Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, 1984
My mother made love to Miles, at intervals, in 5/4 time –
there were other signatures, on school papers,
but one remains like milk that inks the tongue.
I learnt about African time,
and why one would have an ulterior motive.
A maid could not understand why she should peg
tee-shirts from the shoulders, not the hem.
Every morning she trudged the miles from a location
that squatted over the East London road
which we avoided for fear of stoning.
Ancient ritual juxtaposed new commerce,
and the cicada worked all summer.
During the festival, we decked the floats with crepe,
twisted flowers into sheets of chicken wire,
and shook our plastic buckets at the multi-coloured crowd,
rattling the assorted rand and cents at their shapes –
our turn to beg. We’d burn the Port Elizabeth road,
where you could buy a pineapple for five cents,
just before the salt pans, shimmering patches;
beyond, the Indian Ocean, warm, innocent,
masking fatal undercurrents and sharks.
I ask her age: we are both seventeen.
She was rooting through my outside bin;
I expected a stray dog. From here
you could walk into town, to shop at OK or Checkers,
past rows of cycads, stout and sturdy, their green crowns proud,
men napping on the dry grass under the razor-edged shade,
the old penitentiary, the Museum with a bronze Pan in the entrance,
past whitewashed Drostdy Arch, the Ichthyology department
with the coelacanth preserved in its specimen case, into a crowd
of women wrapped in woollen layers despite a murderous heat,
by some other science carrying impossible loads on their heads,
yelling Xhosa greetings from opposite sides of the street.
(First published in Poetry Salzburg Review, Issue 29, summer 2016)