In Lakota, his name crackles like a fire –
but in English, it’s soft and bitter as ash.
He says his stories, too, must wither in
like game dried for winter. Then, Protean,
he talks his way into feathers, skins, fur.
Hands to ears, he’s the boy Snake,
who wriggles away hissing when his mother speaks –
so the medicine-man hacks off his limbs
drags him to a brake thick with fallen leaves
and binds his new scales tight over his skin.
Eyes peeping over his forearm, he’s a wolf
behind a log, deep in snow, watching a hunter
gut a hare. He crawls under the gun,
but the hunter grins and throws him a strip.
So in return, he whispers see-by-night medicine.
The final skin he enters is his own. At a Sun
his duty was to feed the fire for nine whole days.
The flames drew forms – birds, mountains, trees –
then a young girl who wore his wife’s eyes.
They named the baby Stands in a Fire Woman.
She’s twenty-one now, at college. I was a junky
till she came. She could have been born anywhere
but a hundred lucky chances brought her to me
just like they brought you here. So listen, share.
Wear your skin well. Keep watching the fire.
The wallpaper’s brilliant – surplus bumper stickers
from the A1 Print Emporium. Coca-Cola Classic,
font like waves. Dunlop, black on yellow,
bold italics straining against the hand-brake.
Tea? Mind your head – the ceiling’s concrete.
The underbelly of
Bridge. Touch it –
that’s the rush-hour traffic shaking your hand.
The floor’s tarpaulin, fixed with bent skewers
Dad fished from a skip behind the Bosporus Kebab
Sometimes a container truck from the docks
thunders over and blasts us all awake.
Anandamayi bitches and swears till Mum says
Shh, your father has work.
Look, I can spell Nike,
Nike is the Goddess of Victory.
Mr Chao lets me surf Wiki in afternoon recess –
he says I’m so smart I can winkle myself out
from under this bridge, find a sponsor downtown.
Then Delhi, Singapore, Harvard, who knows?
Like my calendar? The man in the space suit
is Buzz Aldrin. Suspended in the vacuum
above Buzz’s Lunar Buggy are five tyres
ranked by size, from moped-grade up to the best,
the Eagle F1. This morning, I crossed off yesterday
on Buzz’s helmet then ran my index finger over
the blue curve of the earth, a light-second away,
where inscribed across the ocean, from here to
is Good Year. Dad says he likes that. It’s been
one so far.
Confidence and Freshness for Men
The goalkeeper’s face is four feet wide,
shot in guillotine sunlight, primped in Photoshop
to gild his left cheekbone and throw the right in
as he thrusts out an aerosol with a bold Arial logo
and a silver lightning-streak down the side.
In Gothic Heavy across his chest, the tagline
Keep A Clean Sheet. The hoarding stands on posts
but underneath there’s no grass, no net, no white
to mark a score – instead, just a messy heap
of old woodchip, mottled as a cork notice-board.
flash catches my eye – a silver-gilled mushroom.
Thirty or forty poke their caps above the chips,
guerrilla detachment breaking cover to strike.
flare my nostrils and feel their yeasty bite
pierce the soggy odours of wood, paste, paper.
Rain begins. As they storm the goalposts
the mushrooms start to shine – stealthy, unsaved,
rising, spreading spores like propaganda.
The keeper stares on, oblivious, as thick drops
bullet his forehead, leaving a row of oozing holes.
The Revenge of the Simile Ninja
(dubbed from the original Japanese)
As lithe as the panther padding through the
as swift as the falcon slicing the rain
as patient as the praying mantis
as graceful as the gliding crane
as taut as a bowstring
as sharp as a katana
after twenty years of Zen, Jet Li flicks and
I’m back, to avenge the stain you cast on my honour
with your lukewarm review of my haiku in 1983.
For that, evil rogue editor, I’m gonna beat you into
First, a time-lapse sequence where our fists thrum
like alarm-bell clappers, then taiko drums
as we box in slow-mo. I am the finest budoka
in all Nippon,
you scream. I laugh my defiance.
Whips crack on the soundtrack as every punch lands.
Lip-synchers shout unnh, aieee, hi-yaaa.
Suddenly I spring thirty feet into the air
hover like a hawk above the dojo hall
land lightly as a dragonfly on lily-rich water
fire my toe-cap into your unsuspecting balls
then smile inscrutably before I sprint up the wall
backwards, somersault over the parapet
alight on a cloud, fold my legs and just sit –
like a monk who has stepped off the wheel
of worldly desire and waits, detached, for satori.
But come Monday I’ll crouch by the letter-flap
hissing O treacherous one, cower before me:
for with my bare hands I can crush any rejection
It was 1983, I was eighteen, and I stood staring
at an album in the reggae rack: the cover said
which I thought must mean an American politician –
but instead, as the needle dropped on the vinyl
the bass made my air-cushioned soles shudder
and a voice even deeper than the bass intoned
in a patois slow, measured and vengeful –
righteous zombie come to judge the politician’s
suddenly found myself by a twilit dock
cracked by booms and crashes, its container ships
filled by stevedores who spoke an argot unfathomable
to a grammar school boy. I sauntered in, whistling,
jemmied a crate and waited to be transported
to an electric Africa of one-drop and skank. As
pimply white pupil with the Forces of Victory
clutched like a passport to alterity.
comes from the Jamaican duppy, or ghost –
met several that afternoon in the shop,
haunted for twenty minutes till the needle rose,
having discovered that although some spirits
toast in the inferno, others patrol the tropics
under the skull, within the skin, firing up
the mixing-desk of the brain, hips and spine
where the slow reworking of the rhythm begins.
His viscose-rayon jacket shines at the elbows
like the upholstery of a second-hand hatchback.
The stitches in his armpit stretch, as teetering
on a plastic chair, he gooses the data projector.
shaving cut marks his jaw like a cat-scratch:
bloodstained shred of flesh-toned luxury
bathroom tissue still clings to the scab.
He’s come to brief us about Quality
and to facilitate this he turns on the fan
that drones like a distant vacuum cleaner
as the crimson bullet points of Slide One
stain our retinas like a rash. Four hours later
we chant: We will project-manage, enable,
cascade. We will talk to pieces of paper.
Outside, as we stumble into the sunset
the Quality cars in the Quality car park
radiate silver, gold, ruby. My shoe slides
and I gasp – the freshly squeezed dog turd
smeared across my heel has the shiny
tapered Quality of chocolate Mr Whippy.
It’s so beautiful, so sweet. I want to weep.