Tjawangwa Dema, illustrated by Tebogo Cranwell
No Bindings, 2022
where bank slips its mouth open
to let a river happen,
you say go.
the word is the cruellest flower –
english broom, white snakeroot,
an angel’s trumpet, so i stay.
sure as cocksfoot,
as at home as the wind, elsewhere, everywhere
i insist on the same, slow walk
unfurl a picnic of apples –
braeburn – carried in each pocket.
glad they survived, no car, i took a train
and two buses i could little afford to get here.
still your lips, so tight they are foxglove
on the translucence of your face,
your english too sheathed
to speak and mean at the same time.
and when it rains i miss desert,
miss sun, miss baobab,
i mean home,
my grandfather, not unlike yours,
on a field somewhere
though fields and fields apart,
so far apart an ocean nestles there.
and now we are not quite here
together, you and i
until a child dismantles distance
in her bright bee’d plastic boots,
her small arms nettling
the wobble-dance of grass
she’s saying hello
with her small, curious face.
i’ve found the blackberries.
she wants to know how?
i am made brave – despite your face
say to her, where I’m from,
the honeyguide bird tells you
where the honey is. she cannot herself
breach the hive and so she calls and
calls for you to help.
all nature speaks if we listen
oak, pine, bracken, sheep, eel,
i’ve kept my distance,
knelt farther than i would with my own child.
a talking bird? she says.
you reach out, dam her flow
but the river of her giggle runs through us,
its old syntax not quite undoing of veldt
nor airport or boat
nor this open field.
more an unexpected door,
the opening to a big top –
a circus cock-eyed in the head.
i imagine an elephant,
trampling your old thoughts
and sense your mind ungive quietly
perhaps, perhaps surprised
that i in my chain-store waterproofs
might know a thing.
here is the line between man and man
as all false boundaries are.
& since i cannot swim
i span myself into a fathom
lay my body down as a plea
upon the water
let my four-year-old self
i do this
as an offering
my grey hair resisting the water’s slick fingers
a half float returning to its true shape
while i contort myself
all fear & no grace
on that which cannot scar
the instructor says feel the water
i want to say i feel all of it
pull & push
drift & dunk
its wet yank & toss
now & in all its befores
more camel than crocodile
between gulps i glance back at my son
on the shore
learning what water isn’t
for him i lean into the wake of its open palm
may he never know
that a crossing does not mean better
that what the shield depicts as walking
is how i stay drowning
an island for his small body to rest upon
i make a bridge of blood and bone
of sinew and lung
i swallow salt
take one last breath
above the shimmer
- Tjawangwa Dema is the author of Mandible, selected for the New-Generation African Poets box set, and The Careless Seamstress, winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize. She is the recipient of fellowships from the University of Iowa’s IWP, the Danish International Visiting Artist programme, and an artist residency with Northwestern University’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities. Her work has appeared in New Daughters of Africa, Wild Imperfections and Botswana Women Write. Dema is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the University of Bristol, teaches poetry internationally, and sits on a number of literary boards including the Bristol Poetry Institute Partnership and the Lyra festival. New book translations are forthcoming in German and Portuguese.
- Tebogo Cranwell is a Motswana artist, based in Botswana, whose work explores beauty, femininity, sensuality and intimacy. She uses light and dark to bring a subtle, modern, minimalist aesthetic to portraiture.