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Chris McCully: Selected Poems

Chris McCully: Selected Poems

by 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,


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.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A keen fly-fisher, a translator of Old English poetry, and an expert prosodist . . . these skills have miraculously combined so that almost every poem alights on the surface of the reader's mind with absolute integrity, judgment, and profound allure."  —Observer

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Selected Poems

By Mimi Khalvati

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2000 Mimi Khalvati
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-808-6


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.

    Family Footnotes

    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?

    Shanklin Chine

    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.

    Sick Boy

    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.

    Blue Moon

    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 Bowl

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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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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