Zimbabwe, January, 1990    an extract


Something is banging. The firelight shudders,

crashes the walls to the sound ramming the room.

I look out groping the darkness and touch

eye to tiny eye a bird’s bleak stare.

A whirl of feathers hurls in fury at the glass

tripping fears of possession, of the familiar

shorting to the feral. Its mate attacks our flank.

Only the blinds restore night’s equilibrium.


“Where is chicken cooked in chocolate?”

Only trivia appealed from the meagre bookcase

of romance and murder and old magazines.

“Two men disappeared in 1974, name one.”

Inyangani, mothballed in cloud, waits like a lion;

Patrick warns us to first ask permission from

Chief Tangawera’s tribe, they built it after all;

those who trespass have vanished off its slopes.


Preserved, a transparency of flowers bobbing

on riotous currents of air the window resists.

An exuberant butterfly attempting to land

on a vase of flowers bounces off the glass.

I want to climb Inyangani but suspect

that it’s much further than it looks.

Cloud is spewing its guts off the mountain

they belong here together, wind and mountain.


A decade old Illustrated London News announces

`Reconciliation in Zimbabwe’, a paean to Rhodes,

who alone and unarmed quelled the Matabele while,

‘At the time one of the richest and most powerful men

in the world . . . Peace, Justice, Liberty

were the three principles Rhodes maintained.’

The anger of the dead drops from the thorns to dust,

blood belongs to the earth and belongs to the dead.


“Leave the wife, push her aside”; “Grinding up

the water gourd”; “Carry off, throw away”.

These famines are host to history

but over the mountains a day’s walk away

people starve and more mass graves

materialise from the war ten years ago.

Aids is an epidemic blamed on aid workers,

vultures circle a corrosive blue sky.


Fifty years ago this continent exported food.

Thirty years ago she was self-sufficient.

The trend is a herd of elephants grinding poverty.

Let’s blame dictators, witches, wars, corruption.

Let’s blame subsidies, drought, difficult topologies.

Let’s blame investment and obsolete technology.

The open palm of my hand is very soft and white,

more gold repays debt than arrives in aid.


We act disappointed democracy is avoiding Africa

but it’s a process to work on, how to live together.

It’s not enough to say there’s no democracy, there’s more;

we forget the bloody past that paid our account

the legacy we left, of crazy borders, insecurities

and roads to cash crop infrastructures.

Pliny wrote “Always something new out of Africa”

but not while tribal oligarchies and armies save the world.


In a famous exploit from the war of liberation

a nun smuggled Mugabe and Tekere past here

to Chief Tangawera who’d taken to the mountains

when his land was zoned for white farming.

Mugabe now one of the richest men in Africa

is asking the people for a one party state.

Tekere, the only opposition, is unprincipled,

perverse and will not be given a chance.


What if Jefferson delayed, sent Thoreau west

instead of Lewis and Clark? Or disinterred

Anne Bradstreet. Or what if Rhodes ordered

Tennyson here instead of Starr Jameson?

Interested in the lot, following Pliny

wanting a poem from the scraps of data,

a native cyclopedia from one end of the garden

to the mountains, from Aardvark to Zhiza.


Patrick was surprised I wished to hear

an African mass but not so surprised

that he remembered to ask at the store.

No consumer durables available:

No bamboo  lute or radio

No beggars  eggs  ice or pain,

No grief  no rhyme  no full moon

lightened    lightened       lightened              lightened


The view is liberating, elements evolve daily;

Chikemo, a distant granite asteroid has become

detailed as a barnacle. The clouds tumble

into patterns and birds are revealed in pairs

bossing vague territories. Solitude’s elusive,

even for Plotinus ashamed of his body, Sarapion

who sang “I’m deader than you” or Sostratus

the pagan who lived off honey on Mount Parnassus.


Han Shan’s six arts are evading practise:

Etiquette – well, Patrick calls me Sah;

Music – I’ve whistled back at the ravens;

Archery – The grass stems would break;

Charioteering – None; Mathematics – Compass bearings;

Calligraphy – Fashioned on my T shirt.

But a practise is just that, praxis,

for its own sake, more tai chi than poetry.


“A ragged coat will cover this phantom form.”

‘Repulsing the Monkey’ my feet catch in the springy

turf, a butterfly flutters through cloud hands

but I lose it, seeing a sunbird for the first time,

in the iridescent hovering I feel mortally inept.

I loosen up, breathe, draw the crisp air in

through my soles and kick as if my foot would

fly off and disappear down the mountain.


“Out of work our only joy is poetry.”

I’m inside,recording a magical process, on the edge,

a practise like the form, flexing the unexpected

into life, or death in obdurate language that

asphixiates bird song and drags on its flight.

How much lyrical interference can Cold Mountain take?

This morning I woke with a phrase reverberating

inside my skull – DEAD ADVERTISING SPACE.


“Reading books won’t save you from death.”

I’m writing on paper bleached close to my skin

a happy medium for touch & exploration.

Today’s fun filling the empty colours of the page,

my eyes nose the window’s depth indigenous

to an accelerating script and its gradual accretion.

The other senses satisfied sometimes engrossed,

dependent appetites confirmed, the body working well.


“Everything, I guess, is a matter of fate;

Still, I’ll try the exam again this year.”

I did it as a joke then enlisted, am lucky to be here

celebrating my birthday. Morning again, another chance

to ask what to do with the rest of my life.

I never do, but reading Han Shan am aware of how

we are much too easily satisfied; tai chi Mondays,

Das Capital evenings and reincarnation weekends.


A painful slog over the ridgeback is rewarded

by lunch at Troutbeck, a birthday treat with

drinks on the terrace, Swiss chalet in view

of the golf course and a brace of waiters repeating

“Yes, thank you sir” when asked a question.

“Oh this must give you wonderful inspiration”

said a Rhodey we’d got talking to. ‘Well usually,

it’s a delayed reaction, like shock”, I replied.


We were warned of torrential rain and terrestrial cloud

but Inyangani frequently appears sealed for freshness,

each detail of depression/orientation revealed,

sometimes sunsets repeat sunrise and stars compete.

Somedays the mist pumps through either side of us

banks below and feathers a slight slanting rain,

and the waterfall, a bright cut in the skin,

disappears together with the whole mountain.


Lying back childwise, I read the clouds:

a woman is lying on her back, opening her legs,

black cloud pushes through her stomach;

huge sponges that mop up the light,

the heavy stuff is on its way back again.

I’m still waiting for the one hot day

Patrick says will come, when the kudu rise

from the hidden gullies and graze the open ground.


“What artists have accomplished is realising

that there’s only a small amount of stuff

that’s important . . . I truly do want to know

how to describe clouds. But to say there’s a piece

over here with that much density, and next to it

a piece with this much density, to accumulate

that much detailed information, I think is wrong.”

The future of poetry swallow dives onto the present.


Inyanga sunset
Inyanga sunset
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