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

Jobs for the Boys

farm boy

From ‘The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes’, collected by Iona and Peter Opie, Puffin, 1963

Today is the eighth birthday of my eldest child. This time eight years ago, I was giddy with tiredness and wonder, nestling in bed with a round-faced little sun of a boy. The first night I noticed how his chin would shudder forward like a tortoise’s, with that newborn quality of skin that is lost so soon – softer than air, and slightly bath-wrinkled.

I still see the same boy when he is asleep, though now a thousand preoccupations flit through my head at various times that obscure the view: mostly it’s when he’s lounging about the house after school reading comics, pestering me to play videogames, or – my biggest bugbear – to watch YouTubers play Minecraft. Really. Blue-haired twenty-year-olds who probably still live with their mums but who are gods to squillions of kids who aren’t even bothering to playing the game themselves. Agh.

I am realising that I place so many expectations on my firstborn, which were perhaps placed on me as a firstborn, or which I place on myself. There are vague notions of integrity and resilience, thinking-outside-the-box – which is in tension with the need for respecting authority (i.e. MINE) – and all sorts of health issues, from not eating tons of gacky sweets and Cheeto-type polystrene-covered-in-cheese-powder to going to bed early, changing socks regularly, getting fresh air (do children even notice when air isn’t fresh?), not staring at screens for long periods, and doing ‘improving’ things such as learning to play musical instruments or doing sports. No wonder all he feels like doing is flopping out and reading comics.

(I have to say I read them too when I was young – I was the one who introduced him to them. They are very funny, if you like surreal slapstick Spanish violence.)

But I wonder how children, boys in particular, are meant to get a ‘healthy’ picture of work, when there is no-one around – particularly men, their prototypes – to show them how it’s done, until they’re already adolescents and way too interested in squeezing their spots to be learning how to use a radial saw.

Basically, work is either too dangerous, or too child-unfriendly to be able to involve kids in, which is all to the detriment of children’s future working lives. By contrast, both of my parents worked from home: my dad had an office in the attic where he did graphic design, and my mum ran a shop on the ground floor (part of our house) from which she also sold books mail order.

This gave me a strong image of self-employment, which seemed as attractive then as it does now. My dad would take breaks from tiresome computer work to go into the garden and dig up potatoes, while my mum would play Motown, soul and country on a tape recorder and sing along loudly whenever she could get away with it. It seemed like the perfect way to balance different interests without having to be overburdened by any of them for too long – just right for a person with a lot of interests. Who needs a steady income, right?

Now, though, my eldest son sees me working on a computer or iPad – emails, translations, etc. – and the only work he sees my husband (his stepdad) doing at home is emails too. (My husband manages a mobile restaurant which he takes to trance festivals…not really the ideal environment for an 8-year-old to do work experience in.)

His father, on the other hand, is a carpenter, which might offer plenty of wonderful imaginary opportunities to whittle things together, but in practice usually involves heavy machinery that could slice your arm off if you’re not careful, as well as late nights keeping to deadlines and dusty, noisy site work. It’s all a bit stymying for a kid who wants to get stuck in and learn first hand, quite the opposite of the bad old days where boys of six would be expected to look after herds of sheep (“Little Boy Blue, go blow your horn, the sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn…”)

The general idea nowadays seems to be that kids should avoid all thought of adulthood until they near the end of school, by which time the classes themselves will have shaped their interests and nurtured their skills enough to give them a bash at choosing a career. But I don’t buy this one bit. I knew I wanted to be a writer, to live abroad and learn different languages, from my son’s age, and I never really wavered in that decision. Careers advice at GCSE told me I should be a prison warden.

Having time to daydream, play music, study, travel, make things, meet people…that always figured heavily in my career plan. Since leaving university I haven’t written a single CV. I can’t say I’m earning bags of money, of course…or that I even have that much time on my hands, with three kids on them too…but, you know, it’s the principle of the thing.

So how do we show children the realities of the adult world without stultifying them with computers from a tender age? I don’t really have any answers, but I get the feeling that we need to be less stultified by computer work ourselves, for a start. Maybe combine it with gardening jobs, or painting and decorating, all the manual labour jobs that self-made intellectuals look down on but which actually provide a neat bit of income, as well as mental space to stretch out in.

Then there are all those dreaded afternoon kid’s activities, which parents have to practically have a PA just to organise, especially with several kids who all want to go in different directions at once. Take my advice: have quintuplets, then you can just take them all to tennis and read a book in the stands.

Maybe what we need is activities that adults and kids take part in together (a tricky one to achieve when you have a toddler who rips everything to shreds, but one can dream). Perhaps pottery, or swimming, origami, or forest school outings where everyone can learn something and/or teach something to someone else. It all seems too separate, the pre-teen’s world and the adult’s, and yet there’s this terrifying gulf in the middle called Teenagehood to traverse without a canoe let alone a paddle in sight.

The blame often goes to peers luring kids off in the wrong direction, but peers only take the place of adult role models when those adult role models aren’t there, or when their lives are protected by plate glass. Apprenticeships could help for older kids, but the imprinting starts much younger. The very nature of modern adult work is at fault, and no-one can hope to change it but 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

Hiatus in the Reasoning Mind

When they pulled us out
through the broken side window
the one I smashed with my cheek
as the car behind hit ours
– oh my God oh my God oh my God –
I saw a couple in their late 30s, perhaps,
soft, dark, kind eyes
but strong and wordless
familiar from I didn’t know where
dark curly hair
she was shortish
soothing and solid as a nurse
who takes trauma in her arms daily
he was young, too, black-haired
colour in their cheeks

I turned to hug my seven year old
both sobbing relief
pieces of blue shattered glass
on us, the seats, the edge
of the ditch we’d skidded into
metal violence of the impact
still shuddering in my bones
hot hurt on my face
blooming into a bruise
then our rescuers were gone
and a dozen others appeared
to console, assess damage to
the car – crushed concave
door lips now pressed eternally together
help pledged
glass of water fetched
the police in reassuring
yellow jackets appeared
from a restaurant down the road
embraces, explanations from the
man in the other car
his inflated airbags wilting and
cracked radiator weeping
“This isn’t what anyone wants, is it…”

Later, the car towed,
we shored up at Casualty
the young doctor tearing his hair out
at the amount of paperwork to do
told me to touch my nose, his finger, here
here, there, and there
hammered my kneecaps
said I was lucky I didn’t
break my cheekbone
– luck! –
the story spiralled
became a slip from death
in my recountings
as perhaps it was
packs of friends came by
like wise women bringing
organic praline and grape juice
to a giggling Mary with
half-Iranian baby Jesus on her lap
one even went home to bake us a cake
– luck! –

Five days later, I’d been
sick and sore, neck sprained
headachey but counting blessings
the baby wasn’t in the back seat
where his car had caught ours
– luck! –
so musing I went to change a charger
at a computer shop where the couple
always seemed fed up of selling tech
disgruntled, pallid, he
prematurely white-haired, she
a towering bottle redhead with
glum green eyes and
lipstick over an unsmiling mouth
We haggled a bit: he complained
the keyboard I’d taken back worked fine
made me buy a better cable than
then one I’d planned to buy,
gave a wry laugh about the
capriciousness of wires
As I’m leaving he asks,
How are you after your crash?
I point to the faint emerald crescent
on my cheek, the tiny scratch fading.
Did you see the car?
We were there, he replies, in the car behind,
saw everything. Lucky he wasn’t going so fast.
Lucky! They had to pull me out
of the window! I remonstrated.
That was us, he says quietly.
I pulled you out.
There is a glint
in his black irises
of a holy secret shared.

I struggle to pair this
slightly grumpy man
bored wife accomplice
with the couple in my memory:
it couldn’t have been them!
Confused, I explain that
it all went blank,
thanked them anyway, backed out,
spinning. Did I repaint them,
in the panic of the moment,
that hiatus in the reasoning mind?
Or was that a glimpse
of their best selves,
their waiting hero selves,
the strong, alive, kind selves
who are not worrying about returned keyboards
balancing books, the tedium of tablets
repeated conversations about
warranties and RAM?
That was not them;
that was them,
not disappeared, only
in waiting.