I’m not reclining beneath a plum tree
on Hampstead Heath; I’m not about to fade
into oblivion. True, I can’t see
what’s going on about my feet displayed
in the season’s first mud. They say the act
of observation changes whatever
is observed. Does that apply to birdsong?
Can sound be seen? Cool seepage soothes my cracked
heels as I, a Friday’s child, endeavour
to locate it bob, bob, bobbin’ along.
Then, it was Mopani scrub, that odour
of turpentine; the obliterating
chorus of cicadas; and always her
smoke-filled hours… lipstick, powdered cheeks… waiting
for the man with gorilla arms, and eyes
like cornflowers. Or singeing the firm-set
small feathers of a plump hen with the flames
from a twisted newspaper. Lullabies
to shoot the moon, to learn the alphabet;
counting – 1,2,3-4-5 - counting games.
In the morning, in the evening, rockin’
robin. Wrapping his flask of sweet, milky
tea with my Ouma’s old Lisle stocking,
or part of the same newspaper, which she
used to singe the chicken, and which he reads
after work, on the stoep, from the back page
to the news, glass of Mainstay in his fist.
Ouma, vamping ain’t we got fun, feeds
the cat on cream crackers, recalls her stage
debut in the roaring twenties, much missed.
Unlike the scrub robin that tweets the sun
when it rises and when it sets, she trips
to moonlit memories (one, two-three) of fun-
filled years after Delville Wood, while Mom strips
bed linen, and Dad files his fingernails,
and I, red mud squelching between my toes,
examine sickle bush thickets for eggs,
transforming whatever I observe: dales
into dongas, leas into bushveld, prose
into uncertain rhymes, lees into dregs.
Counting syllables while Dad remembers
Tobruk… rockin’ robin… El Alamein…
white dust on his boots, hot desert embers
still glowing. Mom, tightly folding the pain
with her arms. Where will the cigarette ash
fall? Where will I find an untidy cup
of grass with protruding stems, neat lining,
and two freckled eggs? Suddenly a flash,
low-flying, skulking, you could say. Look up,
look down – gone. But listen to it pouring
forth its soul like moonlight when a fleeting
girl, colleen, lovely woman, took my hand
and placed it on a heart that stopped beating
for me when it stopped for her. Understand
that the act of observation alters
whatever is observed. I thought I saw
its tail, briefly, fanned, but it could have been
the detached wing of a moth, or the burrs
on a bush baby’s rump, or a shrew’s claw,
slightly curved, almost too small to be seen.
The mud has dried in scabs upon my feet;
I count the days, I count the minutes too;
I like to fantasise, to guess each sweet,
to wonder how I lost a girl like you;
but where’s the use, this light-forsaken day,
of moaning like the wind that comes between
the song of dawn, the song of dusk… trilling
robin… of saying I loved you? Away!
Don’t go! Away! I can’t know what you mean:
observing eyes above cracked cheeks, spilling;
eyes seeping tears for what? For midnight?
I wonder if Ruth heard you in that field,
if she ever discerned the stripes, the white
tips, the rufous rump; and awake, I yield,
asleep, I yield, to whatever avails:
what I hear, what I see, and what I think
I know, is that the song of dusk, and dawn,
In this brown land is not the nightingale’s
but the scrub robin’s, and there is a link
holding what is cheerful and what forlorn.