Tiger Arms – Like Janaka Kaka (for Seve, aged 2 ½)
Palm fronds filter fading light over a sun-heated pool.
“Make Tiger Arms, Seve,” his mother urges.
Seve thrashes the water, arms and legs
right-angle bent. His father’s giant hand
holds him by his water-nappy, chin
just above water, protruberant belly
below. “Crows d’ink water,” Seve informs me,
slurping at the overflow. “Don’t drink that, Seve!
Blow bubbles, blow bubbles!”
He reluctantly raises his head.
I stretch out for a length, breathing
left and right. On my return Seve pronounces,
“Janaka Kaka make big Tiger Arms.”
“Make Tiger Arms like Janaka Kaka,” his mother tells him.
His father takes moon-steps beside him, as Seve’s arms
windmill, head turning right and left in imitation.
It’s November crisp and cold.
Frost forms on car windows
and our breath condenses in front of our faces,
great billowing clouds cos we’re singing,
loud, hearty, and off key.
It’s Thursday night, cocktails at the student bar.
Only a student would drink a purple nasty.
When your spew,
takes on a violaceous hue,
you know it’s been a big night.
We’re standing on a street corner,
none of us can sing, except George.
Tall, purple hair - it was a big year for purple –
and a voice like velvet.
He’d serenade girls on supermarket tills,
propose to strangers in the aisles;
his voice could unlock doors.
You and I drift across the melody,
hit the right note only by chance,
sing in different tempos and keys,
we could be singing different songs.
Howling at the moon, you called it,
as you clap, more off the beat than on it.
When we sing Marley, you don’t know the words.
You just shout, “Yeah mun”,
in the worst Jamaican accent the world has ever heard.
I can still see you standing on that corner,
curly hair in your eyes,
arms bigger than my thighs
and a smile twice as wide.
When people complain, and they do,
you tell them we’re calling down the stars and the moon,
to guide us home.
There’s such an openness about you, they’re drawn in.
Hell, half of them start to sing
not attracted by the voice, but the goodness within.
Two years later you went overseas,
too free a spirit for corporate salaries.
In the postcards you sent – and they were postcards, real snail mail -
you painted word pictures more beautiful
than the photos on the other side of the cards.
sandalwood houseboats ,
the fingers of a sunset stretching for the coast;
you brought them into our cloudfilled lives
better than any documentary might.
No one was shocked when the postcards stopped,
it was a miracle they’d come at all.
You could leave the house and forget why before you closed the front door.
You’d gone for a ride on a 125
and slipped getting off the bike.
Somehow that was typical.
Drink and drive,
come back alive ,
then fall on your front doorstep.
There was a rock on the beach, next to your hut.
On either side, glistening sand,
soft and warm, you could scoop it up,
sift single grains through your hands.
You couldn’t have hurt yourself on it if you’d tried.
But either side is not where you fell.
Your skull cracked like an eggshell.
You came home early from your overseas trip,
four months early, in a coffin lined with zinc.
There’s some things a parent shouldn’t have to see,
I can still see your Mum looking up at me,
asking me why you’d died
you were 23.
Too early for aching joints or a double chin,
for your waist to thicken, or your hair to thin
We don’t sing that often now,
we’re not students any more
we’ve got mortgages and wives,
and no-one in their right mind drinks a purple nasty twice.
But when we do
you live in the songs we sing.
Your wide open grin and your curly hair
our breath steaming in the winter air
and we still call down
the moon and the stars
to guide you home, wherever you are.
They call him The Jazzman
King of Rhyme,
a disciple of Miles and Parker and Bird.
It’s not crotchets and quavers he uses,
his weapons are rhythms wrapped up in words.
He came of age in the swinging sixties,
a man with a kaftan and an ear for the beat.
If you let him talk, he’ll tell you about
the night he saw Blackstar up on the heath.
That was the night he was going to see
a skinny black kid nobody knew
play in a dive bar on Old Compton Street,
until a mate said, “I’ll get you in free”
so he turned back.
He never did see Hendrix play.
He tells the story with a quiet smile
but the smile on his lips never reaches his eyes.
It’s as if it’s metaphor for his whole life,
the nearly man who nearly made it, but not quite.
He creeps on the stage, you don’t see him coming.
Suddenly, he’s there
crowned by his cap of many colours.
It could be Tibetan, could be Nepalese;
one thing he knows, it’s ethnic .
His waistcoat, embroidered with tiny mirrors,
struggles to hold the folds
of his middle age as they flop
over his belt
He thinks it’s from Sindh or Rajasthan.
He bought it at a stall in Camden Market
from a third generation Bengali girl
with henna tattoos running up her arms.
At the end of the gig, when he takes off his cap,
stuffs his coat in a plastic bag,
and shuffles off in torn espadrilles,
you’d think the word non-descript had been invented
just for him.
He goes back to his one room flat,
faded formica and leaking taps,
that black kid’s poster up on the wall,
and the gig he nearly went to all around him.
From the depths of Deptford to Highgate Hill
he crisscrosses London in torn espadrilles
Cap at the ready, coat close to hand:
an audience and a mike, and he’ll be there.
And on that stage,
on that stage, he’s a master magician,
a whirling dervish.
Mirror coat swirls, a live glitterball,
white hair flies out from kaleidoscope cap,
as he jumps and twirls and shouts and declaims
in a staccato rat-a-tat-tat
that goes straight through you as easy as that,
he’s part Sufi mystic, part rapper on crack.
He conjures images out of the air
weaves magic with words, and I swear
he’ll make you see things that just can’t be there.
He has the audience in the palm of his hand.
They see the passion flare in his eyes,
the joy in his smile.
An original thinker, success of the age.
he lives in the space he creates on the stage.
The Women of Kachch
The Raberi women of Kachchh
start young. Aged three, they
have a needle in their hands.
Morning chores done,
village women wrap long
veils around them, and shelter
from the afternoon sun.
Nimble fingers work cotton dyed
indigo from plants growing wild
around them. Too poor for
jewellery, gold threads
on the collars of their
kancholi blouses are the only
gold chains they will know.
A woman will work for five years
on her dowry, kancholi, veil,
and store it
in a chest
for a lifetime.
Paint flecks in your hair.
Scaffolding in the living room.
Grappling with a sander
heavier than you.
Bright. Red. Tights.
Bright red lipstick.
A perm you could bounce bombs off.
Striped deckchair in the bed
room, covered with the same
cloth you used to
patch my jeans.
Lots of plants.
Who could possibly need so many?
Shoes. Lots of shoes.
Who could possibly...?
Flash-seared tuna, mini-kofte kebabs,
sweet potato wedges. Food,
more food than the table could hold.
No-one ever walked away
hungry. People struggled to walk
the colour was
than the bike.
“Can we jive tonight?”
“Can we jive tonight?”
I wasn’t there, but they told me,
how you stroked her hair,
held her hand,
told your mother to let go,
told her it was time.
I can still hear you sing
when others struggled to stand.
Head back, an arm round
of your men.
I can still hear your voice.
I can still hear you.
I hear you.