The Knowledge You Know Without Knowing You Know It

There is knowledge that is shy,
dodges knowledge vampires
with their ravenous jawed eyes
and colander stomachs.

This knowledge didn’t listen at school,
doodled through every text
book and watched the swallows
out of the science block window.

It waits for you while you stand
slack-mouthed, spaced out
by a fountain on a wooded hill
noticing only the quick undulations
on the green surface, the sludgy floor
before announcing itself: Oh!

This knowledge whistles casually
on the police taped edges
of disaster areas, sidling in between
the last phone call and the silence
inserting itself, a comma, no argument.

Its footnotes kick up leaves,
stub their toes deliberately
on furniture it then
surreptitiously removes.

It doesn’t build up, fact upon figure,
but peels off in archaeological layers
burns iron-shaped patches in neat appearances
drops spiders down collars and
seats itself innocently in chairs
vacated by the shrieking pranked.

This knowledge is free but
still must be bought
no ads will defray its existence
and its scholars, its teachers, its institutions
won’t make you cleverer
but wider
more liquid
more swimmable
until you see it doesn’t creep up on you at all
but chips away at the plaster you hide your light behind
an inside job, a regular cat burglar
of personal hindrances
leaving only its own brilliance
reflected in your awe-struck face
a shine that cannot be caged in an image
and tied down, struggling, to a scrolling screen
like sushi for bottomless information appetites
and most would not take it for knowledge but
acceptance, or forgiving, or longing, or love,
but it will know you from the inside out
until you know yourself.

This knowledge will not give you riches:
it will prove that you are gold.

Advertisements

Chromatography

image

The lowest arms of the almond tree
hang scrawny, leafless, dark:
a reminder of winter.

I take off my paper sun hat
sweating (why did I wear black?)
sun bleached by a thin cloud veil
pushing the sleeping baby uphill,
4.30pm, July.

He’s poured water over a scarf that
I’ve arranged to shade him
and my red wool bag strap
bleeds pink into the blue.

His muscular eyebrows furrow
beneath dirty blond curls, the boy who was
dreamt of being welcomed by the arms of his
long-departed grandmother
in a Persian aunt’s sleeping head.

“Let us see your hair,” they had urged me;
“Is it real, the colour? Can we touch it?”

I grinned painfully, was their doll for a while,
let them thread my puny brows,
ruthlessly devoid forehead and top lip
of hairs only Iranian women can see.

We European women have been liberated of
facial hair!
I cried inwardly, eyes watering
with each every rip.

(She did do an excellent job.
My eyebrows, in dye, came alive.)

In the women’ section of the bus in Tehran
girls in school uniform laughed
still too pubescent to be allowed
the monthly ritual of a trip to the salon
their black brows luscious and combed
combined with blood red lips.

We got off a speeding fine
en route to Isfahan
because of the “khariji” guests
in the car: the free pass
that Europe grants
and who would rather pay?

“Pesar-e-khariji-e-man!”
“He’s so cute and blond,
he looks just like you!”

My husband says I’m his amulet,
lucky charm in official places,
a signal that he’s a
Middle Eastern Man Done Good.

But there is a ruefulness to his good fortune:
they glare at him like a shopkeeper at a thief.
He asks me not to wear a headscarf
lest they think he’s forced me.

Greedily, I seek out our son’s Asian features
glowing to think he’s struck out from
pork scratching pink
the pasty British skin on
a nose they’ve chosen to
sever from the face of the continent
forgetting the Viking, Saxon, Norman,
Roman and yet more exotic genes.

“¡Qué blanquito!”
How they praise him
for his pallour
to his caramel father’s ears.

A talisman. Not powerful enough to
stop the waiter snubbing his order
sneering at his polite reminder
or when, at the police commissary,
trying to fix my residency
after six years as an illegal American
always treated as though I belong
the Spanish official barked at him
for his papers – in order since a decade ago –
checked them on the system, tossed
the card back without meeting his eye.

(If they only knew
what a nightmare I am to live with
they would see he is my talisman, his patience
my salvation.)

We need to raise colour blind kids!
I rant silently on insomniac nights.
Those of us at the top of this
pyramid of privilege
didn’t rise here because of the
buoyancy of our merit:
our forebears clawed their way up
trampling millions of black and brown backs
and no-one else can rise until we step down because
we are taking up space!

Wash your feet honey:
they’re black with dirt.

Malaga is easy to fly through, I say.
Not for me, says she – they always make me
show under my skirt, my hijab.
Oh! Really? That’s outrageous!
But, you know, she says, drawing a circle
with one finger around her face,
wry Somali smile.

I don’t wear hijab through airports.
Am I being practical, or cowardly?
Would I beat out every last bandit
every ugly, self-congratulating thought
expose their emptiness as
phantom confidences
if I put myself in the same
rocking, overcrowded boat
with the flimsy life jackets
and the leaking hold?

We reach my parents’ house
forbidding black gates,
cornflower blue door.

Beside is a bougainvillea
bursting alternately with
deep fuchsia and
palest green lanterns.

Inside the summerhouse
the dark wood stain has bled through knots
forming irrevocable pools on the blond wood.

“Make me a new sandwich!”
“I took out the avocado…”
“But there’s still a stain
on the bread!”

My daughter is fuming, tearful;
a veil of reddish clay lies over her face
wiped unthinkingly at craft time earlier
and two tears have dried
leaving pale tracks with brown outlines.

Clean your face, honey,
your tears have run brown.

Every story is edited at bedtime,
the blackness accidental, not evil
the lily white princess made ruddy and tanned
her long golden hair darkened
water babies not just cherubic because they’ve been
washed of all that terrible oafish soot but
pure of heart and soul.

At the Jumu’ah meal she asks,
Are angels white?
With exquisite Senegalese women on all sides
I answer, no, they’re made of pure light:
light is all of the colors put together.

But science won’t stop her from thinking it.

Our heads need cleaning! I declaim silently
All these messages upon messages
that make us look down on others!

Black is beautiful. Brown is gorgeous.
Look at her style.

Sweetie, I can’t explain I why,
walls just look better white.

The kids splash my notebook
and the turqouise ink splits
inexplicably to vivid pink

I write my second draft
in indelible black.

Before the Removal Men

Beloved friends leave us
keepsakes to remember them by
a curl of their hair in a locket
a scarf that still smells of their sandalwood
but You don’t have hair
or need for neckerchiefs
What You have is Spirit
or what You are is – the knots
words tie tongues in! –
instead, You left a trace of Yourself
in every human’s being
so we could close our eyes
shut our mouths
sink our yearning faces into it
and smell our way back to You

You left in us a doorway
that was once the only place we’d stand
backs turned to the
grimy storeroom of our brains
contemplating only Your garden
but noises from this side distract
furniture gets in the way, bruises shins
boxes of sentimental value build up
each one blocking out that marvellous door
by another cardboard square
until at last we place a wardrobe in front of it
and forget it ever existed
And we only remember
when the house is crumbling
the wardrobe eaten by woodworm
and in the moment the wrecking ball
tears off the roof
that golden opening blinks

God, help us clear away all this junk
before the removal men come
for us

A Sip of Sainthood (Women Can be in Two Places at Once)

Women can be in two places at once
hurrying down a high street with
a ten kilo sack of potatoes in each hand
and sitting on the porch of a bamboo hut
standing on stilts over the Indian Ocean

We can wait in line for churros with a baby on one hip
and drink tea with the mothers of future saints
as they give them a sip of sainthood from their breast

We might be writing shopping lists for
flip-flops, sellotape and fish
while clumsily walking a tightrope across a
busy street in downtown New York
for a whim or for charity
either way, no one will know but ourselves

We keep so much invisible
not just crumpled receipts and
crumby lipsticks but
food wished onto struggling sisters’ doorsteps
paperless PhDs in child psychology and
queenless OBEs for conflict resolution
blueprints for villages that would
bring the lonely ones back to the whole
theories on suffering and money,
love and class war
that race against laundry mountains
and school sports days for our attention
and always come in last place

But we can still be in two places at once
What’s more, we can be two places at once
a wall for children to bounce their frustrations off
and an orchard of every fruit your mouth can invent
a hive of everyday usefulness
and a well of rosewater too deep to plumb
a warren for loved ones to nestle in
when fanged beasts snarl outside
and the space between two nebulas
that statically explode in clouds of dust
so rich in minerals they could be
diamond blossoms

Snowstorm

image

There’s a snowstorm that appears
in the pauses when an orderly screen
of jewelley squares, mind-temptations
falls blank as though thinking
a shower of sparks that tumbles
the way this screen tumbled
from my hands to hit a Tehran pavement
as my excitement at the sight of an
old-style bakery–its heap of tiny pebbles
just visible through an arched eye,
golden in the flames
streaks of dough sliding gradually down
like hot ice floes–
fuelled my eagerness to capture it
grab a slice to serve back home at
tea parties
the triumphant traveller
returning with pockets stuffed with
nougat and Persian candy floss and
musings on this new foreignness (being
a foreigner everywhere myself)
but here the glass shattered
and the voyage out of the heart’s homeland
into the planes of mind and possession
is now scarred with an exquisite
flurry of cracks
a weeping willow
Japanese etched wave
interrupting the illusion
so I have to read around it
even though the glass is temporarily
held together with sticky tape
the destruction is not undone, only
left hanging in a perpetual crash
delighting in breaking up the sleekness
of my gadget like a Greek wedding guest
Oh the joy of smashing!
Of tearing at the cardboard box we call
normality
and shredding it to papery flakes!
throwing knick-knacks to the rocks
not fearing their demise
but glorying in the glory
drifting through the drifts
as liquid as a seaward current
as light as a seeker’s last breath
and as golden as the inner glow
that no screen could ever frame!

In Joyful Memory of Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore

Yesterday my dear friend, mentor and publisher passed away after several years of living with cancer, and a lifetime of prolific writing.

Coming of age in Beatnik California, among contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Laurence Ferlinghetti, he certainly didn’t write for critics or to be nominated any country’s Poet Laureate; rather his life’s mission was, as far as I can tell, to distill the medicinal quintessence of the Middle Eastern/North African spiritual path he had come to in his native tongue, always in the spirit of the utmost personal honesty.

Writing mostly (entirely, even) in the middle of the night, his poems were full of his characteristic whimsy and gravity, dazzling and at times dizzying changes of perspective from the gnat’s to the nova’s, and throughout them a rumination on life and its purpose and its end while, perhaps, peeling potatoes or watching geese fly over a Dutch barn. Here are a few poems on the subject of death I came across today from one of his 50+ works, The Fireater’s Lunchbreak:

DEATH IS COMING

Death is coming
and we’re going to have a

lawn party
though it be winter

I’m going to wear my hat

The wheels of earth are
revolving with a grinding sound

I can make out death’s face
in the mist

How can I believe it
with light all around?

Not even a little door
is needed that’s how fully

dimensional I feel and
green shoots growing in space

everywhere at once
in the winter chill

 

ONE WHITE HAIR

Death is a white hair that lands on our
lapel that can’t be returned to our head

Once we’re cut off from our source
how can we find our way again?

Unperturbed by events that showed us
death’s horrid doorways

the white hair that lands on our lapel
lies silent and still

Once we move off from our starting place
we’re sure to arrive where we’ve never been before

Only God can catch us with sure hands
and bathe us in sudsy waters

The eyes’ windows shut down at death
and His windows open

The heart’s windows are never closed
here or there

One hair alone is enough to show us –
Take heed of that falling hair!

 

LIKE THIS DEATH!

Death you funny old fogy
Death you amorous adolescent
ivy in your hair

Death you ring around the bathtub
Death you perfect slick icicle

Death you pork rind on sizzling bun
Death you bus out of control in the Andes

Death you pop-goes-the-weasel
Death you swansong in the full moonlight

Death you full swoon on an Algiers balcony
Death you sneering policeman caught red handed

Death you slip through a noose
Death you slipknot in a noose

Death you moose looking for breakfast
Death you ripe berry ready to be plucked

Tunnel out the living body into a new body
this time with no earth in it

Under the earth Death
Under the eye of the clock Death

Under God’s watchful Eye Death
in His breath Death His inbreath Death
and His outbreath Death

We are right there at the punch line
we’ve made the ball of light in the air
with our hands and
set it rolling

We are merrily along
hoping for the best death

Owl eye skunk drunk Death
punch drunk puckered over with the Kiss of Death

Smack!

Like this
Death!

 

His influence for meek, toe-deep writers like me was to show that in poetry anything is possible. A paperclip could be the metaphor for union with the Divine, or it could be used to pick the lock to another realm in which cups of coffee sang songs and a snore told fathomless secrets. Or it could just be a paperclip, and isn’t that just the best thing for it to be?

But far from forcing the frontiers of his imagination, he would wait at the limits of it patiently, watching for something to stride out of the Unseen like a snatch of a waking dream, or for the beginning of a story to start telling itself like an old friend recounting an adventure, and one line would lead to another like a silk scarf being pulling from a magician’s hat, until the poem had emerged in full and could wander off on its own, shaking its haunches in the sunlight.

Though his passing is sad, his memory is one of zany humour and enlightening frankness, which is a pretty wonderful legacy to have bequeathed. His website gives an overview of all of his books, with links to purchase them, and it is hoped that there will soon be an anthology for newcomers to his work who don’t know where to start. You can also find an obituary of Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore here, written by my dad who had been a friend and fellow traveller on the Sufi path for over forty years.

Bon voyage, ‘Abdal-Hayy, to the other world your soul always belonged in. And apologies for all this soppy stuff, you sweet old bologna loaf.

New Mountains (or, Woman with a Blue Rinse)

image

 

Where a scramble of wet paw prints
describes a recent canine hootenanny
a shrunken stooped lady in purple dressing gown
and slippers turns her patchy blue rinse
to squint at me while creaking uphill
clouds an unreal pink and burnt orange
candyfloss across an ageing turquoise sky

Walking, the house I imagined on the riverbed
appears two hundred yards up the road
irruptions in an in-carried map
that push places apart like
volcanic surges beneath passing feet
stretching the soil, new mountains, while
absent minds erase steps trodden
and insert whole bandstands of emotion
on sleepy street corners
where disgruntled long-haired tabbies
arch their backs among tumbling rocks
and Venus’s Navels, abandoned slopes
that have shrunken out of sight and retreated
off maps so long that if you walk into them
you might disappear, blink out of this scene
and into another’s moment of awakening
materialising, to their eyes, as an ancient woman
in an aubergine coloured robe
with a blue curled head and a cane
turning her head in amazement that
looks like sciatica and suspicion
vanishing around a corner again
and you return to your spot
which is now as wide as a sea
for everything you have seen in it

Lone Wolves

Running is falling when fear’s at your heels
Good men turn lone wolves in failure’s mirror
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Where he was when mama cried while she cooked
Until shocks ran from the hob to her heart?
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels

Spears are flung stupidly like porcupine
quills, harming backwards with poisonous ends
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Mothers’ arms become safety nests for the fled
Too necessary to crack with their weight
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels

In discomfort we are loved to an ache
There is bliss in being their world, and risk
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

The glitter of pristine snow was no lure
Hot coals of their need of him singed him raw
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Love is a Traveller…For Sale Online Now!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that my first collection of poems is now available to buy online here!

LOVE IS TRAVELLER  FC Jan 28  copy

According to the publisher, Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore at Ecstatic Exchange:

“With Medina Whiteman’s lively, metamorphosing voice, we have here finely detailed poetic stances on whatever attracts her and her pen, and her heart is here, and its centripetal ripples edge out to our own world and wash over it as if with our own sensibilities — and it is a welcoming thing, a sweet and healing thing to know these enlightened trails.”

And from a review by Michael Sugich, author of Signs on the Horizons:

“Love is a Traveller and We are Its Path” is an astonishing, accomplished, heartbreakingly beautiful work. Ms. Whiteman writes as a girl, a woman, a mother, and a wide-eyed, reflective observer of her world — as seeker, believer and sage. For her God is truly in the details. Each observation, whether earthy or supernal, is internalized and suffused with a piercing awareness of meaning, and a deep, abiding faith that shines through a world full of mundane and transcendent particulars.”

Ain’t Lateefa Spiker‘s cover art lovely? Here‘s the link to buy a copy yourself and see if you agree with them. Pass on the news, and happy reading!

 

 

 

Empty Chairs

The empty chairs are not empty
they are fuller than before
when her husband
the father of her four children
did not yet have seaweed in his hair
eyes salted shut
no: he is still there
her heart ripped open is a
window through which to see him
his absence full colour
every time she goes to ask
where she left her keys
if he could chop an onion for her
hold the baby while she goes to the bathroom
he is there, ever-present
she starts each sentence forgetting
and chokes when he remembers he won’t hear
but he does, clearer than before
not distorted by the sea
the distance between his sandy bed
and hers
he hears her weep into the
end of her scarf
into her child’s hair
into nothing, for nothing
could absorb so many tears
and not weep itself
he hears and replies
I wait for you
as death waits for all that live
borrowing time they cannot pay for
It does not seize you
with a cold, skeletal grip
like cartoon deaths do:
death is a hand beneath
cupped to catch us
the ground that followed us
all through our living days
the hand we fall exhaustedly into
when we cannot walk any further
holding without suffocating
only accepting with quiet love
I will wait for you for as long as you need
time means nothing when
there’s nothing left to do but
wait

The empty chairs are not empty
but the hands are
hands that want to be held
to stroke the rough face
encircle the strong chest
those hands are empty
and will never be full again
not for all the gold in Europe