Fernando Pessoa in Durban

Picture yourself, child, garred
in a coign of the newborn city:
 
father and infant brother dead though life,
that other half of nothing,
 
spills out the same from the hill
into the harbour. You take your spyglass to the sea,
 
late in the afternoon when the big hulls loom
against the pier, watch the ladies overdressed
 
on the embankment or the sailors
tumbling from steamers into bars.
 
There is a tunnel below
where the cargo trains go. Could it be
 
you found on foot
without the tram for smoothness
 
west on West towards Victoria where
in the salt stupor of the market a veiny hand
 
patted a fat amethyst eyeball in your palm?
In the freshly planted suburbs, the smoke of wet dirt in gardens:
 
“Those who do not belong here wear a uniform—
consider this when sleep falls on you.”
 
                              *
 
The man who sleeps in your mother’s bed
drinks tea with the British ambassador so
 
the house is kosmos enough. In one room a calliope
like an engine plays; in another, a stone horse smooth enough
 
to ride or a carved wooden mask with a nose-hole
stinging skin. There’s a monocle
 
and a pipe, a flyer for Ruth St. Denis, there’s a feathery moth’s
wing, part of a chewed-up but bright pink Europe.
 
(You tick in sticky names the pages of your enemies—
Plato, Ptolemy, Shakespeare, Dickens, Sir Conan Doyle
 
and the schoolboys who scrape you on the ground until your knees go red.
You see a girl playing in the street and feel pity.)
 
                              *
 
“The poet, a fake, lacks conviction:
he’s stuck with both absence and substance.
 
These are the laws of things,
this is the index finger, pointing.”
 
Camoens who sailed in search of Portugal,
Magellan who wrote his name in the sky elliptical—
 
that was the country dreamed by pilgrims
whose tears flowed into óur sea—
 
it was ways to make every estranged brook feel special,
to hawk deeds of Europe to Asia and vice versa.
 
The cannonade drools and sputters to a stop,
the ship pulls away from the cliff and wheels
 
toward a new mass.
The vespertine light drains by degrees
 
into the night-time as if through bright
perforations of stars. The lamps of the ports
 
dim in economic sequence.
on the tip of the land’s triangle
 
where you killed the Khoikhoi for their cattle,
the Dutch are bastards
 
and those Brits to whom you owe,
those bureaucrats and beautiful engineers,
 
are very polite but rather shy.
They slaughter hearts too, scientifically.
 
But song remained at close of day. Song took root
in the decaying estate: song in the house of faith,
 
alone in the end, after the machines,
after the former masters,
 
after the fields, recaptured by trees,
and the pedigreed dogs abandoned.
 
                              *
 
Helpless, the love of precision for territory.
Helpless, your green discoloured bust
 
on an island among commuters, on the corner
of Commercial and Soldier’s Way.
 
You are ever a stranger from Tongaat to Isipingo though
the beaches have been seized and the cuter cottages
 
turned away from loamy burial ground
to face a reopened sea.
 
But we carry Bambatha’s name
in our mouths and inherit your teeth;
 
the highway gutter-drawls into stacked flats
or tin doors, curling dirt roads, satellite towns
 
on satellite maps, and the moon is still red
and the ancestors reach down like willows.
 
You among them know well:
smoking your cigarette, to spite the gods,
 
writing, “They must eat my little boy or die,”
as another way of saying, “Let every tongue be foreign.”
 

Vivek Narayanan, "Fernando Pessoa In Durban" from Universal Beach.  Copyright © 2011 by Vivek Narayanan.  Reprinted by permission of the author.
Source: Universal Beach (ingirumimusnocte, 2011)
More Poems by Vivek Narayanan