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At Her Grandmother's Table
Melanchrini, do you remember the coral morning when the pigeons gathered in the yard,
soft winged and purling the air with sound?
It was so early when you joined them at the table,
your grandmother spooning out coffee,
placing the mbriki on the stove. Your grandfather sat hushed and stormless, his eyes filled with wings,
peristeria fluttering. The sun waited a little before rising.
A cockerel crowed daybreak and years went by;
now resting your full-grown elbows on the table you wonder why it survives to feed you still.
A constant narcoleptic, a dead guest who slept as in a fairy tale through other people's lives.
Does this table remember the coffee drinkers who sat by its side singing to a grandchild,
as they reached the grains at the base of their cups?
Melanchrini: dark-featured young woman; Mbriki: coffee pot used for making Greek/Turkish Coffee; Peristeria: pigeons
No one is surprised that her body is mostly broken or that her bones show through the shrunken outfit of old age, but there's something of flint about her.
With the others gone she's the only matriarch left.
We arrange chairs around her in a tight semi-circle.
She calls my mother copella, meaning lass elsewhere.
An ice-cream van revs through the afternoon's fever playing a chiming Lili Marlene to hot, empty streets.
It's just us, the twenty-first century is having a siesta;
her icons scan me from walls, I keep my knees shut.
Thea would like to know if I'm married, so she asks my father, who tells her 'yes' and 'to an English man.'
She stares through me to yesterday's village,
where bombs are hidden in melon stalls by heroes and levendes, meaning lads, are hung from ropes.
So, after a bit of spaced-out skinny-dipping in the Lethe,
we headed off for a smoke; heads light and stupid,
emerging from the water worse than an unmemoried babe.
I didn't know the names of the others in our ragged formation,
though I reckon the man third from left, sculling and thrusting,
may have been my father. Forgetting's harder than you think.
Lunch is always asphodel petals. We all long for Hades where there's red meat and wild parties that go on till daybreak.
Afternoons are unceasing here, clouds always bruised.
Idleness is the soil and seed of our souls, but being dead already,
nothing ever grows. I resolve to die again, exhaust the kaleidoscope of self-harm: pills, blades, hemlock, but nothing. I am still dead.
Now and then I hear them scream in Tartarus. I don't pity them,
skies are red over their way, our fires wheeze ash and black,
dull smoke fills our rusting lungs. As in all things, we stand well back.
A Day at the Races
For over twenty years it's been a cinch,
smiling without any come-on or affection.
Her punters see more of her than their wives,
except nowadays head office calls them 'clients'.
She means business, stacking coppers into towers,
fingers plump but lissome, Claddagh-ringed.
Her name is May, spelt in gold around her neck,
she takes money from an old man, who's busy
watching a screen, purple lips parted, lonely teeth,
as he weighs up the impossible odds, coughing guts into a damp hanky. Today's your lucky day she fibs;
some day she'll drag his sheep-skinned corpse out.
Who dares give horses such indecorous names?
Sam Banjo, Mine's a double, Wholelottarosie.
Cut to ladies, daft complex hats, Lancome smiles,
cut to well-fed gent lifting a ribboned trophy —
'wanker' says the man who's lost all track of time,
making confetti of his hopes on Walter De La Mare.
He's itching for a drag of tar but it keeps raining,
fuck it, he snaps, holding his tiny biro like a knife.
So named because you were London's laundry,
a little islet of suds and labour, importing the dirt of Kensington and Chelsea, whilst slum-kitten children mewled around your knees, shedding Mary-blue tears,
and where was mother to clean their faces?
Above a pub, the air sighs with the rags of song and ale.
They bring in the filth through the carriage entrance gate,
see to it all with dolly-peg and mangle, bowls of snow and bubble,
restoring the salt-blush to linen cheeks,
sending home virginity like a birthday present.
A hundred years later, buildings lose their relevance,
frigid redbrick covered in mad, mad mouthfuls of dirty kisses,
smut and rain on windows, a church mistaken for a snooker hall,
aerosoled goal posts on its walls, a halation of dreck,
mud-washed halos above the map of your head.
I think of how all your houses have been demolished,
how no one remembers the island.
How I long to scrub and mend, to take an iron hot from a pagoda stove; straighten and make new.
She is Here
The train's ragged movement suits her bones, the view is mother's ruin,
a concrete map of haphazard streets;
White City, Westway, Wormwood.
No one saw her pass with a bag through the ticket barriers, no one saw her ride the bloodline through the city. She is seventeen, invisible.
The words she was taught to speak are strung from asphalt and pitch,
now she'll meet the world head-on,
it will speak a different language.
September. Someone hands me a copy of Larkin,
thirty eager teenage faces search me for clues.
I will love teaching Larkin, I will embrace Larkin,
'A' Level Syllabi, York Notes, Spark Notes;
we're going to crack this Larkin like a walnut.
October. Larkin has moved in. My photographs are all of Larkin, the face on the television belongs to Larkin. In the crisp mornings birds are tweeting Larkin! Larkin! Larkin!
It's Sunday lunchtime, thirty essays on Larkin scream at me. Was Larkin a misogynist?
Was Larkin a misanthrope? Was Larkin a joker?
I give up and go in search of food. Larkin passes me the leeks and compliments me on my choice of wine.
The term ends. We have done our Christmas quiz on Larkin. 'I hate Larkin,' says a small girl with eczema.
'Tis the season to be Larkin. I go home with a suitcase full of Larkin. On Boxing Day I drink brandy and salute Larkin. I think I'm going Larkin.
Last night when I was asleep, Larkin was on top of me again, grunting. His lenses were all steamed-up,
he enjoys the feel of the living, the way we move.
I fended him off with a hardback of New Women Poets
and woke up, relieved to see someone else.
You may turn over and begin. Mr. Larkin is your invigilator for today. I raise my hand, 'How do you spell MCMXIV?'
He clips the back of my ear with a shatterproof ruler.
I draw a Smurf in the margin, I have forgotten everything there is to know about Larkin. He gives up on me and leaves.
Larkin's shoes echo noisily through the gym.
August. Twisted. They're opening little envelopes,
some smile, some cry. A photographer from the local paper takes photos of students throwing Larkin in the air.
I'm better now, cured of Larkin. The girl with eczema has a lighter. I find a charred copy of High Windows
behind the gym with a used condom and a can of Lilt.
Never such innocence, as I think someone once said.
We used to marvel that she hadn't yet died stunned at the arithmetic of her unceasing life,
the wars, moon landings and assassinations
auntie lived through, as if these events were her,
as if her life were bigger than aphasic bus rides to supermarkets, laddered tights and polish.
Now Auntie's done, we crush ourselves into her tiny flat, pretending not to notice anything,
whilst noticing there's nothing to notice.
A cousin by marriage reminds us she was mad;
mad for almost twenty years, this end's a blessing,
his voice sinking into gin, his suit showy.
On her over-vacuumed carpet we leave a trail of cake and footprint, no cairns or stones,
kicking ourselves for visiting too late.
We search the cupboards just in case, but find only landfill: we're prying children, falling down the wormhole of someone else's memory.
After the wake we start bagging and binning.
It's slow work, like clearing a museum forced to shut, the main exhibit gone.
For a while he's gone back to his first wife,
who's decided to keep him on a mantelpiece with mouth-blown vases on either side.
It means she's had to speak to his mistress.
They have more in common than she realised,
but wonders if her toenails are still painted red.
No one is quite sure where to scatter him,
not her, not their ne'er-do-well grown-up kids,
not even the lady with scarlet toenails.
His wife sits in a sea-fret of white mist,
sighing through her thick cigarette smoke,
she is so confused, she even asks me,
but I'm only a neighbour. For years I thought he'd already died, the way she spoke of him.
Mrs. Hill takes another drag, decides to post him back to his lady friend, confiding in me
even though he's dead, he's still a bastard.
After the wedding breakfast he put her on a proper train,
with a suitcase full of boutique clothing which went black by Christmas, though the faux-fur coats survived for bingo.
She told me that keeping clothes clean was a nuisance,
this was coal country, soot ruined the washing,
spread black dust into every nook of their caravan.
She learned to adapt. There was a toothless geriatric who blew her halitosis kisses every morning, cats yowling most nights, but that wasn't her reason for staying awake.
She was thinking of the little bird she lost, its limp arms like featherless wings. My father buried it near the site.
When they choked on their tears, they blamed the soot.
When I lift my head and see dusk through a pane of glass I feel I need to tell you that the petals are still bending to the light and I need to say that the sky is becoming a painting,
and that each drowsy layer of colour is softening into indigo;
you should also know that birds are still singing over the sound of cars and bikes; that I love the skyline, its hallowed shapes and silhouettes, the knowingness of each distant tower.
I stroke your head under my flesh, the moon curve of you.
When passing through the island which was your only country,
take in the scent of benign jasmine,
speak softly to travellers on the path,
allow them to speak softly to you.
You won't need a passport or papers,
there will be a glint in your eyes which is recognised or understood.
They won't be known from photographs but you will have heard their names spoken, whispered like incantations.
Eat with them , drink with them,
let them go. When the sun falls and you must return, lay bellflowers,
take back their stories, and remember there was no second or third country,
just a place where people came from,
where once before maybe you did too.
Aphrodite at the Beach
Another century spent sunbathing attracting sighs from love-sick men,
a Greek, an Ottoman, a Venetian who bowed to her on the beach wearing flashy, pointed shoes.
She'd grin an alabaster smile when they wrote her name in sand,
knowing a lacy spew of foam would wash away their traces.
Now the littoral air is filled with Russian verbs, other tongues,
and a tired Sri-Lankan emerges from a shoddy row of beach cafés,
done with grease and taking orders for a day. Salt brushes his cheek,
he breathes in her scent over brine,
over blue, and feels an urge to sing.
You must have sipped from the water on the night they took you in.
Sometimes I hear the river murmur when you cry, so I slip underwater.
Hooves suddenly, this is how it feels;
I must have fallen asleep again so I rise, making sure the curtains are drawn and notice the cloth is fraying
to a dull peach. Bear with me,
I am not used to the metallic cadences of machines, or the sight of ghosts out-staring me in mirrors.
You sleep now, but the river wants to rush in and I am struggling to keep the curtains drawn. I breathe in the air now dense with water, we should be quiet.
Come here, copella, I'll tell you of the old ways,
of how a girl once bore a child, swaddled to sleep in the threads of a spider's web.
No one chose to marvel his unfathered birth,
no oil, no sign of a cross in dirt to spare him.
The women told her to lie still; she wouldn't fight them.
I Woke into Birth
as if I'd been veined with forgetting juice as if the room held the whiteness of a moth as if I were a pin cushion for sterilized sharps as if a rumpled grin had been sliced into my abdomen as if surgeons were washing up in the bowl of my womb as if I were a matryoshka, exposing lathed children as if the clock's hands pointed like switchblades as if I were stitched back with threads of spun glass as if the blood on the swabbed floor were ordained as if the memory of pain lingered in its withering scent as if a hunter had slit the belly of a doe to reveal butterflies.
Asleep in an aquarium, I reached for their bodies.
An Unremarkable Wardrobe
Some thoughts are like wardrobes.
It's impossible to take them anywhere,
so much easier to creep inside, pushing at the backbone of tigered rosewood,
finding a nook of permanent winter and a Snow Queen making promises of sleigh-rides over invisible hills.
And yes, I could leave, but I choose her glassy world over mine. I breathe and exhale frail mists of sugared icing,
play among her creatures of stone,
sleeping on bear-skin until I can't recall the scent of dead women's clothes.
She tempts my lips with cool sweetness,
uneaten platters of Turkish Delight,
teasing almost, almost but never quite.
The girls pass us by, all volume and lilt in their weekend tribes, hollering, invulnerable.
We call it a night to the scraping of heels,
sleepwalking through ring-shaped streets
far away from the jewel-box fronts of shops and bars, into the city's midnight.
We lost the way home under a sickle-shaped moon,
you and I diminishing with every footfall.
I wanted to turn back to the pinwheels of light thrown from the centre of the city we'd left,
the snaking filaments of liquid electricity and sticky crowds who shield us from ourselves.
Fable town; our halls of pleasure and distortion,
the absinthe-green light, hollowing your cheeks.
Instead we murmur sobering goodbyes our voices weaving into the pallium of dark.
You fall into the calyx of my memory and bury yourself under clocks.
Excerpted from "Melanchrini"
Copyright © 2012 Maria Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of Nine Arches Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
At Her Grandmother's Table,
A Day at the Races,
She is Here,
Aphrodite at the Beach,
I Woke into Birth,
An Unremarkable Wardrobe,
A History of Screaming,
Here's to You,
According to Foxy,
Three Things I Learnt in Church,
Ealing Hospital, August 2000,
Escaping the Singer,
The Year We Don't Talk About,
My Uncle's Creed,
The Language of Slamming Doors,
The Summer of Controlled Experiments,
On Being a Man Admired by Ernest Hemingway,
Laying Down a Bone,
The Carnival of Souls,
A Little Night Music,
The Cleaning Lady of Elsinore,
The Murderesses' Cookbook,
The Peveril of the Peak,
Felling a Maiden,