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Folk Dancing For Beginners

Karen Press

(He sets the tone)
In my country the president
from a bed of red carnations
and then the children
sit down
each with a goldfish on their desk.
Their task is to teach it to
better than it does already.
At the end of the year they’ll
have to have to have to
show what it can do
and the president will
with gifts of sandwiches and white flags.

So where were you
when I needed you?
I know, you were right here,
staring at me from the doorstep
saying get a grip, your needs are a joke
and of course you were right,
they were, I did.
Now you’ve come all the way in
and you’re turning this way and that
in front of the mirror, offering me
a whole wardrobe of postures to record
breathlessly, and I’m trying not to yawn.
Show me something that makes me
want to dress up to match,
show me the germ of a good time, show me
something silkier than I can spin myself
and I’m all yours,
me and my fine adjectives,
all yours.

The laws of physics are inviolable
Now I realise
I just assumed
you’d be willing to share my lunch,
lend me your books, borrow mine.
Now I realise
you’d look at me and think
‘you’re of no interest’.
You’d never need a lift from me,
I’d never dream of asking you for one.
Parallel phone lines stretched
pole to pole along the national road.
Or an underpass and a flyover.
Both unending, and if I can look at you so nakedly
it’s because not even my shadow exists in your world.
It’s a plastic bag blown against a fence,
you pass it with your shades on, turning the volume up.
I wish I could tease you and pour you a drink,
I wish you’d laugh sometimes
and wonder what I’m thinking.
I can’t keep scowling, it’s bad for my heart
yet that’s the only way I can stop you
flattening me with your clown-size mirror,
your nothing there but policy documents
bursting out of your pockets,
your voice like a jumbo all-the-trimmings hot dog.

Take your places
A scarf is the opposite of a piece of ground
and what is the opposite of a nickel blade?
A street corner is the opposite of a nectarine.
Where do a trestle table and a hundred lemons meet?

To skip takes a certain history of bare toes.
There are no reflections in a lift shaft.
Where fingertips have married marble
centuries have passed in a blaze of silk
and all the wooden residue turns to amethyst
that whispers gold-veined secrets as the lights go out.

Where to from here?
You learn a lot of tricks along the way
that don’t seem like tricks at the time
until you realise you’re doing them in your sleep,
all those heartfelt gestures and complex rhythms.
I’ve been reading prophecies written thirty years ago
that tell exactly how the grand betrayal would happen
twenty years later, and I think about the man who wrote them
sitting in a malaria-infested camp in a foreign country,
hidden guest of sympathetic enemies,
thinking about how he could defend himself
against his dangerous comrades when they summoned him
to account for his claims that they were running businesses with donor funds,
running legs of lamb with gun money begged from starving supporters,
setting up bursary funds for their own children with the soldiers’ shoe allowance,
thinking about how he would have to pretend to like legs of lamb and briefcases
to get out of there alive.
Where to from here?
He died as soon as he got out.
Let’s sit still a while and watch
earthworms explaining things to eggshells.

The coastline seems endless
Everyone returns after a while,
the one you loved comes back
as a youtube clip and you understand
why he left without you,
the one who loved you
comes back as the president
of a club your parents joined
at the time you ran away,
the one you were
wakes up one night
inside you
begging for mercy
in a voice you hoped
never to hear again.
But here they all are,
none of them looking at you
and all you can do is wait
for them to find you
ghosting their nights and days
and reach out, ready to try again.

Dance to this
First come the loud boys leaping sideways
thinner than my heart.
The girls say come, come, come
and the boys leap, and the wind blows,
its small kitten paws smacking the day
slightly skew and rosy.
They are throwing their arms around you.
Oh! how warm they feel!
They are throwing their arms around you.
Oh! be careful!
The men in dark suits cross the stage in formation.
They are very tired.
They will have a drink standing up.
They will head for their cars without seeming to hurry.
There are hairbrushes somewhere, waiting for them.
At the entrance to the country
the women beat drums
outside their front doors. They are so angry, their jerseys
stretch and snap in the wind.
Then they go inside without a word.
Oh sad and skinny boys I can’t get past you,
you’re like fence staves across my road,
knobbly branches broken off and made to stand sentry
without a crossbar or knitted arteries of wire
to hold you steady, your bony smiles reassure no one.

You have ten ways to stave off hunger,
none of them good, and if I tried to hug you
you’d be shy and brutal in response, awkwardly
you’d stab me and run, and rightly so,
you have a gift for leaping through alleys to find shelter
from the wind that scours the last flesh
from your dreams, the wind in eyes like mine,
you fuck and smoke and sleep the hours into a brave
history around the thinness of your heart,
its eager smile, you know you could do something,
if it were only possible.

You are here
A bin
a concrete table
half a pigeon wing
a eucalyptus tree.
Standing at the edge of the gravel
I look into a valley.
It floats and folds like the cloak of a story.
Words wander through it
harvesting the air – rustling ants, furrowing worms,
just, just audible.
I put in petrol,
get the windscreen cleaned, give R5.
You overtake me wildly,
I hug the yellow safety lane.
Thank you, your hazards flash
and my brights flash, you’re welcome.
Only here, only here
in an enormous country
love is a small and private thing
running freely between cars, across valleys,
up and down the Shoprite aisles
finding its missing parts in the wire bins
with the Special Offer crowns.

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