Blesok no. 65, March-April, 2009
In Praise of Innocence
Henk van Kerkwijk
In Praise of Innocence
Language clear and see-through as poisoned
water, deadly as a ballerina's smile. The foal
isn't innocent; look at the way it bites the bark
and leaves trees dying. The normal lamb will butt
you in the crotch – and rightly so. The lamb
too cute for its own good, the helpless one on
legs like unspun wool? It dies first as the Good
Shepherd talks straight with a butcher's knife.
Language, the politician's tool; language unclear,
the civil servant's fodder. Theirs is the Chemical
Wedding of might. The new alchemy
became the old religion. All popes called Innocent
were knowing politicians and –uncivil to mention it–
creators of endless strings of civil wars. The lamb
too cute for its own good. The helpless one
on legs like unspun wool. It dies first.
He lived in a rough neighbourhood.
He shouted: 'Go away!' His head high
above me. His rib cage resting on the worn
windowsill of his second floor tenement.
Eighteen I was. My glowing face
a field of spots. My too warm ears
the prison from which my grandmother's
last gasps refused to escape. So I
yelled back: 'Your sister's dead… '
The granduncle I had never met before
(for reasons unclear, a quarrel long
forgotten), insisted: 'Go away!'
And I, neck bent backward, repeated:
'Your sister's dead… ' Once upstairs
he said, 'I thought you were a Norwegian
sailor.' Adding in imitation pidgin:
'No, no. No drinkies here.'
'Your sister's dead.' He pointed at
a somewhat uneven arch through which
two rooms formerly separated,
were now connected. Then showed
me a brick. 'I built it myself. They said
it was a load-bearing wall, that it would
never work. That it would come down!
Did I prove them wrong.'
My grandmother was wide-built
and heavy. Would answer every insult
with a blast from a mouth that hardly
stopped talking. Once I fell asleep
on her lap and dreamt I possessed
all the wisdom she'd forgotten.
It didn't last. Now I remember her
in the living room, combing her hair,
checking in the mirror if that thin
grey-pale string was all. “It used
to be so long. And rich! I would coil
it twice around my head. People thought
it wasn't real.” Seventeen I was and
school and speech training –to educate
away my accent– had left me without
an answer. I smelled the oil-stove
in her kitchen. She always simmered
the stringiest beef to an unbelievable
tenderness I have never tasted since.
but no sweat, my mother had
tapioca on her shelf. A yellow
cardboard box, browning at the bottom.
Its contents labelled with a blackish
pen and ink on off-white paper.
No sweat, though people seemed
at work: women half turned, baskets awry,
black and lush leaves marching. Tapioca!
How full of far away seductiveness
that word – my mother never used it.
Only four, but salt crystals were sown
into the furrows on my forehead:
I worked hard imagining big beasts
ploughing my fields. Away in Tapioca!
But my father kept popping up…
Sweating and steaming he kept
popping up in the blue kitchen doorframe.
Only four, and I still couldn't count
so I know he stood there countless times,
shouting: “The war is over!”
It never was.
Yesterday, with black and white bulls
stampeding through the twilight
of the late night western – yesterday
I recalled the tapioca never tasted,
the puddings my mother never made.
But how could she? My father kept
stampeding into her kitchen, yelling
about a war that was over.
To this day he keeps going on
as if there were a finished past.
Is there anything more long standing
than how we stood? It's a plinth-less
monument of memory. Grey, as if cast
in lead: my father and I
sheltering. Trees above us and the narrow
road, no forks, no side-paths, endless
on either side of our wet feet. And his shoes so
much bigger. A sign of wisdom, for sure. But
our bicycles are a joke, for there is no
visible point to return to and no destination.
Memory is a twin to avarice; it doesn't show
a signpost, only tarmac and rain and how
the tree next to us is split by lightning.
Half of it jumped across to the other side
with its bark smoking, but its core exposed:
daring me to escape. I remain frozen.
It's still pelting down.
When God fell downstairs and tried
to get up, he sought my hand.
He knew I was there. He'd heard
me cussing and cursing creation. But
I'd stopped, breathless with undirected
anger, while He with eyes that refused
to focus, and ears still ringing from the Fall –
only got to grips with the air molecules
around us. His vertebrae crushed, His
bones broken, a cripple for eternity, He said:
”Son, don't listen to the lie, the meek
and mild will never conquer.
It isn't Lucifer that lost, it's I.”
The Object Taken
from the heart was not a bullet.
A token of love taken too close
to heart. Too close for comfort.
Penetrating as unwanted truth.
Glass, beautiful but not see through,
it pierced her in the course of
the accident. A hesitant recovery.
Waking up, with him tearful –barely
seeing her– at her bedside.
An unhelpful stammer: “What
did you dream about?”
And she: “I can't remember”.
Our revels now are ended, the dancing
steps I never mastered, once more
un-stepped – wind howls from across
the breakers – the child tucked in is
as the breath the storm forgot
to haul away; let it sleep, let it sleep.
Take it, softly, to the car, then join
me on the wide seat up front
(it's oyster coloured once again).
Put up the house and let the sea alone
be home to breakers… Let its foam
hiss on the beach. Leave it, leave it
licking lifeless sand. Forget how
the salt wind pickled our discontent.
We're leaving for another life
in another land, on other lavish sand.
But let that last trunk stand there, simply
on the drive-way. We won't take
that trunk. It's packed with all our pain.