Into your hands
I commend the
beating of tonight’s
eggs. This will
be the last meal
of solid food.
When my Dad was in the final stages of his cancer, one of the few things he ate was scrambled eggs. That period of my life still circles in my mind. It was a strange time when we all continued with the daily activities of feeding him and being with him, neither realising nor acknowledging that he was actually dying.
Bell-like, round and clear
Hopeful and transparent
as a copper bauble,
it lifts the congregation.
From the sanctuary
the maiden’s voice soars
as she elongates the siren call.
I am not a groupie. I’d rather spend my days in a hermit’s hut on a mountainside with books, green tea and yoga for company instead of people. I find people politics and inane conversation immensely annoying. But I keep seeking out institutionalised assemblies. In these experiences I find vestiges of tribal inheritances, which seem to inspire my creative work. At least, this is my theory as to why I keep seeking out groups and gatherings which jar with my loner’s soul. Being part of a martial arts academy is one example. Volunteering in various organisations and an ongoing relationship with institutions of learning, such as schools and universities, are others. Then there’s church attendance, which has influenced a few recent poems (Just Punishment, Let them eat).
Attending church takes me back to my childhood and familiar language patterns. My father claimed a deep personal religiosity. When we were children, it was a weekly parental pleasure for him to walk me and my brother to Sunday School. After the morning’s service proceedings we would play outside. He would siphon egg sandwiches, Salticrax with cheese and little cakes from the adult’s tea-table for us. (The Anglican Church to this day offers an excellent post-service tea spread.) He would spend a long time explaining things to us like the flat stones in the graveyard, the gruesome Stations of the Cross and the purple covering-cloths at Lent.
Today’s poem is drawn from a recent church experience during which I was struck by the clear, enchanting voice of the young woman who lead the singing. Her voice was neither trained nor very brilliant, but it moved me. In that moment, a flood of young maidens singing swept over me. I saw maidens with harps in old villages. I imagined maidens next to seas and riverbanks singing as they worked with others or alone to keep themselves company. I saw maidens next to firesides singing with the transparency of youthful hope, watched by audiences of older women and men, who in that moment were reminded of their youthful expectancy. This memory suspends itself like a copper bauble, picks up the fire-light and lifts them in the moment. It was all this that propelled me to write the poem.
The title references the “Libera me” at the end of Verdi’s Requiem. Instead of an awe-inspiring chorus with trained soprano, the single lay voice of this poem rings out unaffected and haunting. The siren call in this context is not entirely destructive. It is hypnotic, but it re-directs its listeners towards hope. The catch is that for many of them this hope is a bauble of the past, but it still frees them.
It only occurred to me years later that our absence from the house on a Sunday meant that my hard-working, music teacher mother could have a morning of quiet respite. At the end of 1987 and in early 1988, my Mum was also pregnant with my sister. Now when I look back at those memories, I add this layer. While we were running around the grounds of Christ the King on Lower Milner Road, stuffing our kiddie faces with egg sandwiches (on white bread! With crusts cut off!) and staring at faux-granite gravestones, my Mum was at home with a growing belly which contained my little sister.
My sister is now big – a maiden herself in her later twenties. She plays the harp and occasionally sings, though not in church. Her siren work with words is in a different field. She is a journalist.
It is from this poem that my first volume derives its title. In this prosaic moment, in which two people finish a meal at a restaurant, there is also a numinous communion. The objects and the moment between the diners are frozen in time like a still life, or a memento mori. I find it most intriguing that at least eight years passed from the moment of the meal to the poem’s creation. Because I know you’re wondering, the other diner is my Dad. When I was in my late teens and early twenties he would treat me once a month, near his payday, for lunch in Cape Town’s city centre. In the weeks leading up to meal, he would bring home menus from prospective cafés. Pouring over the meal options and discussing the ambience was almost as important as the day itself.
The moment in this poem is based on a vague memory of a meal we had at an Austrian restaurant, Träumerei, which used to operate on St George’s Mall. (At one time it had a sibling restaurant in Franschhoek, a wine route town renowned for its cuisine.) In my memory it is a bright, sunny Cape Town day and we are sitting on the white painted balcony overlooking the mall, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare. It’s that moment of repose between the end of the meal, the paying of the bill and continuing with the hustle of the afternoon.
My Dad worked as a humble council clerk for the city council. Seldom did he seem to have money for practicalities like shoe repairs, a new suit or the ‘phone bill. In fact, once he spent the household bill money on tickets for all five of us to see a visiting Russian Cossack dance troupe. My mother was not pleased when they cut off the water. But my Dad had a rich poetic spirit, and he found the pennies for lunchtime dates, Saturday coffees and the regular offerings of a single rose or carnation for my mother.
My Dad passed away on the 5th May 2009 after a battle with colon cancer and it is to his memory I dedicate “Shining in Brightness.”
Shining in Brightness my first volume of poetry presents 20 poems selected from twelve years’ worth of writing and two accompanying, explanatory essays. You can preview and purchase it here (via blurb.co.uk)
I tweet regularly about my current food yens – muesli, coffee and London dining – and occasional attempts at improving my German. I’m on Twitter as @BeadedQuill