Three poems by Fiona Zerbst from In Praise of Hotel Rooms

The Johannesburg Review of Books presents poetry by Fiona Zerbst, from her new collection In Praise of Hotel Rooms.



Tired, as I am
of useful words –
words like tools,
blunted, numb,

stupid with sheen
and mallet-heavy –
still I come
to lay them out

row after row,
used before,
honest with use,
or stunted, solid,

rusted, worn,
dull as a hoe.
Pared them down
in dry acceptance,

worked them
to some kind
of useful blankness:
all glamour gone.


The Bay

in memoriam Stephen Watson


There, on the shore, those broken rocks
fragment the light and shade. I see you
on the sand, waving faintly
from that other side, where life
seems a mirage in dimming green –
your face now clear, not seen-unseen,
because I am awake. The sea
offers up waves in which you wade
until you’re almost solid again,
alive within the poems you made.


You loved that bay. It glitters, of course,
with grey-tailed fish in swilling green,
a foaminess that brews in the sun
above a wave that runs without breaking.
Salt air at morning, salt at night,
the fires of air and light that become
this moving place. Your shade stood here
and said to me: watch darkness come.


What words for those of us now left?
We crowd around ourselves, measure
our shadows fretfully, like children
growing up too fast but feeling
small. What words for the friend
you were, the light you offered walking
by the sea? Your face half-gone
in memory surfaces, clear, in dreams.


To write is to cry, or cry out, perhaps.
To wait for the burning horizon to tinge
to duskier darkness, less outraged.
Leaning into the words that have bled
upon the page, I’m offering up
the notion that writing may not be
what saves us: curse of a dimming
consciousness hurtling to a dead end.


Do I leave you here, or visit again?
When the doors unlock and the keys fall rusted,
what comes in? I’ve tried to escape
the inevitable, falling away
from holding everything tight, too tight.
Now looking up at the vanishing sky,
I imagine dying. Words are as nothing.
One keeps on writing. God knows why …


A line of the lightest foam teases
water out, slowly, bubble by bubble.
Only the pink sand shows to us
its underdone, helpless colour.
What’s out of reach is going away,
leaching into a washed-out past.
Do I follow you, line-inch by line-inch,
where waves pour into themselves?


The Hotel Room on the Second Floor

The hotel room on the second floor
had views of the infinite – the sea
expanded into everything
and everything was dark in me

like waves that turn the evening in.
I almost sensed the wooden floor
resist the weight of us. The stairs
creaked and swayed defensively

in the hotel room on the second floor.
Empty bookshelves held the air
in shadow. Windows framed us there
as if we’d nowhere else to go.

Such was our loss, our final weeks –
you on the stair and I below.
All’s gone silent, cold and strange
in time’s imperilling flow.

© Fiona Zerbst, 2020

  • Fiona Zerbst has published five volumes of poetry: In Praise of Hotel Rooms (Dryad Press, 2020), Oleander (Modjaji Books, 2009), Time and Again (UCT Younger Poets Series/Snailpress, 2002), the small zone (Snailpress, 1995) and Parting Shots (Carrefour Press, 1991). She received an MA in Creative Writing from UCT and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Pretoria. Her poems are widely anthologised, most recently in The New Century of South African Poetry (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2019).
Header image: Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

The JRB Poetry Editor is Rustum Kozain

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