Fiona Zerbst is a freelance journalist who covers an eclectic range of topics, including wildlife conservation, physical fitness, and personal finance. Poetry aside, she is passionate about running and martial arts, and she recently completed a Field Guides Association of South Africa beginner snake course. She writes a minimalist blog.
The making of the carpet
It was made in Baluchistan, by hand,
where sky is dry, like sand. Heavy
with reds and tawny thread, it was rolled,
a saddle of sorts, for an old man on a camel.
Over the stones, the pebbles, dusky roads,
dustier by the hour, held at borders
on the night routes to Baluchistan, then freed –
centre of gold and ivory, warm as light,
blue and aubergine fringing the white
and gold where you touch it. Know it could fly,
this carpet, over the thrice-nine lands
where princes lie waiting, the seller said,
fables wry on his tongue, long-worn.
Its pedigree may be dubious, yes:
brown threads, greased wool, knots, the whole
knuckled lot woven in huts, but fashioned
of light like chipped sky. Look at it, here:
midnight warmth of a tangerine flower,
honeyed, giving its fragrance to air.
It becomes the colour these fingers made,
like a miracle, fresh, unseen before.
Like the gasp of life, like sudden blood
that feeds a vein: amazing, amazed; and just
like all life, suddenly possible anywhere.
Of an afternoon, you can catch
the clasp of this beautiful Chinese box:
trace hexagonal dragons over
the edge, or fix a pattern of thread
that’s meant to be fire, blooming always
out of the curls of pearl-polished snouts…
When those dragons glide off the lid,
they scratch against you, claws in your fingers,
breath in your hair. In one afternoon,
they’ll slide into you and give you fire.
This is no myth: you’re scratched and singed,
spattered with red. Though you’ve hidden
them once again – that box on a high shelf –
you could still find them. Ecstasy. Dread.
Akmatova: a photograph
And that woman dancing there will eternally burn.
You’re looking back on evening
from night, and hardly breathing,
as though the air were stone.
Perhaps your eyes are tender
and shrewd with new surrender
to love, but you’re alone.
When Leningrad is burning
the proudest heads are turning
from what has gone before.
And half of you is grieving
as half of you is leaving
the bonfires of the war.
They say you stand, pretending
love, without defending
those angered, sadder souls.
But sadness is a crime so
your eyes can never show
why swallowed words are coal.
‘Photographer unknown: Chinese courtesan (?) c 1875’
He’s no more unknown than you
although his face is out of sight,
and you’re not your features’ sum,
caught by lens, intention, light.
Such is your round and powdered mask:
like a plate without a name
or number, tinctured by a past
unknown, engraved within a frame.
Wallpaper flowers bloom beside
the carved bench where you partly lie,
beneath a lantern, on your side
though frontal in some cynic’s eye.
You’re bound in silence. When and if
your trade, like his, is of such ilk
as makes you court exposure, know
he’s hard: you’re timeless, made of silk.
Sir Stanley Spencer, 1891 – 1959
They called you “the likeable eccentric” –
even as a boy it was the Bible
and Bach in the evenings. You had to be
a painter of the still, heavy things:
“The Farm Gate”, “The Last Supper, Cookham”,
and “Cookham from Englefield”. Always
you clung to the earth of your birthtown,
turned it incessantly to staunch
some longing for the holy. Painted it
the scene of a final resurrection:
introduced wan, washed figures
pushed up through lilies and roses:
the dead, emerging like neighbours,
knowing each other, not eroded.
Sacred things were somehow too perfect.
Flowers unearth and unwreathed
from graves heaved open, the shabbiest
beiges and greys of your landscapes,
show us how nearly you came
to knowing the beautiful unsaved.
Ever unchanged in advanced age
you occupied what you described as
“an interesting, lonely furrow” –
your grave life throwing its shadow
along this book where your loved ones
are ferried across leaden Thames
and onto the green banks of Cookham.
Edwin Arlington Robinson, 1869 – 1935
Scanning the faces of another time
to fill your lines with character and pain
you search, beyond them, for the mark of Cain,
the fatal flaw, the gestures of a mime.
Your men and women, like the bloodless leaves
of winter, sodden in the darkening rain,
stick to your pages; uneasily remain
to illustrate what each sick heart conceives.
Your dazzling suicides, divided men
and hermits relishing a dream of sin,
the crises of your heroes, tired of light:
these things compel you to take up your pen,
to pause, and sadly smile, and to begin
to wash the stains; to understand the night.
In praise of loss
Until the loss
Lose at cards.
Refuse to play.
That it doesn’t matter.
The men you know
To other women.
Refuse to play.
It’s no shame
To spare your neck.
Let it in,
Of this loss
That is dying, living.