Jenna Mervis’s Woman Unfolding

Jenna Mervis is a poet and freelance writer living in Cape Town. Her work has been featured in several South African journals including Carapace, Green Dragon, New Contrast, New Coin and the 2009 PEN Studzinski Literary Award anthology New Writing From Africa. Born and schooled in Durban, Jenna studied Journalism at Rhodes University and obtained an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town.

“There are degrees of loss.
Mostly the loss of oneself in another:
myself in you.
I catch myself
for the next skin.”
from ‘Shedding Skin’
“These are poems of unfolding. A brain in limbo; a mother’s warnings, unheeded; the diving and swimming in life; fiancés who evolve into husbands; a child not yet conceived; poems birthed so that the reader follows the evolution of a word into something tangible, erect, alive.”
Jump In!
Jump in! I’m shivering pot-bellied
silicone-capped for a cold water
swim, there’s drizzle, the water’s dark
blue and I can see the crocodile
mosaiced at the bottom of the pool:
he has swallowed a child before me.
Dive in! Now I’m slick black-strapped
costume queen with long arm strokes
and foamy kicks that keep me stationary;
red-crowned buoy girl off the mark
with an aquatic slap, a snort to sink
then launch off the crocodile’s head: up for air.
Move in! We’re skinny-dipper racers
on your marks, doubled over, block
mounted, gun-ready to plunge in.
My crocodile has paddled to another
pond where new children tickle his scales.
So, hold my hand, show me how deep to dive.
The Waiting Room
My daily clock-in at the screen
begins with a mouthful of cereal
to the hum of a fan on a hot day.
From above, I watched you leave,
spied your curled crown between
the wisteria’s tendrils and lilac sprays,
kept you in sight until the fourth step.
I know well what comes after –
a key turning, then the splutter of a tired
engine you keep meaning to service
then the scrape of rubber on tar
then an absence of noise, a breach
in daily sounds of builders and dogs
as we all stop to watch you go.
There are things to be done,
‘woman’ things like laundry and dishes –
tasks you always saved for weekends.
And this brain of mine is in limbo,
waiting for some kind of response
so that I can move forward
get on with other things, other projects.
I am a car in neutral, idling.
I’m envious of the purpose to your waking –
the way you peel out of bed confident, naked.
You know where you are going: to work,
to that desk claimed as your territory
with photographs of me.
And you know what you must do,
until you return home, definite as a full-stop,
to me. I am a plastic carry bag, snagged, stuck.
Is this how it feels to be lost? Pushing against
the world, contracting into oneself, nauseous?
To gradually sink beneath communication
reverting to cavernous grunts and sighs,
typing, not talking. Mute. I am, I am
a compass needle. I am static, out of range.
And when you return home to me, I find
a purpose enclosed in your arms, in the shoes
you kick off, in your unbuttoned shirt.
Then you ask what I’ve been doing
and I pack away the truth behind white lies
and fold in fables of a full day
because I have left most of myself
upstairs in my room of waiting.
Winter From A Balcony
five o clock winter sun on the mountainside breaks
through clouds in zigzag shine between icicle
gums; there’s more rain in those grey tenements
overhead, more chilled rasps of air to be inhaled
or fought off with fleece and fake fur; even the eyes
are cold enough to freeze tears, and snot stops short
of nostrils’ thresholds crusting like stalactites and mites;
I’m pissing coffee, tea, hot anything from the kettle;
clasped tight to my stomach is a bottle of warmth
and later a man who’ll turn in at night with his hot
head and warm-blooded panting to heat our sheets;
or an electric blanket you can’t marry or cook for
but want to kiss each time you crawl under its skin;
time drags the sun across the sky like a reluctant dog
bucking at the end of its leash not another step further
on its nimbostratospheric chain soaked with rain –
the cumulative effect of afternoons like this one; even
the house shivers and curses, brick by brick, the drizzle.

My physio calls the shape of my back a Cell C curve
and I can see for myself
slouched in front of the mirror
that she is not wrong.
push your pelvis down
Which I do – when I find it that is –
until my spine unfurls into an s-shape
and I feel oddly upright
drop your ribs
lengthen your neck, C2 to C6
Which I try, I swear I do,
but I can’t locate the muscles to lower the ribs
and my turkey neck is straining to isolate C2
in its vertebral alphabet
in order to elongate
and I feel like a National Geographic illustration
plotting early man’s evolution
into homo erectus.
This is my body in stretch and flex:
a bent wire.
If muscles have memory,
then what if they never forget
my failures and losses?
Each day another kink
in the wire mesh,
the creased skin at the base of my head
just a sheet slept on two many times.
Then it’s not back ache I suffer,
but nostalgic interspinals
and regretful intercostals,
and a torso transformed into
a muscular scrapbook.
What if good posture depends
on a mind sitting upright
and all my efforts
are preposterous?
from Woman Unfolding (Modjaji Books, 2011).
Order Woman Unfolding from
Visit Jenna’s website.

Date: Thursday, 3 November
Time: 17h30 to 19h30
Venue: The Book Lounge, corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets
Karin Schimke will introduce Jenna Mervis and her work.

One thought on “Jenna Mervis’s Woman Unfolding

  1. Pippa Tran

    At a first read, I can see where you are coming from….You are definitely going somewhere.
    I enjoyed reading these poems.

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