I cannot eat dates without wondering
I usually feel warm at a funeral, watching
the black cloaks of the mourning women
enveloping their embraces on the thin grey blankets
spread around the coffin, their febrile tears dissolving
tightly-fisted wads of pink and white tissue.
But the first funeral was cold.
I look back to the camphor and calico,
my father anointed and wrapped like an offering.
The final kiss on stiff lips. On his eyebrows.
crystals of evergreen frost.
My mother too young, far away in another room,
her world tossed into a corner. Always in the aftermath of sorrow,
guests are fed, blankets folded, furniture stacked,
prayer books piled up. And those date pits we saved
to tally our missives to the dead, and to God,
return to their plastic buckets.
Every night is an accounting:
one hundred calories in the breakfast banana;
the egg-white omelette makes up three hundred;
two hundred and fifty in the soup (with croutons);
four hundred portioned for supper;
tea plain and black before bed.
Before I sleep I then take stock
of every single step,
the minutes on the treadmill
I have done to outrun myself.
Every night I weigh up
how much I’ll be worth in the end.
After a miscarriage
It is all for the mother:
the glossed eyes, the quiver at the edge
of condolence. (There are biscuits
for the mourners.)
The door to the nursery is closed.
The talk is of other things
but for that one aunt puncturing
her sympathy with needles.
Have another soon, it will be good for you.
The father slips out to hold
his nose to the resolute blankness
of the baby wrap.
The old woman barely moves
In this room the oxygen concentrator
is the only thing breathing with confidence.
The one certain chest to cave and peak,
lungs louder than prayers conditioning the air.
The eldest child must be bravest now
and remove the machine’s pinching fingers,
read the down across her philtrum,
search for damp proof of being.
The other children cup their hands over hers
as if they were holding a baby bird.
© Saaleha Idrees Bamjee, 2018 (all poems from Zikr, uHlanga Press, 2018)
Saaleha Idrees Bamjee was born and grew up in Azaadville, a small town on Johannesburg’s West Rand. She is a graduate of Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and Wits University, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Rhodes University (Makhanda). Her poetry has appeared in Ons Klyntji, Illuminations, New Contrast, and New Coin. Zikr is her first volume of poetry and won the 2020 Ingrid Jonker Prize. In addition to poetry, she has published short fiction and pieces in food journalism, and also works as a photographer. She lives in Johannesburg.