King rat

They tied our tails together,
watched us scuttle blind,
hungry, dirty, mewling.
You can’t imagine what it was like
to be born in that place,
in that way.
When one of us died,
we dragged the corpse with us
because we could not let it go.

You toss a busker a dirty moon,
still warm from the touch of your thigh.
It clinks onto other
astral bodies.
God bless you. Not a missed beat;
this is normal. The everyday.
The sound, though, will follow you underground,
trembling for a name.

Sleep invisibly.
Eyes glitter like sharp teeth
in the headlamps of cars.
Aren’t we all animals?
Piss odd shapes against the wall.
This here’s Art. The rest?
Some rich kid pretended
to be homeless, died.

I was mugged in this alley.
Three rough boys, the moon on their knives.
There it came to me:
Streetlamps are not stars,
but from far enough away
you can dream stars in them.
They took my phone,
the wallet with your photograph.
Not one of us spoke.
What could we have said?

What if the stars are watching us, instead?
I think it was beautiful – sometimes
I still feel afraid.

Hole

The face! just like your mother’s, or
was it the hair, the voice,
the clothes – and you are
thousands of miles and decades ago.
Following a stranger
with hooded eyes. Lost.

Then a car horn, someone speaks,
and you are back again, answering
in the wrong language,
clearing throat to unstick words.
What are the names for these things?
The crowd is nothing else. I am fine,
just lost
in thought.
The kerb presses through your shoe-sole.

***

We are a long way from the mountains.
You understand? God can’t see
through smog.

Write home when you can.

***

Easy to end here.
They would rifle through your pockets,
find the plastic rectangle
that names you.
They would call the numbers
on your phone and reach no one.
Take you away, find
another foreigner
who learns – too late –
that in this unfamiliar language
there is no true word for home.

You had an uncle
who moved there.
No one’s heard from him in years.
I forget his name.

The other country

This place has constellations.
Not like where you came from.
That was the main difference
– at first, anyway.

You would not tell this to anyone.
Engines or sirens
remind you of home.

These and the flickering words
of your mother
delivered across oceans.
They hit with enough force to drown.
Salt eats faces, voices,
the language

is starting to stick in your throat.
You speak it to yourself
when nobody is listening.
Sometimes, you forget which word means what,
and must ask, when you can, like a child.

When she asks how you are,
you don’t lie:
They treat me well.
I’m happy here.
She asks for photos.

Wishes you’d write more.

From time to time you send back
an image like the real thing.
Your face, the street you live on.
Once you even turned the lens on the night,
but the camera failed you
and in the still the sky was black.

 

 

 

 

This hope

The therapy makes her hair fall out.
Soft material
for bird’s nests, she jokes.
It lies in piles like the cat’s been sick.
They sharpen to splinters when she’s alone,
so every day, you vacuum
her pillow and sheets.

Later, you run careful fingers
over her small smooth skull.
Round and markless.
As if it were made to see the future in.

(A version of this poem was first published in issue 58 of The Interpreter’s House.)

Reading poetry

Shell peas from a meagre harvest.
Each a dented planet,
a solar system palmed

—but locusts are patient.
You feel them thrumming underground.

***

Fishbones are found in places
far removed from water,
like your throat.
Explain.

In ancient times,
this was a sea.

Next question: you are given a boat,
map and compass.
Make oceans.