My parents collided on opposing bicycles outside the Radcliffe Camera. They were married on a grey Westminster morning. They ate grapes afterwards.
I remember my first encounter with a cathedral: the Parvis de Notre-Dame in the rain. I was a small pink anorak. I was looking at a skyscraper studded with kings. Unfathomable to me that a skyscraper should be so old.
(A fathom is the distance between the outstretched hands. I was a small pink anorak and I could not embrace the skyscraper of kings).
My mother was born on the Sahara’s edge:
blonde, with blue eyes in the dark hands
of the doctor who slapped her
In 1986 my mother slowed to avoid but did not: instead bumping, and falling
almost as an afterthought.
My father was born on an island brushed by the hem of the monsoon.
In the beginning, the begetting. Leda, Mary, Igrayne, the Sabines, the mothers of Theseus and Heracles: blessed among women.
One of this story’s beginnings takes place in my grandmother’s nineteen-year-old body. This was a body into which the catechism had been carved so as to keep it blank. She knew nothing of men and their urges. We think.
room 10a of the British Museum: considered the sport of kings,
My grandmother was nineteen when she went down on her back
not knowing why –
her hacienda on a hill,
and her pearls from the boy
who later gave her
two black eyes.
They tell me you would have married pink
to have a cook bring you rice, sticky in banana leaves;
had you not moved wetly
with the black-pearl boy who didn’t
really want you.
Two black eyes
held wet and shining
In the palms of the hands –
so you were sent away –
and came back with two black eyes
and a baby boy
(Portuguese Beach, Mendocino, 1997)
I was a mop of dark curls skinned soft with love. I was cramming my pockets with sea-glass until my yellow mac sagged. There was my mother, splintering the sun with her head, and there was my father walking silent on the sand.
Colossal marble statue of a recumbent lion;
carved with inlaid eyes
originally probably of glass
The Lion of Knidos’s empty sockets would have held eyes of glass
to help ships off Halikarnassus
Weighing twelve tons,
it sits ironic in the inky heart
an emblem of empire,
When the Wall fell my mother was twenty-one and she cried because this was the end of the world as she had always known it.
In the place where I grew up there were horses, thighs moving like nudity under their fur
the pigeons are clattering into the heights now
(in the British Museum there are shards of horse)
(in the British Museum there is a blind lion)
My grandfather collected lions.
Empires fall like milk teeth.
To the school: I am delivered. A three hour drive north, through a valed land replete with cathedrals. There is Amiens, with its traces of paint, still;
and Chartres of the windows;
Beauvais, unfinished – thrice its spire fell through; now it is braced with wooden beams: on crutches. It boasts the highest clerestory in Europe, it smells of mouldering stone.
Rheims where are buried the kings; Coulombs which boasts the pecker-piece of the Saviour.
Under the Channel, to burst forth near a hill where runs a horse white in chalk.
Past Dover, the cliffs, so famed for smuggling and the welcoming sight to those from Dunkirk (I remember that boat, smallest to answer the call.)
(Named Tamzine, it lies on the floor of the museum for imperial war).
The school is of flint and brick, it too has a cathedral.
At the boarding house, which is new, but built out of the ruins of the old infirmary ten centuries old, another mother is wearing a poncho. She asks where we’re from, how we got here. At my mother’s reply (the Eurotunnel) she says Oh well you will have come in under our land then.
I am unpacked and stowed away.
Later that night, the others start to arrive. There are five blondes in a total of twelve. There is lacrosse gear and lurid pink mouthguards. Their jeans are different from mine (tighter). I have never seen so many sets of big breasts. Their hair is midlength (it swishes). Their clothes are all somehow the same.
– Are you rich?
(The others wait politely for my reply)
What is a woman?
An invitation to interpretation.
What is a book?
An invitation to identify.
What is a cathedral?
A show of force.
What is an island?
A thing of limits,
which likes to think it knows
where it begins and ends
not bleeding into others
a tamper-evident opening
the egregious arrogance of this self-ensconcing country!
They were confirmed so as to be gifted hoops and cufflinks of white gold.
They wanted to marry in squat flint churches, as if they were tourists, with big white dresses, as if they were cakes.
I do not want your noncommittal creed thank you.
Once a month came round
the zinc smell in the corridors, of all our clumping blood in bins.
In the run of evenings the flatline pallid blue shaded to plum and Bell Harry kept thrusting up:
I am English en-lessoned. The teacher is teaching us ‘The Flea’.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed . . . w’are met,
And cloistered in these living walls of jet
I think of a bed: one of those little beds, short and tight in stately homes. Thick-curtained against the cold. This seemed to me at the time of my buttressing in pinstripes, to be something rich and strange I wished to know.
buttress, n.: a structure of stone or brick built against a wall to strengthen or support it
buttress, v.: increase the strength or justification for; reinforce.
In the great age of cathedrals, flying buttresses were instated to counteract the lateral forces of high walls and naves, which would seek to burst open.
They were like ribs –
A universe so newly heliocentric. How afraid he must have been.
Then there was
Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm;
(how often I would think of that in the grey half-heart of a Wednesday dawning)
When the parents came, they were loud.
They came two by two in pairs of Sunday-lunching racists.
The fathers wore trousers the colour of rare meat.
(A hunk of roast beef seeping)
(banking on things in the city)
(with flats, useful for unfaithing.)
Their wives stayed at home, in the counties. Maybe they were lonely, and screamed
themselves hoarse in the cut-stone quiet of their houses.
These marriages seemed structures of mutual scorn.
Watching them made me flush hot with fear that this was coming for me and sent me knockkneed to hide.
Their days of barboured torpor; the cream-coloured afternoons –
One night, towards the end (when I could afford, increasingly, to laugh at them openly), at tea (never since have I called it that, for if there is one thing I hate it is a wasted euphemism):
dwarfs all look the same
yeah, like, to the untrained eye, all Asians look alike
yes, it’s easier to differentiate between black people
I tugged hard on a sharp laugh
Stephanie is ethnic, this upsets her more
(I did it again, this red cord conversationally dangling)
(Their names, improbably, rhymed)
& no nurse came tap-tap running down the corridor to administer.
When the United States came knocking for its foothold in the ironically named Pacific in 1903
a member of my family sold some several thousand hectares near Subic Bay
for an airbase which would be named for the clean-jawed Clark.
wherefrom was eventually waged most of the bombing of Vietnam,
Cambodia, and Laos.
Historians refer to the base as having been a backbone of logistical support for Kissinger’s crimes.
Nine hours after what happened at Pearl Harbour,
Clark Field would be bombed by the Japanese and subsequently overrun
like time running over, like water flowing over a cup.
If you are familiar with the name Douglas MacArthur, hq’d here at the butting-place, you should know also of the names and their lilts, linked like a necklace of beads across the dateline
in the order of the dawn: Wake, Guam, Davao, Baguio.
MacArthur getting off lightly, giving his name to transit stops and avenues,
and us to this day gummy in our ignorance
These poems are taken from a full-length work titled Amnion.
Photograph © Didier Jordana