Chris McCully: Selected Poemsby Chris McCully
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Featuring sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, and translations from Old English, this compilation by Dutch poet Chris McCully spans 16 years of his work. A meditation on extinction, this supple, sparing verse celebrates the fragile place in which we live as it reveals the author’s engagement with language and the poetic form. Inspired in part by Anglo Saxon elegy, this rich and unique collection touches upon themes such as civility, memory, friendship, art, and literature.
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By Mimi Khalvati
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2000 Mimi Khalvati
All rights reserved.
from In White Ink
In women's speech, as in their writing, that element which never stops resonating ... is the song: first music from the first voice of love which is alive in every woman ... A woman is never far from 'mother' ... There is always within her at least a little of that good mother's milk. She writes in white ink.
Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa
The Woman in the Wall
Why they walled her up seems academic.
They have their reasons. She was a woman
with a nursing child. Walled she was
and dying. But even when they surmised
there was nothing of her left but dust and ghost
at dawn, at dusk, at intervals
the breast recalled, wilful as the awe
that would govern village lives, her milk flowed.
And her child suckled at the wall, drew
the sweetness from the stone and grew
till the cracks knew only wind and weeds
and she was weaned. Centuries ago.
Stone of Patience
'In the old days,' she explained to a grandchild
bred in England, 'in the old days in Persia
it was the custom to have a stone, a special stone
you would keep to talk to, tell your troubles to,
a stone we called, as they now call me, a stone of patience.'
No therapists then to field a question with another
but stones from dust where ladies' fingers, cucumbers
curled in sun. Were the ones they used for gherkins
babies that would have grown, like piano tunes had we known
the bass beyond the first few bars? Or miniatures?
Some things I'm content to guess – colour in a crocus-tip,
is it gold or mauve? A girl or a boy ... Patience
was so simple then, waiting for the clematis to open,
to purple on a wall, the bud to shoot out stamens,
the jet of milk to leave its rim like honey on the bee's fur.
But patience when the cave is sealed, a boulder
at the door, is riled by the scent of hyacinth
in the blue behind the stone: a willow by the pool
where once she sat to trim a beard with kitchen scissors,
to tilt her hat at smiles, sleep, congratulations.
And a woman faced with a lover grabbing for his shoes
when women friends would have put themselves in hers
no longer knows what's virtuous. Will anger
shift the boulder, buy her freedom and the earth's?
Or patience like the earth's be abused? Even nonchalance
can lead to courage, conception: a voice that says
oh come on darling, it'll be alright, oh do let's.
How many children were born from words such as these?
I know my own were, now learning to repeat them,
to outgrow a mother's awe of consequence her body bears.
So now that midsummer, changing shape, has brought in
another season, the grape becoming raisin, hinting
in a nip at the sweetness of a clutch, one fast upon another;
now that the breeze is raising sighs from sheets
as she tries to learn again, this time for herself,
to fling caution to the winds or to borrow patience
from the stones in her own backyard where fruit
still hangs on someone else's branch, don't ask her
whose? as if it mattered. Say they won't mind
as you reach for a leaf, for the branch, and pull it down.
My arms in the sink, I half-listen
as someone keeps me company.
She's such a sweetiepie, isn't she?
I pause and to my own surprise
realise, seeing her suddenly through the eyes
of guests, how small she seems;
like a robin redbreast perched with other
mothers I thank god aren't mine.
My father cracks a joke on the transatlantic
line, misreading my alliances;
decades of regret still failing
to make her an easy butt.
But his laugh is warm bubble, a devil
to slip into, like the fold of his cheek
and the grey ring round his eye
my own before long will look through.
My children are with me as always, my son
even now sleeping under covers
I have no more to do with. He is always
loving. To say this, think this
seems suspect in a world such as ours.
How have we escaped it?
My daughter is about to bumble in the door,
late as usual, and be sweet to me,
nattering on as I clatter in the kitchen,
her breasts within an inch of my arm.
Nothing seems to rattle her – embarrassments
that floor me, still, at my age.
She is chock-a-block with courage;
fresh air on her cheeks like warpaint.
Pooled in this – this love – and this and this –
what has riddled me to long for more?
It surfaces at moments, unlooked-for,
when the little crooked child appears
to bar your way: demanding no crooked
sixpence as she stands behind the stile
in her little gingham frock and the blood
she has in mind drawn behind her gaze.
Are you the guardian of the Chine?
(Perhaps she needs some recognition.)
Of course she never talks.
She only has the one face – dark and solemn,
the one stance – blackboard-set
and a wit as nimble as the Chine
stopping short at forgiveness
that could only come with time or power
or a body large enough to fit her brain.
Is there something I could give her?
Some blow to crack her ice,
human warmth to make her feel the same?
Genie of the Chine, she reappears at moments
when I am closest to waterways, underworlds,
little crooked streams through hemlock
and dandelion that end so prematurely –
though she is there, like Peter Pan,
or the barbed-wire children who bang tin cans
or the child you would have loved
like any mother, any father, had you been
an adult, not the child with no demands
for sixpences in puddings, pumpkins
on the table or any pumpkin pies gracing
homes that had you standing at their gates.
Genie of the Chine, she reappears
from time to time, when I am closest to myself.
In the shallow, like a dog, between the sideboard
and the sound of breaking water,
his fear curls.
From the high road by the stove
whose smoke is scenting speed
outside his travel –
Swish! a figure stooping
in the corner rinses fruit
beyond the peel,
places three magic colours,
dots, a water-wand to name them
by a bowl of tangerines.
Under the covers it locks him in:
the rod, the rail, the storm.
Oh Mum. The sea.
Sand trails off the shells,
feet going down, the brambles'
pale green store.
Sitting on a windowsill, swinging
her heels against the wall as the gymslips
circled round and Elvis sang Blue Moon,
she never thought one day to see her daughter,
barelegged, sitting crosslegged on saddlebags
that served as sofas, pulling on an ankle
as she nodded sagely, smiling, not denying –
you'll never catch me dancing to the same old tunes;
while her brother, strewed along a futon,
grappled with his Sinclair, setting up
a programme we'd asked him to. Tomorrow
he would teach us how to use it but for now
he lay intent, pale, withdrawn, peripheral
in its cold white glare as we went up to our rooms:
rooms we once exchanged, like trust, or guilt,
each knowing hers would serve the other better
while the other's, at least for now, would do.
The house is going on the market soon.
My son needs higher ceilings; and my daughter
sky for her own blue moon. You can't blame her.
No woman wants to dance in her Mum's old room.
The path begins to climb the hills that confine the lake-basin. The ascent is steep and joyless; but it is as nothing compared with the descent on the other side, which is long, precipitous, and inconceivably nasty. This is the famous Kotal-i-Pir-i-Zan, or Pass of the Old Woman.
Some writers have wondered at the origin of the name. I feel no such surprise ... For, in Persia, if one aspired, by the aid of a local metaphor, to express anything that was peculiarly uninviting, timeworn, and repulsive, a Persian old woman would be the first and most forcible simile to suggest itself. I saw many hundreds of old women ... in that country ... and I crossed the Kotal-i-Pir-i-Zan, and I can honestly say that whatever derogatory or insulting remarks the most copious of vocabularies might be capable of expending upon the one, could be transferred, with equal justice, to the other.
... At the end of the valley the track ... discloses a steep and hideous descent, known to fame, or infamy, as the Kotal-i-Dokhter, or Pass of the Maiden.
... As I descended the Daughter, and alternately compared and contrasted her features with those of the Old Woman, I fear that I irreverently paraphrased a wellknown line,
O matre laeda filia laedior!
George Nathaniel Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question (1892)
The bowl is big and blue. A flash of leaf
along its rim is green, spring-green, lime
and herringbone. Across the glaze where fish swim,
over the loose-knit waves in hopscotch-black,
borders of fish-eye and cross-stitch, chestnut trees
throw shadows: candles, catafalques and barques
and lord knows what, what ghost of ancient seacraft,
what river-going name we give to shadows.
Inside the bowl where clay has long since crusted,
under the dust and loam, leaf forms lie
fossilized. They have come from mountain passes,
orchards where no water runs, stony tracks
with only threadbare shade for mares and mule foals.
They are named: cuneiform and ensiform,
spathulate and sagittate and their margins
are serrated, lapidary, lobed.
My book of botany is green: the gloss
of coachpaint, carriages, Babushka dolls,
the clouded genie jars of long ago.
Inside my bowl a womb of air revolves.
What tadpole of the margins, holly-spine
of seahorse could be nosing at its shallows,
what honeycomb of sunlight, marbled green
of malachite be cobbled in its hoop?
I squat, I stoop. My knees are either side
of bowl. My hands are eyes around its crescent.
The surface of its story feathers me,
my ears are wrung with rumour. On a skyline
I cannot see a silhouette carves vase-shapes
into sky: baby, belly, breast, thigh;
an aeroplane I cannot hear has shark fins
and three black camels sleep in a blue, blue desert.
My bowl has cauled my memories. My bowl
has buried me. Hoofprints where Ali's horse
baulked at the glint of cutlasses have thrummed
against my eyelids. Caves where tribal women
stooped to place tin sconces, their tapers lit,
have scaffolded my skin. Limpet-pools
have scooped my gums, raising weals and the blue
of morning-glory furled around my limbs.
My bowl has smashed my boundaries: harebell
and hawthorn mingling in my thickened waist
of jasmine; catkin and chenar, dwarf-oak
and hazel hanging over torrents, deltas,
my seasons' arteries ... Lahaf-Doozee! ...
My retina is scarred with shadow-dances
and echoes run like hessian blinds across
my sleep; my ears are niches, prayer-rug arches.
Lahaf-Doozee! My backbone is an alley,
a one-way runnelled alley, cobblestoned
with hawkers' cries, a saddlebag of ribs.
The Quilt Man comes. He squats, stoops, tears strips
of flattened down, unslings his pole of heartwood
and plucks the string: dang dang tok tok and cotton
jumping, jumping, leaps to the twang of thread,
leaping, flares in a cloudy hill of fleece.
My ancestors have plumped their quilts with homespun,
in running-stitch have handed down their stories:
an infant in its hammock, safe in cloud,
who swung between two walls an earthquake spared,
hung swaying to and fro, small and holy.
Lizards have kept their watch on lamplight, citrus-
peel in my mother's hand becoming baskets.
My bowl beneath the tap is scoured with leaves.
The white rooms of the house we glimpsed through pine,
quince and pomegranate are derelict.
Calendars of saint-days still cling to plaster,
drawing-pinned. Velvet-weavers, hammam-keepers
have rolled their weekdays in the rags, the closing
craft-bag of centuries. And worker bees
on hillsides, hiding in ceramic jars,
no longer yield the gold of robbers' honey.
High on a ledge, a white angora goat bleats ...
I too will take my bowl and leave these wheatfields
speckled with hollyhocks, campanulas,
the threshing-floors on roofs of sundried clay.
Over twigbridge, past camel-thorn and thistle
bristling with snake, through rock rib and ravine
I will lead my mule to the high ground, kneel
above the eyrie, spread my rug in shade.
Below me, as the sun goes down, marsh pools
will glimmer red. Sineh Sefid will be gashed
with gold, will change from rose to blue, from blue
to grey. My bowl will hold the bowl of sky
and as twilight falls I will stand and fling
its spool and watch it land as lake: a ring
where rood and river meet in peacock-blue
and peacock-green and a hundred rills cascade.
And evening's narrow pass will bring me down
to bowl, to sit at lakeside's old reflections:
those granite spurs no longer hard and cold
but furred in the slipstream of a lone oarsman.
And from its lap a scent will rise like Mer
from mother-love and waters; scent whose name
I owe to Talat, gold for grandmother:
Maryam, tuberose, for bowl, for daughter.
Excerpted from Selected Poems by Mimi Khalvati. Copyright © 2000 Mimi Khalvati. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Chris McCully is a freelance writer, a translator, a teacher, and a director of the Modern Literary Archives program at the John Rylands University Library of Manchester. He is the author of the poetry collections The Country of Perhaps, Fly-fishing: A Book of Words, Not Only I, The Poet's Voice and Craft, and Time Signatures.
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