing train

the camera turned away its gaze

the floor was soft

like the real farewell

I sank right through it

nobody came or went

and the door, by now –

firmly shut

morning in the hospital café

the shrunken grey man weeps at the next table, into his steel wool overcoat

the ponytailed young man approaches, wipes his hands on the white apron

he should have ordered at the counter, he informs, that’s the way it works

he should have stood in line – what would he like?

the old man shakes his head, looks down in silence

the young man steps back behind the counter, soon returns

puts down a smoking cup and muffin, nods at the old man, touches his shoulder

“on me,” he says, picks up

some dirty dishes from another table

puts them on his tray, wipes down the table

waves to a smiling girl outside the window

hospital scene

the doctor’s coat

unbuttoned

floated

down the corridor

sleeves flapping –

a death-butterfly

later, it chased

a stampede of frail

patients

armed with nets

our shared humanity

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We were not to notice differences. Class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality – irrelevant. We were only supposed to see our shared humanity. But we struggled with the effort of not categorizing. We were not, for example, satisfied with the general treeness of trees, the animalness of animals, the countryness of countries – even the nowness of now. We looked for differences and made assumptions about what kind it was we were looking at.

If only we were blind to our differences, we lamented. Then there would be peace in the world. How much better if all human beings came in some neutral guise, regardless of their place in the world – in black and white patterns, for example: striped, checked, spotted… And so it was decided. But then we became obsessed with the stripes vs checks vs spots, not to speak of the width of the stripes, the size of the checks and spots. We were a perceptive bunch.

the hurt
of the day

the sheets rustle

as you come to bed

I feign sleep

as to not hear

your difficult day

your difficult life

how it makes you suffer!

I don’t want your loving

needy hands

fumbling in the nooks and crannies

of my body

those hands full of hurt

transferring

the wrongs done

unto you

into me

we are separate beings

we hurt

the ones we love

interchangeable

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We always made it fair between the twins. One got a fire station lego set, the other a police station. One got a blue car, the other a red one. They were given things that were not the same, but that we considered interchangeable as having equal desirability and value. We were mistaken. As the boys grew up and had families of their own, one of them held us to account for always having given his brother the finer things when they were children. Shame on us, he said. Such flagrant favoritism. Unforgivable. He would never treat his own kids so unfairly!

orange vinyl jeans

My new hair color is fantastic! Makes my face astonishingly pale, instead of just, well, you know, glowless. Though it’s hardly possible, these days, to get things right… “A mum should look mature and pleasant,” protested my reluctant hairdresser, childless with extensive knowledge of the world.

The other day I put on too much Miss Dior and make-up, and my new too cool vinyl jeans. Babysitter hired, I almost went to the pub. I was planning to mix with adult creatures. I was hoping to get blissfully drunk. I looked like a middle-aged divorcee trying to look hipper than her years. I looked terrific! But the kids were sobbing in the hall, running eyes and noses. Angel Falls. Overdressed and overguilty, I realized what it was that I should do: pop down to Blockbuster, bring home a Disney video. Send the sitter on her way, so the three of us could cuddle up on the couch with some popcorn, get some laughs.

his father’s jeep

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once there was something here

just in front of the house

the jeep

wheeltracks in the snow –

they have been snowed over

ketchup

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color: blood

the children smear it on the skin to scare Mummy.

oh dear! she has to say

my goodness! and

good heavens!

the bottles have personalities of their own

glass: nothing, then nothing

then everything at once

squeezable plastic: in order to avoid

watery puddles, soggy chips

and sulking kids

shake bottle upside down before opening

the squeezable ones make farts

the children love farts

my days have become populated

by fake blood

burps and farts

how did it happen?

I used to be an efficient

and valued

employee

kingdom
of light

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” 

― Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor

 

1

The good passport expired, I was admitted to the pain clinic. It was like staggering through a tunnel and stepping through a gateway into sublime light, after a long struggle in a dark and hostile land where nothing – nothing! – kept showing up on the X-rays.

2

”Ask for one of these,” said the grinning man with the girdle support around his back and electrodes on his skin. He regulated the pulse rate on the device clipped to his belt. “Gets one through the day.”

3

Dear old Susan called illness the night-side of life, but all I saw was light. Women, men, young and old. The patients were all open arms and smiles, with crutches like my own, walkers, wheelchairs and the slow laborious movements that I had known for years now. Faulty, all of us! Nobody asked what was wrong with me, where I came from or was going. All that counted was I had come home where I belonged: here, we were all enclosed in bodies that turned out to have been sloppily packed – as if the journey came on suddenly and there was no time for proper preparation. Here, we were surrounded by unconditional support and understanding. No longer was I accused of defeatist thinking, or not trying hard enough with acupuncture, physical therapy and garlic. Nobody implied that I enjoyed the perks of being ill (the disabled badge, the sick-pay, the surrender) and therefore secretly resisted healing. Here, my fellow patients supposed that I would venture back to work eventually – like they occasionally did – only to keep returning – like they did – to this warm welcoming family with aches and swellings and all smiles. Arms around my shoulders, they shared experiences with medications, physiotherapies, and electronic gadgets. They had tried it all, to no avail.

4

In our enchanted land made up of walking aids, well-meaning advice and medication, we lived in peace and manufactured objects therapeutically, out of yarn and wood. I made a footstool. I breathed easy here among my friends, where illness was our king with subjects happy and contented in their pain.

5

But then… I couldn’t anymore. I loved them dearly. I was grateful for their caring kingdom, so unlike the cold inhospitable world I came from. I wished them well. But no. Their night was light. The light in there was blinding, and I was unarrived, still searching – something for me out there in the dark.

6

So no. Here is my passport renewal application. Open the gates, please. Let me out into the darkness. Look at you all with your prescriptions, wristbands and demented, smiling faces.

funeral with a kiss

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the wide-smiling conductor on the train

handed me my ticket with one hand

with the other, a Hershey’s Kiss

“Here you are, and here’s a kiss for you

Happy Valentine’s Day!”

then moved on to other passengers

spreading his kisses cheer

 

all through the ceremony and burial

I kept touching that kiss in my pocket

making sure it was still there

a reminder of an equally existing

reality

I – in black, in pain, in mourning –

I thank you, sir

you made my day a little lighter

the most valuable gift

that we can ask of any fellow

human being –

and I am grateful

kite
story

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The square basks in the sun. Silvery traffic circles around it like a school of sharks. At the far end a man is running after a flyaway kite. The red kite, on its way to join the grey sky, is transformed into different shapes by the capricious wind. Bird, plane, rocket… crumpled-up paper. The daughter can’t keep up with her father. She slumps down on the ground in tears. The kite is lost. Nobody can reach it now. But the father’s eyes are fixed on the end of the string, as it dances its disordered tango in the unsettled air high above the trees that line the square. He is running towards the chance of a sudden drop in the wind, a freak gust that will change the kite’s direction, bring it down. A good parent, he is trying to make sure he will be close enough to save the day. In case the opportunity presents itself. But no. It is not to be. It is the sorrow of parenthood. For all our love and experience, we are powerless to spare our children.

thousand mothers’ lament

DEAR DARLING CHILDREN, STOP FIGHTING IMMEDIATELY. LISTEN UP. WE WANT TO ANNOUNCE THAT YOUR SWEET MUMS ARE MAKING DINNERS, WHICH MEANS THAT YOU’LL ALL GET TO FILL YOUR LITTLE TUMMIES ANOTHER DAY. SEE, WE’VE GOT SAUSAGES AND SPAGHETTI IN THE PANS, A REAL TREAT. JUST A MINUTE… THOSE WERE YOUR DADS ON THE PHONES, THEY WON’T BE HOME FOR THEIR DINNERS TONIGHT EITHER. THEY’RE DOING EXTREMELY NECESSARY THINGS AT OFFICES AND RESTAURANTS. MEANWHILE WE’LL BE DOING EXTREMELY NECESSARY THINGS IN KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS, HAVING A NICE QUIET NIGHT, JUST THE THOUSANDS OF US. WHAT’S THAT, CHILDREN, CAN YOU FEEL THAT SMELL…? LOOK! IT’S THE SAUSAGES, THEY’RE ALL BURNT BLACK. WHAT A FASCINATING TRANSFORMATION, THEY LOOK LIKE CHARCOAL! WERE THOSE THE DOORBELLS… SORRY WE TOOK SO LONG, ALL THE SALESMEN WERE SO HANDSOME, OR MAYBE THEY HAD OTHER QUALITIES, LIKE BEING GROWN-UP AND PRESENT. AND LOOK! WE MANAGED TO BOIL THE SPAGHETTI FOR AN HOUR. HERE YOU ARE THEN, CHILDREN, FASCINATING BLACK SAUSAGES AND MUSHY SPAGHETTI. OH, WE FORGOT TO TAKE THE TOMATOES OUT OF THE FRIDGE AGAIN. THEY’LL BE ICE COLD AND TASTELESS AS USUAL. SO, WHAT DO YOU SAY? ARE YOUR MEALS EDIBLE OR CAN WE MAKE THEM WORSE IN ANY WAY? STOP THAT! WHY ARE YOU CRYING? IT WAS A JOKE! HAVEN’T WE COOKED YOU NOURISHING MEALS? AREN’T WE WEARING OUR MOTHERLY APRONS?

laundry

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lemonade

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physics lesson

in the lab we worked in pairs

taking turns at first, until it was

obvious to us both that I – clumsy-fingered

and despairing over wilful metal bits and wires

should read out instructions from the book

Annette was the hands on one

 

fiddling as if with a metal puzzle

she twisted, twirled and moved around

transforming minuses and pluses into magic

making circuits close and bulbs light up

yet not ever taking in, or even caring

what made such miracles occur

 

I, finger firmly on the page, knew exactly

I wrote it down in detail

accurate accounts of how the science worked

although I knew full well that I myself

would have failed to make it do so every time

we always got good marks!

 

I spent my physics lessons knowing – she hers doing

we worked in pairs, we had to

 

I wonder what she did in life

with all that fearless doing

 

for my part, I keep latching on to others,

pairing up

our letters

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it never was the greatest

foundation for a budding

new relationship

you here, me there

our infrequent meetings

too eager, too expectant

with too many silent questions

our long-distance

correspondence

more loving, unreserved

than our hungry

guarded kisses

 

walking past, last week

our favorite café

I thought of you, of us

at the time we must have asked too much

as we were not to stay together

 

but what of our heartfelt letters?

 

I remembered all those written words we shared

all those years ago

what if they encountered one another

on their way to you and me

what if they broke loose

from the paper they were written on

snuggled up to one another

lived their lives together

after you and I had parted

and even to this day, perhaps

manage what young you and I

never quite did –

a love, a conversation

LHR

some people have just the one bag

they shoot purposefully across the floor

like hovercraft

others are like this

little balding man

with the elderly couple

and two teenagers in tow

(parents? daughters?)

sweat-stained shirt

sticking to his back

he is pushing a cart

with suitcases piled high

above his shiny head

the load too heavy to steer

he moves erratically

around the crowded terminal

now here, now there

in an amusing pattern

led by the weight

of the family’s

belongings

certain suitcases on top

refuse to rest

keep falling off

demanding to be dealt with

like distressing memories

forehead dripping

he piles them up each time they fall

as one comes down

the umpteenth time

I think

– opti-theist that I am –

if there are gods

I’m sure they are all great

and clearly, on this day

of labor conflict, stranded passengers

endless queues, rebookings

they are in their most

mischievous mood

taking the time

to joke around

with one of their small

creations

it can’t be helped:

as I watch, from this unruly

neverending queue

the sweaty little man

swerving with his heavy load

of suitcases and relatives

this trying day at Heathrow Airport

– I have to laugh

London

In those days I was always travelling on the tube, along with the rest of the city, and was forced to confront the rational fears we were all battling as we scanned our surroundings. That man with the large backpack leaning leisurely against the doors – was he a great god believer and would suddenly start yelling about it, and would it help if I made it to the other end of the carriage in time? That middle-aged woman frowning at the lady reading a book next to me, would she suddenly make a grab for her veil and demand she leave the country? What to do if that happened? If I stood up for the book lady, would I find myself in a dangerous situation that spiraled out of control? Would I miss picking up the children, making supper? At Edgware Road one time there was a free seat next to a young man as people got off. Didn’t he seem rather large around the middle? He was unzipping his jacket. I hesitated for a short moment, then made the decision and sat down. Warm and stuffy in there. I fanned myself with my oyster card. The man moved over to give me more space for my bags. Most of us did what we could to promote peace in our carriage, London, the world.

all others you can trust to
look away

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Those years were like walking barefoot in a dense wood, stricken with fear. Far-away daylight between branches, clothes torn, letting the chill in. We kept walking right past the demolished treehouse that the children wanted to put together again. We just kept going, didn’t we. We thought it best. Our bare feet stepped on fallen twigs and leaves, that creaking carpet. Hurting prickliness. Brave faces. A trickling from the soles of our feet left a bloody trail. We were discovered – the trail followed by forces opposing each other. Children: wide-eyed questions. Predators: speedy answers with sharp claws and teeth. There are always predators – run away, take cover! We never were able to hide from the children.

our love…

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…is not a sunrise, nor a sunset –

no stunning sea view bringing tears of joy into our eyes

it’s more hands on, more

chipped plates in the cupboard

kitchen catalogues and dust in corners

stray baby socks and mortgage

the horizon never seems in sight

and when the day is done

here we are, picking through

another hoover bag

stepping on sharp lego pieces

in the cat puke on the floor

somewhere among the laundry piles

beyond the sleeping children

with their coughs and nightmares

we find the kitchen roll

we hand sheets to each other

our fingers touch –

and we see that it is good

we’re good

we got this

(-ish)

lovey-dovey

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rise against the
machines

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Everything can be found on the internet, of course, including this magazine interview with an airline pilot, in which the following surely spellchecked sentence appears:

“We plan ahead to avoid weather, and we try to avoid the turbulence around storms. Often, changing the crew’s altitude will either eliminate or lessen turbulence.”

Ah, the endless comfort that can be drawn from that passage!

master plan
(after her mastectomy)

food on the table

a friend if I’m able

some flowers, a bath

a roof and a laugh

but the biggest

trick I can pull

– I have found –

is seeing the cup

as half-full

me

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me me ME!
a contemporary melody

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my mid-life
lover boy

not alone –

arrives ensnared

in trusting children’s arms

and various hapless relatives

throws himself flat

at my feet

demands assistance

demands I lead

 

his entourage

weighs down my neck

and yet I love

no questions asked

as we all learn the steps

for our entangled tango

mindfulness

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mirror

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my mother’s mirror

with every mistake I make

she regrets her own missteps

a miscalculation

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there is an unbearable smell

in our house

turns out the cat has hidden

a dead mouse

behind the dresser

and the ones she played with

but failed to kill

are leaving droppings

in our kitchen cabinets

 

we used to think the cat

would be good for keeping

pests away

now we have to call

the exterminator

to drive out the mice

she invited

into our home

mixed

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Inspector Morse
reclining

after a long day he listens

to opera –

the wails of compressed lips and throats

expressing the essence of our deepest dreams:

passion, power

heroes taking command, heartbroken ladies

busomy mothers, wise men

cruel rulers and hideous monsters

Good

and Evil

 

tomorrow, Morse will make an arrest

the killer, the sadness

something led up to the deed

human fuzziness obscures the answer:

good-ish

evil-ish

 

but tonight, opera

crystal clear relief

the overweight middle-aged man with triple chins

sings the young hero’s part

take part in the game, accept his handsomeness

before he dies, he will sing louder than ever

– an answer, of sorts

on de-demonizing
a moustache

a man on the radio said

in order to defeat

the enemy

we must first get to know him

get inside his mind

therefore, he said

it is “unfortunate”

that we have demonized

a German moustache

to the extent that the demon

stands in the way

of the real moustache

the one we need

to approach and understand

in order to defeat

 

now were there ever any calls

I wonder

for us to demonize

this particular

moustache?

surely

in its narrowness

and blackness

it spoke clearly

for itself

in the negative space

I am getting used

to negatives

 

getting used to not dropping you

an email, to comment

on some shocking or amusing

piece of news

or the unruly weather

getting used to visiting your town

and us not meeting up

getting used to not being

the cheerful witty individual

that I was with you

(though I miss her, she was fun)

 

still I can’t escape

the intrusive void of you

 

how easy to be dead –

the day I almost drowned

years ago

Death reached out to snatch me

wrapped a long determined arm around my neck

hold was tight, intention clear

but at some point

– what brought this about? –

it wavered, seemed to tremble

too much to accomplish the deed

lost its grip

and I resurfaced, as if nothing had occurred

nobody needed to miss me

and you and I could meet, be friends

why did Death not lose its nerve

also with you?

 

as matters stand

I hope you took our album with you when you left

that you bring it out sometimes

curl up wrapped

in your mother’s wooly cardigan

in your comfy chair of cloud

browse among the pages

with our smiling faces

and escapades

the cruel trick candles

that our toddlers could not blow out

at the chaotic birthday party

the doctor you had some choice words for

after he medicated me to illness

making me feel faint

and lie down in the crowded train

embarrassing YOU

your new car with the mysterious novel features

such as beeping when reversing –

we wondered what it meant

until you hit the car behind

the restaurant we had to flee

our server following us into the street

assuring us we were imagining

the sewage odor

and I hope you won’t feel sad, but smile

over those pages, and let that smile grow

into a giggle, then a thunderous belly-laugh

that reverberates through space and time

and finds me sitting in a room

at my desk perhaps

and I hesitate for a short moment

thinking there was something

but no, nothing

and yet I decide to get up

put the pen down, push the chair away

and leave the room

somehow lighter, and more open

his news

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nothing

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“But what if we have traveled all this way and there is nothing?”

“Then we make it nothing else!”

incident with oars

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obstacle course

we were Form D

at the end of the corridor

it might as well have been

across town

 

walking down

to reach our classroom

we had to first

get past the crowd

of Form A kids

who were all right

if in a good mood

– you never knew

 

then Form B

who as we passed

would rub our noses

in their exam results

(consistently superior)

 

lastly, most precariously

we had to push through

Form C

who were standing around

in a compact manner

waiting to be let into their classroom

waiting to poke, and kick

and shove us, trip us up

for want of funner things to do

 

every day the same repeated procedure

 

school year after school year

to us Form D kids

reaching our classroom

and the ill-tempered teacher

wringing her hands over our work

was an achievement every time

 

our journey through the corridor

was a war, as war has been described –

long and dreary, punctuated

by sudden bursts

of violence

eight years old

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then you came

caressed my cheek

with your stiff

hand of ice

and I knew then

I was loved

and life

not kind

did not know

I was too small

to warm you

once…

the warning cries

were locked in

we skidded

on the air

bounced

into walls

that folded

away

 

arms to the sky!

eyes wide!

 

again!

 

AGAIN!

open door policy

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options

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we shall overcome

He always dreamed of playing the guitar and singing in a smoky room. He would be barefoot and wear old blue jeans with frayed knee holes. People with beers and tambourines would gather round with dreamy eyes, have their souls touched by his singing. Catchy songs of the rising sun that everybody knows, insightful words of truth. He would never ever stop. He would play and sing in spite of the hecklers roaring with laughter at the back, all the while wondering why, how come, and for what possible reason, they threatened to smash his guitar. The answers of the changing times were blowing in the wind, and he would never catch them all.

overheard

Coffee shop, Åhléns, Stockholm, July, lunchtime

 

– You had an affair?!!

– Yeah, you know, things haven’t been… I don’t know, I felt so tied down… He made me feel so lousy… you know? He made me look around.

 

Toilet, Metro North train out of Grand Central, January, evening rush hour

 

Knock knock knock knock bang!!!

– Hello? You can’t get out? … I’m trying, I’m trying… No, it’s not working. I can’t help you.

 

Supermarket, Connecticut, January, evening

 

– Hi, how are you?!

– I’m good, how are you?

– Good. And you?

– Good.

– Good to see you.

– See you soon.

 

Coffee shop, NYC, December, afternoon

 

– I could really use a friend right now.

– I’m your friend.

– But you don’t have any money.

overworked

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Paco Rabanne

We called him Casanova-Choo-Choo – great dancer, fragrant charmer. Those arrogant legs, the heavy swagger. The crooked grin, and mischief in his eyes. Five cigarettes hanging from his lips, beer can in his hairy hand. The coolness of his black leather vest, with nothing – nothing – underneath. And ah, those Levi’s buttocks! We all had our spell with his cowboy boots on our lap and his manly hands under our blouse, except disapproving Jennifer, who married him in the end. We couldn’t believe it! Jennifer! Surely, we said, she should have been able to tell the difference between the ones to marry, and the ones to have fun with. Like he did.

the party (dream)

Leaving the disco beat and giggling friends behind, I find the Ladies in a dark corridor. What a pleasant surprise: it’s huge, and smells of detergent! The shiny tiles on the walls are warm pink. A woman is moving from corner to corner, mopping the spotless white floor. In front of each mirror lady guests stand, brushing and spraying their hair. Dozens of toilet doors keep opening and closing, as if moved by the wind, letting fragrant women in and out, while I stand in line. I see half of my face in the corner of a mirror, and feel pleased. (I’ve been asked to dance several times already.)

But the loo I get is filled with things, and the smell… so I wait again, I try another, but it’s filled with things, and even the floor… and I try another, keep trying. And the perfumed women keep coming, warm from dancing; there I see one I know and I call to her, ”Look, the toilets are filthy, what shall we do?!” She sympathizes, then goes in and comes out—she must have stepped in the mess—and the beat from the dance floor squeezes in through the door as she leaves, while I try another.

Nobody asks for me, only one woman wants change for the tampon machine, while her friend is upset or excited, for somebody’s husband held her too close as they danced. And is it the wife who comes later on—her cheeks black with mascara—and I try another. Then a wobbly girl with pink lipstick who’s been drinking too much slumps down on the floor with a sigh; someone should give her a glass of water—not me, I’m really too busy standing in line, and then a beautiful woman with perfect make-up comes out from a toilet I know is disgusting; she stumbles over the girl on the floor. Regaining her balance she sneers at the girl, and walks back to the party leaving behind a luxurious scent, but I whisper: ”I know where you’ve been!”

I’ve tried every loo in this place; there is not one I can use. The staff mops away while humming a tune; the women go in and come out. They have danced all night, but I’m shouting in triumph: ”I’m clean and I’m tidy!”

I spent the whole evening in here.

do not invite
the partypooper

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I no longer have a talent

for easy conversation

do not invite me to your party

now that I arrive alone

I’ll stand stiffly in a corner

trembling glass in hand

and not come up with things to say

weighing down the room

so others too will gasp for air

 

when I was young this could occur

on occasion because I

was shy and insecure

but now

(though it should not be contagious)

we all know this is what

I am become:

a blot on happy families

bringer

of silences, forced smiles

destroyer

of ambiance

 

I always leave as early as is decent

as I put on my coat I hear the room

sigh of relief and stir behind me

at last the party can begin

the past

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our past we carry with us

as recurring

fleeting sensations –

even though she is

a grown-up

come home after a long day

holding meetings, delegating at the office

and now having a meal

with her grown-up husband

at the polished dining table

in their large house in the prosperous area

that they have been able to obtain

through their grown-up activities

– other pieces of her refuse to tell lies

at a not insignificant level

she is 16 years old, and

throwing up in a marble bathroom

at a drunken party in an upscale suburban villa

where her friends, who are holding back her hair

will later suggest

a summer trip her family

can’t possibly afford

– partied out, she staggers

home through the dark deserted streets

to her exhausted sleeping parents

in the cramped apartment

tricky patient

walls a dazzling white

huge doors

with cool steel

handles

led to white-uniformed

no-nonsense

professionals

who kept pulling

and squeezing, then

dropping

trembling patients

into each other’s

fields

of expertise, as if

sending on junk mail

that had come

to the wrong addressee

after first

crumpling it up

my blood

was constantly being

extracted

and transformed

into babbling

letters and numerals

my limbs

twisted

in torturous positions

meticulously

recorded

as question marks, until

one afternoon

I was taken

to the last

specialist, a jolly

orthopedist

his verdict:

nothing on the x-rays

nothing wrong

everything fine

just to finish off here

move on to the next

order of business!

I smiled and was happy for him

that he was fine –

but I

had things

to do

too

peace

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periswan

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on photo editing

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The woman next to me on the plane spent the entire transatlantic flight in her window seat editing photos on her laptop. They were from some festive occasion where she was one of the dressed up party guests, included in many group pictures with other young women. A lot of posing with hugs and smiles, raised champagne glasses. A wedding:? No, no bride or groom. A birthday? No cake, no candles, no obvious center of attention. A graduation? But no parents. Maybe a reunion. No men at all – a feminist or lesbian reunion? She kept zooming in on faces, removing blemishes, smudged eyeliner and acne, on one young woman after another, painstakingly making each and every one of them the most beautiful they could be. Hours of work going into this. Such a loving effort, I reflected. I remembered similar group photographs in my own photo albums. More often than not, I have flashed a stifled smile exposing my gums and lipstick-tarnished teeth at the crucial moment. Nobody could claim I’m photogenic. I too want the woman in the window seat for my friend.

pistachios

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The children run ahead to the playground. On a bench in the shade under a tree sit a man and a woman. They move closer together to give me room. They are watching their kids play on the swings and slides. They have the two girls, they say, and now they are trying for a boy. They heard that pistachios may help. “So here we are, munching on pistachios. As many as we can!”

play

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power

We found ourselves in sudden outage blindness, as if a huge beast had leapt down from the mountains and engulfed us—the whole village, that bright crescent curved around the bay, swallowed. The black sky grew bright. It became an enormous planetarium. The vastness: the few stars from earlier were now fuzzy around the edges and had multiplied into thousands. The music from bars and tavernas was silenced. Scattered upset voices rose from the vacuum.

It was doubtful whether our Greek village existed. We were nothing, the universe everything. How far we have travelled from our beginnings, I thought, to be surprised by our own smallness. I tried to comfort the kids, saying all the wrong things. Isn’t it spectacular, and each star may have planets in orbit around it, maybe there’s someone living there… They cried worse than before.

After an hour the lights came back on. The sky became black again, that anonymous background scene with a few distinct stars. The music could play. Madonna merged with Theodorakis. The children could sleep. There had been a show of size, but we were given another chance. We had power.

practice

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on reading an interview with a prison chaplain
(annotated)

After the bombing, the prison chaplain was called in to notify next of kin. Then reports about the mass shootings began to come in.

 

“It was a long night. And then it was tough getting back to work and being told that Anders would be placed with us.”

 

(On first name basis with a racist bomber and mass murderer.)

 

Later in the interview:

 

“But the fact that he has presented himself as a Christian crusader riding at the front undeniably raises questions.”

 

(Yes, for example what kind of crusader “Anders” would have been, had he not claimed to be of the Christian persuasion.)

 

“I react with disbelief at his interpretation of the Bible. My faith belongs in a different place.”

 

(You don’t say.)

 

“At the same time the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways.”

 

(So we are talking about “Anders” the Bible Scholar. I see. During his studies “Anders” has simply arrived at one of many possible interpretations of the Bible.)

 

According to the prison chaplain, criticism of religion is absolutely necessary. We must ask ourselves what it is in religion and ideology that can cause fanaticism.

 

“We must be clear about where the boundaries are and how we view the world.“

 

(Agreed. In order to avoid unfortunate misunderstandings, we really must stop leading people to believe that mass murder is a legitimate activity.)

 

(And racism a respectable stance.)

 

(They will listen to us.)

 

(Oh all these good people who classify and divide with their rigid roadmaps and anxieties – superstition, religion, racism, ideology… Oh all the beliefs in the world that are right and worthy of respect, with their assumed authority to band together in collectives that allow their Beliefs to ride at the front while shaping Knowledge in their image.) 

 

(Dear prison chaplain. “Anders.”

I was not concerned with what you have for breakfast, whether you say grace or not. I was not concerned with who either of you prayed to or who you chose to pick a bone with. Nor was I ever concerned that you walked different roads than I did. My concern was that when we got up in the morning and went about our day, nobody would come to harm.)

problems

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the promise
of them

I find the ocean is best

from the shore

the road

from my gate

the woods

from the terrace

the sky

from the deepest despair

the rain

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Here comes the rain. It falls on the sea and the rocks and the land. On the trees and the grass and the squirrels. Puddles – on the road, in the leaves. Everywhere is wet. The mud is wet, and the boots. The bed below the leak in the attic is wet, the wool blanket damp and smelly. So much water, never-ever-ending water in my buckets.

reality

the children imagined

so many crazy things

there were elves

tiptoe-dancing

in the bathroom at night

yellow roses

growing on the moon

reaching into space

and when would the giant

teddy bears outside the window

squeeze in and hug us

to their bosoms?

we liked living in that reality

I miss that reality

it was a nice reality

regret

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a rescue

We visit an island in our little dingy. We start the engine with a loose piece of rope. We swim in a bay, but a storm breaks out and we get rescued by a fishing boat. The dingy is towed back to the mainland. It bobs on the crazy waves. Holding on for dear life in the spray on the slippery fishy-smelly deck, now we see it, now we don’t.

right of way

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serial rule-breaker

I’ve done it again,

but no one says anything

they are so tactful here

 

but my heart

 

the heart is gone

 

they have taken my sky-blue heart

and will pass it to someone I don’t trust

 

someone will thread it

with their clouded cotton

 

someone will prick their fingers—

now, that’s a consolation

the sea

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boy with secrets

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You are wheeling the pushchair towards the toddler group in the sunbathing park. You walk under the willow trees by the brook. The branches pour down like rain. Your little boy shrieks a laugh, and the leafy curtain parts and lets him through. He turns his head and stares back into the shade among the trees. You push him out on the green. You spread out the red picnic rug in the bright summer warmth. The grass is dewy. You kiss him smack loudly on the cheek and lay him down carefully on the rug. He lies flat on his back, arms and legs stretched out, angel-style – shrieks joyously as a plane passes right over him. Did he see its dark blue tummy? You smile and point it out, sit down beside him, hug your skirt around your legs. We chat, mum-talk, have biscuits. The other kids run around, gather sticks, trip over. Your boy cannot walk, and will not walk. Not tomorrow, or ever, they say.

Homebound. He throws off his blue sunhat. You put it firmly back on his curls. You help his hand wave goodbye and walk back into the shade under the willow trees. The branches pour down like rain. Your beautiful boy laughs. You always say you know him as well as you can. He laughs at things we can’t see. We hear his laughter under the downpour of willows. May the branches always part and let his secrets through.

haiku one September

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sex
and the city

it happens I feel sad

for men

what’s up

with the portrayal

of women’s sexuality

as cute and cheerful, of no consequence?

not so much a dark

mysterious continent these days –

more a pretty city in bloom

pastel colors in the streets

where lipglossed females meet up

with supportive girlfriends, gossip

about wayward boyfriends, giggle

over a vibrator catalogue

women and sex is unthreatening

and fun – not for real

no need to blush

about the dildo in your drawer

it’s adorable!

 

but if they were men, the theme the same?

then no

 

no

 

we do not think men’s sexuality

is friendly and delightful

it is brusque

and sticky, all too real

as it clings to everything

wreaks havoc in the world

in its compulsive

quest for dominance and power

– a dark continent, indeed!

a man with sex toys

is not cute

or liberated

and the sex laughs that he shares with mates

come out chauvinist and cheerless

never charming

a man’s sexuality is not invited

to the gathering –

it has to scurry down the city’s

chilly streets alone

hands in trenchcoat pockets

 

being dismissed as a harmless giggler

according to this paradigm

works fine for me – as camouflage!

but it saddens me to think of men

who may be on their own tonight

behind a closed door

in the company perhaps of pictures

that should never have been taken

no meeting up

no day out with friends for you!

here’s your toy, you pervert

here your dodgy website, here

the world’s contempt

there you go on your disgusting

lonesome way

shadow

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showdown

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I talked us

into a bed of dewy pansies

into a gathering of apple trees

into a water garden, like Monet’s

but him – I couldn’t really hear

what he was saying

shy
guy

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view from a sickbed

the backs of chairs

silhouetted against the window

– gravestones in a foggy landscape

among their rigid shapes

dusky shadows floated

she could move her arms, but not her legs

buried, as they were

under heavy snow

sounds were far away

– spring birds?

nothing requiring her attention

the children’s faces emerged above her own

– flowers in a dream

floating, fleeting

soon gone

for her, a different journey

melting snow

she saw as much as she was strong

a sidestep

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I was tired of walking the streets—that laid-out pattern. Sleepy wanderings. Excitement only at crossroads. The evaluation of different ways ahead. Always ahead. You could never stop or go back.

Names of streets. Road conditions. Opportunities and risks to take into consideration. Which roads would be lined with fruit trees, which ones with thistles? Which roads would be crowded, which ones populated by robbers lying in wait for lone wanderers behind dense bushes or dark street corners? The hustle and bustle of advantages and disadvantages. To have to know so much.

After the excitement of choosing, I found myself keeping to the track, a similar paved road. Within the pattern, always. And then, by chance, I found myself by water. The sea.

To walk into that cool smoothness, swim on that vast patternless surface. No roads exist there. Who is to say if I am moving forwards or backwards, on or off the track? A new pattern must be created, negotiated with the evermoving embrace of water. Waves yield and let me pass, or toss me where I had not thought to go. A companionship, of sorts.

And when weariness comes over me: to stretch out on my back, trust that firm ocean to cradle me. To look straight up and observe the movement of clouds high above, how the sky never stays the same. To feel the water lick the sides of my face, hear the shrieking seabirds and not have to know their names. To just lie there with my hair floating around my head and enjoy my own presence at the edge of matters. Not make such a fuss about everything.

mid-life single

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It was obvious the cute pharmacist considered my ailments disgusting.

The handsome new assistant at the florist’s knew the names of all the flowers, then referred me to his cheerless colleague at the back.

And the guy in the fifth floor reception has never given me a second glance.

When I was a young promiscuous woman there was always a promiscuous man around.

These days they have all grown up, hooked up, made a home.

They don’t ask for much these days.

Mostly they ask to be left in peace.

back to Smalltown

We barely recognize each other, both back, as we are, with new paraphernalia. Bums and tummies. Toddlers. Dormant careers. We talk about the old class. Fat Ellen with her illfitting drawstring pants – tent-like. Cute Robert with his freckles – always causing trouble. Remember that cheeky smile when he got caught? And Carina with her flowery black-and-white tight skirt, always so mean, especially to Ellen. Lisa with her headaches and weird stories, Johnny with his sulking lower lip. Oh, it was good to leave. And what was the name of that blond boy, the one who was going to die? Always in and out of hospital, lost his hair. Did he actually die after we left or was he miraculously spun some other way? Is he still around – a successful banker, perhaps, with bonuses and a delightful family with children who sit quietly on their chairs at meals and never ever chase each other around with forks in their filthy hands.

through the smoke

In the department store I ran into an old schoolmate. One of my first loves actually. What was his name again? At eleven or twelve years old our passion was expressed mostly as various outings. One day we went into the city to a record store, and I bought my first album. Deep Purple’s Made in Japan. I remember endless hours playing cards on the bed to Smoke on the Water. Getting up again and again to move the arm back to the beginning of the track (the repeat function of the time). Did we ever touch? That I don’t remember. After all these years it seemed obvious that this coincidental meeting should lead to a longer conversation. In the top floor coffee shop we blew into the foam of our smoking cappuccinos, looking at each other, our hazy past.

on snowball fights

was it Clooney, Jackman

– some hunk actor

displaying his playful side

in front of the TV cameras

 

laughing and throwing

– fun in the snow with some kids

such a regular guy

 

at our school –

what joy when the snow fell!

the kids stared out of the window

forgetting

the spelling of weather

not even trying

to finish their sums

 

at the bell they ran out

into the yard

half-buttoned up

their long scarves trailing behind them

the laughs and projectiles echoed

between the school walls

 

inevitable

the blood and tears streaming down

one of the little angel faces

minutes later

the scramble

for the school nurse

snowscape,
Stockholm

From the top window of this tall office building, the city roofs are a vast frozen field, where a warm lively hare might suddenly appear and make its characteristic paw marks in the thick snow. The tranquility of up here makes the bustling beeps and city busyness down below unimaginable. Some men are clearing away the snow a few roofs away. They haven’t attached themselves to safety ropes. What a nerve. How easy for one to slip and fall headlong to the ice-hard pavement all those floors down. How easy to create a horror that will haunt hurrying passers-by as nightmares, alcoholism, panic attacks, divorce. Down at street level, people continue to stream past barely registering that the pavement is, at least, cordoned off.

so
you say…

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…you miss me

 

you are coming back

 

you are returning

to me, when I was

the only one, a pretty

enough loving wife

regarding your smelly

socks with humor

when I ironed your shirts

until you wouldn’t stop

saying how much

you loved me

when I called you

at work every day

to tell you something funny

the children did

or to make

some little joint

decision

you are returning to me

when I belonged

to a nuclear family

that I constantly

provided with sensible

clothing and multivitamins

when I was always full

of creative ideas

for enjoyable family

outings

 

how stupid of you not to love me then

someone
to look out for me

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it was a winter like this – frozen

we were young

I was fragile

you were inexperienced

I was complicated – so you said

you were afraid to hurt me

unsteady on our feet, with alco-lips, we kissed

and left the others in the kitchen’s smoky haze –

some of them entwined

in embraces even more

ill-advised than ours

the crackling speakers played Genesis and Yes

the floor was sticky with beer and kir

in the room we were uncertain

my heart was crushed by someone else

I was not right for you

nobody was right for me

we sat down on the bed

I cried for a short while

you held my hand and stared out of the window at the snow

it was confusing

the others stormed right in

you told them to get out

no – you yelled, to get THE HELL out

they left, I dropped

to my knees before you

but threw up over the floor

you ran for paper towels

then helped me to lie down

that’s all I remember

decades on, this past winter hurt me, bashed me hard

brought me to my knees

left me staring at the walls alone

in this abruptly silent house

I am fragile; it is complicated

this winter, like the fool I am

I remember you spreading a blanket over me

and cry again

the sorrow

this morning I woke up

in blissful happiness

we were in opposite corners

in some packed bar

making our way towards each other

through the crowd

my father was younger

smart in his blazer

and behind him

my smiling husband

also younger with dark hair

what an immense relief

to emerge from the bad times

see Father in such great shape

his health clearly restored!

when at last he reached me

he said he wanted

to make some changes to his memories

all was smiles and right in the world

I awoke to

but after a few minutes

an unbelievable sorrow

took possession of me

it lasted all day, each hour

heavier than the one before

my father frail and despondent

struggling to get around with his walker

my husband grey

and my appointment next Wednesday

still lurking at the hospital

our spoons
will not spoon…

…in that nice accommodative manner

they are supposed to

having arrived

from different sets, they resist

the harmony of a good fit

and every so often find themselves facing

each other

as if seeking to clear the air between them

– which makes them overflow

so they get stuck

and we can’t open or close the drawer

 

I think of you and me

in the early years

staring each other down

across the kitchen table

as we argued over the whats

wheres and whens

of our days

we arrived from different sets, and

heaven knows we needed

a good knock and squeeze

to fit together inside the space

we were building for ourselves

bruised and aching

we eased into our loving room

 

all these years of building –

still we face off face to face

instead of fitting snugly

one behind the other

facing the same way, in sync

never meeting

starstruck

A magazine interview with a young singer superstar. The thrilled reporter who landed this desirable gig cannot stop repeating what a regular person the singer is, not being superior at all. Not suggesting they meet up at some fancy place – instead inviting the reporter to her flat for tea and opening the door in her pyjamas! Such a low-key regular person, the reporter gushes. Please. You have to know you’ve been had. I mean, I love the songs, but who invites a new acquaintance into their home and greets them in their jammies?

her stiff upper lip

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I am so angry with you

for having broken

the gifts you promised

 

for having crushed

her nurturing hands

 

and I cannot forgive the way

you sanded down

the love from her face

 

with the coarsest paper

leaving just a hard thin mouth

 

you toughened her and numbed her

and now nobody will

touch her

the stolen
street

The curtains are always drawn.

I stay inside most of the time, observing the scarlet chintz roses, how the folds push each rose to dark foreground or bright background. I keep hearing unidentifiable noises, a distant rumbling from outside. It may or may not affect me. Thieves could roll up the whole street and run off with it without my noticing, and then when I open the front door it won’t look the same and I’ll be angry with myself because I haven’t kept an eye on things.

So where would they take a stolen street? Maybe to a scenic spot somewhere in the Mediterranean region – that would be nice. They could place it on some barren bits of land, plant palm trees along the sides and invite a hoard of excited tourists.

But what about here, where the street was before, how would it be? Not great, I suppose – messy, dusty, bumpy. It would be a wasteland, and sooner or later someone not from here would come along and feel called upon to create art out of our misery.

street performance

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suitor

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summerlazy

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one sunset

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a surprise

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all sweaty

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it’s most important for me to stay out of trouble

 

I have enormous respect for uniforms

 

under their gaze, I shake and tremble

ask myself what I’ve done wrong

 

pulling my bag under the Nothing to Declare sign

for example

I know my guilt must show

 

that red-faced breathless woman, they will think, those kids…

are they really truly in her company?

is her suitcase ticking, double-bottomed, full of chemicals?

has she swallowed plastic bags?

 

and if I were interrogated

I’d get arrested every time

– much of what I do lacks explanation

 

why iron the blue blouse when it was hardly creased at all?

how come your shoes are muddy?

why cross the street and then just cross right back again?

 

I couldn’t say

 

I may have dreamed of elegance

of running free in the rain, and then

there may have been a pretty pot

with yellow flowers in a window

and I liked to take a closer look

 

if I were called in

if I had to open all my bags

 

I’d stammer like staccato, blush…

but with a steady voice I will declare this any time:

 

the children

are

with me

a tactlessness

In a dream, French author Georges Perec finds himself sharing an apartment with a stranger. Georges has written a score and the stranger, a musician, offers to play it. Georges however suspects the stranger actually intends to steal it. The stranger then proceeds to introduce Georges to Adolf Hitler, who is a grotesque clown with pale skin and long hair. Georges believes the stranger introduces him by way of apology for his tactlessness in trying to steal the score. Introducing those we have wronged to a grotesque clown must surely be the way to redeem oneself.

teenagers

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he examined me

closely, fumbling fingers

picking through me

making me feel

like a flower

by Georgia O’Keefe

not that I knew

her paintings

in those days

but once I saw one

years later

I immediately recognized

the situation, that forensic

study

of an opening –

the one he missed, by the way

in his haste

making my flower

sort of a symbol

much like a painting

one he could not fully

appreciate

on initial

inspection

but which nevertheless

held some promise

an intriguing

je-ne-sais-quoi

quality, indicating

it may be worth

exploring further

for hidden meanings

and references

 

once he embarked

on further exploration

he took it on with gusto

though his findings seemed

a challenge, as his breathless handling

of the subject

– loving and attentive though it was –

turned out abrupt

and heavy-handed

less deflowering

more full deforestation

 

an enthusiastic

well-intentioned effort

– I conceded –

nonetheless

telephones!

It was the age when everybody was carrying telephones. We carried them out of the house to buses and trains, and to our cars, while doing our very best to keep them well and alive like some Tamagotchi. The telephones were constantly driven around, to offices, constructions sites, shops and homes. Mostly to buildings. They rode up and down the elevators. They slipped through the automatic doors. And we took them to the woods and the beach. They got to see the world – my goodness, we took them on vacation! We held them up to see art museums, historical sights and stunning landscapes. We carried the telephones while following map directions and playing music for them. Wherever you went you would see people carrying telephones. Even those we knew who didn’t particularly want to at first, now carried telephones. All of us wanted our telephone to stay well, so we were constantly fussing over it, trying to keep it healthy. We spoke into our telephones – when out for a walk or riding on the bus, for example – which made our communications sort of vertical. One time when our train broke down, we got stranded at a deserted rural station. Some of us had lived through similar events, from before the time when we carried telephones. Our communications had been more horizontal then: we would speak to our fellow passengers on the train, discuss what to do. Maybe find someone going in the same direction. Share a cab, make a friend. But in the age of carrying the telephones we all spoke into those instead, and made arrangements to get picked up, without exchanging a word with other passengers. It worked just as well, though it was said that something had got lost. But most of us did not worry about that. We continued to carry and care for our telephone, and it took care of us. That was the deal. But then it went and dumped us at the end of a road without a map. Where were we? Anyone’s guess. Where to go? Our telephone left us completely and utterly lost, and when we tried to speak into it, turned a deaf ear. It behaved like any inanimate toy, and we had to go exploring and devise a map ourselves in order to carry our telephone to safety and good health.

testosterone
coach

Sunday evening in early September. The coach from Athens to Nauplio is packed, the children and I surrounded by sweaty new conscripts with duffel bags on their way to training camp for the first time. So many very young men on a threshold. On the outskirts of a village after Corinth a young woman gets on. She has enormous curls. A scent of perfume and shampoo shoots through the coach. Everything is tight, sleeveless, strapless. Held young male breaths choke on the air. Longing. And contempt. They know they will never have her. And her smile… the cunning helplessness. Sure enough, one enviable young man is close enough to give up his seat. She beams at him in exaggerated gratitude, as though there were a real risk that she could have been left standing, and sits down. Shakes out her hair using both hands, long red nails. I take out a tissue and turn to wipe some banana mash from the lips of my youngest. I know that I – wife, mother, sexless – will never have bouncy curls like that, nails like that. I will never be breathlessly desired like that. I place the sticky tissue in my bag. As for this busload of young men, they can’t see the now seated young woman any more. Excitement over, they don’t give the standing young man a glance, but gaze lazily out the window.

wishful texting

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This morning I sent a text thanking someone for their help.

They immediately texted back, “You’re awesome!”

The thrill of receiving such words temporarily overshadowed the realization that this could not reasonably be the intended message.

When I looked closely, the message was “You’re welcome!”

Of course.

So how did I misread it so?

Is my eyesight going?

Or is it my sense of reality that is deteriorating?

Or shall we finally acknowledge that my emotional state is now such that I look for affirmation everywhere.

thinking
for ourselves

We grew up in an improvement era, when the world was still manageable by way of good will. All the people and actions on earth were causally connected, and solidarity would bring justice and equality. Between our parents, schoolteachers and children’s TV, we were encouraged to reflect on the lives of children in other parts of the planet, and take responsibility for our every action – in what way, for example, did our decision to not finish our dinner but instead push leftovers from our plate into the bin relate to a starving child carrying water for miles from a well in Africa? Our teachers, who always seemed to be furry – in long hair, unshaved armpits and legs, beards and thready home-knitted cardigans – would never raise their voices. Instead they would reason with us calmly, urging us to think deeply about the world. So we liked hamburgers – now what did that decision mean, and who in the capitalist system was benefiting from us eating hamburgers, who? We liked a glitzy pop song about teenage love – “Now let’s take a moment and consider what you just said and what it means for a hungry child in rural Ethiopia.” We learned about the environment and were taught about factories that manufactured unnecessary commercial products just to make money – “Now who benefits from spewing all that filth from their chimneys and polluting our nature? Think, children.” Our toys had to be understated, preferably made of unpainted wood and boring, to provide room for our own creativity. As long as our creativity did not involve pretty pink dresses or role-playing a traditional family with mother, father and kids – that was old-fashioned and reactionary. Reflected badly on our families. And with aggressive nations waging imperialistic wars, as reported in the news every day, any kind of toy weapon, of course, was anti-peace – a social problem. And yet, somehow most of us got our hands on unsuitable glittery tiaras, princess dresses, revolvers to play cowboys, cool Matchbox cars – guilty commercial pleasures. And don’t get me started on Barbie, with her shiny capitalistic hair, and her Ken, and the thrilling feeling of wrong-doing when dressing them in their impossibly tight clothes and spinning their unnatural arms and legs around in unnatural positions. But these were unofficial pleasures, kept strictly at home, with our parents and grandparents providing the desirable items for birthdays against their better judgement, and turning a resigned blind eye as we engaged in our politically incorrect activities. To school we would bring marbles, playing cards, skipping ropes and footballs. We were encouraged to shop second-hand – less commercial – which is how the whole class came to purchase cheap surplus US Army canvas bags to use as schoolbags that we, in our world-bettering frenzy, decorated with peace-signs and slogans like “USA out of Vietnam.” As the years went on we became more and more adept at devising and producing the kind of statement that would bring a satisfied smile to our teachers’ expectant faces, as they willed us to think for ourselves and arrive at the accurate answers.

this

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story of three, 1 and 2

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tipsy
in love

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I’m pretty sure I did

everything I should:

showered, brushed my hair, got dressed

had a piece of bread

fed the cats, boarded the bus

swiped into the office

typed the password

typed a letter

printed out

stood in line, bought lunch

made photocopies, and swiped out

cooked and tidied up

paid all the bills

rang up my mum

but now it’s claimed I failed

to do these things, at all

apparently my hair’s a mess, and

my boss besieged by angry clients

nobody has heard from me, and

bills and cats have clearly gone unfed

and now I’ve got the giggles too

I think this must all be

down to you, for you, you see

– your eyes, your hands, your voice, your smile –

you have some effect on me, you make me

wobbly, woozy, dizzy…

yes, you make me tipsy –

 

I blame you!

together
at last

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we have achieved what we wished

we have squeezed each other’s hands until our individual selves have dissipated

we have cast off the safety of our own ways

we have relished the coming together

discarding the old, building the new

 

and now we are arrived

we have dinner on the table and we can’t eat

the bed is made and we can’t sleep

the rent is paid and we don’t know how to live

tolerable

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psychologists agree

we should all learn

to love ourselves

in order to build

healthy relationships

with other people

 

after years of bloody battle

I have learned to find myself

tolerable, just about

what will that mean

for my relationships

with other people

other cultures?

what

for world peace?

top shelf story

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Summer holidays. A young girl is in the newsagent’s. She is twelve years old, about to spend her pocket money. She stands by the shelves that house playing cards and stamps. She is choosing among the packs of stamps. There are some from Romania showing the smiling helmeted faces of cosmonauts and astronauts. The men in space suits all look the same, but she knows the difference between the -nauts. She knows a great many things.

A teenage schoolboy has been hired to help in the shop over the summer. The boy stands a few feet from the girl, on a step-ladder, rearranging the magazines on the top shelf. How do they expect to sell magazines that are so hard to reach? The girl watches the older boy from down below. The magazines he is moving about have mostly yellow and black covers with some red. He holds one of the magazines for a while, not immediately putting it back on the shelf, then opens it. The page he is watching has a close-up of a woman’s profile. She is blond, the same as the girl. Her eye looks up under long, very thick black eyelashes. The lips are shaped into an “O”. They are clasped around… why would anybody want to do that, the girl wonders. Does she like it? At that moment the summer assistant turns around, the open magazine still in his hands. He looks down on the girl from his elevated position on the ladder. He turns away and closes the magazine, returns it to the top shelf. He knows what she has seen. She knows what he saw too. They know it is a secret.

in the traffic

those in the right lane

lent a megaphone

to Mr. Paranoid Extremist

because they wanted to instill a fear

of foreigners

in us

 

those in the left lane

lent a megaphone

to Mr. Paranoid Extremist

because they wanted to appear

as unprejudiced

truth tellers

 

different lanes, same spreading

of hateful voices

 

attention on the road!

on the tram

More often than not, when we boarded the tram after dark and entered the warm yellow illuminated micro-world inside, there he would be, seated in the far corner of the carriage – the man with the two large paper bags displaying the big department store logo. Alone, the seats around him avoided by every other passenger. Well, not completely alone – he had company in the tram window, kept greeting his reflection there, obviously thrilled at this chance encounter with a beloved friend. Laughing soundlessly he kept raising his hand, saluting the equally delighted man in the window. Stop after stop, salute after salute, until he got off and hurried away, one paper bag in each hand, staring at the ground, disappearing into the blackness beyond the reach of the tram lights. We wondered what he carried in those bags. What world was he in? Not once did we see him in daylight.

trope

Those of us growing up a few decades earlier than some other people around – how many films did we not watch in which the powerful man imposed himself on the reluctant spunky woman with the clever retorts… only for her to come around, disintegrate before us and eagerly embrace him and sigh: “Oh Edward”. Such were the rules of the game, supposedly. Being fed this trope was harmful to us all, and as a young woman it was not uncommon to find oneself in an unpleasant situation because of the groundless assumptions made by a man.

These days, thankfully, the mood has changed. Men’s assumptions are called into question and man after man is being held to account for unacceptable behavior. Including historical, many decades-old, offences, and this is where I occasionally waver in my commitment to the cause. Stories abound about unwelcome liberties taken by one creepy guy or another. Remembering similar, if not identical, incidents of the “you-know-you-want-to” variety all these years later, I find it difficult to now determine whether my personal experiences should be considered assaults by criminal perpetrators to be prosecuted, or simply a result of a past detrimental culture we were all a victim of. I caused frustration by not playing the game right, doing what I could, heart pounding in shock, to push the guy away – instead of happily collapsing in his arms and whispering his name. Thinking back, from his point of view that would have been the expected outcome. Hence the ensuing desperation.

It was all to do with a muddled view of a woman as a man’s rightful conquest, there for the picking. An interesting doubleness there: the guy considering me a) a desirable conquest, yet b) not worthy enough to consult on the matter.

After escaping the situation I would fret about it as if it were a private matter. Had I been too friendly, leaving my intentions open to misinterpretation? Was my skirt too short, my shirt transparent? Conditioned to feel responsible, and never one for the barricades, I moved on, while avoiding finding myself alone with him for ever more. And of course adjusting my behavior to minimize the risk of having similar frightening encounters again.

I’m thinking especially of you, G and P. I resent the trauma you both subjected me to on different occasions, but I will not come after you at this late point. We were young, and I like to think my reaction to your respective unwelcome forceful charms provided vital feedback. In the best of outcomes it helped change your assumptions and your ways, and helped you both become men of character and dignity, good partners and fathers. In the event you continued as predators, you are on your own, and I hope your later victims pursue you with all they have! Me, I choose to believe you taught your sons and daughters well, and it is they who are now leading the charge against the outdated trope of women secretly desiring to be conquered while playing hard to get. We are grown women – we’ll let you know. The world progresses, let’s progress. Let the kids roll their eyes at some scenes in older movies, keep us all in line.

trust

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our words fell hard

lay still

but where they had found

their way inside us

– where we had led them –

had become a crime scene

taped off

those words were lying

in wait

to be forensically analyzed

we – the guilty parties –

looked away, in the distance

trusted each other

to not cross

the tape and visit

there again

our survival depended on it

we are told the truth

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she should have been wearing a muzzle

some thought

words shot out like rusty nails

from her soft mouth

all around

her victims lay

as they had fallen

in ruins

while she moved on

on steady legs, leaving

a disheveled

world behind

convinced that the truth

was nothing to be afraid of

nothing

under umbrellas

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gosh, we say, and wow

smiling, staring, taking

each other in

both greyer now, and clearly

with long memories

 

but your wife is watching

and my husband

your two kids

my three

your black lab

 

we are enclosed

inside our spotless

politeness –

huddling safe and dry

under umbrellas

in an autumn sleet storm

barely noticing the hurrying

passers-by around us

 

the wet fat snowflakes

glide off

our umbrellas’ edges

as our unsaid words

melt helplessly down

around us

unforgivable

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We were renting kayaks on the beach. There were not enough for all of us, so Maria’s brother and I ended up sharing a single. Me with Maria’s brother. Wow. He took command in an uncontestable manner and sat in front and paddled us away from the shore. His technique was lacking, and I, the extra rider, was weighing us down – but he made up for it with raw power, and we sped away from the others. I offered to paddle, but he wouldn’t have that; he was going to show the other wimps, who did not want to go that far, that we could reach the little island further out – and I was a girl. We left the bay behind and continued in the direction of the island. I sat there behind him, watching his muscular arms and shoulders tense up and relax, noticing his ineffective rhythmless paddling – and, in truth, contemplating how close I was to him right then, and wondering what it would feel like to put my arms around his sweaty body. And what would happen if I did. After quite a while pondering possible developments, I turned around and looked back. There was a lot of sea. I could barely make out the part of the beach we had left from. I couldn’t see the other kayaks, and yet the island didn’t seem much closer. Then the kayak stopped responding.

He was paddling fiercely, getting nowhere. The current was transporting us further and further out towards the open sea, away from the bay behind us and the island ahead. It was alarming. We were not in charge. We seemed to move so fast, diagonally, and Maria’s brother kept yelling, “We’re drifting out to sea! We’re going to drown!” paddling frantically, mostly splashing. For all his power, he couldn’t seem to get us out of the current. I asked him to calm down. I shouted that he really had to calm down. “Give me the paddle,” I said, and this time he handed it over and moved up.

It was lonely out there, so far from anything at all. The hopelessness. All that indifferent sea to cover, all that water working against us. And us so small, on a piece of happy-go-lucky plastic. Was this it, on this sunny, glorious day? I tried to focus and paddle back towards the bay, as he sat hunched over in front of me. So heavy-going. I was a pretty experienced paddler, but with the extra rider and the current it felt as if we were going nowhere. “One stroke at a time,” I urged myself. “Be methodical.” My technique being better, or by luck, I managed to get us out of the current, and paddle back towards land. When we reached the calm waters inside the bay he turned around and held out his hand for the paddle. He took us back, and when we rejoined the others – who assumed that having been gone so long we had been to the island for sure – he explained that we couldn’t be bothered to go all the way there. “She didn’t want to,” he said, nodding towards me.

And I allowed it. I didn’t say a word.

From that day on, he didn’t want to go paddling again. It was boring, he said – he wasn’t in the mood – he had pulled a muscle in his shoulder. You name it. He wasn’t going out there. From that day on, he hated the sea. Though not nearly as much, it has to be said, as he hated me.

unmusical

His hand caught hers and pulled it up above his shoulder. The muscles on the outside of his hand were tense, squeezing hard. The other arm held her firmly around the waist. His legs stepped left-right left-right heavily, mechanically, not moving with the rhythm at all. Hilarious. He was holding her body steadily in place, against his own, but he could not hold her face, which turned to the side and looked down to the floor as he tried to kiss her on the lips. A frown between her eyebrows, a glance-around for a friend. Her body attempted to wriggle out of his grip, in vain. Again his face came close to hers, but hers turned away as before, as if those movements of heads, his forward and hers down to the side, were connected by a string. At tables around the dance floor people were shouting to each other to make themselves heard above the orchestra. They did not notice the dancing couple at all, and the singer on the podium, who was facing their way, had lyrics to sing and had to keep up with the band. I was dancing with somebody else, someone irrelevant – friendly rhythm, comfortable. I too, of all people, did not realize. I came, I saw, I giggled. I’m sorry.

the veranda
on the day of
Grandmother’s
funeral

it could have been a spring morning

with the low sun shining through

the crystal vase in the window

 

but it wasn’t, because the vase

was standing on the mahogany table

full of death flowers

the dense stalks impenetrable

to the grey November light

 

it could have been a day of cartwheels

and races on the lawn

or even badminton with Father

 

but it wasn’t, because a candle was lit

next to the flowers, and since there was nothing

to say, and it was time to go

one of us decided to spring into action

and blew out the candle

as a dog stopped barking outside

view

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violence


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violence
on the Riviera

How irresistible for a bored group of guys: two clearly lost blond teenage girls with tourist maps, no less, walking past their building, past the entrance with the wilted red geraniums in their rusty tins. Right there on their doorstep!

Taunted, beaten, robbed, pelted with stones, we explained our blood and bruises in tearful broken French to the gendarme.

Later at the station, astonishing to find one of the thugs already behind bars for setting fire to a car. Busy night. In a daze, we pointed out the perpetrator, then drew close together as he cursed and flashed his furious eyes.

Back home again, we played it down.

Beaten? It was just some slaps.

Robbed? Yes, but the part of town we strayed into was poor, and to be fair we did not have a lot for them to steal – watches, wallets – not much in there. That was it.

Stones? They were pebbles really.

The trouble with the incident being hardboiled, as it was, is we struggled to unboil it. We found our home and neighborhood, with our ordinary streets, unfamiliar now, menacing and ugly – made sure we never walked alone. And I missed my confirmation watch, the wallet photo of a boy I liked, my innocence of body.

But we had heard we could be forced into THERAPY – made to reflect and talk, turned into VICTIMS, SCARRED FOR LIFE!

For months we concealed our cuts and bruises underneath long sleeves, long pants, long smiles and make-up.

an unexpected visit

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the waltz

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Each night the waltz. The sleepy houses wonder what she is doing there, dancing alone across the street, then back again. Each night the waltz. She dances over the day’s littered waters, finding the rhythm that takes her from one shore to the other, then back again. Quiet in the quiet night, a fleeting shadow under the glare of the street lights. Cold light against the black sky. Frosty air against the face. Clean. Each night the waltz of cleanness. In the morning she will ignore them, should they ask why she dances at night. In the morning she will plunge into the waters again, to be saved at night by the supporting structure of rhythm. This is also a way, pending that new dawn surely to arrive – and then: day dancing!

war

mouth a straight

firm line, lipless

she was wearing

a flowery dress

the flowers broke loose

from the fabric, hovered

around her, as she observed me

dismissed me, sensing

that my future

has never been

yet another terror

that I have never stood

on one side of a border, with

photographs of loved ones

in my hands

 

impossible to get past that

busy flower pattern

to befriend her – unthinkable

she came from a place

I couldn’t have seen

from where I was standing

I blamed myself, and she never

breathed a word

about it

waving
but

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when we pulled out

in our overloaded car

after a few weeks summer visit

 

the last thing we saw

—also the last time—

before we turned the corner

 

was Grandmother

teary-eyed on the steps outside the house

—brown skirt, cream blouse

 

yellowed pearl necklace—

waving us off

in an eager away-motion

 

go, go, her hands said

as if all of a sudden

it were all too much, with us

 

and she couldn’t wait

couldn’t stand our presence

a minute longer

welcome

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You are welcome any time. It is not like some other places where you have to be a certain kind or talk a certain way to gain access. The space here expands the more of us we are, so there is room for everybody who wants it. You may have tried to enter other places and found the door heavy to push open, or even bolted. Here is not like that. We are open, and you are welcome here. The only thing we ask is that you are open too and make it safe for everyone.

wetness

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I love the sea

don’t care much for the size

or the deep of the sea

the cold of the sea

all that wetness

where

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let’s go

where should we go?

let’s go where the direction takes us

let’s ride on the smooth road of least resistance

let’s not force it so much

let’s visit the wind

the one in our back, the one in our hair

wishful

we wanted to reach a place

where our thoughts

and our longing

were dispersed in the wind

and spread over the towns and the cities

where they were met by another wind

who would whisper

about the existence of a place

where no human being got a grip on another’s collar

and convince us

too late?

that this was the way it was meant to be

 

meanwhile we were forced to listen

to the loud voices

the echoing arguments

rumbling all around

trampling one another

in their confined frenzy

 

only the wind

of many strands

and an eerie cry

from the landscape itself

would remind us

of no escape

but that

together

in the Connecticut woods

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wounded
angels

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In Hugo Simberg’s oil painting from 1903, the angel sits on a stretcher carried by two young boys. The white creature is holding on, bandaged head bent down, eyes closed. A bunch of snowdrops is being squeezed between her hand and the stretcher. There is a small gash in one of her wings. Beyond the scene: a bleak landscape, grey still water. The first boy looks ahead. Steady grip – it’s a difficult job. His clothes are a man’s: a dark suit, too big, a black hat. The other boy is taller, facing us: Can’t we see the angel is injured, can’t we see the suffering? The tall boy has outgrown his jacket. The short sleeves let the chill in. Two boys: one was provided with a man’s suit and hat; the other grew out of his clothes. I knew two other boys, in the sixties. Brothers, carrying a broken childhood around between them. I wonder if they ever did get it fixed. The family were refugees from Hungary. Everything and everybody had been left behind. And here were the boys in a random foreign town with their broken angel. They did not much care for my safe and loving upbringing, my doting grandparents. I must be punished, they decided, then pushed me into the stinging nettles.

you

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”young lady?”

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the gregarious conductor on the train

works his way down the aisle

with a friendly word for each passenger

– regulars, I understand

 

at me, the random rider

he punches my ticket

smiles and hands it back

“here you go, young lady,

change at South Norwalk”

 

as a mother of three

long grown and flown

I spend the rest of the ride

pondering his words, his face

his body-language

smile or smirk?

compliment or sarcasm?

a repudiation, on all our behalf

of age and its workings?

älska

to make love in Swedish

is to love

not as in love You

love Chocolate

or love That Beatles song

in the Swedish language

lovemaking requires

removal of the object

the object is irrelevant?

goes without saying?

took off without a word?!

but the rest of the clause

is present, barely noticing

the muffled party music

from the house

a subject: we

the lawn, the tree

the rush of nature all around

then mighty wings

are flapping on the lake

I may love You, you Me –

linguistically that is

beside the point

we love

that’s it

all

everything

 

We used to think our gate sang like a swing

Cat Bluegate

 

we used to think
our gate
sang like a swing

Copyright © 2020 by Cat Bluegate

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced without written permission from the author/photographer, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews.

 

bluegatereview.com

 

ISBN 978-1-7349704-0-1

Cat Bluegate

 

we used to think
our gate sang like a swing
as it swung open
and swung closed
on our days

*

stories, moments, fragments, notes, remarks

Much never turned out as expected in the Bluegate world. We did our best to keep life organized, but our (short)comings and goings turned out unplannable, haphazard, and we kept leaving our gate ajar, allowing all sorts of people, events and situations to slip through, changing our days, our moods, our ways – changing us. Our stories and moments were big and small, serious and silly, important, insignificant – everything contributed to who we became. It happened through our gate.

I accept it

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I was at home crying. Tears landing on the folded laundry. Even the tap was dripping. Then the doorbell rang. Everything stopped. Suddenly it was Beforeland in my mind – it might be you! But then I took a breath and was back Now again. I wasn’t going to open. What was the point? It wasn’t as if you could have been reassembled. It wasn’t as if – even if you were – you could have come to my front door or walked at all. And yet I went to look. I wanted to check out the contours of the figure out there beyond the glass. Just in case. The height was right. But the head… too round? Inconclusive. Flushed face. Held breath. I opened slightly, and sure enough. It wasn’t you.

accidental

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our teacher

fell asleep

the car

along with wife

and kids

crumpled up

in a ditch

on his return to school

colleagues greeted

him with arms

around his shoulders

and warm words

students glowed

with compassion

he taught us mathematics as before

equations, logarithms

x, he declared with a sweeping gesture

and y

though his eyes kept wandering

looking out the windows

far away

beyond the car park

and his voice

came out either

thunderous, or

in a whisper

as if, in between

there was nothing

actress

I know I’ve seen too many Hallmark movies when I see one of their trusty work horses – a young actress who has performed countless supporting roles as friend, sister, co-worker – in a new Christmas movie, and am genuinely excited for her that she got the lead!

two afternoons

one afternoon

we have a moment

which leads to a larger

MOMENT

and we end up leaving late

for the airport

somewhat disheveled

then the traffic

is horrendous

and we reach the gate

in a mad dash

to make our flight

it’s a packed flight

and we are not sitting

together

I have a window seat

next to a young

pretty woman

from Russia

I understand

who is also separated

from her travel companion

and is getting acquainted

with the flattered

young American man

in the aisle seat

chatting happily away

in loud Russian-accented English

she is drawing

disapproving glances

from sleepy passengers

it’s all about

having gone to the airport

far too early

because she and her friend

were afraid

to miss the flight

and wanted to be

in “god” time

but the ride to the airport was quick

and they ended up just waiting

around at the gate

she is endlessly fidgeting

touching her waist-long

blond hair

as she gesticulates

the strap of her tank-top

keeps sliding off

her shoulder

so she has to keep pushing it

back up again

(a carefully devised design flaw

no doubt)

such a long and boring

afternoon at the airport

she complains

to the beaming American

who makes some indistinguishable

sympathetic noises

I believe her boring hours

are over

I am idly listening

to their chatter

contemplating the idea

of “god time”

what such a concept

might involve

angels singing, harps?

furious thunder and lightning?

I smile out the window

with the memory

of my own afternoon

now who do you suppose

would be more likely

to almost miss the flight

because of wild sex

in the afternoon:

the middle-aged woman

in blouse and jacket

or the attractive busty blonde

in the loose-fitting tank top

and miniskirt?

most people, I imagine

would assume the younger woman

how wrong

would they be

ahoy?

drops

of grey rain

clamber down the windowpane

forming new paths

as they make up

their course as they go

our disoriented abode

steers slowly through November

noticed by no one

inside, we rummage

through drawers and wardrobes

each other

or look out the windows

into the dark

staring, staring

but dawn always arrives early

– before we win our night back

in the daytime

we go on walks

of discovery and laughter

with the kids waving

their red, green and yellow

buckets and spades!

all the same
(dream)

I am in some kind of educational situation. We are a group in a classroom waiting for our professor. Here he comes, walks straight up to me and hands over a pile of papers and a package. “Hold this for me,” he says, turns swiftly around and hurries out of the room. I look down at the brown paper-wrapped package and notice it’s addressed to Herbie Hancock. Wow. I turn to my fellow students, approach them one by one, point at the label, saying “Look, I get that it’s not THAT Herbie Hancock, but it’s pretty awesome all the same!“ Nobody seems to get it. Nobody knows who Herbie Hancock is, and when I try to explain, nobody is the least bit interested or thinks it’s remotely awesome.

global angst
for kids

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The TV brought those in need into our room, victims of the latest bombing, famine, floods.

The weeping man, the armless child—for them we dropped another coin into our special box.

“It doesn’t help!” the children cried, their hands touching the hard cold screen.

The injured, starving, traumatized kept streaming endlessly towards us.

I’d taught the kids to help and care for those who needed them, and if all that could be done was be there, to be there.

Sometimes, I’d assured them, an arm around somebody’s shoulder is enough.

But how to push their arms through?

They had to toughen up, stiffen their lips, forget.

Human casualties inhabited their home, globalized out of their reach.

One day a homeless man set up camp outside a local store.

We stiffened our lips, as had become our way, and hurried past without a word.

This man’s misfortune too seemed globalized, beyond our reach.

my appeal

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as a young woman I was mostly

appreciated for my shoulder

 

for guys to cry on

and ask why, and how

 

to win her back again

would flowers work, eau de parfum?

 

rarely were such ventures a success

the brunette was lost, but then a blonde

 

would smile and raise her glass across the bar

and another woman after her

 

I made attempts to be that girl – I held up

a glass of red, a G&T, a pint

 

but I always got greedy

seeking permanence:

 

too afraid to offer my heart

and risk the end of the companionship

 

I’d soon slip back, offer my shoulder

become the steady

 

woman at his side, helping him

move on – oh the guys

 

I gave away, and among them

I gave you

 

I gave you

arm

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suddenly

a heavy

arm

around her shoulders

it is her husband’s

arm

so she does not call

for help

although she wants to

call for help

army

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they are marching

to the music

everything has to be

straight

arms legs backs necks

weapons

in good order

as ordered

good soldiers in straight lines

march straight-backed straight on

oh the collapsible

symphony!

an arrival

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art

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Art lies somewhere between imagination and reality. It is both and, and neither nor. Imagination has no bounds, and reality A LOT. Hence the tension.

 

avocados

If you are a little lonely you can go to the grocery store and feel the avocados. There, strangers stand next to each other for a good while feeling one after the other. More often than not you will shake your heads and sigh together over the rock-hard or mushy fruits, exchange a few disappointed words, or even a recipe. Once, a man stood close and asked what plans I had for dinner. “Well nothing with avocado, that’s for sure!” I replied, and moved quickly to the carrots.

bassist

When I feel a little low I remind myself of something I found funny in the past. Here is one joke I first heard years ago. Who was it that came up with it? It goes something like this:

 

A musical instrument maker has developed a new design for a bass guitar they are to manufacture. It has six strings instead of four. Now I’m not a bassist – but that’s just too many.

beastly

It was always Carina teasing Ellen. Pretty Carina with her following of girly girls. “She thinks she’s better than us!” said Carina with a sneer. “Look how she acts so superior!” I couldn’t see what shy Ellen was doing that was so offensive, but I was new in the class, and no particular friend of hers, so stayed out of it. But then they started pushing and shoving, and the problem could not be ignored any more. Parents were informed. A psychologist was called in. The class was taught about this thing called bullying. Though this was not about pointing fingers, the psychologist assured us. Bullying was a complex matter. We must have sympathy not only for the bullied child, but for the bully too, who surely had problems of their own – a broken home, perhaps, a violent relative. Along with the bullied, bullies were unfortunate victims of the bullying situation. Anyone involved was a victim deserving our support.

The bullying was its own beast, we understood, a dark aggressive being that descended on our unsuspecting schoolyard, pouncing on our hopscotch and our marbles, tangling up our skipping ropes. Having thus caught our attention, it pointed with its shapeless arms, assigning roles to us hapless bystanders. One was picked to play the lead bully, one the bullied. Victims both.

The bullied child was often one seen as different somehow, so we were told, but there was nothing wrong with being different, nothing at all! “Be yourselves!” the teachers urged us, then proceeded to advise the unfortunate Ellen: “Try not to be so timid,” they said, in their helpfulness. “Stand up for yourself. Don’t act like you are unusual and special.”

For weeks the psychologist held class meetings and we had to talk about the PROBLEM OF BULLYING. It was boring. Afterwards we all ran out for break. I tried to sympathize with Carina as she pushed and kicked Ellen into a corner at the back of the building, assisted by her band of friends. I thought of Carina being a victim too, and considered how much support she needed from me. It’s the beast, I hesitated, we are powerless to stop it. But Carina didn’t need my support, by the looks of things. She had plenty. Now Ellen was on the ground, scratched and beaten. I ran for help. The teacher on duty, Mrs. Larsson, hurried there, and they all ran off. “You will die death,” one of them hissed at me in that peculiar turn of phrase, sending a sickening chill right through the sunny day.

“Poor Ellen, poor little dear,” said Mrs. Larsson and wrapped her arms around the stone-faced girl, while her tormentors stood sniggering among the trees. “Can’t you try?” she sighed. “If you could only be a little more like the others.”

beer

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From what I understand, having a beer can lead to such questionable activities as dancing and cavorting with wild women!

beyondward

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dusk, a shade of dark

 

you were in the other room

 

were you waiting for me to bring the tea?

 

I was standing at the window, looking out

 

the apartment blocks opposite

stood as shipwrecks around the green

 

black windows

ghost facades

 

as darkness fell

the identical buildings began

to light up

randomly

as if a new universe were being formed

all the lives in there!

having meals and sorting papers

some were shouting, some were touching

one was smiling at a mirror

in a kitchen a woman cried

over the sink

 

what made them all keep going?

 

my view restricted

by all there was to see

part of me flew

into the night beyond the buildings

where I knew a journey travelled

blindly on, unchained

I wanted you to come just then

I couldn’t move

 

when I was little

I froze

at the top of the slide

all the kids down below were shouting

twisted mouths I couldn’t hear

that time

somebody came up from behind

pushed me

into the angry

breathtaking

world

blood apple

my classmate runs

straight through a glass door

crushed glass, blood

all over the floor

a lot of blood

I throw up

get to wait in the office

 

Mother arrives

we drive to the beach

it is packed

families, bath towels

sandcastles, swimming

on an ordinary school day

 

Mother opens her bag, hands me

a large

very red

cold

apple

blood apple, blood apple

blue jeans

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boat
in the bay

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boo!

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bossy

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the bottom

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break

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Brixton,
Brick Lane, Soho

when I was a child

some kids at school

used to mix

sticks and gravel in

with the snow

 

their snowballs

exploded in our faces

like nail bombs

and melting snow and blood

streamed into our mouths

 

nothing

went unnoticed

in our school –

if it wasn’t glasses

it was a spotty nose

laughable accent

frizzy hair, or yes, why not

a perceived superior air

 

and if it wasn’t snowballs

it was shoving someone’s face

into the water fountain –

bleeding noses, teeth

 

always someone crying, always

 

the grownups promised we were all

warm and kind, given the chance

and we would all grow up and settle

into good ways, given time

 

but in London

April 1999

still we live in fear

of those at war

with fellow classmates

fellow human beings

fellow selves

the call

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People say I could have gone professional because of my love for football, but I believe that in life, each person has their call and vocation.

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camouflaged

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Do not direct attention at me. I do not stand up to scrutiny. I have achieved little. I have not trailblazed. I have not moved and shaked. I am a non-doer. A fader into the background, merger with my surroundings, melter into the wallpaper. A faint presence in the remotest corner of my times. What I am up to is anyone’s guess.

Annie get your cannon

Unbeknownst to most, she had played Space Invaders before. Low tech black and white – being the early eighties – with some primitive controls, on her brother’s home computer. Hours on end, shooting, shooting those cannons, blasting those aliens. One weekend, she travelled to the big city with a girlfriend. They went to the amusement park. At the arcade, two guys were playing Space Invaders. They invited the girls to join them: “Hold this, press here, have a go.” Fancy controls – being the arcade – and colorful displays. Easy! Shooting, shooting those cannons. “Hmm…” Her victory was obviously a fluke, said the young men – ah, those capricious cannons! They smiled in a manly manner, then let her play again. So much easier than at home! “Hmm…” And again. They couldn’t understand it. What are the odds? They said her luck was remarkable. A statistical anomaly. She kept blasting, blasting those aliens. The guys stared at each other. It was a freak thing. So LUCKY!

career woman

this morning I woke up

with a horrible taste

I felt inside my mouth

and found a pink

guest soap

in the shape of a seashell

I looked up

soap in hand as a question

and met the hard stare of

Husband

he was sitting in bed

a pile of cute

pink soaps –

seashells and flowers –

in front of him

 

he offered me one

on a spoon

take care, caretaker

older than her

but still a young man

he came about

the recurring problem

with the heating

knocking on the pipes

examining the radiators

except the last time

when the procedure

was somewhat

modified

as he knocked

on the pipes

examined

the radiators

kissed

her

slapped

her

burst out through her door

stumbled down the stairs

staggered into the office

gave his notice

 

on the third floor

the young woman

was unaware of that last

development

on the third floor

the young woman

was holding her burning cheek

deep breath

deep breath

 

years later

she has forgotten his face

many men’s faces

but remembers the tenderness and longing

in that kiss, being desired

like that

a carwash
story

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castle in the air

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cavalier

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Time doesn’t care

here it goes again

ravaging our lives

in its cavalier

manner

a clumsy indifferent partner

it doesn’t care

where it steps during the dance

what it crushes

a toe, an ant

a soul

Time –

a ruthless cavalier

death, cha cha cha

As Ally’s best friend and a singer, she thought of writing a new song – a worthy tribute, to be sung at the funeral. She set to work, but the somber mood would not arrive. Ally was meddling, looking over her shoulder, being a bad influence, as always, not sensible at all: the sadder the words, the more upbeat the tune came out. Lost her hair, la la la, deep despair, cha cha cha…

At the funeral, she held a quiet black speech, much the same dignified words as she had tried for the song. Bla bla. Worthy teaming up with wordy. She could sense Ally’s “Stop whining!” rising from the flowered white coffin. While she stood there staring at the floor, murmuring, Ally was hiding in that box, being bored to death – she remembered when they were little girls and Ally hid under the table avoiding helping with the dishes, while she herself stood next to it, trying to detract Mr. E’s attention. “No, I haven’t seen her, Mr. E, honest, maybe in the bathroom?” Mr. E not being fooled at all, of course, dragging the hiding giggler to her feet. “Up you get, Miss Lazy-Hands – to work!”

Now, black for Ally, tears for Ally, shrunken faces, the situation serious – Ally deceased and her family and friends gathered, accompanied as they entered by that horrible march by Chopin – desperate tones, are there no limits, who chose that caricature of grief? Composed by a sick mind, that one. And Ally will not be dragged out.

She held her hand in front of her mouth, as if about to clear her throat, but couldn’t stop the wailing giggles bubbling out. The mourning congregation found such despairing cheerfulness distasteful, wholly inappropriate. She stood chuckle-gulping next to the white coffin, while a monument of silence slowly built around her, separating her from the black-clad near and dear, even Mr. E, their heavy figures shifting in the pews, those neat orderly lines. Then the organist, a perceptive and sensitive family man, played the introduction to the next hymn.

a childhood

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there never was

a monster

– lacking much

imagination

I could not conceive of one

still it was hard

to fall asleep

what with the snakes

beneath my bed

and the furious voices thundering

outside the door

only if I lay very still

tucked in tightly

under the weighty woolen blankets

would the snakes stay hidden

lurking in their resting place

and not emerge as savage shadows and

engulf me

bring me down

would the voices stay

outside the door

would I be safe

 

curled up blind

in the blackness of my room

I held my breath, awaiting terrified

the slow, deliberate turn

of the squeaky door handle

as someone would walk in, turn on the light

and calmly, coldly make it all

– the voices and the snakes –

official, inescapable

his childhood home

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The building I grew up in was a sorry sight. The window next to the entrance was cracked. In the bushes behind the swings crumpled-up beer cans lay in a pool of sick. A few floors up a woman was yelling at someone, and a group of kids were kicking a football against the now-graffitied walls just by the windows, though surely, just like me and my buddies in our day, they must have been told a thousand times not to play right there. I remembered when our family first came, all those years ago. Glass and concrete. What modern architecture! said my dad. Such a well-designed layout! The newly built empty flats light and airy, the playground surrounded by picnic benches. And my mum said the flowering yard looked just like Kew Gardens! Us kids, we kicked our football around and didn’t find out we lived in a rubbish area until years later, thank goodness.

chopaganda

Worn out and slumped down on the couch I find an onion is being chopped on TV. Again. High state of entertainment. Wait for it… into the pot, drizzle and sizzle. So much to learn: rapeseed, olive, sesame, sunflower, or why not safflower oil. Red, green, orange or yellow peppers. Sea salt, rock salt, more or less salt. How to blanch, how to sauté. Answers!

Tomorrow I’ll invest in the finest cuts, in turmeric and fresh oregano. I shall cook for hours, make a big fat family meal. I shall have all the juicy cooking smells. I shall have a smiling family with sparkling eyes and glowing cheeks. Chop! I will not ask for job security. Chop! I will not demand world peace. Chop! I will not insist on clean-up of the oceans or measures for the homeless, poor, disabled. I shall chop my onion.

Years ago a singer came onstage. She was presented with an onion, knife and chopping board and asked to sing her current hit song. I would own millions, if only tears were gold, she sang, chopping away.

clichés

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I am trying to impose

my will

on my sick body

to have faith and engage

my fighting spirit

a positive outlook

as encouraged

will help me

beat this thing

and rise up

like some phoenix

all I have

are clichés

cliffhanger

To be aware you made it to the top by default – not having been the first choice, or even possessing the required qualifications. To know you are hanging on to the edge of a cliff and pin your hopes there, trusting you have something to offer that somehow matches what is desired. To annoy your surroundings by choosing to live on that edge, always unsure of your grip, always fearful of the precipice. You can while away your years there, hanging on to the clifftop, legs dangling in mid-air, noticing the roughness of the rocks beneath you, feeling your fingers turn into frantic claws. You were not the first choice. You are not qualified. And all around patches of long yellow grass reach upwards as prayers towards the merciless afternoon sun.

terms of cold

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icy air across the face

halting the breathing for a moment

the snow

blocking and concealing any road

one might consider taking

a frosty leaf

hanging

sword of Damocles-like

from a despondent branch

there is only room for this:

the shoveling

and this:

the listening

frozen lakes

snowy fields and forests

the padded silence that they are

hold a seashell to your ear

– hear the sea

alone in a white forest

– hear yourself

the terms

of snow and ice

how they claim the space

between before and after

the earth must start again

young snowdrops

the gift of structure

forced upon the life

 

to go back there!

to wrestle down that resistance!

colleagues
in cold

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the conditions
we live under

a packed carriage in rush hour

sweat and squeeze, and now

ringing

a man elbows me as he fumbles

in his pocket, pulls out his phone

“Hi, I’m on the tube

I may lose you at any time.”

I think about the meaning of his words

I think how they are true

contract

at the kitchen table they talk

about Kevin next door

how he met the new girl

at a bar

a possibly natural blonde

willing

apparently

to be his wife

and now

it’s best man

stagnight

wedding gifts

and his son’s furtive glances at her legs

“would you be tempted too?”

she asks across the cooling coffee mugs

“you know

no stretchmarks…”

“and go through all this again?”

he laughs

males a gesture encircling her

and himself

lights another Marlboro

“forget it”

“I hope,” she smiles

“it won’t come to that

you know:

fifty-seven

ponytail and beerbelly

flash car stereo

young girlfriend”

he blows the smoke

out through the open window

“everyone would laugh at you,” she adds

“now that really puts me off”

he says, while she can see

in the corner of his eye

he too is watching

Kevin and his girl

park outside

walk giggling up the path to his front door

close together as if guarding a secret

bouncy steps

and hand in hand

the commitment
conundrum

sometimes I think

it’s too hard work

with you, too much stress

too many silent

questions

about your whereabouts

when you are not

with me

it would be easier

I think on such occasions

if I took off to be on my own

if I were just with myself

someone I trust and can rely on

but then I think

with nobody to answer to

I would get lazy

come home from work and eat

out of containers

allow the dust to gather in corners

the grime build up in the bathroom

skip shower and toothbrush

declare there was nobody here

anyway

even though I myself

would be!

I would let the house go, myself go

and sooner or later

I would find myself

insufferable too, and be forced

to leave, and go

my separate ways

crispbread, the conversation killer

I am at a party, sitting down to dinner. Make conversation with the man beside me – how do we know the hosts, what do we do, where do we live. Our casual chat turns animated as we discover a shared childhood memory. As expats we both had the experience of a rare treat: those desirable round paper packets with crispbread, acquired by our parents from some Swedish ship visiting a nearby port. In my case in Greece, in his further afield in Argentina. We laugh at the memory of brushing off the ants inside the packet before digging in. How could we consider crispbread such a delicacy?! We finish the appetizer, join a discussion with other people around us for a while. And here comes the main course. We turn again towards each other. But the conversation has stalled. We struggle to find engaging topics. Animated no more. We try to latch on to what worked before. “Those ants, those ants,” we smile. We shake our heads. “That was CRAZY.” As dessert arrives we have resigned ourselves to the limitations of our conversation. We both turn away and talk with the people seated on the other side of us. Occasionally our eyes meet again. “That crispbread…” “I know, right?!” Getting up from the dinner table we nod to each other, silently acknowledging that we have nothing more to offer one another. We found ourselves in a relationship made up of crispbread crawling with ants. There was no reason to linger.

blow my cover?

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arts and cracks

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

– Leonard Cohen

 

In my youth I was a jigsaw piece of gel. I could fit in just about anywhere. Even where I looked a right fool. But the years have made me stiff and brittle. At each attempt I now make to squeeze into a new shape, among new acquaintances and expectations, I crack within, as if made up of biscuits inside a squashed packet. I curse those crumbly cracks. Who knows what they are for? Their only function, as far as I can see, is to keep me on the sidelines, in life-loneliness. But now and then, these days, a break: there will emerge a sudden sigh, a distant rumbling, or a rustle… and a string of words leak out uninvited from a crack. Or a shade, a tone, a dance step – one I’ve never known before. “Let’s try it on,” I’ll tell myself. And oooooh…!

crash

the wounded moose

disappeared

into the woods

the crumpled-up car

lay on its side

blue-blinking lights

swarmed the scene

methodically searching

shifting, removing –

to the forest

another pack

of predators

crowding around

their bleeding prey

to secure

the meatiest bites

crispbread

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They say we must think our childhood to bits in order to understand ourselves. In Athens, Greece, in the sixties, now and then a ship would come in, carrying Swedish foods. Excited expats as we were, we got knäckebröd, with Father transporting it from the port of Piraeus as if it were a prize, offering it to the family on outstretched arms. We could only have some if we’d been good. Open up the paper wrapping – and there it was, inhabited by hundreds of ants. We brushed them away, enjoyed. Learned to embrace what was there, even in the presence of what was also there.

the crutches
made me do it!

my mother is concerned

I have become dependent

on a man

my father used to drive her

in his white Cortina, to restaurants

and cinemas, providing flowers

meals and tickets, until she realized

how male-chauvinist that was

and enrolled in a computer course

as mother, woman, role model

she proudly worked to give me rights

she had not easily obtained

I, of course, am wasting

all my education, and daily require

more transportation than my mother ever did

I also appreciate my husband’s other little treats

such as a roof over my head

food on the table, and the occasional

comedy video

that can be brought to the house and watched

without me having to move

from the couch

unable to rely on my legs

I have rendered an unsuspecting man

sexist

dandelion clock

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we are blowing

the wind

of the world

 

puff

 

what time to we make it?

 

the hands

of our questions

are grasping

at the flying

seeds

the dark

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NOT afraid of it. NOT afraid.

darling!

In the Swedish film Darling the upper class young adults are extraordinarily heartless and self-centered. After watching it I have an impulse to look up the director. I want to pat him on the shoulder, let him know I think his film is excellent, the acting superb, but the portrayal of the characters is surely a bit over the top, isn’t it, dear. A bit of artistic license there, right? Like giving the villain a huge scar across the face as well as a hook for a hand, in the days such features were deemed suspicious, to make sure we would not miss his villainous villain-ness.

But then there was that woman at work. I was nineteen. She was a couple of years older. She was part of the posh set and used to go wherever those places were in central Stockholm, where their kind went to be seen and admired. Though rather blasé at work, she spared no effort when it came to designer shopping and night clubs.

One Monday morning she trotted into the office, slumped down on her chair, sighed heavily and declared that the weekend had been difficult. It was all because of this friend, she said. He had been injured in a fight a few months earlier and was now paralyzed in a wheelchair. It was infuriating: he believed he could still get special treatment from the bouncers and sneak past the lines outside the clubs with his friends, as before. But that’s not how it works! she said. You need to be discreet. And how be inconspicuous in a wheelchair?! she asked me. It ruins it for all of us!

Not having previously been confronted with such a dilemma, and anyway being routinely directed to the end of any line, I was hardly an authority on the matter. I was unable to come up with the right thing to say, or anything at all really. In any case, it was such a bother now, with this guy and the wheelchair, so she and her friends did not want to bring him along anymore when they went out.

safe before dawn

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mercy of night

the black car

smooth driving

the cat curled up

asleep beside me

warm ball of yarn

I see you up ahead

in a star

falling –

not yet fallen

wish

drive

all night duty

all night blindness

but the light…

the horrible dawn light

must bleed

into the world

deaf
ears

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death

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I think that when we die we will go to a place that looks like Richmond Park, except that the ponds will have joined together and formed a winding black and murky river to keep the park apart and safe from the living. Our death park will be idyllic, full of jumping deer and naked people, who will skip about while raising their arms in the air and chanting joyously. We won’t stand it. But the gates will be bolted so that no one can leave, or enter Death by mistake. Legends will be told about a few who hid in Charon’s boat and sneaked back to Life while dead newcomers were being admitted through the gates, though none of us will know anybody who managed such a feat. There will be a flower plantation where we will go to remember and honor our living. When Charon is not busy collecting newcomers from the other side, he will take us on daytrips on the river. If we are naughty and try to lean over and look for our missing reflection in the water, he will hit us over the ear with his oar. He must guard us closely so that we don’t fall into the river deep and drown. That would be terrible.

there is no dent
in my day

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I stepped out into the cloudless world outside the hospital, and immediately froze. There was a dent in the side of my car. No note on the windscreen. As I approached, the dent disappeared. It was the reflection of an innocent tree trunk. The car door was a distorting blue mirror, teasing me.

I saw leafless winter branches in that mirror, except that they were swaying palm trees, and the formidable hospital building was a luxury hotel by the sea. Passing cars were limousines, and I observed the reflected movements of hospital staff coming to work – eager-to-please waiters, I decided, fetching drinks. One by one they were devoured by the revolving doors, and in the end I was alone in that metallic blue scene, waiting for blue drinks to be served.

a departure

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The holidays are over. There is tremendous family activity – loading the car and general hugging. Dashes through the sleet. Wet luggage. Wet faces, frosty drops on wool coats. Driving away, waving. See you next time. Turning around, looking through the fogged up back window. A memory: an elderly man on the steps. A different house in snow, decades ago. Wheeltracks.

detach

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But how were we to know that my thoughts would detach and abandon us.

gone to Devon

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suddenly you

here in London, everywhere

unexpected and unasked

so welcome, and no mercy

 

your voice, your hands, your shirt, your gaze

 

your face was in the sheets I changed, the dishes

my bath (especially the bath), the window panes

 

the children’s eyes

 

I found your smile under the couch, when I

knelt down to reach an empty yoghurt carton

 

whatever it was doing there

 

the weight of you within my walls

 

I knew next week when you are back

from where you go to find

those things that are not us

must be like last week:

 

casual, I urged myself

easy, the way you like it

 

but it wasn’t any good

 

the thought of you, undressing, touching you…

 

I was a taut and trembling string

trapped inside a breath of lead

 

and I really wished you hadn’t gone

to Devon

in the diner

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a dip
in the pool

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Every day we somehow lower ourselves into the pool, assisted by our physiotherapists. Some of us have handed over our crutches. Others are more visibly reduced, having left essential body parts behind. Mostly legs, though everybody has at least one. High above, our physios stroll alongside their patients while instructing, encouraging, scolding. Stretch! Lift! Bend – if limbs are present, if what’s left is long enough.

We splash about as best we can. We’re not doing so well – helpless guilty giggles skip between us. In the wide world, outside the hospital, we inhabit different corners. Peter can’t come next time – he’s going on the moose hunt – but retired Alice will never miss a session – it’s the highlight of her week. For now, weakness of muscle, and the weighty water teasing, warm. Session over, we are helped out of the pool. Push, lift, pull.

We retrieve our crutches and our limbs. We equip ourselves to face the day. The warehouse, the office, the grandchildren. The moose hunt. They are all waiting.

at the disco
in the seventies
in Stockholm

we had quite a few

to choose among

but we preferred

Angie

 

there was Big Brother, of course

with the hardworking DJ Sydney

always laughing

spreading that hip and joyful

atmosphere

how he loved the records

loved shaking his maracas

and we loved him back

though the music was too loud to talk

 

Bobadilla was too big

Domino too rowdy –

the age limit was just 16, and it showed

Phonograph

with all-black décor

a stone’s throw from Angie

was too cool –

people in black went there

to look cool

and dance cool, with their cool

bored-looking friends

 

then there was the place

I forget its name

located on a top floor

which could open up the roof

so we would dance

under the stars

 

we avoided our suburban

Bromside

mostly frequented, as it was

by beercan-waving

fifteen-year-old boys

who more often than not

found themselves caught up in fights

or throwing up over the stairs

Bromside kept the ever-present social workers

occupied

 

no, we liked Angie –

not the hippest place, but

warm and friendly

at Angie you got asked to dance

and the music was not played too loud

 

we met new people there

had conversations

 

but at school

when the cool and cliquey students heard

we went to Angie –

ooh, the face they made:

isn’t that place full of immigrants?

they inquired

in a suspicious tone

for this was at a time

when mixed couples were

frowned upon in certain circles –

a self-respecting Swedish girl

should not be seen

as one forced to resort

to guys from Finland, Turkey, Greece

or Yugoslavia

 

so you dance with immigrants

our schoolmates said, and forgive us

we did keep our Angie visits

quiet after that

– though we considered the perception

of the clientele

both irrelevant and off the mark

 

the disapproving students were the same

that in more formal circumstances

such as class discussions

showed off with eloquence

their enlightened and unprejudiced

view of the world, saying

of us native Swedes

how dutiful, how serious

how inhibited and wooden we all were

bottling up our personalities and feelings

and how grateful we should be

for everything the immigrants

contributed to our society

with their joie-de-vivre

eager gesturing and love of family

and their willingness

to work so hard

in our factories

and all those pizzerias –

not to speak, they added

of their catchy music, and

flavorful spices and foods

that enriched

our own bland cuisine

 

in fact the freshest spices

– these native Swedes happened to know –

were to be found in market stalls

run by immigrants – ah, how much they had

to teach us!

 

though a disappointment, clearly

at the discothèque

those delightful people

nonetheless enlivened

our dark and frosty North

with their colorful traditions

 

such vitality, our schoolmates insisted

such richness

a disconnect

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we thought we’d stay young for longer

but now we’re old

we thought we’d keep each other warm forever

but now we’re cold

dishwash

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dolls

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We are playing in the park. I have picked some thick dark green leaves from a shrub and torn them, and try to draw with the damp edges on a smooth stone. A woman approaches. She smiles warmly and wonders if I like dolls. This I cannot deny. She holds out her hand and says to come with her and she will show me the wonderful dolls she has in her car. “Come, come!” She has a kind pretty face with very red lips, and curly blond hair. Where is my brother?

doublesplash

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milk dress

C:\\Users\\Catharina\\Pictures\\Bluegatereview\\Gate\\IMG_8374.JPG

 

A multi-achieving biochemist fashion designer from Hannover, Germany, has, in a bout of professional efficiency, developed a fabric that is soft and easy on the skin, out of milk protein no less! Have I wasted my life? If I had applied myself, could I have been her – with that knowledge and imagination? As things stand, I lack inclination as well as education: neither successful nor a biochemist, neither multi-achieving nor a designer. Neither is she me, and she does not, therefore, proudly run her hand over the shiny smooth material of her elegant red creation on the table, and rhyme thus:

 

they thought

it was

a dress

of silk

but

I made

it out

of milk!

generational drift

when I was young

the purpose of being a child

was to grow up

in a responsible manner

into a responsible

adult

 

even as teenagers

we were expected

to dress appropriately

and our parents

made it clear that drugs

and smoking

were out of the question

along with wacky art courses

and Hare Krishna

 

find yourself?

no no no –

go forth and become

something sensible, such as

accountant, nurse

or school teacher

here is the application form

rock band?

never heard such nonsense –

finish your steak!

 

the cooler of us rebelled

travelled the world

in hippie gear

though most of that lot too returned

became accountants

nurses, teachers

 

our children, on the other hand

we encouraged

to try it all:

the art, the travel, the torn jeans

drinking (though we asked for moderation)

– even playing in a band!

 

certainly, if that is what you want

sweetie

try it by all means

see what you think

 

and did they become

the gracious, generous

free spirits we had hoped?

 

as we took up our late revolt

in middle age – indulging

our inner desires

wearing tight leather vests and jeans

high heels and push-up bras

flirting at the office –

our own kids turned on us

 

furious and disgusted

they put out our cigarettes

accused us of murder

when we put steak on the table

demanded we serve tofu

dye our hair

back to discreet

stop dancing

to the Black Eyed Peas

and singing

especially

to stop the dancing –

that really

got to them

easy on the drink

they admonished us

 

and no more lusty glances

at the neighbors!

 

so here we are, a small

gathering of greying parents

huddling together

smoking, boozing

out here in the cold

taking care that neither

the kids nor Grandma

catch us

 

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we were fine as long as the tap was dripping

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the plumber gone

the tap quieted

 

no more ominous dripping

accompanying our days

like a ticking alarm clock

that never rings

never awakens

no more gathering

around that enemy

 

but months of irritation

had to go somewhere

now freed, it sneaked

out of the kitchen, hesitated

in the dusky hall

 

and then moved on

feeling every wall

sniffing every corner on its way

catching up with us

in living room and bedrooms

 

ambushing us from behind, until

an invisible draught

had spread it

to every floor

 

making the house

a menacing colossus

the home

of ceramic dolls

who never unfixed

their expression

but lived in endless

fear of cracking

at their next

encounter

dusk
and waiting for you

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dustpan

in the Paris back street

after getting lost

boots wet and aching feet

streetmap soaked –

we turned it up and down and around

and tried to understand

the speedtalking man

who pointed down the hill

with the dripping dustpan

full of snow

dwell

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to stand on a street corner and watch

a house through the falling snow

to feel at home there, as if

the white cover has obliterated

time and concealed the gap

between once and today, made them one

and the same

to stand in the silent snowfall

in front of a house

yearning for someone who once

dwelled in it

our dying
bird

I held our love

gently in my hands

believing what we had

scruffy as it was

worth saving

like as a little girl I held

a dying sparrow in the park

fearing it may be too late

taking care not to hurt it

I let it rest there

in the cradle of my fingers

blew softly in

among the feathers

to see if it could be made

to stir, look up

eavesdropper

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effects

all that lack of money

and all the lack that cannot now be tackled

by money

 

all that missing money

and all the missing that cannot now be lessened

by money

 

all that loss of money

 

all the loss that cannot be assessed

in money

an escape

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that day

she finally decided

to escape the interior

domestic space

and head for the world

the atmosphere was electric

“GO ON! JOIN THE CIRCUS!

WE’RE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU!”

the rest of us cheered her on

waving from our front steps

the felled

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the trees were aching

with screams

their displaced bodies

pining

for the woods

how to reach their kin?

they strained, ununderstanding

they did not yet know

the impossibility

the irreversibility that had afflicted them

at the hands of the woodcutters –

those who would call them

lumber

a feminist
approach

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tree filigree

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finale

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She stood by the window, pencil and sketchpad in hand. He sat at the piano, where the sunlight leaned in through the window and fell on his left shoulder, arm and leg. The light did not touch her. It stretched from left to right just in front of her, like the light from a torch—everything not caught in its brightness barely visible. As he played, she drew him from behind. His contours came out vague against the black piano, the sharpness of its edges. The tones bounced up and glided down, wings spread out, making grains of dust dance in the sunlit air. Then he got stuck on a chord. Again, she thought. He kept playing it out of tune in the same way, using the same wrong notes each time, as if his chord was a law of nature and Mozart had made a mistake. She studied her sketch. She had drawn him very small, allowing the blackness of the piano to almost swallow him. She filled in his body with sweeping strokes to make his presence more alive. The sunlight licked his side, like flames not quite managing to start a fire. Most of him still lingered in the dark room with her. He played the false chord once again. She failed to get the shading right. Non-arrivals. Familiar non-arrivals, comfortable. This was before the marriage, the kids, the terrible silence.

fish dish

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For the reunion party I made fish from a recipe I picked up at the grocery store. It involved tarragon, lemon and cream, and lay on the counter in its flat existence as culinary possibility. What I cooked usually turned into an anonymous overcooked mush, so on this occasion I stirred the pot anxiously, splash on the recipe card.

“You are a real gourmet chef when it comes to cooking fish!” said Eva’s husband, waving his fork elegantly. He mentioned that he had a real treat at a seafood restaurant recently that reminded him of the old recipe for salmon in mustard sauce that I used to make, in the early days when Eva and he were dating, but not as good. “Do you still make that dish sometimes?”

Salmon?

Mustard sauce?

“Hey,” I later said to Eva, who was chatting with some other middle-aged previous classmates. “Eva, I think your husband must have mistaken me for some other friend of yours, one who cooks delicious fish.” “Oh well,” said Eva, smiled warmly and said it was good to see that I had lost weight and had been working out.

“Lost weight?” I said.

Working out?

Who was the chubby doppelgänger who cooked salmon in an unforgettable mustard sauce, who made such an impression on people with her doings in her own life that she took a role in mine?

when we were fishing

Rosemary taught

my boys to fish

in the light

summer evenings

we gathered on the dock

 

with her long greying hair

streaming in the breeze

she baited the hook for the boys

belly-laughed and called them squeamish

when they balked at reaching down

into her yellow bucket

and picking up the squiggly worms

 

the fish they caught

one or two, no more

were too small for dinner

and were placed in a grocery bag

and given to the neighbors

for their cat

 

year after year, this was

our summer ritual, until

one July when Rosemary

did not show up

she stayed sometimes in hospital

sometimes at home

nursing a tumor that in treatment

multiplied into a dozen

inside her stomach

 

the boys were puzzled

by her absence

when was Rosemary to come

down to the dock again

with her yellow bucket?

what were these tumors –

were they like evil fish

swimming around inside her belly?

 

we let them think that –

it seemed an explanation

 

one evening Rosemary came down

to see, she said, the glorious sunset

she had no hair, could barely stand

but tried to smile, and then she did

not come again

 

we did not fish

after that

under the flightpath
(my ill friend)

this glorious day

shades of blue and green

the calm of clear weather, but also

the regular overhead rumble

of plane after plane

on its way to land

at the airport a few miles away

beneath the skylight, each plane

becomes imposing, shading

her face where she sits, the eternal

crossword on the kitchen table

spread out in front of her

 

although she should lie down and rest

she persists in sitting

stubborn woman

she likes to sit there

beneath the skylight

to be hit by the shine from each day

this is how it has become now

how she craves exposure

in spite of it all

placing letter after solitary letter

in the squares

 

and the planes keep passing

between us and the sun

they cast their shadows on her face

one after the other

as she slowly solves

the puzzle

flock

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my boss brought me flowers

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he said I had not made

one single mistake

 

he was impressed

with my professional skills

 

he said I possessed

an organized mind

 

how fast I worked

and how smoothly!

 

he said how pleased he was

to have employed me

 

I had to stay for always –

he could not manage without me

 

he said I was attractive too

in an unobvious sort of way

 

he tried to keep me

in my place

thank you for the flowers

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The flowers you sent have tired of watching me.

Their rosy faces have lost their glow. They are offended by not being spoken to, and the lack of fresh water annoys them. They have got fed up with watching me dab my swollen eyes with your shirt, and blow my scarlet nose, then spreading crumpled-up tissues all over the floor. They have got bored with me writing our names on the wall, then crossing them out, after trying in vain to erase them. The flowers have bent down their necks and look sympathetically gloomy, as if forgetting that a short while ago they stood tall and amused, secretly smirking.

forbidden

last night I dreamt

somebody touched me

who – even in the dream –

should not

woke up with a giddy smile

this morning, and did not

tell you

you know him well

and, I imagine

would not want that image

in your head

but in my head, all day

the pleasure of his

warm firm hands and lips

on me, that longing

was lingering, spinning

me slowly, undressing me

it was just chaos in there

I remembered when you

caused the same sweet

devastation, years ago –

did you wonder earlier

this evening – I drew you closer

I know he too

would not betray you

but how can I not blush

next time we see him

(and his wife), how make

coherent conversation

while remembering his face

when he was with me

the forest

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As a child I feared the forest. I was terrified it would reach out and grab me with its long gnarled arms, and gobble me up. Then we grow up, don’t we, read some books, write a few paragraphs, assemble our IKEA dressers – realize it is we who devoured the forest.

forever

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forget-me-nots

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the forget-me-nots

are giving us a lot

of sweatwork

the way they keep spreading

their perky prettiness

taking over the flowerbeds

making sure, for sure

that they will never be

forgotten

thank you, your fortress

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fragrant merry welcome

spotless hostess

in a sequined

European statement

trailing on the floor

 

its waves!

its billowing waves!

 

meet, said she, this handsome Mr—

delighted, I’m sure, said he

here the buffet, she went on

here the wines, and now if you’ll excuse…

arm in arm they sailed

 

dead dishes

on white tablecloths

closed groups of gesticulating men

in smooth and shiny suits

velveted women

porcelain backs turned

 

ice walls

 

those slippery ice walls

 

that, and the absence of gear—

of ladders, ropes and axes

framed
girl

I’m watching the dance show. The school auditorium is packed with proud parents. I arrived late. I have to stand in a small crowd outside the open back doors. I crane to see. I have known these girls since they were toddlers. At nine, they dance provocatively, pop video style, though in little-girls’ dresses. These are my daughter’s friends, and nothing is as easy as their dance moves. Marie’s mother is having her second breast removed. Will she make it? Who knows. Lisa’s out-of-control big brother thought he could fly out of his bedroom window last month, fractured pretty much everything. Ella’s dad went off with some woman he met at work. Who could have known, when they were little, that things would turn out so broken. But right now, here’s Marie’s solo. I watch her from a distance through the brown door-frame, straining to see over the bobbing parent heads in the audience. The dancing girl swirls surefooted around the stage in her baby-pink dress, ponytail swinging. Solo over, the scene seems to freeze within the frame as she faces the applause with a little curtsey. It could have been a charming painting on a gallery wall. Degas. The despair hits me as I watch. I want to scream. Doesn’t she know her mother is dying and there’s no point to her dance? But of course she knows. The steps are the point. Learning them, perfecting them, performing them. The beaming girl looks to me carefree, as is her birthright, and I see her as the idea of childhood itself, one of Plato’s eternal forms – not some shadow temporarily at play on a cave-wall, awaiting who knows what fate.

framing

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free

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As a boy he was happiest lying for hours in tall grass where he could watch the house between the straws, from a distance. The knowledge that the house was there, but not the need to be part of it. His own peace. His own master. Nobody to say whether he was a protector keeping an eye out, a predator stalking his prey, a harmless dreamer… The grass tickled or itched, but he never went inside the house.

As a man he hurried up the gravel path. It was being strangled by weeds. He half-ran right up to the house, tried the door, looked in through the windows. All the rooms had the curtains drawn, except one. And it was empty.

waiting for bone marrow
with friends

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Helen says the specialist she saw this morning had long greying sideburns that blew around his face like unbuckled furry ear flaps when he explained the latest results – which he did in a surprisingly animated manner considering there was no change and no donor has been found yet. Those sideburns made him look somewhat like an impostor, and she had an impulse to grab them and pull hard. Alas she didn’t, and now we won’t know. But we have a good laugh at the prospect that they could have come right off in her hands!

Helen says her husband cancelled their Tenerife vacation. The scoundrel! She could have had some fun! She might have gone to the airport with a set of chef’s knives or a dainty wrench hid in her carry-on. She would have been caught in the screening, grabbed her tools and warned people to stay away. Would have been arrested – seen that other side. Mrs. Helen – in security – with the wrench… We have a good laugh at the thought of her – the accomplished one – turning to crime.

Helen says her son’s friends, five years old, asked why she wants to look like a bald man. She told them ah, because her head is such an attractive shape, she wants to show it off! Lisa agrees the shape of her head is something to write home about for sure. Helen, beautiful Helen, runs her fingers lightly down her head, studies the bony lines of her skull in the mirror in the hall. Poses like a model. “Show-off,” Lisa mutters. And we start laughing.

And we keep giggling, drawing out the moment. We can’t stop. We double over. We are teenagers again, in stitches. We are having a blast, and Helen says our days were never this hilarious when there were more of them remaining. But Lisa and I disagree. Oh how we laugh and disagree.

his funeral

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the funeral was quite

a cheery affair

 

arriving at the church

we ran into

family and friends in black

some of whom we had not seen

in the longest time

– and it was good to see them

we fell into each other’s arms

with helpless sobs and smiles

in cordial reunion

 

it was sad, of course

during the service

with the hymns and music

and the readings he himself had chosen

and walking past him

saying our goodbyes

 

but after it was over

chatting

over cake and coffee

– how lovely to catch up

on news about career success

new boyfriends and new grandkids

and hear gossip

about distant cousins

and old friends who moved away

 

griefstricken we all enjoyed

a splendid day together

and at the end

we hugged again

promising to see

each other soon

just like he would have

wanted

a gap

long, late afternoon shadows

I was there, and you

both young, walking

I don’t remember where

a grey-haired woman cycled

round the bend, into the sunlight

she was pulling a white dog

on a lead – it struggled

to keep up beside her

on its fluttering mini-legs

a young boy in school uniform

walked leisurely on the cracked

pavement, face crunched up

in a squint against the low sun

the bus, its huge shape darkening

the street, drove past the request stop

the convenience store lay in shadow

a bearded man outside the store

lighted a cigarette

 

nothing happened just then, between

one moment and the next

I don’t know why

I should remember it so clearly

we must have said or done something

just before or after, I imagine

something that somehow changed us

am I over-thinking this?

possibly, prone as I am

– indisputable, though

us walking there

the presence of the people

in the street, their position

in relation to each other and the store

how shadows fell

the gaze

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those times

when you are together

and they gaze at you

and go away

even though they are right there

you never know

where it is they go

you know you cannot reach there

and you keep speaking

more words, faster

to fill the void

they left behind

gigantic

I was a piece of sea

in a gigantic jigsaw puzzle

I tried myself everywhere, but

nowhere was the right fit

so big the sea

maybe if I asked others to place me?

maybe if I changed my color,

my shape, everything I am?

glow

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make her go away

in a poem by Bruno K. Öijer, the poet

rang up his childhood and spoke

with his seven-year-old self

he told him he missed him

tried to get

the conversation going

but nothing

he said or explained

would keep the impatient young boy

engaged, or stop him

from pulling away

 

I have the opposite

situation

my seven-year-old self will not leave

me alone, refuses

to let go

visits me at home, at work

when out with friends

in her nasal

moaning voice

she constantly insists

I “could do better”

reminds me of the times

I should have been

stronger, fiercer, truer

more informed

she knows my whole life –

I should live, she says

with more panache…

she does say panache, I wonder

where she picked that up

and she mentions all the days

I left unused

when I should have found out more

stood up and said something

dug a little deeper

pushed through, displayed

my sharper elbows, been

a better friend

 

you are a poo, she says

(she is just seven)

pointing out all these

my failures

 

I have been hiding out

playing it easy, lying low

all I have accomplished

is poo

and nothing I say or explain

will appease the young girl

or make her go

away

we go on

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remember that winter?

 

minus twenty-six and whiteness

the earth hard

 

wrapped into chubby parcels

we scuttled

 

over the unforgiving icy surface

into the snow-padded home

we had built for ourselves

 

we mostly stayed trapped there

feeling the frozen world gain on us

 

it seeped in through the walls, occupying

room after room, thinning out our words

 

the fear of freezing pipes

 

but we huddled together, didn’t we

kept the kitchen tap running

 

a steady thin stream just above zero

a good
day

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I go to pick up Daughter. Today she looks happy to see me and does not cry. I carry her Bambi backpack over my shoulder. It swings back and forth as we walk home hand in hand in the sun. We don’t see the neighborhood teenagers, so we take the shortcut across the field. “Kitty, kitty!” She starts running, but the cat gives her a disdainful look and takes off. It’s warm, at last, and no rain. She tells me about the drawing she made today, of Miss Eva with long purple hair. Miss Eva put it up on the wall. I tell her we’re having meatballs for dinner, yum. She lets go of my hand and skips ahead towards the slope at the far end of the field. She rolls down it and ends up at its foot, covered in grass. She stays there, on her back, arms and legs spread out, waiting for me, giggling.

good fortune

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in a restaurant on a beach

you could once see this man

asleep after a good meal

and maybe some good beers

what good fortune

to be lounging

under an umbrella on that beach

sipping an ice coffee

hearing the waves roll in

the children laugh and splash

to be watching that man

enjoy his peaceful nap

gravitational

you are in the maternity ward

you have spent countless hours nursing, then pacing up and down the corridor pushing the baby to peace

now the creature – who wondrously slid out of you and has been noisily announcing his arrival ever since – is asleep at last

you tiptoe into the shower with your sore and sticky leaking nipples and sour milky smell

the water streams down your body hot and comforting, but suddenly you wobble: what was that?

a rush of urgency; you snatch the towel from the peg, open the bathroom door and step dripping towards the baby

but he is still asleep, the new teddy from Grandma watching over him

so you breathe again, step back into the bathroom, dry yourself down properly

but then once more you think you hear him, and the walls appear unsteady

are you unwell? you ask yourself

did you lose a lot of blood? you speculate

– incorrectly, unaware of what your body knows already

you have never given birth before and do not yet know the consequence:

from the moment he is born, in a blink he is moving on

where will he go, will he be safe?

your center of gravity has shifted, relocated, been displaced, has forever passed outside you, to a point between your baby and yourself

here you will always stand alone, unsure, unsteady

– as alone as you are beginning to feel right now, in the maternity ward, realizing this

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the great unknown

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grief

I was trying to write

about death, my mother

being dead

attempt after attempt

but all I got down on paper

was the word Mother

over and over again

Mother

Mother

horrible hairdresser’s

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A man dreamt he was a scandalized politician. He went to a trendy hairdresser’s, where the customers sat in the black high-backed chairs, and stared in amazement into mirrors taller than French windows, as their hair was being pulled hard, away from the head, left and right, up and down. Their skin stretched with the hurting hair in all directions – eyes and faces distorted, grotesque – to the scraping metallic sound of scissors. He was led through heaps of fallen hair to one of those chairs, sat down and glanced at the mirror. The next thing he knew, his hair was being assessed and deemed to be dandruffy, greasy, licey, and generally poorly maintained. But I shampooed it this morning! he cried, while all the staff gathered round, waiting in line to not miss this revolting specimen. Embarrassed fellow customers laughed in disgust and relief. Their hair had passed without comment, although surely some must have used that same shampoo – such a popular brand. The whole time, he was trying so hard to be heard. He used his deep serious voice, begging to have his straight hair curled, his curls straightened, whatever. But no one would touch his hair.

half-seen

What happened in that film, on TV years ago? A weeknight – I abandoned it and went to bed. It may have been James Stewart. He is an aircraft engineer travelling on a plane. He has just worked it all out, new revolutionary calculations: a plane will break apart after a certain number of hours in the air. Soon, soon—it’s about to happen on this particular flight! But of course no one will listen. Not the pilot, a smug idiot—the script must have killed him off later on as punishment. Not anyone. Fools, the lot of them. But there’s a young pretty air stewardess who seems quite spunky… So how did James Stewart prove his point? Was there a crash? Some obligatory casualties to join the punished pilot—disposable goody-goody characters, so decent and kind-hearted it would be horribly unfair that they should die? There are always noble-minded geniuses who know the appalling state of things. They claim their victims. In real life, of course, people are never disposable.

handbag

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In her old age, Aunt Nina lived in an uncertain world, which often left her exasperated and confused with its persistent maliciousness. She became suspicious of people she had known for decades – convinced the butcher was ripping her off, giving her cheap cuts at the premium price. Not to speak of the postman, who was clearly intercepting her mail so that she never received the letters from her son in America. (Who was, in fact, no longer living.) After she had left and gone home one evening, we found her brown handbag on a chair in the family room. The next morning we rang to say she had forgotten it in our house. She hurried over to pick it up. We were mistaken. She had not forgotten it OF COURSE – rather she had left it behind on purpose, because she was sure she would see us today again, and there was not much point lugging it back and forth, was there?

Hatman

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headache

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hearsay

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not a happy hen

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There is a hen in our guest bathroom. It is not our hen. Somebody gave her to us for safe keeping over the weekend. We don’t know why. When we open a crack in the door and take a peek she sits on the lid of the closed toilet. She cackles in protest. The stench is unbearable. By Monday morning there is hen poop all over the toilet and the floor.

Hereford (her grief)

Oh Anna – who now to keep me on the straight and narrow, to remind me of what’s worth preserving from each day, and what’s just empty nonsense to discard? Who now to stretch me, make me look outside, and have a hearty laugh at my obsessions? Who to cheer me on? Your funeral day so grey, with all those gloomy people that I didn’t know, coming down from Manchester and London. I prefer remembering you last year in your new house, the old forge across the road from the large field. Your cozy low ceilings with beams, and Angus’s excited barking. It had rained relentlessly that whole cold spring, but the day I got on the train to travel to your new town, the sun was out. I got a window seat and marveled at the blue sky outside. At Slough a large group of boisterous young women got on. One of the girls was particularly exuberant; she was positively glowing, and her joyful voice reverberated through the carriage: “I don’t belieeeve it – the sun is out, just in time for our reunion!!!” I couldn’t help but smile at them all. I love this climate where no conditions are assured, where any event can be washed away in minutes. There is a special kind of happiness available to people prepared for stormy weddings with woolly jumpers and umbrellas, soaked ceremonies and muddy picnics. I sat there, all smiles in my seat, passing the sunny English countryside. Green and pleasant indeed. I arrived, walked through the station building out into the street, and there you were, leaning against your car and waving in the sun, and me still smiling from the train. Big warm hug. I noticed you seemed thinner in my arms. In your new home we talked and giggled, laughed out loud with food in our mouths, and had rather too much of the Drambuie you found in the cupboard. And we kept chatting, having not seen each other for months, interrupting each other with all we had to say. So much to fit in of news and memories: our kids doing so well at university, my move, your move, your politics – the seat you lost in the elections, some scandal in the party, some criticized new policies – you set me straight on a few issues there. When I wasn’t teasing you about spoiling Angus, I reminded you of that time when you, very ill-advisably, shook my son’s hand for being a fellow smoker among the ever-dwindling numbers. And then we remembered years ago, when I got suddenly unwell at a restaurant, and you led me to your car and drove me to that idiot doctor (my “pal Archie,” whose fault it all was), and the next time I suggested we go to lunch you were all “I don’t know, dear – is it safe?!” You talked about your new area, your new church, and your new doctor, another patronizing medical professional, who had suggested that you cultivate happy thoughts and refrain from wallowing, thank you very much. At which you had informed the man that in the last few years you had lost your husband, lost your mother, lost your job, and lost your home and had to move away – that shut him up. And then we went out to have a look at the cows in the field. The sun was still out, our shadows long, and the cows turned towards us with those ridiculous yellow tags in their ears, and I – daughter of a mother from a long line of farmers – I said “Oh look what they have done to those dignified animals!” And you, no-nonsense as ever, set me straight again, saying “Well, better than branding them with a scorching hot iron, don’t you think?” I know, I know. I am sitting on the train this cold and overcast February afternoon, having left you buried, with just a bright orange gerbera for goodbye, and I almost get off the train again before departure, knowing part of me is left behind. As we pull away I know that this place, the sunny and the grey, where I only ever came in order to see you, will always live inside of me. Mostly I linger in that day last year. When we went back inside after the cows – now where was that half-empty bottle of Drambuie? Angus was barking, we cooked dinner together, and the sun was still out. All day I couldn’t stop smiling.

hotel

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A worthwhile hobby is to hang out in the snobby lobby of some exclusive hotel. How to behave in such an elegant locale? As if you belong there.

in the hospital

in the dream

our farewell

in the pale room

was one of a thousand film scenes

at a railway station

in black and white –

the hard platform floor

the clattering comings and goings

the decisive clangs of closing doors

the anonymous workers:

nurses, doctors

stationmasters –

same efficiency

same finality

and then the staring

the unbearable staring

between the abandoned figure

on the platform

and the departing stone face

behind the rainy window

the difference of course being

there was no glass between us

no rain

and now you were not staring

not looking back at me at all

anymore

I lifted your hands into mine

then put them back

in truth it was nothing

like a station

or a departing train

the camera turned away its gaze

the floor was soft

like the real farewell

I sank right through it

nobody came or went

and the door, by now –

firmly shut

morning in the hospital café

the shrunken grey man weeps at the next table, into his steel wool overcoat

the ponytailed young man approaches, wipes his hands on the white apron

he should have ordered at the counter, he informs, that’s the way it works

he should have stood in line – what would he like?

the old man shakes his head, looks down in silence

the young man steps back behind the counter, soon returns

puts down a smoking cup and muffin, nods at the old man, touches his shoulder

“on me,” he says, picks up

some dirty dishes from another table

puts them on his tray, wipes down the table

waves to a smiling girl outside the window

hospital scene

the doctor’s coat

unbuttoned

floated

down the corridor

sleeves flapping –

a death-butterfly

later, it chased

a stampede of frail

patients

armed with nets

our shared humanity

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We were not to notice differences. Class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality – irrelevant. We were only supposed to see our shared humanity. But we struggled with the effort of not categorizing. We were not, for example, satisfied with the general treeness of trees, the animalness of animals, the countryness of countries – even the nowness of now. We looked for differences and made assumptions about what kind it was we were looking at.

If only we were blind to our differences, we lamented. Then there would be peace in the world. How much better if all human beings came in some neutral guise, regardless of their place in the world – in black and white patterns, for example: striped, checked, spotted… And so it was decided. But then we became obsessed with the stripes vs checks vs spots, not to speak of the width of the stripes, the size of the checks and spots. We were a perceptive bunch.

the hurt
of the day

the sheets rustle

as you come to bed

I feign sleep

as to not hear

your difficult day

your difficult life

how it makes you suffer!

I don’t want your loving

needy hands

fumbling in the nooks and crannies

of my body

those hands full of hurt

transferring

the wrongs done

unto you

into me

we are separate beings

we hurt

the ones we love

interchangeable

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We always made it fair between the twins. One got a fire station lego set, the other a police station. One got a blue car, the other a red one. They were given things that were not the same, but that we considered interchangeable as having equal desirability and value. We were mistaken. As the boys grew up and had families of their own, one of them held us to account for always having given his brother the finer things when they were children. Shame on us, he said. Such flagrant favoritism. Unforgivable. He would never treat his own kids so unfairly!

orange vinyl jeans

My new hair color is fantastic! Makes my face astonishingly pale, instead of just, well, you know, glowless. Though it’s hardly possible, these days, to get things right… “A mum should look mature and pleasant,” protested my reluctant hairdresser, childless with extensive knowledge of the world.

The other day I put on too much Miss Dior and make-up, and my new too cool vinyl jeans. Babysitter hired, I almost went to the pub. I was planning to mix with adult creatures. I was hoping to get blissfully drunk. I looked like a middle-aged divorcee trying to look hipper than her years. I looked terrific! But the kids were sobbing in the hall, running eyes and noses. Angel Falls. Overdressed and overguilty, I realized what it was that I should do: pop down to Blockbuster, bring home a Disney video. Send the sitter on her way, so the three of us could cuddle up on the couch with some popcorn, get some laughs.

his father’s jeep

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once there was something here

just in front of the house

the jeep

wheeltracks in the snow –

they have been snowed over

ketchup

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color: blood

the children smear it on the skin to scare Mummy.

oh dear! she has to say

my goodness! and

good heavens!

the bottles have personalities of their own

glass: nothing, then nothing

then everything at once

squeezable plastic: in order to avoid

watery puddles, soggy chips

and sulking kids

shake bottle upside down before opening

the squeezable ones make farts

the children love farts

my days have become populated

by fake blood

burps and farts

how did it happen?

I used to be an efficient

and valued

employee

kingdom
of light

Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” 

― Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor

 

1

The good passport expired, I was admitted to the pain clinic. It was like staggering through a tunnel and stepping through a gateway into sublime light, after a long struggle in a dark and hostile land where nothing – nothing! – kept showing up on the X-rays.

2

”Ask for one of these,” said the grinning man with the girdle support around his back and electrodes on his skin. He regulated the pulse rate on the device clipped to his belt. “Gets one through the day.”

3

Dear old Susan called illness the night-side of life, but all I saw was light. Women, men, young and old. The patients were all open arms and smiles, with crutches like my own, walkers, wheelchairs and the slow laborious movements that I had known for years now. Faulty, all of us! Nobody asked what was wrong with me, where I came from or was going. All that counted was I had come home where I belonged: here, we were all enclosed in bodies that turned out to have been sloppily packed – as if the journey came on suddenly and there was no time for proper preparation. Here, we were surrounded by unconditional support and understanding. No longer was I accused of defeatist thinking, or not trying hard enough with acupuncture, physical therapy and garlic. Nobody implied that I enjoyed the perks of being ill (the disabled badge, the sick-pay, the surrender) and therefore secretly resisted healing. Here, my fellow patients supposed that I would venture back to work eventually – like they occasionally did – only to keep returning – like they did – to this warm welcoming family with aches and swellings and all smiles. Arms around my shoulders, they shared experiences with medications, physiotherapies, and electronic gadgets. They had tried it all, to no avail.

4

In our enchanted land made up of walking aids, well-meaning advice and medication, we lived in peace and manufactured objects therapeutically, out of yarn and wood. I made a footstool. I breathed easy here among my friends, where illness was our king with subjects happy and contented in their pain.

5

But then… I couldn’t anymore. I loved them dearly. I was grateful for their caring kingdom, so unlike the cold inhospitable world I came from. I wished them well. But no. Their night was light. The light in there was blinding, and I was unarrived, still searching – something for me out there in the dark.

6

So no. Here is my passport renewal application. Open the gates, please. Let me out into the darkness. Look at you all with your prescriptions, wristbands and demented, smiling faces.

funeral with a kiss

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the wide-smiling conductor on the train

handed me my ticket with one hand

with the other, a Hershey’s Kiss

“Here you are, and here’s a kiss for you

Happy Valentine’s Day!”

then moved on to other passengers

spreading his kisses cheer

 

all through the ceremony and burial

I kept touching that kiss in my pocket

making sure it was still there

a reminder of an equally existing

reality

I – in black, in pain, in mourning –

I thank you, sir

you made my day a little lighter

the most valuable gift

that we can ask of any fellow

human being –

and I am grateful

kite
story

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The square basks in the sun. Silvery traffic circles around it like a school of sharks. At the far end a man is running after a flyaway kite. The red kite, on its way to join the grey sky, is transformed into different shapes by the capricious wind. Bird, plane, rocket… crumpled-up paper. The daughter can’t keep up with her father. She slumps down on the ground in tears. The kite is lost. Nobody can reach it now. But the father’s eyes are fixed on the end of the string, as it dances its disordered tango in the unsettled air high above the trees that line the square. He is running towards the chance of a sudden drop in the wind, a freak gust that will change the kite’s direction, bring it down. A good parent, he is trying to make sure he will be close enough to save the day. In case the opportunity presents itself. But no. It is not to be. It is the sorrow of parenthood. For all our love and experience, we are powerless to spare our children.

thousand mothers’ lament

DEAR DARLING CHILDREN, STOP FIGHTING IMMEDIATELY. LISTEN UP. WE WANT TO ANNOUNCE THAT YOUR SWEET MUMS ARE MAKING DINNERS, WHICH MEANS THAT YOU’LL ALL GET TO FILL YOUR LITTLE TUMMIES ANOTHER DAY. SEE, WE’VE GOT SAUSAGES AND SPAGHETTI IN THE PANS, A REAL TREAT. JUST A MINUTE… THOSE WERE YOUR DADS ON THE PHONES, THEY WON’T BE HOME FOR THEIR DINNERS TONIGHT EITHER. THEY’RE DOING EXTREMELY NECESSARY THINGS AT OFFICES AND RESTAURANTS. MEANWHILE WE’LL BE DOING EXTREMELY NECESSARY THINGS IN KITCHENS AND BATHROOMS, HAVING A NICE QUIET NIGHT, JUST THE THOUSANDS OF US. WHAT’S THAT, CHILDREN, CAN YOU FEEL THAT SMELL…? LOOK! IT’S THE SAUSAGES, THEY’RE ALL BURNT BLACK. WHAT A FASCINATING TRANSFORMATION, THEY LOOK LIKE CHARCOAL! WERE THOSE THE DOORBELLS… SORRY WE TOOK SO LONG, ALL THE SALESMEN WERE SO HANDSOME, OR MAYBE THEY HAD OTHER QUALITIES, LIKE BEING GROWN-UP AND PRESENT. AND LOOK! WE MANAGED TO BOIL THE SPAGHETTI FOR AN HOUR. HERE YOU ARE THEN, CHILDREN, FASCINATING BLACK SAUSAGES AND MUSHY SPAGHETTI. OH, WE FORGOT TO TAKE THE TOMATOES OUT OF THE FRIDGE AGAIN. THEY’LL BE ICE COLD AND TASTELESS AS USUAL. SO, WHAT DO YOU SAY? ARE YOUR MEALS EDIBLE OR CAN WE MAKE THEM WORSE IN ANY WAY? STOP THAT! WHY ARE YOU CRYING? IT WAS A JOKE! HAVEN’T WE COOKED YOU NOURISHING MEALS? AREN’T WE WEARING OUR MOTHERLY APRONS?

laundry

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lemonade

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physics lesson

in the lab we worked in pairs

taking turns at first, until it was

obvious to us both that I – clumsy-fingered

and despairing over wilful metal bits and wires

should read out instructions from the book

Annette was the hands on one

 

fiddling as if with a metal puzzle

she twisted, twirled and moved around

transforming minuses and pluses into magic

making circuits close and bulbs light up

yet not ever taking in, or even caring

what made such miracles occur

 

I, finger firmly on the page, knew exactly

I wrote it down in detail

accurate accounts of how the science worked

although I knew full well that I myself

would have failed to make it do so every time

we always got good marks!

 

I spent my physics lessons knowing – she hers doing

we worked in pairs, we had to

 

I wonder what she did in life

with all that fearless doing

 

for my part, I keep latching on to others,

pairing up

our letters

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it never was the greatest

foundation for a budding

new relationship

you here, me there

our infrequent meetings

too eager, too expectant

with too many silent questions

our long-distance

correspondence

more loving, unreserved

than our hungry

guarded kisses

 

walking past, last week

our favorite café

I thought of you, of us

at the time we must have asked too much

as we were not to stay together

 

but what of our heartfelt letters?

 

I remembered all those written words we shared

all those years ago

what if they encountered one another

on their way to you and me

what if they broke loose

from the paper they were written on

snuggled up to one another

lived their lives together

after you and I had parted

and even to this day, perhaps

manage what young you and I

never quite did –

a love, a conversation

LHR

some people have just the one bag

they shoot purposefully across the floor

like hovercraft

others are like this

little balding man

with the elderly couple

and two teenagers in tow

(parents? daughters?)

sweat-stained shirt

sticking to his back

he is pushing a cart

with suitcases piled high

above his shiny head

the load too heavy to steer

he moves erratically

around the crowded terminal

now here, now there

in an amusing pattern

led by the weight

of the family’s

belongings

certain suitcases on top

refuse to rest

keep falling off

demanding to be dealt with

like distressing memories

forehead dripping

he piles them up each time they fall

as one comes down

the umpteenth time

I think

– opti-theist that I am –

if there are gods

I’m sure they are all great

and clearly, on this day

of labor conflict, stranded passengers

endless queues, rebookings

they are in their most

mischievous mood

taking the time

to joke around

with one of their small

creations

it can’t be helped:

as I watch, from this unruly

neverending queue

the sweaty little man

swerving with his heavy load

of suitcases and relatives

this trying day at Heathrow Airport

– I have to laugh

London

In those days I was always travelling on the tube, along with the rest of the city, and was forced to confront the rational fears we were all battling as we scanned our surroundings. That man with the large backpack leaning leisurely against the doors – was he a great god believer and would suddenly start yelling about it, and would it help if I made it to the other end of the carriage in time? That middle-aged woman frowning at the lady reading a book next to me, would she suddenly make a grab for her veil and demand she leave the country? What to do if that happened? If I stood up for the book lady, would I find myself in a dangerous situation that spiraled out of control? Would I miss picking up the children, making supper? At Edgware Road one time there was a free seat next to a young man as people got off. Didn’t he seem rather large around the middle? He was unzipping his jacket. I hesitated for a short moment, then made the decision and sat down. Warm and stuffy in there. I fanned myself with my oyster card. The man moved over to give me more space for my bags. Most of us did what we could to promote peace in our carriage, London, the world.

all others you can trust to
look away

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Those years were like walking barefoot in a dense wood, stricken with fear. Far-away daylight between branches, clothes torn, letting the chill in. We kept walking right past the demolished treehouse that the children wanted to put together again. We just kept going, didn’t we. We thought it best. Our bare feet stepped on fallen twigs and leaves, that creaking carpet. Hurting prickliness. Brave faces. A trickling from the soles of our feet left a bloody trail. We were discovered – the trail followed by forces opposing each other. Children: wide-eyed questions. Predators: speedy answers with sharp claws and teeth. There are always predators – run away, take cover! We never were able to hide from the children.

our love…

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…is not a sunrise, nor a sunset –

no stunning sea view bringing tears of joy into our eyes

it’s more hands on, more

chipped plates in the cupboard

kitchen catalogues and dust in corners

stray baby socks and mortgage

the horizon never seems in sight

and when the day is done

here we are, picking through

another hoover bag

stepping on sharp lego pieces

in the cat puke on the floor

somewhere among the laundry piles

beyond the sleeping children

with their coughs and nightmares

we find the kitchen roll

we hand sheets to each other

our fingers touch –

and we see that it is good

we’re good

we got this

(-ish)

lovey-dovey

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rise against the
machines

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Everything can be found on the internet, of course, including this magazine interview with an airline pilot, in which the following surely spellchecked sentence appears:

“We plan ahead to avoid weather, and we try to avoid the turbulence around storms. Often, changing the crew’s altitude will either eliminate or lessen turbulence.”

Ah, the endless comfort that can be drawn from that passage!

master plan
(after her mastectomy)

food on the table

a friend if I’m able

some flowers, a bath

a roof and a laugh

but the biggest

trick I can pull

– I have found –

is seeing the cup

as half-full

me

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me me ME!
a contemporary melody

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my mid-life
lover boy

not alone –

arrives ensnared

in trusting children’s arms

and various hapless relatives

throws himself flat

at my feet

demands assistance

demands I lead

 

his entourage

weighs down my neck

and yet I love

no questions asked

as we all learn the steps

for our entangled tango

mindfulness

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mirror

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my mother’s mirror

with every mistake I make

she regrets her own missteps

a miscalculation

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there is an unbearable smell

in our house

turns out the cat has hidden

a dead mouse

behind the dresser

and the ones she played with

but failed to kill

are leaving droppings

in our kitchen cabinets

 

we used to think the cat

would be good for keeping

pests away

now we have to call

the exterminator

to drive out the mice

she invited

into our home

mixed

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Inspector Morse
reclining

after a long day he listens

to opera –

the wails of compressed lips and throats

expressing the essence of our deepest dreams:

passion, power

heroes taking command, heartbroken ladies

busomy mothers, wise men

cruel rulers and hideous monsters

Good

and Evil

 

tomorrow, Morse will make an arrest

the killer, the sadness

something led up to the deed

human fuzziness obscures the answer:

good-ish

evil-ish

 

but tonight, opera

crystal clear relief

the overweight middle-aged man with triple chins

sings the young hero’s part

take part in the game, accept his handsomeness

before he dies, he will sing louder than ever

– an answer, of sorts

on de-demonizing
a moustache

a man on the radio said

in order to defeat

the enemy

we must first get to know him

get inside his mind

therefore, he said

it is “unfortunate”

that we have demonized

a German moustache

to the extent that the demon

stands in the way

of the real moustache

the one we need

to approach and understand

in order to defeat

 

now were there ever any calls

I wonder

for us to demonize

this particular

moustache?

surely

in its narrowness

and blackness

it spoke clearly

for itself

in the negative space

I am getting used

to negatives

 

getting used to not dropping you

an email, to comment

on some shocking or amusing

piece of news

or the unruly weather

getting used to visiting your town

and us not meeting up

getting used to not being

the cheerful witty individual

that I was with you

(though I miss her, she was fun)

 

still I can’t escape

the intrusive void of you

 

how easy to be dead –

the day I almost drowned

years ago

Death reached out to snatch me

wrapped a long determined arm around my neck

hold was tight, intention clear

but at some point

– what brought this about? –

it wavered, seemed to tremble

too much to accomplish the deed

lost its grip

and I resurfaced, as if nothing had occurred

nobody needed to miss me

and you and I could meet, be friends

why did Death not lose its nerve

also with you?

 

as matters stand

I hope you took our album with you when you left

that you bring it out sometimes

curl up wrapped

in your mother’s wooly cardigan

in your comfy chair of cloud

browse among the pages

with our smiling faces

and escapades

the cruel trick candles

that our toddlers could not blow out

at the chaotic birthday party

the doctor you had some choice words for

after he medicated me to illness

making me feel faint

and lie down in the crowded train

embarrassing YOU

your new car with the mysterious novel features

such as beeping when reversing –

we wondered what it meant

until you hit the car behind

the restaurant we had to flee

our server following us into the street

assuring us we were imagining

the sewage odor

and I hope you won’t feel sad, but smile

over those pages, and let that smile grow

into a giggle, then a thunderous belly-laugh

that reverberates through space and time

and finds me sitting in a room

at my desk perhaps

and I hesitate for a short moment

thinking there was something

but no, nothing

and yet I decide to get up

put the pen down, push the chair away

and leave the room

somehow lighter, and more open

his news

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nothing

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“But what if we have traveled all this way and there is nothing?”

“Then we make it nothing else!”

incident with oars

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obstacle course

we were Form D

at the end of the corridor

it might as well have been

across town

 

walking down

to reach our classroom

we had to first

get past the crowd

of Form A kids

who were all right

if in a good mood

– you never knew

 

then Form B

who as we passed

would rub our noses

in their exam results

(consistently superior)

 

lastly, most precariously

we had to push through

Form C

who were standing around

in a compact manner

waiting to be let into their classroom

waiting to poke, and kick

and shove us, trip us up

for want of funner things to do

 

every day the same repeated procedure

 

school year after school year

to us Form D kids

reaching our classroom

and the ill-tempered teacher

wringing her hands over our work

was an achievement every time

 

our journey through the corridor

was a war, as war has been described –

long and dreary, punctuated

by sudden bursts

of violence

eight years old

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then you came

caressed my cheek

with your stiff

hand of ice

and I knew then

I was loved

and life

not kind

did not know

I was too small

to warm you

once…

the warning cries

were locked in

we skidded

on the air

bounced

into walls

that folded

away

 

arms to the sky!

eyes wide!

 

again!

 

AGAIN!

open door policy

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options

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we shall overcome

He always dreamed of playing the guitar and singing in a smoky room. He would be barefoot and wear old blue jeans with frayed knee holes. People with beers and tambourines would gather round with dreamy eyes, have their souls touched by his singing. Catchy songs of the rising sun that everybody knows, insightful words of truth. He would never ever stop. He would play and sing in spite of the hecklers roaring with laughter at the back, all the while wondering why, how come, and for what possible reason, they threatened to smash his guitar. The answers of the changing times were blowing in the wind, and he would never catch them all.

overheard

Coffee shop, Åhléns, Stockholm, July, lunchtime

 

– You had an affair?!!

– Yeah, you know, things haven’t been… I don’t know, I felt so tied down… He made me feel so lousy… you know? He made me look around.

 

Toilet, Metro North train out of Grand Central, January, evening rush hour

 

Knock knock knock knock bang!!!

– Hello? You can’t get out? … I’m trying, I’m trying… No, it’s not working. I can’t help you.

 

Supermarket, Connecticut, January, evening

 

– Hi, how are you?!

– I’m good, how are you?

– Good. And you?

– Good.

– Good to see you.

– See you soon.

 

Coffee shop, NYC, December, afternoon

 

– I could really use a friend right now.

– I’m your friend.

– But you don’t have any money.

overworked

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Paco Rabanne

We called him Casanova-Choo-Choo – great dancer, fragrant charmer. Those arrogant legs, the heavy swagger. The crooked grin, and mischief in his eyes. Five cigarettes hanging from his lips, beer can in his hairy hand. The coolness of his black leather vest, with nothing – nothing – underneath. And ah, those Levi’s buttocks! We all had our spell with his cowboy boots on our lap and his manly hands under our blouse, except disapproving Jennifer, who married him in the end. We couldn’t believe it! Jennifer! Surely, we said, she should have been able to tell the difference between the ones to marry, and the ones to have fun with. Like he did.

the party (dream)

Leaving the disco beat and giggling friends behind, I find the Ladies in a dark corridor. What a pleasant surprise: it’s huge, and smells of detergent! The shiny tiles on the walls are warm pink. A woman is moving from corner to corner, mopping the spotless white floor. In front of each mirror lady guests stand, brushing and spraying their hair. Dozens of toilet doors keep opening and closing, as if moved by the wind, letting fragrant women in and out, while I stand in line. I see half of my face in the corner of a mirror, and feel pleased. (I’ve been asked to dance several times already.)

But the loo I get is filled with things, and the smell… so I wait again, I try another, but it’s filled with things, and even the floor… and I try another, keep trying. And the perfumed women keep coming, warm from dancing; there I see one I know and I call to her, ”Look, the toilets are filthy, what shall we do?!” She sympathizes, then goes in and comes out—she must have stepped in the mess—and the beat from the dance floor squeezes in through the door as she leaves, while I try another.

Nobody asks for me, only one woman wants change for the tampon machine, while her friend is upset or excited, for somebody’s husband held her too close as they danced. And is it the wife who comes later on—her cheeks black with mascara—and I try another. Then a wobbly girl with pink lipstick who’s been drinking too much slumps down on the floor with a sigh; someone should give her a glass of water—not me, I’m really too busy standing in line, and then a beautiful woman with perfect make-up comes out from a toilet I know is disgusting; she stumbles over the girl on the floor. Regaining her balance she sneers at the girl, and walks back to the party leaving behind a luxurious scent, but I whisper: ”I know where you’ve been!”

I’ve tried every loo in this place; there is not one I can use. The staff mops away while humming a tune; the women go in and come out. They have danced all night, but I’m shouting in triumph: ”I’m clean and I’m tidy!”

I spent the whole evening in here.

do not invite
the partypooper

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I no longer have a talent

for easy conversation

do not invite me to your party

now that I arrive alone

I’ll stand stiffly in a corner

trembling glass in hand

and not come up with things to say

weighing down the room

so others too will gasp for air

 

when I was young this could occur

on occasion because I

was shy and insecure

but now

(though it should not be contagious)

we all know this is what

I am become:

a blot on happy families

bringer

of silences, forced smiles

destroyer

of ambiance

 

I always leave as early as is decent

as I put on my coat I hear the room

sigh of relief and stir behind me

at last the party can begin

the past

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our past we carry with us

as recurring

fleeting sensations –

even though she is

a grown-up

come home after a long day

holding meetings, delegating at the office

and now having a meal

with her grown-up husband

at the polished dining table

in their large house in the prosperous area

that they have been able to obtain

through their grown-up activities

– other pieces of her refuse to tell lies

at a not insignificant level

she is 16 years old, and

throwing up in a marble bathroom

at a drunken party in an upscale suburban villa

where her friends, who are holding back her hair

will later suggest

a summer trip her family

can’t possibly afford

– partied out, she staggers

home through the dark deserted streets

to her exhausted sleeping parents

in the cramped apartment

tricky patient

walls a dazzling white

huge doors

with cool steel

handles

led to white-uniformed

no-nonsense

professionals

who kept pulling

and squeezing, then

dropping

trembling patients

into each other’s

fields

of expertise, as if

sending on junk mail

that had come

to the wrong addressee

after first

crumpling it up

my blood

was constantly being

extracted

and transformed

into babbling

letters and numerals

my limbs

twisted

in torturous positions

meticulously

recorded

as question marks, until

one afternoon

I was taken

to the last

specialist, a jolly

orthopedist

his verdict:

nothing on the x-rays

nothing wrong

everything fine

just to finish off here

move on to the next

order of business!

I smiled and was happy for him

that he was fine –

but I

had things

to do

too

peace

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periswan

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on photo editing

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The woman next to me on the plane spent the entire transatlantic flight in her window seat editing photos on her laptop. They were from some festive occasion where she was one of the dressed up party guests, included in many group pictures with other young women. A lot of posing with hugs and smiles, raised champagne glasses. A wedding:? No, no bride or groom. A birthday? No cake, no candles, no obvious center of attention. A graduation? But no parents. Maybe a reunion. No men at all – a feminist or lesbian reunion? She kept zooming in on faces, removing blemishes, smudged eyeliner and acne, on one young woman after another, painstakingly making each and every one of them the most beautiful they could be. Hours of work going into this. Such a loving effort, I reflected. I remembered similar group photographs in my own photo albums. More often than not, I have flashed a stifled smile exposing my gums and lipstick-tarnished teeth at the crucial moment. Nobody could claim I’m photogenic. I too want the woman in the window seat for my friend.

pistachios

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The children run ahead to the playground. On a bench in the shade under a tree sit a man and a woman. They move closer together to give me room. They are watching their kids play on the swings and slides. They have the two girls, they say, and now they are trying for a boy. They heard that pistachios may help. “So here we are, munching on pistachios. As many as we can!”

play

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power

We found ourselves in sudden outage blindness, as if a huge beast had leapt down from the mountains and engulfed us—the whole village, that bright crescent curved around the bay, swallowed. The black sky grew bright. It became an enormous planetarium. The vastness: the few stars from earlier were now fuzzy around the edges and had multiplied into thousands. The music from bars and tavernas was silenced. Scattered upset voices rose from the vacuum.

It was doubtful whether our Greek village existed. We were nothing, the universe everything. How far we have travelled from our beginnings, I thought, to be surprised by our own smallness. I tried to comfort the kids, saying all the wrong things. Isn’t it spectacular, and each star may have planets in orbit around it, maybe there’s someone living there… They cried worse than before.

After an hour the lights came back on. The sky became black again, that anonymous background scene with a few distinct stars. The music could play. Madonna merged with Theodorakis. The children could sleep. There had been a show of size, but we were given another chance. We had power.

practice

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on reading an interview with a prison chaplain
(annotated)

After the bombing, the prison chaplain was called in to notify next of kin. Then reports about the mass shootings began to come in.

 

“It was a long night. And then it was tough getting back to work and being told that Anders would be placed with us.”

 

(On first name basis with a racist bomber and mass murderer.)

 

Later in the interview:

 

“But the fact that he has presented himself as a Christian crusader riding at the front undeniably raises questions.”

 

(Yes, for example what kind of crusader “Anders” would have been, had he not claimed to be of the Christian persuasion.)

 

“I react with disbelief at his interpretation of the Bible. My faith belongs in a different place.”

 

(You don’t say.)

 

“At the same time the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways.”

 

(So we are talking about “Anders” the Bible Scholar. I see. During his studies “Anders” has simply arrived at one of many possible interpretations of the Bible.)

 

According to the prison chaplain, criticism of religion is absolutely necessary. We must ask ourselves what it is in religion and ideology that can cause fanaticism.

 

“We must be clear about where the boundaries are and how we view the world.“

 

(Agreed. In order to avoid unfortunate misunderstandings, we really must stop leading people to believe that mass murder is a legitimate activity.)

 

(And racism a respectable stance.)

 

(They will listen to us.)

 

(Oh all these good people who classify and divide with their rigid roadmaps and anxieties – superstition, religion, racism, ideology… Oh all the beliefs in the world that are right and worthy of respect, with their assumed authority to band together in collectives that allow their Beliefs to ride at the front while shaping Knowledge in their image.) 

 

(Dear prison chaplain. “Anders.”

I was not concerned with what you have for breakfast, whether you say grace or not. I was not concerned with who either of you prayed to or who you chose to pick a bone with. Nor was I ever concerned that you walked different roads than I did. My concern was that when we got up in the morning and went about our day, nobody would come to harm.)

problems

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the promise
of them

I find the ocean is best

from the shore

the road

from my gate

the woods

from the terrace

the sky

from the deepest despair

the rain

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Here comes the rain. It falls on the sea and the rocks and the land. On the trees and the grass and the squirrels. Puddles – on the road, in the leaves. Everywhere is wet. The mud is wet, and the boots. The bed below the leak in the attic is wet, the wool blanket damp and smelly. So much water, never-ever-ending water in my buckets.

reality

the children imagined

so many crazy things

there were elves

tiptoe-dancing

in the bathroom at night

yellow roses

growing on the moon

reaching into space

and when would the giant

teddy bears outside the window

squeeze in and hug us

to their bosoms?

we liked living in that reality

I miss that reality

it was a nice reality

regret

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a rescue

We visit an island in our little dingy. We start the engine with a loose piece of rope. We swim in a bay, but a storm breaks out and we get rescued by a fishing boat. The dingy is towed back to the mainland. It bobs on the crazy waves. Holding on for dear life in the spray on the slippery fishy-smelly deck, now we see it, now we don’t.

right of way

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serial rule-breaker

I’ve done it again,

but no one says anything

they are so tactful here

 

but my heart

 

the heart is gone

 

they have taken my sky-blue heart

and will pass it to someone I don’t trust

 

someone will thread it

with their clouded cotton

 

someone will prick their fingers—

now, that’s a consolation

the sea

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boy with secrets

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You are wheeling the pushchair towards the toddler group in the sunbathing park. You walk under the willow trees by the brook. The branches pour down like rain. Your little boy shrieks a laugh, and the leafy curtain parts and lets him through. He turns his head and stares back into the shade among the trees. You push him out on the green. You spread out the red picnic rug in the bright summer warmth. The grass is dewy. You kiss him smack loudly on the cheek and lay him down carefully on the rug. He lies flat on his back, arms and legs stretched out, angel-style – shrieks joyously as a plane passes right over him. Did he see its dark blue tummy? You smile and point it out, sit down beside him, hug your skirt around your legs. We chat, mum-talk, have biscuits. The other kids run around, gather sticks, trip over. Your boy cannot walk, and will not walk. Not tomorrow, or ever, they say.

Homebound. He throws off his blue sunhat. You put it firmly back on his curls. You help his hand wave goodbye and walk back into the shade under the willow trees. The branches pour down like rain. Your beautiful boy laughs. You always say you know him as well as you can. He laughs at things we can’t see. We hear his laughter under the downpour of willows. May the branches always part and let his secrets through.

haiku one September

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sex
and the city

it happens I feel sad

for men

what’s up

with the portrayal

of women’s sexuality

as cute and cheerful, of no consequence?

not so much a dark

mysterious continent these days –

more a pretty city in bloom

pastel colors in the streets

where lipglossed females meet up

with supportive girlfriends, gossip

about wayward boyfriends, giggle

over a vibrator catalogue

women and sex is unthreatening

and fun – not for real

no need to blush

about the dildo in your drawer

it’s adorable!

 

but if they were men, the theme the same?

then no

 

no

 

we do not think men’s sexuality

is friendly and delightful

it is brusque

and sticky, all too real

as it clings to everything

wreaks havoc in the world

in its compulsive

quest for dominance and power

– a dark continent, indeed!

a man with sex toys

is not cute

or liberated

and the sex laughs that he shares with mates

come out chauvinist and cheerless

never charming

a man’s sexuality is not invited

to the gathering –

it has to scurry down the city’s

chilly streets alone

hands in trenchcoat pockets

 

being dismissed as a harmless giggler

according to this paradigm

works fine for me – as camouflage!

but it saddens me to think of men

who may be on their own tonight

behind a closed door

in the company perhaps of pictures

that should never have been taken

no meeting up

no day out with friends for you!

here’s your toy, you pervert

here your dodgy website, here

the world’s contempt

there you go on your disgusting

lonesome way

shadow

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showdown

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I talked us

into a bed of dewy pansies

into a gathering of apple trees

into a water garden, like Monet’s

but him – I couldn’t really hear

what he was saying

shy
guy

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view from a sickbed

the backs of chairs

silhouetted against the window

– gravestones in a foggy landscape

among their rigid shapes

dusky shadows floated

she could move her arms, but not her legs

buried, as they were

under heavy snow

sounds were far away

– spring birds?

nothing requiring her attention

the children’s faces emerged above her own

– flowers in a dream

floating, fleeting

soon gone

for her, a different journey

melting snow

she saw as much as she was strong

a sidestep

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I was tired of walking the streets—that laid-out pattern. Sleepy wanderings. Excitement only at crossroads. The evaluation of different ways ahead. Always ahead. You could never stop or go back.

Names of streets. Road conditions. Opportunities and risks to take into consideration. Which roads would be lined with fruit trees, which ones with thistles? Which roads would be crowded, which ones populated by robbers lying in wait for lone wanderers behind dense bushes or dark street corners? The hustle and bustle of advantages and disadvantages. To have to know so much.

After the excitement of choosing, I found myself keeping to the track, a similar paved road. Within the pattern, always. And then, by chance, I found myself by water. The sea.

To walk into that cool smoothness, swim on that vast patternless surface. No roads exist there. Who is to say if I am moving forwards or backwards, on or off the track? A new pattern must be created, negotiated with the evermoving embrace of water. Waves yield and let me pass, or toss me where I had not thought to go. A companionship, of sorts.

And when weariness comes over me: to stretch out on my back, trust that firm ocean to cradle me. To look straight up and observe the movement of clouds high above, how the sky never stays the same. To feel the water lick the sides of my face, hear the shrieking seabirds and not have to know their names. To just lie there with my hair floating around my head and enjoy my own presence at the edge of matters. Not make such a fuss about everything.

mid-life single

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It was obvious the cute pharmacist considered my ailments disgusting.

The handsome new assistant at the florist’s knew the names of all the flowers, then referred me to his cheerless colleague at the back.

And the guy in the fifth floor reception has never given me a second glance.

When I was a young promiscuous woman there was always a promiscuous man around.

These days they have all grown up, hooked up, made a home.

They don’t ask for much these days.

Mostly they ask to be left in peace.

back to Smalltown

We barely recognize each other, both back, as we are, with new paraphernalia. Bums and tummies. Toddlers. Dormant careers. We talk about the old class. Fat Ellen with her illfitting drawstring pants – tent-like. Cute Robert with his freckles – always causing trouble. Remember that cheeky smile when he got caught? And Carina with her flowery black-and-white tight skirt, always so mean, especially to Ellen. Lisa with her headaches and weird stories, Johnny with his sulking lower lip. Oh, it was good to leave. And what was the name of that blond boy, the one who was going to die? Always in and out of hospital, lost his hair. Did he actually die after we left or was he miraculously spun some other way? Is he still around – a successful banker, perhaps, with bonuses and a delightful family with children who sit quietly on their chairs at meals and never ever chase each other around with forks in their filthy hands.

through the smoke

In the department store I ran into an old schoolmate. One of my first loves actually. What was his name again? At eleven or twelve years old our passion was expressed mostly as various outings. One day we went into the city to a record store, and I bought my first album. Deep Purple’s Made in Japan. I remember endless hours playing cards on the bed to Smoke on the Water. Getting up again and again to move the arm back to the beginning of the track (the repeat function of the time). Did we ever touch? That I don’t remember. After all these years it seemed obvious that this coincidental meeting should lead to a longer conversation. In the top floor coffee shop we blew into the foam of our smoking cappuccinos, looking at each other, our hazy past.

on snowball fights

was it Clooney, Jackman

– some hunk actor

displaying his playful side

in front of the TV cameras

 

laughing and throwing

– fun in the snow with some kids

such a regular guy

 

at our school –

what joy when the snow fell!

the kids stared out of the window

forgetting

the spelling of weather

not even trying

to finish their sums

 

at the bell they ran out

into the yard

half-buttoned up

their long scarves trailing behind them

the laughs and projectiles echoed

between the school walls

 

inevitable

the blood and tears streaming down

one of the little angel faces

minutes later

the scramble

for the school nurse

snowscape,
Stockholm

From the top window of this tall office building, the city roofs are a vast frozen field, where a warm lively hare might suddenly appear and make its characteristic paw marks in the thick snow. The tranquility of up here makes the bustling beeps and city busyness down below unimaginable. Some men are clearing away the snow a few roofs away. They haven’t attached themselves to safety ropes. What a nerve. How easy for one to slip and fall headlong to the ice-hard pavement all those floors down. How easy to create a horror that will haunt hurrying passers-by as nightmares, alcoholism, panic attacks, divorce. Down at street level, people continue to stream past barely registering that the pavement is, at least, cordoned off.

so
you say…

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…you miss me

 

you are coming back

 

you are returning

to me, when I was

the only one, a pretty

enough loving wife

regarding your smelly

socks with humor

when I ironed your shirts

until you wouldn’t stop

saying how much

you loved me

when I called you

at work every day

to tell you something funny

the children did

or to make

some little joint

decision

you are returning to me

when I belonged

to a nuclear family

that I constantly

provided with sensible

clothing and multivitamins

when I was always full

of creative ideas

for enjoyable family

outings

 

how stupid of you not to love me then

someone
to look out for me

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it was a winter like this – frozen

we were young

I was fragile

you were inexperienced

I was complicated – so you said

you were afraid to hurt me

unsteady on our feet, with alco-lips, we kissed

and left the others in the kitchen’s smoky haze –

some of them entwined

in embraces even more

ill-advised than ours

the crackling speakers played Genesis and Yes

the floor was sticky with beer and kir

in the room we were uncertain

my heart was crushed by someone else

I was not right for you

nobody was right for me

we sat down on the bed

I cried for a short while

you held my hand and stared out of the window at the snow

it was confusing

the others stormed right in

you told them to get out

no – you yelled, to get THE HELL out

they left, I dropped

to my knees before you

but threw up over the floor

you ran for paper towels

then helped me to lie down

that’s all I remember

decades on, this past winter hurt me, bashed me hard

brought me to my knees

left me staring at the walls alone

in this abruptly silent house

I am fragile; it is complicated

this winter, like the fool I am

I remember you spreading a blanket over me

and cry again

the sorrow

this morning I woke up

in blissful happiness

we were in opposite corners

in some packed bar

making our way towards each other

through the crowd

my father was younger

smart in his blazer

and behind him

my smiling husband

also younger with dark hair

what an immense relief

to emerge from the bad times

see Father in such great shape

his health clearly restored!

when at last he reached me

he said he wanted

to make some changes to his memories

all was smiles and right in the world

I awoke to

but after a few minutes

an unbelievable sorrow

took possession of me

it lasted all day, each hour

heavier than the one before

my father frail and despondent

struggling to get around with his walker

my husband grey

and my appointment next Wednesday

still lurking at the hospital

our spoons
will not spoon…

…in that nice accommodative manner

they are supposed to

having arrived

from different sets, they resist

the harmony of a good fit

and every so often find themselves facing

each other

as if seeking to clear the air between them

– which makes them overflow

so they get stuck

and we can’t open or close the drawer

 

I think of you and me

in the early years

staring each other down

across the kitchen table

as we argued over the whats

wheres and whens

of our days

we arrived from different sets, and

heaven knows we needed

a good knock and squeeze

to fit together inside the space

we were building for ourselves

bruised and aching

we eased into our loving room

 

all these years of building –

still we face off face to face

instead of fitting snugly

one behind the other

facing the same way, in sync

never meeting

starstruck

A magazine interview with a young singer superstar. The thrilled reporter who landed this desirable gig cannot stop repeating what a regular person the singer is, not being superior at all. Not suggesting they meet up at some fancy place – instead inviting the reporter to her flat for tea and opening the door in her pyjamas! Such a low-key regular person, the reporter gushes. Please. You have to know you’ve been had. I mean, I love the songs, but who invites a new acquaintance into their home and greets them in their jammies?

her stiff upper lip

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I am so angry with you

for having broken

the gifts you promised

 

for having crushed

her nurturing hands

 

and I cannot forgive the way

you sanded down

the love from her face

 

with the coarsest paper

leaving just a hard thin mouth

 

you toughened her and numbed her

and now nobody will

touch her

the stolen
street

The curtains are always drawn.

I stay inside most of the time, observing the scarlet chintz roses, how the folds push each rose to dark foreground or bright background. I keep hearing unidentifiable noises, a distant rumbling from outside. It may or may not affect me. Thieves could roll up the whole street and run off with it without my noticing, and then when I open the front door it won’t look the same and I’ll be angry with myself because I haven’t kept an eye on things.

So where would they take a stolen street? Maybe to a scenic spot somewhere in the Mediterranean region – that would be nice. They could place it on some barren bits of land, plant palm trees along the sides and invite a hoard of excited tourists.

But what about here, where the street was before, how would it be? Not great, I suppose – messy, dusty, bumpy. It would be a wasteland, and sooner or later someone not from here would come along and feel called upon to create art out of our misery.

street performance

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suitor

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summerlazy

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one sunset

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a surprise

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all sweaty

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it’s most important for me to stay out of trouble

 

I have enormous respect for uniforms

 

under their gaze, I shake and tremble

ask myself what I’ve done wrong

 

pulling my bag under the Nothing to Declare sign

for example

I know my guilt must show

 

that red-faced breathless woman, they will think, those kids…

are they really truly in her company?

is her suitcase ticking, double-bottomed, full of chemicals?

has she swallowed plastic bags?

 

and if I were interrogated

I’d get arrested every time

– much of what I do lacks explanation

 

why iron the blue blouse when it was hardly creased at all?

how come your shoes are muddy?

why cross the street and then just cross right back again?

 

I couldn’t say

 

I may have dreamed of elegance

of running free in the rain, and then

there may have been a pretty pot

with yellow flowers in a window

and I liked to take a closer look

 

if I were called in

if I had to open all my bags

 

I’d stammer like staccato, blush…

but with a steady voice I will declare this any time:

 

the children

are

with me

a tactlessness

In a dream, French author Georges Perec finds himself sharing an apartment with a stranger. Georges has written a score and the stranger, a musician, offers to play it. Georges however suspects the stranger actually intends to steal it. The stranger then proceeds to introduce Georges to Adolf Hitler, who is a grotesque clown with pale skin and long hair. Georges believes the stranger introduces him by way of apology for his tactlessness in trying to steal the score. Introducing those we have wronged to a grotesque clown must surely be the way to redeem oneself.

teenagers

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he examined me

closely, fumbling fingers

picking through me

making me feel

like a flower

by Georgia O’Keefe

not that I knew

her paintings

in those days

but once I saw one

years later

I immediately recognized

the situation, that forensic

study

of an opening –

the one he missed, by the way

in his haste

making my flower

sort of a symbol

much like a painting

one he could not fully

appreciate

on initial

inspection

but which nevertheless

held some promise

an intriguing

je-ne-sais-quoi

quality, indicating

it may be worth

exploring further

for hidden meanings

and references

 

once he embarked

on further exploration

he took it on with gusto

though his findings seemed

a challenge, as his breathless handling

of the subject

– loving and attentive though it was –

turned out abrupt

and heavy-handed

less deflowering

more full deforestation

 

an enthusiastic

well-intentioned effort

– I conceded –

nonetheless

telephones!

It was the age when everybody was carrying telephones. We carried them out of the house to buses and trains, and to our cars, while doing our very best to keep them well and alive like some Tamagotchi. The telephones were constantly driven around, to offices, constructions sites, shops and homes. Mostly to buildings. They rode up and down the elevators. They slipped through the automatic doors. And we took them to the woods and the beach. They got to see the world – my goodness, we took them on vacation! We held them up to see art museums, historical sights and stunning landscapes. We carried the telephones while following map directions and playing music for them. Wherever you went you would see people carrying telephones. Even those we knew who didn’t particularly want to at first, now carried telephones. All of us wanted our telephone to stay well, so we were constantly fussing over it, trying to keep it healthy. We spoke into our telephones – when out for a walk or riding on the bus, for example – which made our communications sort of vertical. One time when our train broke down, we got stranded at a deserted rural station. Some of us had lived through similar events, from before the time when we carried telephones. Our communications had been more horizontal then: we would speak to our fellow passengers on the train, discuss what to do. Maybe find someone going in the same direction. Share a cab, make a friend. But in the age of carrying the telephones we all spoke into those instead, and made arrangements to get picked up, without exchanging a word with other passengers. It worked just as well, though it was said that something had got lost. But most of us did not worry about that. We continued to carry and care for our telephone, and it took care of us. That was the deal. But then it went and dumped us at the end of a road without a map. Where were we? Anyone’s guess. Where to go? Our telephone left us completely and utterly lost, and when we tried to speak into it, turned a deaf ear. It behaved like any inanimate toy, and we had to go exploring and devise a map ourselves in order to carry our telephone to safety and good health.

testosterone
coach

Sunday evening in early September. The coach from Athens to Nauplio is packed, the children and I surrounded by sweaty new conscripts with duffel bags on their way to training camp for the first time. So many very young men on a threshold. On the outskirts of a village after Corinth a young woman gets on. She has enormous curls. A scent of perfume and shampoo shoots through the coach. Everything is tight, sleeveless, strapless. Held young male breaths choke on the air. Longing. And contempt. They know they will never have her. And her smile… the cunning helplessness. Sure enough, one enviable young man is close enough to give up his seat. She beams at him in exaggerated gratitude, as though there were a real risk that she could have been left standing, and sits down. Shakes out her hair using both hands, long red nails. I take out a tissue and turn to wipe some banana mash from the lips of my youngest. I know that I – wife, mother, sexless – will never have bouncy curls like that, nails like that. I will never be breathlessly desired like that. I place the sticky tissue in my bag. As for this busload of young men, they can’t see the now seated young woman any more. Excitement over, they don’t give the standing young man a glance, but gaze lazily out the window.

wishful texting

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This morning I sent a text thanking someone for their help.

They immediately texted back, “You’re awesome!”

The thrill of receiving such words temporarily overshadowed the realization that this could not reasonably be the intended message.

When I looked closely, the message was “You’re welcome!”

Of course.

So how did I misread it so?

Is my eyesight going?

Or is it my sense of reality that is deteriorating?

Or shall we finally acknowledge that my emotional state is now such that I look for affirmation everywhere.

thinking
for ourselves

We grew up in an improvement era, when the world was still manageable by way of good will. All the people and actions on earth were causally connected, and solidarity would bring justice and equality. Between our parents, schoolteachers and children’s TV, we were encouraged to reflect on the lives of children in other parts of the planet, and take responsibility for our every action – in what way, for example, did our decision to not finish our dinner but instead push leftovers from our plate into the bin relate to a starving child carrying water for miles from a well in Africa? Our teachers, who always seemed to be furry – in long hair, unshaved armpits and legs, beards and thready home-knitted cardigans – would never raise their voices. Instead they would reason with us calmly, urging us to think deeply about the world. So we liked hamburgers – now what did that decision mean, and who in the capitalist system was benefiting from us eating hamburgers, who? We liked a glitzy pop song about teenage love – “Now let’s take a moment and consider what you just said and what it means for a hungry child in rural Ethiopia.” We learned about the environment and were taught about factories that manufactured unnecessary commercial products just to make money – “Now who benefits from spewing all that filth from their chimneys and polluting our nature? Think, children.” Our toys had to be understated, preferably made of unpainted wood and boring, to provide room for our own creativity. As long as our creativity did not involve pretty pink dresses or role-playing a traditional family with mother, father and kids – that was old-fashioned and reactionary. Reflected badly on our families. And with aggressive nations waging imperialistic wars, as reported in the news every day, any kind of toy weapon, of course, was anti-peace – a social problem. And yet, somehow most of us got our hands on unsuitable glittery tiaras, princess dresses, revolvers to play cowboys, cool Matchbox cars – guilty commercial pleasures. And don’t get me started on Barbie, with her shiny capitalistic hair, and her Ken, and the thrilling feeling of wrong-doing when dressing them in their impossibly tight clothes and spinning their unnatural arms and legs around in unnatural positions. But these were unofficial pleasures, kept strictly at home, with our parents and grandparents providing the desirable items for birthdays against their better judgement, and turning a resigned blind eye as we engaged in our politically incorrect activities. To school we would bring marbles, playing cards, skipping ropes and footballs. We were encouraged to shop second-hand – less commercial – which is how the whole class came to purchase cheap surplus US Army canvas bags to use as schoolbags that we, in our world-bettering frenzy, decorated with peace-signs and slogans like “USA out of Vietnam.” As the years went on we became more and more adept at devising and producing the kind of statement that would bring a satisfied smile to our teachers’ expectant faces, as they willed us to think for ourselves and arrive at the accurate answers.

this

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story of three, 1 and 2

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tipsy
in love

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I’m pretty sure I did

everything I should:

showered, brushed my hair, got dressed

had a piece of bread

fed the cats, boarded the bus

swiped into the office

typed the password

typed a letter

printed out

stood in line, bought lunch

made photocopies, and swiped out

cooked and tidied up

paid all the bills

rang up my mum

but now it’s claimed I failed

to do these things, at all

apparently my hair’s a mess, and

my boss besieged by angry clients

nobody has heard from me, and

bills and cats have clearly gone unfed

and now I’ve got the giggles too

I think this must all be

down to you, for you, you see

– your eyes, your hands, your voice, your smile –

you have some effect on me, you make me

wobbly, woozy, dizzy…

yes, you make me tipsy –

 

I blame you!

together
at last

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we have achieved what we wished

we have squeezed each other’s hands until our individual selves have dissipated

we have cast off the safety of our own ways

we have relished the coming together

discarding the old, building the new

 

and now we are arrived

we have dinner on the table and we can’t eat

the bed is made and we can’t sleep

the rent is paid and we don’t know how to live

tolerable

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psychologists agree

we should all learn

to love ourselves

in order to build

healthy relationships

with other people

 

after years of bloody battle

I have learned to find myself

tolerable, just about

what will that mean

for my relationships

with other people

other cultures?

what

for world peace?

top shelf story

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Summer holidays. A young girl is in the newsagent’s. She is twelve years old, about to spend her pocket money. She stands by the shelves that house playing cards and stamps. She is choosing among the packs of stamps. There are some from Romania showing the smiling helmeted faces of cosmonauts and astronauts. The men in space suits all look the same, but she knows the difference between the -nauts. She knows a great many things.

A teenage schoolboy has been hired to help in the shop over the summer. The boy stands a few feet from the girl, on a step-ladder, rearranging the magazines on the top shelf. How do they expect to sell magazines that are so hard to reach? The girl watches the older boy from down below. The magazines he is moving about have mostly yellow and black covers with some red. He holds one of the magazines for a while, not immediately putting it back on the shelf, then opens it. The page he is watching has a close-up of a woman’s profile. She is blond, the same as the girl. Her eye looks up under long, very thick black eyelashes. The lips are shaped into an “O”. They are clasped around… why would anybody want to do that, the girl wonders. Does she like it? At that moment the summer assistant turns around, the open magazine still in his hands. He looks down on the girl from his elevated position on the ladder. He turns away and closes the magazine, returns it to the top shelf. He knows what she has seen. She knows what he saw too. They know it is a secret.

in the traffic

those in the right lane

lent a megaphone

to Mr. Paranoid Extremist

because they wanted to instill a fear

of foreigners

in us

 

those in the left lane

lent a megaphone

to Mr. Paranoid Extremist

because they wanted to appear

as unprejudiced

truth tellers

 

different lanes, same spreading

of hateful voices

 

attention on the road!

on the tram

More often than not, when we boarded the tram after dark and entered the warm yellow illuminated micro-world inside, there he would be, seated in the far corner of the carriage – the man with the two large paper bags displaying the big department store logo. Alone, the seats around him avoided by every other passenger. Well, not completely alone – he had company in the tram window, kept greeting his reflection there, obviously thrilled at this chance encounter with a beloved friend. Laughing soundlessly he kept raising his hand, saluting the equally delighted man in the window. Stop after stop, salute after salute, until he got off and hurried away, one paper bag in each hand, staring at the ground, disappearing into the blackness beyond the reach of the tram lights. We wondered what he carried in those bags. What world was he in? Not once did we see him in daylight.

trope

Those of us growing up a few decades earlier than some other people around – how many films did we not watch in which the powerful man imposed himself on the reluctant spunky woman with the clever retorts… only for her to come around, disintegrate before us and eagerly embrace him and sigh: “Oh Edward”. Such were the rules of the game, supposedly. Being fed this trope was harmful to us all, and as a young woman it was not uncommon to find oneself in an unpleasant situation because of the groundless assumptions made by a man.

These days, thankfully, the mood has changed. Men’s assumptions are called into question and man after man is being held to account for unacceptable behavior. Including historical, many decades-old, offences, and this is where I occasionally waver in my commitment to the cause. Stories abound about unwelcome liberties taken by one creepy guy or another. Remembering similar, if not identical, incidents of the “you-know-you-want-to” variety all these years later, I find it difficult to now determine whether my personal experiences should be considered assaults by criminal perpetrators to be prosecuted, or simply a result of a past detrimental culture we were all a victim of. I caused frustration by not playing the game right, doing what I could, heart pounding in shock, to push the guy away – instead of happily collapsing in his arms and whispering his name. Thinking back, from his point of view that would have been the expected outcome. Hence the ensuing desperation.

It was all to do with a muddled view of a woman as a man’s rightful conquest, there for the picking. An interesting doubleness there: the guy considering me a) a desirable conquest, yet b) not worthy enough to consult on the matter.

After escaping the situation I would fret about it as if it were a private matter. Had I been too friendly, leaving my intentions open to misinterpretation? Was my skirt too short, my shirt transparent? Conditioned to feel responsible, and never one for the barricades, I moved on, while avoiding finding myself alone with him for ever more. And of course adjusting my behavior to minimize the risk of having similar frightening encounters again.

I’m thinking especially of you, G and P. I resent the trauma you both subjected me to on different occasions, but I will not come after you at this late point. We were young, and I like to think my reaction to your respective unwelcome forceful charms provided vital feedback. In the best of outcomes it helped change your assumptions and your ways, and helped you both become men of character and dignity, good partners and fathers. In the event you continued as predators, you are on your own, and I hope your later victims pursue you with all they have! Me, I choose to believe you taught your sons and daughters well, and it is they who are now leading the charge against the outdated trope of women secretly desiring to be conquered while playing hard to get. We are grown women – we’ll let you know. The world progresses, let’s progress. Let the kids roll their eyes at some scenes in older movies, keep us all in line.

trust

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our words fell hard

lay still

but where they had found

their way inside us

– where we had led them –

had become a crime scene

taped off

those words were lying

in wait

to be forensically analyzed

we – the guilty parties –

looked away, in the distance

trusted each other

to not cross

the tape and visit

there again

our survival depended on it

we are told the truth

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she should have been wearing a muzzle

some thought

words shot out like rusty nails

from her soft mouth

all around

her victims lay

as they had fallen

in ruins

while she moved on

on steady legs, leaving

a disheveled

world behind

convinced that the truth

was nothing to be afraid of

nothing

under umbrellas

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gosh, we say, and wow

smiling, staring, taking

each other in

both greyer now, and clearly

with long memories

 

but your wife is watching

and my husband

your two kids

my three

your black lab

 

we are enclosed

inside our spotless

politeness –

huddling safe and dry

under umbrellas

in an autumn sleet storm

barely noticing the hurrying

passers-by around us

 

the wet fat snowflakes

glide off

our umbrellas’ edges

as our unsaid words

melt helplessly down

around us

unforgivable

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We were renting kayaks on the beach. There were not enough for all of us, so Maria’s brother and I ended up sharing a single. Me with Maria’s brother. Wow. He took command in an uncontestable manner and sat in front and paddled us away from the shore. His technique was lacking, and I, the extra rider, was weighing us down – but he made up for it with raw power, and we sped away from the others. I offered to paddle, but he wouldn’t have that; he was going to show the other wimps, who did not want to go that far, that we could reach the little island further out – and I was a girl. We left the bay behind and continued in the direction of the island. I sat there behind him, watching his muscular arms and shoulders tense up and relax, noticing his ineffective rhythmless paddling – and, in truth, contemplating how close I was to him right then, and wondering what it would feel like to put my arms around his sweaty body. And what would happen if I did. After quite a while pondering possible developments, I turned around and looked back. There was a lot of sea. I could barely make out the part of the beach we had left from. I couldn’t see the other kayaks, and yet the island didn’t seem much closer. Then the kayak stopped responding.

He was paddling fiercely, getting nowhere. The current was transporting us further and further out towards the open sea, away from the bay behind us and the island ahead. It was alarming. We were not in charge. We seemed to move so fast, diagonally, and Maria’s brother kept yelling, “We’re drifting out to sea! We’re going to drown!” paddling frantically, mostly splashing. For all his power, he couldn’t seem to get us out of the current. I asked him to calm down. I shouted that he really had to calm down. “Give me the paddle,” I said, and this time he handed it over and moved up.

It was lonely out there, so far from anything at all. The hopelessness. All that indifferent sea to cover, all that water working against us. And us so small, on a piece of happy-go-lucky plastic. Was this it, on this sunny, glorious day? I tried to focus and paddle back towards the bay, as he sat hunched over in front of me. So heavy-going. I was a pretty experienced paddler, but with the extra rider and the current it felt as if we were going nowhere. “One stroke at a time,” I urged myself. “Be methodical.” My technique being better, or by luck, I managed to get us out of the current, and paddle back towards land. When we reached the calm waters inside the bay he turned around and held out his hand for the paddle. He took us back, and when we rejoined the others – who assumed that having been gone so long we had been to the island for sure – he explained that we couldn’t be bothered to go all the way there. “She didn’t want to,” he said, nodding towards me.

And I allowed it. I didn’t say a word.

From that day on, he didn’t want to go paddling again. It was boring, he said – he wasn’t in the mood – he had pulled a muscle in his shoulder. You name it. He wasn’t going out there. From that day on, he hated the sea. Though not nearly as much, it has to be said, as he hated me.

unmusical

His hand caught hers and pulled it up above his shoulder. The muscles on the outside of his hand were tense, squeezing hard. The other arm held her firmly around the waist. His legs stepped left-right left-right heavily, mechanically, not moving with the rhythm at all. Hilarious. He was holding her body steadily in place, against his own, but he could not hold her face, which turned to the side and looked down to the floor as he tried to kiss her on the lips. A frown between her eyebrows, a glance-around for a friend. Her body attempted to wriggle out of his grip, in vain. Again his face came close to hers, but hers turned away as before, as if those movements of heads, his forward and hers down to the side, were connected by a string. At tables around the dance floor people were shouting to each other to make themselves heard above the orchestra. They did not notice the dancing couple at all, and the singer on the podium, who was facing their way, had lyrics to sing and had to keep up with the band. I was dancing with somebody else, someone irrelevant – friendly rhythm, comfortable. I too, of all people, did not realize. I came, I saw, I giggled. I’m sorry.

the veranda
on the day of
Grandmother’s
funeral

it could have been a spring morning

with the low sun shining through

the crystal vase in the window

 

but it wasn’t, because the vase

was standing on the mahogany table

full of death flowers

the dense stalks impenetrable

to the grey November light

 

it could have been a day of cartwheels

and races on the lawn

or even badminton with Father

 

but it wasn’t, because a candle was lit

next to the flowers, and since there was nothing

to say, and it was time to go

one of us decided to spring into action

and blew out the candle

as a dog stopped barking outside

view

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violence


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violence
on the Riviera

How irresistible for a bored group of guys: two clearly lost blond teenage girls with tourist maps, no less, walking past their building, past the entrance with the wilted red geraniums in their rusty tins. Right there on their doorstep!

Taunted, beaten, robbed, pelted with stones, we explained our blood and bruises in tearful broken French to the gendarme.

Later at the station, astonishing to find one of the thugs already behind bars for setting fire to a car. Busy night. In a daze, we pointed out the perpetrator, then drew close together as he cursed and flashed his furious eyes.

Back home again, we played it down.

Beaten? It was just some slaps.

Robbed? Yes, but the part of town we strayed into was poor, and to be fair we did not have a lot for them to steal – watches, wallets – not much in there. That was it.

Stones? They were pebbles really.

The trouble with the incident being hardboiled, as it was, is we struggled to unboil it. We found our home and neighborhood, with our ordinary streets, unfamiliar now, menacing and ugly – made sure we never walked alone. And I missed my confirmation watch, the wallet photo of a boy I liked, my innocence of body.

But we had heard we could be forced into THERAPY – made to reflect and talk, turned into VICTIMS, SCARRED FOR LIFE!

For months we concealed our cuts and bruises underneath long sleeves, long pants, long smiles and make-up.

an unexpected visit

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the waltz

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Each night the waltz. The sleepy houses wonder what she is doing there, dancing alone across the street, then back again. Each night the waltz. She dances over the day’s littered waters, finding the rhythm that takes her from one shore to the other, then back again. Quiet in the quiet night, a fleeting shadow under the glare of the street lights. Cold light against the black sky. Frosty air against the face. Clean. Each night the waltz of cleanness. In the morning she will ignore them, should they ask why she dances at night. In the morning she will plunge into the waters again, to be saved at night by the supporting structure of rhythm. This is also a way, pending that new dawn surely to arrive – and then: day dancing!

war

mouth a straight

firm line, lipless

she was wearing

a flowery dress

the flowers broke loose

from the fabric, hovered

around her, as she observed me

dismissed me, sensing

that my future

has never been

yet another terror

that I have never stood

on one side of a border, with

photographs of loved ones

in my hands

 

impossible to get past that

busy flower pattern

to befriend her – unthinkable

she came from a place

I couldn’t have seen

from where I was standing

I blamed myself, and she never

breathed a word

about it

waving
but

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when we pulled out

in our overloaded car

after a few weeks summer visit

 

the last thing we saw

—also the last time—

before we turned the corner

 

was Grandmother

teary-eyed on the steps outside the house

—brown skirt, cream blouse

 

yellowed pearl necklace—

waving us off

in an eager away-motion

 

go, go, her hands said

as if all of a sudden

it were all too much, with us

 

and she couldn’t wait

couldn’t stand our presence

a minute longer

welcome

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You are welcome any time. It is not like some other places where you have to be a certain kind or talk a certain way to gain access. The space here expands the more of us we are, so there is room for everybody who wants it. You may have tried to enter other places and found the door heavy to push open, or even bolted. Here is not like that. We are open, and you are welcome here. The only thing we ask is that you are open too and make it safe for everyone.

wetness

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I love the sea

don’t care much for the size

or the deep of the sea

the cold of the sea

all that wetness

where

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let’s go

where should we go?

let’s go where the direction takes us

let’s ride on the smooth road of least resistance

let’s not force it so much

let’s visit the wind

the one in our back, the one in our hair

wishful

we wanted to reach a place

where our thoughts

and our longing

were dispersed in the wind

and spread over the towns and the cities

where they were met by another wind

who would whisper

about the existence of a place

where no human being got a grip on another’s collar

and convince us

too late?

that this was the way it was meant to be

 

meanwhile we were forced to listen

to the loud voices

the echoing arguments

rumbling all around

trampling one another

in their confined frenzy

 

only the wind

of many strands

and an eerie cry

from the landscape itself

would remind us

of no escape

but that

together

in the Connecticut woods

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wounded
angels

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In Hugo Simberg’s oil painting from 1903, the angel sits on a stretcher carried by two young boys. The white creature is holding on, bandaged head bent down, eyes closed. A bunch of snowdrops is being squeezed between her hand and the stretcher. There is a small gash in one of her wings. Beyond the scene: a bleak landscape, grey still water. The first boy looks ahead. Steady grip – it’s a difficult job. His clothes are a man’s: a dark suit, too big, a black hat. The other boy is taller, facing us: Can’t we see the angel is injured, can’t we see the suffering? The tall boy has outgrown his jacket. The short sleeves let the chill in. Two boys: one was provided with a man’s suit and hat; the other grew out of his clothes. I knew two other boys, in the sixties. Brothers, carrying a broken childhood around between them. I wonder if they ever did get it fixed. The family were refugees from Hungary. Everything and everybody had been left behind. And here were the boys in a random foreign town with their broken angel. They did not much care for my safe and loving upbringing, my doting grandparents. I must be punished, they decided, then pushed me into the stinging nettles.

you

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”young lady?”

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the gregarious conductor on the train

works his way down the aisle

with a friendly word for each passenger

– regulars, I understand

 

at me, the random rider

he punches my ticket

smiles and hands it back

“here you go, young lady,

change at South Norwalk”

 

as a mother of three

long grown and flown

I spend the rest of the ride

pondering his words, his face

his body-language

smile or smirk?

compliment or sarcasm?

a repudiation, on all our behalf

of age and its workings?

älska

to make love in Swedish

is to love

not as in love You

love Chocolate

or love That Beatles song

in the Swedish language

lovemaking requires

removal of the object

the object is irrelevant?

goes without saying?

took off without a word?!

but the rest of the clause

is present, barely noticing

the muffled party music

from the house

a subject: we

the lawn, the tree

the rush of nature all around

then mighty wings

are flapping on the lake

I may love You, you Me –

linguistically that is

beside the point

we love

that’s it

all

everything

 

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