Lessons

I read ancient words
from a borrowed bible
to a room of squirming,
squirrely children,
and when Jesus says
Consider the birds,
their young bodies
rise off the
dusty carpet
and their arms
remember the wings
their shoulder blades
once held.
They have forgotten
the bible and
become the birds.
I consider the girl
in the corner of the room,
her mouth and eyes
perfect Os, her arms
slow and angular,
like a pterodactyl or
a baby owl.

The Foolish Questions

I ask the vast uncaring blue
above my head what great
adventure I am meant for,
what beautiful significance
waits for me,
but the sky only opens its
pale wide face, welcomes
the sacred ibis with its
stark white lines, startling call,
unselfconscious as it follows
the current of wind or
its own mysterious urge
to fly again this morning.
Below, the bark of the eucalyptus
cracks imperceptibly into
thin sheets of paper
that no one will gather into
careful piles, that will
become the damp softness
of death and earth.
The tree asks no questions
of its sky, soil, rows of climbing ants,
only reaches peeling arms
into the deep pool of space,
waiting for life to have its way.

On a Nairobi Street

When the old woman
wearing black tire sandals,
her back bent under forty years,
maybe fifty, of stick bundles
wrapped with the frayed rope
that cuts across her forehead,
her neck bearing a weight that
should break it, has to hurry,
shuffle her feet more quickly,
lean into the wind with her immense load
and narrow limbs to make way
for the sleek roaring animal
that is the vehicle I control
from on high in an air conditioned
capsule of itunes and cupholders,
I think about the privileges of power
and I am afraid of the prophecies
in ancient texts.

Grace

Sometimes, after we have clattered
to the table, elbowed each other,
hungry and rushed,we pause a quick moment
to say grace,

as though grace is something to recite
and not something to pour over each other,
not something we gasp for and lean on
in the dark night.

I wonder if grace before these steaming pots
might not sound more like a poem,
or, by necessity, a series of poems.

One poem about the pig that spent
its dusty days in a thick and pressing barn,
left its mother too soon, ran too little,
grunted its lines in the creation chorus
as loudly as it was able, with only
the skinny farm boy to hear it,
tried to live its one destiny with
all the enthusiasm it could muster
before the day it was dragged
to the corner of the lot where
they do the slaughtering,
saw its first stunned glimpse
of that blazing light in the sky
before it fell into the deep black,
its blood running in rivulets
in the already red mud, its strong
hind legs sliced over and over,
thin into bacon strips
that we scoop onto our plates,
complaining about the rain.

The next poem would be about the nyayo beans,
grown somewhere by someone- how is it
I can’t recall ever seeing a field of beans,
don’t know if they are picked by women
with baskets in this country,
are snapped from vines when they are green
then dried in the sun for days or months, or are
already dark speckled purple as they grow?

Where are the poets of the bean fields
to describe the curving green vines,
the sweat between the shoulder blades
of the bean picker?

Of course my family would lose patience,
not staying to listen to the poem about the cow
pouring her rich milk into cold buckets,
not to sustain her young bleating ones,
but to be carried away in diesel trucks
to the places where cheese is mysteriously
coaxed from that creamy life,

or the poem of the black mud
cradling the rice field,

of the island that birthed
the surprising peppercorn.

Much easier to say the grace
than to bow before it,
indebted and bereaved.

Morning

When I walked,
this morning,
down a gravel path,
through trees lean and
indifferent, ivy climbing
up their bark like
lace, like hope,
I found my way
through the dampness
to a circle of flat stones
and knelt there,
noticed their hard edges
press into the hard edges
of my knee caps.

When the wind slid through
the branches between me
and the grey light, it
tugged at the frailest
leaves, the yellow ones
who had finished their
great role in the greenness
of things. They loosened
their grip on the branch
that had been their only home
and surrendered their
spot on the stage.

As they fell around me
like petals dropped
by a shy and distracted flower girl,
I bowed to their beautiful exit.

Prayer

If there is a place for me
in this immense unfolding,
may it be alongside the sleek
black slug that moves with
so much confidence in the space
around it, so untroubled by the
trembling chaos.
May my contribution here be the
sweet breathing of the
streaky seed eater – how
small the lungs of a bird
must be, how rapidly they
must work – who pushes creation
forward towards some
invisible point with its
nonchalance, its commitment
to the task of seeds and flying.
I confess this peerhood is
wishful thinking, my existence
too entangled in the machinery,
the diesel exhaust pouring into
pulsing bird lungs.

The Neighbourhood

I am a foreigner
on this side of the world,
moving in streets
I have known for decades.
My body tries to forget
the growing it has done
under the equator,
tries to become again
the northern creature it once was.
But it moves awkwardly here,
doesn’t remember these rhythms,
moves too self-consciously,
each step and conversation
too intentional.
I have lost the
privilege of carelessness,
of moving with ease
in a place your body
knows like water.
Home has become
a difficult theory,
a mystery I stumble toward.

The Termite

The termite works its way
out of the clods of dirt
to burst upwards, stretching
its papery wings in the
terrible wetness of that rain
for one glorious dripping night,
then lets its wings fall one by one,
like dried leaves letting go
of their small branch,
leaving the termite to wiggle through
the dark puddles and die,
its great legend already ending,
its turn on the wide stage
over as it disappears under the wet soil
to become food for someone else’s glory,
the earthworm, maybe, or the daffodil.
When did I decide my breathing, walking,
shedding of skin was somehow
more spectacular than
the soaring and falling
of the courageous termite?

Bone Dust

My grandfather cleared
the brush off a square of
prairie, woke in the black of
winter to build barns, plow
long fields of canola, wheat.

My father grew with those
fields, learned the curve
of the machinery with eager
calloused hands, gave
his strongest years to
the soil, straw, animals
of that place.

I sleep late, carry my
coffee and poetry to a
a grove of banana trees,
stain my bare feet with the
soil of a place my grandfather
never knew, a land that
holds someone else’s
bones, the blood of their striving.

What pearl of great price
have I traded for these
lazy days under the equator,
which square of land will
welcome the dust of my bones,
knowing I withheld from it
my strongest years?

Prodigal

If my grandmother’s soul

could fly with the soft

grey feathers

of a young hawk

or the fierce

curved beak

of a great eagle

(who knows if

the winds that

blew away

the powder

of her bones

have left her

more fierce

or more gentle),

would she find me

here on the far

side of the earth,

tucked under

these strange trees,

watching the constellations

point the wrong direction?

Could she forgive

my betrayal

of the homestead

that cradles the dust

of her wrinkled skin,

and land on the bougainvillea

outside my window

to bless me with

her eagle eyes?