Writing workshops at the Muslim School

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Selected poems

 

 

Its fur so shining-smooth

We couldn't bear to kill it in the end,

the bright-eyed rat that hid,

all unhygienic, in the walk-in robe,

sleeping in amongst our clothes

and, one night, in a shoe.

 

Our foolish cat had chased it from the wild

and lost it in that crowded human space

headlong up the walls,

its narrow whiskered snout so ratty-cute,

its fur so shining-smooth,

its cunning tiny paws

gripping the smooth sheer paint

in rodent terror.

 

Our cat watched for the small beast

through one long night,

his blue eyes shining eerie

in the dark. Sometime round three,

he even knocked the shoe the rat hid in

down to the floor, but lost his prey again

amongst too many scarves.

I spent the next few days and nights

of splintered sleep piling up

great heaps to wash and disinfect

once the poor beast was gone.

 

It's all been wiped with disinfectant now,

or washed and hung in sunshine and fresh air.

I'd never pitied Herakles before.

The problem in the wardrobe wasn't

so much Augean filth;

Ratty's small spoor was a sprinkling

of needles in a haystack.

It's harder than you think,

to wash a whole haystack.

 

The cat was less than helpful,

sulking beneath the king-sized bed,

useless as vain Achilles pretending

not to care.

 

At last, I caught the rat

(inside another shoe)

under a basket.

Success; but Ratty

was a neighbour now.

The tiny beast had lived too close to us,

too long, scuttling up blank walls

and dropping into shoes.

 

It knew all our clothes.

 

Even the sudden merciful blow

from the heavy brick was not acceptable.

We could no more bear to kill the rat

than kill the silly cat who'd brought it here.

 

This one had won its freedom.

 

It twitches long whiskers and scuttles

up bulrushes, now, in the small wetlands

that pass for the Elysian Fields around here.

 

Live long and prosper, little rat.

 

 

Some slight redemption

Coventry Cathedral had been bombed,

I knew, during the last great conflagration

of the world,

had lost some of its roof

one night of far too many deaths —

though nothing to the horror

our own side rained,

flaming, down onto Dresden.

I had some vague idea

the church had been rebuilt —

another war memorial.

 

Not even close.

High-windowed walls

stand tall around

paved empty sacred space

big as a playing field,

wide open to the sky.

Stumps of once-proud columns
rise lower than my knees.

Some of the stone walls

still hold window lead,

maybe a little fractured glass

but not a hint of roof.

The fabric of the building

tattered stone and iron lace;

the light behind it blinding blue,

or dumping summer rain.

In not-so-distant Oxford

each church, it seemed,

held its small monument to martyrs

of the Reformation. Always

Catholics and Protestants alike,

never just one side.

Never a hint which One True Church

might have been right, the plaques

so careful in their shame

and generosity.


Each time I saw a sign,

I tried to hide the tears

that stabbed my lids.

I couldn't hold them back

in Coventry. The monument

is not to war

nor even peace

but to forgiveness.


A modest painted board

where the altar must have massed

before the bombs

asks over and over

Father forgive

 

even the German aircrews

 

those who sent them

 

and they themselves,

for their own part.

 

That would have been enough

to burst the floodgates.

But deeper

in the open body of the ruin

another sign backs practical love

everywhere —

food and wells and

medicine for all;

 

and, most unbearable, finds

some slight redemption

in the re-creation, stone

by fire-bombed-stone,

of Dresden's own

high-domed cathedral.

 

 

Writing workshops at the Muslim School

The flowers in the garden

of the inner-city Muslim school

 

are kangaroo paws just like mine at home —

hot pink, well mulched with bark.

 

One of the bright-eyed headscarfed girls

shows me her Dickens-Austen mix.

 

Dashing from room to room, from class to class,

I can't quite concentrate, but I'm impressed.

 

'Miss, are you married?'

I tell them that the hoplites in formation

 

were the tank of the fifth century BC;

that ancient Greeks had no tomato sauce,

 

chocolate or even tea; that the marble

columns everywhere — so pale, so elegant —

 

were painted red and green and blue

with gilded bits; that statues wore

 

bright-coloured robes, and even jewellery.

'Miss, have you got kids?'

 

During the Peloponnesian War, farmers

and village-folk from all of Attica were sent

 

for safety from the Spartans' swords

within their city Athens's thick stone walls,

 

thousands of refugees penned up

like sheep waiting for death.

 

The Plague killed

one in three of them.

 

I ask the kids to pick a character

and write a sentence or a paragraph

 

to start the telling of those lives cut short.

A tragedy so far away in space and time

 

is made brand-new, but still as sad,

by Aussie Muslim hands and shiny minds.

 

 

Grant FraserJenny Blackford's poems have appeared in Australian Poetry Journal, Going Down Swinging and Westerly, as well as The School Magazine and various anthologies. Pitt Street Poetry launched her first full-length poetry collection, The Loyalty of Chickens, in April 2017.

Topic tags: poetry, Jenny Blackford

 

 

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Existing comments

Nice work, Jenny. I read a short story recently entitled "Talking to George". It's about three people who find it quite natural to confide in a spider that lives in a potting shed. And there are some words beginning with 'rat' that are interesting: ratafia, ratamacue, ratatouille. Others not so delicious: ratlines, rat pack and ratsbane.
Pam | 22 January 2018


Delightful. I love your delicate touch with both joy and sorrow.
Harrrt gleeson | 24 January 2018


Thank you, Pam and Harrrt! Much appreciated.
Jenny Blackford | 21 March 2018


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