Awake in Waterhouse & Other Poems
O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost,
come back again.
– Thomas Wolfe
I have prepared a place for you in this time –
stopping sand, somewhere to sit & wait while
the yellow bungalow is sleeping, coma calm,
after the scriptures at Zion have receded
like the cymbals’ tinny from your ears.
Rest here by the Sunday seaweed banners,
with saltine crackers slathered in Ranch
or Thousand Island, if you rather, the day
as if it pause at a sun-loud hour, among
adorning Heineken bottles, their empty
greens aglow like they were seeded along
the shore with care in this same climate.
It will be a still life, if you stay, a picture
of youth on the verge of dough-ready
ripeness, another coastal piece of past days
glazed in simple light, the wind finished
with salt, and the aerial flair of gulls brushed
to being as silhouettes against a sail.
Today, their statues harass the tourist
schooner, just a small swim eastward,
and will resume like the surf if you depart
the sheet of this abiding beach.
Motion brings loss.
– Derek Walcott.
so may this memory be a portal
you might sit inside again, and with missing
molars take part in your communion
of crackers, snack as you stare
in a pretzel-seated stupor at the horizon,
your blinks like brown ellipses searching
the pastel distance. For stillness, you must stay,
glory and savour the conch shell array,
fold your fishbone legs and be little
by quarrelling waves, set your towel down
by this juvenile tide, beside the nude crab
climbing out the foam’s revival – forgive
him skidding like some orphan
in the seaside, some father, some son
seeking refuge before the doom of beaks
descend to break the heart, before grief
has given new birth to you, the strain of it
still heavy long after the fact, before
childhood moults to make a photo album,
and the horizon years have arrived
overnight, before the goatee hangs nocturnal
on your chin, and all your losses fever
when they want to, as if your days remained
tender all this time, like the skin of a newborn
stung by a sudden light after leaving
one body behind, never becoming numb
or immune to the new truth of your life,
never, in all these kneeling hours,
forgetting your peace before the dead.
Pecking the Dust
Because all the talk of Heaven tasted
like bitter bush medicine, cups of cerasee
snuck into the boiling grief water,
and because my first ordeal with death
still needed a meaning
beyond the maggot banquet, I was the boy
supine in bed above your bunk,
testing each afterlife belief to find one
that stayed afloat amid assault,
any proof you survived the shut-eye.
Rebirth, I knew, was a sham
by the maths, and purgatory seemed another
Middle Passage, your mawga spirit
cuffed in a stink ship’s gut, headed
to some other man’s Eden. Years
I searched for answers in your dust,
and needed all I found to feel
meaty as the hunger, my body
a church in which the bloated bell
of you rang relentless, my last religion wrecked
as john-crows pecked around the ruins,
choking on perished myths, slow
to concede the harsher fact that
human is all we are before becoming
feast and then forgotten, and no
matter the moon-time I wasted in our room
rummaging this or that faith,
I would be the last kingdom to harbour you.
Awake in Waterhouse
For some of my youngest summers,
my mother paid her school-slave wage
and we made our way by wing
across the Caribbean. En route to the girl-
hood parish, the taxi packed
and doctor bird brisk, she looked
long into the gullies stuffed with rain & waste,
searching it seemed for a face in that garden
of gibberish – abandoned bits of litter
that stewed in the urine-yellow sun, the fierce
and festering organ beating above.
We swerved through districts of lifted dust,
along the vendor-rampant roads and all
their genres of rot and rough work, arriving
at the old yard where smaller stars
spilled from green guineps, and
on the porch her father’s phantom
rocked his chair
in the form of too-warm wind.
My sleep was seldom on that island –
each night a carnivore’s melting mouth,
its breath heavy and everywhere.
I lay without a shirt between two
Kingston cousins, my feet upright
beside their snoring, our bodies tight
together on the raw mattress,
less space between us than between
the ridges of rusted zinc
patching the fence out front.
The fever of June days loitered
after the light had left, after street lamps
flowered to let the late boys kick
a last goal in the bony dusk, the sky’s
ribcage mauve above their matches.
Sitting up, I saw them play
imprisoned behind the window’s
burglar bars, and heard the ragamuffins
heckle and cackle and cuss blood.
If sleep ever entered, it did so despite
my dread of morning, when under
the watch of hens and my ackee-abated
hunger, I would suffer the cold
sputter of the outdoor shower,
a shattered citadel, half-built cinder
blocks in which a boy could bear no secret.
The high spigot spat its water belt
down my back, those grudging suds
sliding like tears.
I missed my nation where nights obeyed
the laws of light and heat,
and the room, flamboyant with moonlight,
didn’t reek the funk of old clothes clogging
the laundry hamper, frocks and boxers
worn and torn till they trembled
like cowards on the clothesline.
Awake, I made my mind a salt homage,
wanting the sea’s sound, the sweetheart sand,
the gust & gull nostalgia – to leave
the nights here where the standing fan chanted
hell toward us on the bug-gnawed bed,
dogs howling harm in the humid dark,
and the pistols pulsing through the town,
pulsing and popping in the heat
that stayed and set on mosquitoed skin,
piercing until this percussion
stopped sudden, and some gully
gorged on a son whose opened body
drooled from a few new mouths, steam
rising like steeples from their shared shock.
In the night sweat of those summers,
dreamless in the furnace, I sat startled and foreign
while they all slept stiff as the morgue, snug
beneath the symphony of this world
I marvel my mother had survived –
my mother, redeemer of the madwoman
moniker, sender of men
to prison and parliament, my mother
who wore no bra among her brothers,
gone-a-road to bellow for “real”
beef patty, my mother who, beaming barefoot
below the poui, in rusty patois confessed
that she never wanted to leave.
Two nations vie for room
on your face – within that border
of flesh, they jostle and adjust
your features, each of them eager
to find a region cooled by narra trees,
the curls you wrap in kente silk
before sleep. They seek a place
to soothe their fractured roots, to grow
their landmarks and sell
street market mangoes, maya-maya, tilapia,
deep bowls of adobo, igado, Ilocano
flavours, and balls of banku.
You say your skin is too brown
or too bright to please either people –
yet they hide inside you,
peek out like beaten children, checking
how safe it is to be reborn.
I see the haunted castles of Osu
and Cape Coast
come to claim your nose,
build themselves over and over
in the right light, their slaves only alive
at certain angles, stumbling
into tunnels of no return.
On your cheeks and along
your jaw, a field of faint moles,
impala lilies freckling
the mountains near Manila,
great hills that move
at the change of your mood.
With your hair hoisted
in that waterfall style, your eyes,
stretched toward two temples,
form the Philippines
over Ghana’s grand stool,
skinning up in a smile when I try
your Twi or Tagalog
on my West Indian tongue.
I cannot pronounce most of the names
you give your blood,
the festivals, the foods, the fashions.
I see them feast with fingers
and fire drums across your face,
those former colonies –
your mother’s stolen islands,
your father’s wrested empire,
colliding in peace like rain clouds,
implied in every expression.
They do not war
for dominion, but do a dance
that imitates battle, forging new weapons
to ward away the memory of flags
on the horizon.
They do not fight, they dance
them backras back to Europe,
they allow their neighbour a space,
some seconds to peel the sun,
suckle on the ripe air
in the refuge of each other;
and when you laugh, they share
that shade, they rest with rum
beneath indigenous trees, raising a toast
and tortured anthem for all
they have suffered – all, like sisters,
they have survived.
Georgio Russell is a Bahamian writer and an alumnus of the University of the West Indies, Jamaica. He is a past winner of the Peepal Tree Press Prize, the Mervyn Morris Prize, and was shortlisted for the Frontier OPEN Prize 2022. Russell was also a featured poet for the British Council’s project, Unwritten Poems: Exploring Caribbean Engagement in WW1. His work has been published in Yolk Literary Magazine, PREE magazine, Frontier Poetry, The London Magazine, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Shelburne, Ontario, where he teaches English for Educate Academy. Some of his favourite poets include Derek Walcott, Lorna Goodison, Ocean Vuong, Kwame Dawes, and Roger Reeves.