Katrina Naomi’s The Way the Crocodile Taught Me is the eagerly-awaited second collection by this lively and popular poet. With warmth, flair and a certain ferocious wit, Naomi tears into her subject matter: a childhood fraught with dislocation and violence but also redeemed by more tender memories of a sister and a kindly, although at times comically obtuse, grandmother.
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About the Author
Katrina Naomi has a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College. Her debut collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake received an Arts Council Award and was shortlisted for the London New Poetry Award. Katrina’s recent work has been broadcast on Radio 4 and published by The TLS, The Spectator, The Poetry Review and Poetry Wales. She received an award from the Royal Literary Fund in 2014 for her writing.
Read an Excerpt
The Way the Crocodile Taught Me
By Katrina Naomi
Poetry Wales Press Ltd.Copyright © 2016 Katrina Naomi
All rights reserved.
2 Edinburgh Walk
A crazy pattern on the kitchen tiles,
each one scorched
with the curved ship of an iron,
its steam of holes oh oh ohing
on the orange glaze.
Mum frenzied with a brillo pad
at the former tenant's gift.
We lived with their jilted art
then looked on past
to the square of garden
where one day, Mum promised,
we'd have a swing.
Memory, (Margate 1969)
My father is muffled he stands
away from my sister and I We wear
identical hats halos of synthetic fur
tied with pom poms He holds his new camera
The sun is low level with my eyes
We stand on grass just in front of the cliffs
He shouts in the wind says it several times
Finally I understand we are to smile
I stretch the muscles of my cheeks they touch the fur
I don't know if my sister smiles she is so far below me
He jokes about stepping back I know I would die
I stay where I am take my sister's small mitten in mine
After my father left, I grew
a battery of hearts,
felt each of them beat,
like doves in a casket
before their release. You might imagine
the sheen of the good heart.
I rarely picture the razor wire heart,
its zest and sting.
If I say my hearts have never been
broken, or fissured, or ruptured,
that's not entirely true.
Still, I want my faults intact.
And the barbs of the heart that loved my father jut
as if from a pike's lower lip,
the war of rust leaking;
a child's heart,
no larger than a grenade.
My Parents' Poem
won't be set in couplets,
certainly won't rhyme.
I'll let you guess the refrain,
after a volley of verbs.
It will be Hughesian, Plathian,
well, from that era. It will be brief,
yet I won't understand it all.
A work of juvenilia,
their poem will try to marry certain ideals.
It will be written in the past tense
by another woman.
This is the image that sticks:
my married mother, her costume cut
low and high, one foot below
the impossible blue of a honeymoon pool,
the other poised on the metal step;
her face, fresh of make-up,
brows plucked in static surprise,
eyes wide with the rubber pull
of yellow dahlias, her new ring and bracelet.
A triumph. My mother emerging
from the water as I'd never seen her before.
Her head, a belisha beacon of hope.
Poems after my Step-father
1. Meeting my Fathers
Derek, first to arrive, is in Barbour shirt, sensible trousers;
Sonnie wears denims, shirt open to mid-chest,
his silver St Christopher hanging, heavy.
I don't know why I'm here. Derek has left
his collection of international friends in the saloon bar.
Sonnie unwraps his Toby jugs, sets them in a circle,
like an invocation –
then I remember, he's already dead.
My mother works behind the bar.
I pay for the drinks.
She looks at both men, can't decide between them,
can't imagine what she ever saw in either.
My sister wipes our table.
It's been so long, Derek doesn't recognise her,
wanders back to his friends.
Sonnie starts to disintegrate, becomes a slick,
something my mother will have to clear up.
I can probably sell the medallion.
2. The Fight Before my Sister's Wedding
never happened Mum Sonnie and Nan
Nan who wasn't there all remember
nothing The groom's Dad and Sonnie
my step-dad didn't reach over the mock medieval sofa
didn't harden their faces their fists
didn't swear or threaten didn't reduce
my mum to tears didn't crunch each other's cheeks
I never ducked between them didn't dodge
punches spittle sweat didn't push
the carefully distressed coffee table its decanter of whisky
out of range never got bruised a grazed right arm
a cut left foot never ushered the groom's father
and mother to the door Sonnie didn't cry begging me
to forgive him I never said he was pathetic
never said I didn't want to be in the same room as him
ever again If it wasn't for my foot wincing
on its white heel behind the fantasy of lace
I'd have believed my family believed
I'd made it all up just like before
3. Pop Socks and Manicures
Seeing the drag queens tonight, I wonder
if I've ever applauded you, and not known.
Your wardrobe was always locked.
I'd got used to your kimono, pop socks and manicures,
hair dye, eyelash tint, the annual trip to Thailand.
I wouldn't have cared about a rack of dresses
several sizes larger than hers, your huge stilettos.
I wasn't that sort of child. I'm still not.
I scan the faces of these men. Perhaps, one night,
we won't argue, we'll sing. Just sing.
4. Portrait of my Step-father as a Xmas Tree
Your bulk visible through the front door's fake frosted panes;
your too many arms, ecstatic at such a public display of glitz,
at what you usually only donned when you were alone;
your lights flashing danger off and on; your moods impossible
to extinguish. I could never pass without your daily demand
that the house be hoovered before I could run to school;
your piney smell felled by an insistence of Kouros, reaching out
past your meretricious shine and cheer. Yet unlike a Xmas tree,
you weren't so easy to dislodge; there would be no pale forest
of step-fathers littering the street. You were in our house for keeps.
He couldn't say no to a fried egg sarnie, smeared with Daddies sauce,
eating two as a snack. Other days, our step-father barely ate,
yet was up at 4, his engine running, as he lifted truckloads of turf.
He was always jumpy, mostly in a temper in our front room,
we were all hemmed in by the giant sofa. When he didn't eat,
he was worse; resenting the lack of food, his 17 stones, me,
the eldest, who ate what she wanted and stayed slim.
And he couldn't eat or sleep after work, but sprawled on the couch
in silk pyjama bottoms, lolloping breasts bared as he flicked
between channels, riffled through The Sport and The People.
He bought his slimming tablets – whizz, amphetamines, speed –
in bulk in Thailand. Gave my sister two when she said she'd put on weight.
She skipped breakfast, lunch and tea, her brown eyes buzzed
through school, her heart sprinted for days. She learnt to say no
to his pills, his fried egg sarnies. His moods darkened,
though he never hit us like he did our mother.
I once told him to punch me and his ice blue eyes screwed into mine,
acid in the crease of his lips, his florid face too close;
then he'd catch the tv's whine of motor racing and heave his frame
back to the sofa and I'd escape, another drug bolting through my veins–
sometimes hate, sometimes pity, but always cut with fear.
6. Step-father Graph
7. Self-portrait with Top Hat
I parade with this symbol of male power,
of weddings, of funerals, wedged on my crown.
Finally my step-father has died.
I practise putting on, taking off this news,
these heavy layers before the mirror. I shoot
photos of myself in full mourner's attire, the top
of this top hat, its whirl of black rabbit,
just out of the frame. Today, I'm cross-
dressing in memory of him. I could pass
with my mascara'd moustache, hair
piled into the dark, and I sway, silver-tipped cane
my constant companion; a mean dancer
as I place this topper in its box. I'm glad
the funeral's over, that he's also in his box.
Leopard Print Coat
I love the coat's fakery,
the brash barmaid ballsiness of it,
each fibre thrilling to the musk and cloy
of my mother's Youth Dew.
I've still not had it cleaned;
my neck's grease mingles with hers,
my small breasts flatten into the space
hers once made.
I'd never have worn this coat
had my sister not stolen up
the flock-walled stairs.
He didn't know she had a key.
He never saw me wear it.
And this coat dreams of glitterballs,
of cider and Pomagne,
of gold crochet catsuits,
of sashaying down the Old Kent Road.
The sea's so far out I glimpse Margate's harbour lights.
as if something might happen beside a shift
in the tide. I wade
with my sister. The bay tastes our skin; salt hangs
heavy round our thighs.
The doll's house, our hut on the prom, distant.
I hear Mum's call
– her two-fingered, three-note whistle –
travel from that world to this.
The Red Room
Like a murder – my mother's kitchen items rinsed with blood.
Borrowed blood, pumped out, donated, transfused so many times.
Her anniversary: six years on, things seem cheerier than they might,
because I know what happened. There was no killing, it was humane –
like the slaughter of a sheep is humane.
I can look in this room now, like I might see with a tiny camera into my intestines.
All is still, though I'm told every organ is in working order.
Her heart isn't in this room. She's taken it to that other place.
Chunks of her dyed, titian hair remain in a carmine suitcase,
her scarlet nail clippings moon in a crimson dish,
her vixen leather mini skirt grins from a rusting hook.
I hope her new room has many colours.
I plant a bulb of amaryllis.
Letter to my Mother
You lie underneath him,
a measure of mud between you.
This was our final argument – his and mine –
your husband/my step-father.
I'm told of a double headstone,
which I haven't visited,
since I held my niece's hand,
threw a lily and a tablespoon of chalky soil
on your lid. I can't talk to you,
knowing he's also there, listening,
as he always did: the click
of the extension by your bed, the reading
out of my letters and your replies.
All these years, his 17 stones
pressing down on you, crushing
the soil between you.
I talk to you when I cross the Thames,
looking right to Shooters Hill –
Kent's north edge. I send you my words
in a flotilla of paper boats. I forgive you,
as I always have. I forgive you
for marrying him.
Boredom: An Appreciation
The heavy-shouldered clock of morning,
those slender hands never reaching
past the hours of brown wallpaper.
I don't have time for boredom now,
to stare at the gas in the fire,
as if I could study flames,
to let my thoughts drift on their thermal,
unharnessed, as if they were never mine –
never could be.
Might I long for a Westgate afternoon,
waiting for the yellow lights
of evening, knowing day had melted –
the dark toffee of it – to listen
to the hiss, the end of the cassette,
re-reading my diary, its brief entries.
And if I sit here long enough,
could I wonder where that jet goes
with its teatime, pinkish trail,
imagine being a passenger,
the tedium of that life,
while I bite the ends of my hair.
Poems after my Nan
1. Family Dentist
Nan taught me to knot a milk tooth to a handle
then slam the door. Her trick worked –
out it came – though the gloss paint suffered.
I was said to have her knack with wobbly teeth,
rocking each baby on a stub of fresh enamel,
claiming the bubble of blood, its oily sheen.
Nothing fossilised in our jellied gums.
If my sister didn't fancy the door and handle,
I grasped her tooth and twisted the root.
Years later, Nan spoke of her visit to the dentist:
every molar, wisdom and incisor
removed – a present for her twenty-first.
2. Two Aprons
after Arshile Gorky
I have my limitations, I can only paint.
Each silver tube has its own sound,
its own idea of life and how it might be lived.
Here's the yellow of Nan's Portuguese pinny,
I heard its cockcrow from the drawer –
and me, not even of the generation that wears aprons,
though I'm wearing one now, its white cottons
unravelling like the lines of this painting.
I release the bird from the stuffy drawer,
its wattle and plumage crushed,
yet the colours still sing to the morning.
While I search for clues to Nan's journeys,
her many tongues jumble in my apron's pockets,
and this cockerel will star on the canvas.
3. What Nan Said
On my first trip home from college:
You've got ideas above your station.
As if I should've stayed below stairs,
never ventured out of our sitcom.
I'd probably been showing off –
talking politics in French.
Nan didn't get to study:
Some of us had to work for a living.
I can translate all of this
now I've travelled above ground.
If Nan were here, I'd try to tell her
I'm still the same girl, la même.
4. Her Advice After my Partner's Breakdown
What did you know of love?
You, who slept in a separate bed,
separate room, who knew nothing of us.
You told me to let him be,
let him get on with it, let him alone.
You gave me your harshest advice,
told me what you'd done
after Grandpa was discharged from the Navy;
hiding from the merest sound, from you.
You made me hear every whistle
and blast of your advice.
And I never thanked you.
Excerpted from The Way the Crocodile Taught Me by Katrina Naomi. Copyright © 2016 Katrina Naomi. Excerpted by permission of Poetry Wales 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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Table of Contents
2 Edinburgh Walk,
Memory, (Margate 1969),
My Parents' Poem,
Poems after my Step-father,
Meeting my Fathers,
The Fight Before my Sister's Wedding,
Pop Socks and Manicures,
Portrait of my Step-father as a Xmas Tree,
Self-portrait with Top Hat,
Leopard Print Coat,
The Red Room,
Letter to my Mother,
Boredom: An Appreciation,
Poems after my Nan,
What Nan Said,
Her Advice After my Partner's Breakdown,
Gin and Ice Cream,
The Woman on the Sideboard,
At my Sister's,
The Woman who Married the Berlin Wall,
Breakfast at the New Hampshire Motel,
On the Shore,
The Way the Crocodile Taught Me,
We are All Saying Nothing,
And Mandy Talks of Kyrgyzstan,
Wolf on a Hillside,
Comfort Me with Apples,
The History Teacher,
The Woman Who Walks Naked,