Five poems

Ess — Dash — En

write it like a name of god
and hide the heat at its heart
hill it up with dense and peaty darkness
pile it high with thunderhead clouds
over and over it returns eternal

some send up prayers by the schedule it sets
and herd the stones of their field in adulation
all that’s growing on this earth requires it
it goes on shimmering as the scale teeters
on a fulcrum between satiety and devastating excess
overwhelmed, the vitreous planets of my eyes
shutter and batten against it

in every age the clattering, blithering despots
boast of unleashing a power to outshine it
while their people famish on a diet of grass
and murder pain with poison
if once upon an ancient time
two warring nations witnessed nighttime at midday
and took it as a sign to drop their weapons and join hands
let history for once repeat a wise decision —

o universe, send us an eclipse and shake us to our senses

Forgotten in the Forest

two years since she was taken
the girl is chosen for betrothal
wrapped in elaborate machinery and adorned
with a tripwire and a timer beneath her garment

all those months they thought
that she was chanting verses learned by rote
her mind and hands were deft
and building their undoing

when she pulls the cord
the dark cloth that covers her blows skyward
releasing red-billed weaver-birds
in a roiling feathered cloud

a multitude shrilling over the marketplace
back toward the captors’ compound
where the shadow of their wings brings endless dusk
and with it ghosts

she has reset the clockwork at the heart
of the device to trigger the hive
the air teems with an insurgent hum
as the swarm gathers and homes in

honey seeps balm through every crevice
of the mud walls of the camp
a languorous sweetness disarms
the abductors who have not already vanished

snakes hang luminous as lanterns from the trees
or map a pathway in the dust below
for the girl to lead the others out of the forest
and into the next uncertainty

do we think the man reclining on his cushioned seat of power
did what he could to find and free them?
ask the spiders who know his lassitude so well
they could have stitched his gilded slippers to the floor

Recruiting Video

Dear Brethren
there is something happening here:

after dawn prayers
as our leader spoke of our duties to the infidel
asphodel after asphodel flowered
from his mouth and every other orifice
it was a wonder and a horror both
spent and unrecognisable
we put him to bed
an army of tall stalks in starry bloom
has overtaken the compound

Executioner Brother’s sword
so lovingly whetted
has a djinn inside it
which spins him like a tireless top
he cannot let go
but neither can he do his work
if only there were grain to scythe here
we could set him to it

meanwhile our arsenal is evolving
guns grow blunted tines and there is nothing
to do on manoeuvres
but rake patterns in the sand
we have noticed hummingbird drones
recording our activities
the beauty we create will be widely known

our pregnant sisters in their lonely outposts
tend their nests of ammo
but gestation’s gone awry and would-be
mothers of destruction shed all modesty
let down their hair and sing out loud
as heaps of rounds and magazines hatch
geodes that dazzle and a clutch of ammonites
whose trapped dragonflies take wing

O, Brethren transfixed in your distant bedrooms
illumined by the blue flicker of screens
the pixels are undoing into something new
whatever all-embracing force is reinventing us
we send you this message:
it is great
there is no god but this
gracious and merciful opening

Finding Rama’s Bridge

the elephant moves through the forest
silent with unwavering purpose
her skin a shifting star-map of leafy shadow
she and the tiny deserter have shed all trappings of war
behind them tongues of fire chatter and raven the last of the village
a scorched well and a rubble hearth mute witnesses
as they cross the river where flames won’t follow

the child soldier has painted the mountainous curve
of the elephant’s back
with the wild unblinking eyes of a goddess
to ward off dangers they cannot see
when they must close their own and rest
the dark hush of leaves soothes and shelters
their fitful bittersweet dreaming —

daylight comes keening like sharp birdsong through the canopy
already she can smell the beckoning salt of the ocean
that lapped at the brim of a brittle and fragmented sleep
when at last she and the child emerge from the trees
they find not a driftwood beach but a boneyard —
wrecked hulls, thwarts, ribs, and blood-leathered scraps of cloth
cast back by ocean currents and the gyre of tireless strife

standing at the edge of an impossible choice
they chance upon traces of a causeway the receding tide reveals
a necklace of limestone shoals strung between two lands
a relic of the old stories about a bridge built by monkeys
the elephant wades in with the child tenacious as a barnacle
they make their way from one sandbank to the next
to reach a shore where peace might still be found

Ayatollah in the Moon

on their last night before leaving
two sisters stand on the balcony
turning the burnished glow
of their young faces
to the fullness of the low-slung moon
where it’s said the Ornament of God
looks down upon the citizens
x-ray vision from his dried-barberry eyes
probes their minds for wayward thought
and whisper-thin traces of dissidence

do the girls see him
in that lunar countenance?
it shines on inhuman and distant
neither stirred nor tranquil
beyond the gravity
of earthly turmoil and delusions
still they will carry the story with them
to keep the shape of home intact
as they bear a suitcase precious as a holy ark
across the wilderness of space

the suitcase takes a place of reverence
in their new bedroom
beside the phonograph and stack of 45s
they open it behind closed doors
and unscroll their mother’s long silk scarf
faint attar of rose and smoke still readable
in its beloved folds
rocking heel to toe they leaf through snapshots
pronouncing names of faces and locations
so as not to forget or be forgotten

they sleep beneath the ruffled blue firmament
of the canopy bed whose wooden ribs
recall the inside of a boat overturned and beached
a filament of light piercing through a breach in the curtains
might be a streetlamp or a message
their mother sent on particles of moonbeam
she is safe and will come when the gates are open
there is a sound in the dark sky
like needles of ice snapping apart
a constellation stretched to its very limits

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"