Erika Coetzee

The breakfast of imperfection

No-one knew who had brought the forbidden cereal into the farmhouse. But there it stood in the morning, on the sideboard next to the organic muesli, like a shameless hussy. The cereal seemed unreasonably proud that it contained a mystery prize. An ugly cartoon monkey, swinging from a tree frond on the front of the box, speech-bubbled this exciting news.

The residential workshop of the Poets for Serenity was a silent retreat, so no-one could exclaim and question the presence of the cereal. There were many disapproving frowns, but they were too late to stop Irma, the newest member, who was unaware of the conventions, from opening the box and peering inside. Under the disconcerted gaze of her silent companions, she poured herself an ample bowl of Swamp Nuggets. The soya milk swirled around the multi-coloured cereal like a decomposing rainbow.

Irma unwittingly shrieked with joy when she saw the mystery prize floating in her bowl, in a cellophane pouch. She opened it immediately: it was a plastic whistle on a bright nylon string. She placed the neon whistle between her eager lips, and blew as hard as she could. The sound that followed wasn’t like any other whistle her quiet fellow poets had ever heard. Instead, the tawdry prize from the cereal box let out a screech of unadulterated imperfection.

When Irma was thrown out of the silent workshop of the Poets for Serenity, she took the cereal with her. She put the whistle around her neck, and blew it as she reversed out the farmhouse driveway. The only poem she had managed to write during her stay went like this:

Silence
is so quiet
it’s hardly
even there

Irma didn’t like it at all. But she chewed it over as she drove back to the city.

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Erika Coetzee

Night winds remind me of the time

It tasted like a potion boiled from yesterdays
bonfire burning green in my self garden
licking at the edges of familiar
casting me no clue

It hurricaned my dreams and rattled shutters
under lids that hid abandon in their close
Dark questions still hang skies in my precaution
shining me no star

Disquiet dances free across my wish lands
past excuses growing old around the waist
Time runs out for all and every virtually
hiding me no grace

Erika Coetzee

The myth of the doubtful priest and the jungle mud

There once was a priest riddled with doubts. He lived on the fringe of a jungle so wild the sun was scared to shine there. The priest was a holy man, to be sure, but he had lived near the jungle so long that he had forgotten what he had been sent there to believe. He had a room at a small hotel on the jungle’s edge, owned by a retired helicopter pilot with a drug habit. Like most people of his stature, the priest had a deep aversion to the blood-sucking leeches that teemed in the depths of the jungle. So he was booked into the hotel indefinitely, which suited the hotel-keeper, who had few other guests. Every day the priest sat on the hotel veranda overlooking the humid tangle of the jungle, and nibbled nervously at a croissant, wondering what the day would hold. The veranda was made of wood, so he could hear the subterranean insects boring away at the very foundations.

The heat, wet and thick, hung around the priest’s collar as he planned his next excursion in being holy. He decided to lead a short march through the jungle to spread good news and general reverence.

The day arrived for the priest’s planned march, and he put on his most humble clothes. He set out with a large basketful of croissants, which he imagined would lend the whole muddy exercise an air of refinement. And so he set off, wearing thigh-high rubber boots, to protect himself from the leeches. The priest trudged through the jungle seeking people on whom to bestow croissants, as well as magnificent gestures of priestliness. But he found nobody – well, to be precise, he found nobody human. For as he ventured deeper and deeper into the murky brown landscape, his protective boots filled up with leeches, and as might be expected, they sucked his blood to within an inch of his life.

It was the hotel-keeper who found him, dying in the mud. The former helicopter pilot had just partaken of a little indulgence and decided to go for a stroll. He spotted the hapless priest and dragged him back to the hotel, leaving two deep furrows in the marshy floor of the jungle. Propping the doubtful priest up on a wicker chair on the veranda, he used his last crumbs of the ethereal to revive the poor man.

The priest opened his eyes with a flutter, and asked urgently, “Has it happened?”

“Your excursion has certainly come to an end, if that’s what you mean,” answered the hotel-keeper.

“No, no,” stammered the priest, “I mean, has anything magnificent come to pass?”

“Can’t say that it has,” admitted the hotel-keeper, shaking his head regretfully. “But then again, I can’t say that it hasn’t.”

The priest lifted a hopeful eyebrow. “You think the jungle might have caught a glimpse of the divine?”

The hotel-keeper shrugged as he rolled a cigarette. “The mud looked different. Lighter… less soggy… more civilised, if you ask me.”

“Oh good,” sighed the priest, and asked for a croissant. “It isn’t easy bringing light to the jungle.”

Erika Coetzee

Red herrings: a prose poem

On the way to absolutely, I stumble over clues. Misleading directions through the backyards of truths. Wouldn’t have to worry about making wrong turns, if ghosts didn’t grab at maybe down tentative alleys, and if hoodlums and insurance salesmen wore avoidable coats, and no shadows were attached to advertising promises, and if 101 therapies didn’t claim to heal you and sob stories never swapped places with happy endings. If only I were fixed undoubtedly to the ground I would feel the yes of course with the toes of my roots, I would know the shape of wisdom, I would recognise the taste of good. But as it is, no doves nestle in my either/or hands, and red herrings litter all my hints of understand.

Erika Coetzee

Incantation for Weary Writers

Set those words free from their sentence of doubt
Squeeze them and toss them and feel them ooze out

Set those words free from the trapdoors of right
See them trail mud down the hall of polite

Set those words free from their handcuffs and chains
Hear how they hiss at your narrow refrains

Set those words free, let them fall over edges
and topple and dive from those tight upright ledges

Set those words free from their sentence of doubt
Admit that you’re beat – Let them out! Let them out!

Erika Coetzee

Small miracles

Charlotte hears the first cry of that future beloved voice and everything else becomes just about irrelevant. She is clammy with sweat from the exertion of labour and the heat that is gathering over Abidjan even before the sun begins to rise. The slow fan of the delivery room churns above her, oblivious to her joy. Her sister passes the baby who will be named Alimatou, wrapped in a hospital sheet. With a thick black pen, the sheet has been marked B 202 – 69. “Oh but she is perfect,” the two women whisper to themselves and one another. They cry, drinking in the small splendour of her. He stands next to the wall, overcome and unable to move.

Charlotte studies the tiny hands, their ancient movements, wondrous in the way of new babies. Relief washes over her, pure gratitude. She wills him to notice, to recognise the miracle they are embroiled in. She hears his shoes on the polished floor, imagines his approach, brimful with emotion. “Look at her miniature eyebrows,” she wants to say “how can they be so delightful?”

But he does not step forward and she cannot beseech him; she is locked on the inexplicable beauty of her daughter’s face. She is speechless with awe. So what can Charlotte do but shrug when she hears his retreat? The delivery room door swings fast and loud behind him. Charlotte straightens her shoulders, coos for the first time in her life. “He’ll be back” her sister suggests. “He’s in shock.”

The day ticks on. Baby Alimatou is taken off to be weighed and bathed. All kinds of perfume waft up from her small body. She suckles and sighs, epitome of satisfaction. Visiting hour comes and goes and yet he does not appear bearing baby blankets or an ill-chosen stuffed animal. His absence is like a poem last recited long ago. Her sister brings fruit and magazines Charlotte has no inclination to eat or read. The fan spins on with a steady determination.

Later, Charlotte and Alimatou are discharged and go home. “He’s too embarrassed to show his face,” her sister insists.

“He’s not here,” Charlotte  confirms, having new respect for bare essentials. Her sister stops suggesting otherwise and it is two weeks before he makes his appearance. Of course it is two weeks too late.

 ————————

Standing in the doorway five decades later, Alimatou considers her options. She knows enough to realise her father still hangs from all the curtain rails, skulks behind her rows of treasured books. He is part of the deep blind anger that bursts between herself and Caspian, the suspicion that laces their arguments. She steps forward and kisses her love for no good reason he deserves. She forgives him and lets him back in, if only for now.
 

Erika Coetzee

No pin here, a scalpel is needed –
the silent, exquisite, suffocating depths.
Every crevice and dark rock shadow hides
the gentle unfolding of a sea anemone.
Glynis van Rooyen

Unfolding glosa, with thanks to Glynis

The debris has lodged 
(thorn, dirt, splinter, glass)
a thousand and one small grooves
Over sharp edges, rough angles
skin hardens, shielding intruders
No pin here, a scalpel is needed.

It is she who gathers sadnesses like teaspoons –
departures, doubts and destructions
love’s precarious arrangements
all the rooms in heartbreak hotel
tragic tales with devastating endings:
the silent, exquisite, suffocating depths.

It is he who side-steps cracks between paving stones –
invisible fault lines, hair-thin avoidances
denied disappointments, makeshift repairs
all the fractional patch-up jobs
smooth cement over rising damp. Still,  
every crevice and dark rock shadow hides

the deep dive that was their togethernessing
the soft strokes of their once-upon-a-times
fond familiars (wrapped in water blankets)
joy swimming in matching concurrents of then – 
when they still lingered in surprise pools to mind
the gentle unfolding of a sea anemone.

Erika Coetzee

to go writing, to break up
the living below the lawn
a pitchfork is loose
troubling temptation of mud
if worms can live
worms in the earth of beneath
there are roots and writing is under
those easy walkways
through the back doors of coming in
we have ever been climbing
but from the landings, the fire escapes
the earth of writing is green
 ________________

the earth of writing is green
but from the landings, the fire escapes
we have ever been climbing
through the back doors of coming in
those easy walkways
there are roots and writing is under
worms in the earth of beneath
if worms can live
troubling temptation of mud
a pitchfork is loose
the living below the lawn
to go writing, to break up

Erika Coetzee

Walking though imaginary doorways

She steps through the irregular frame. Inside, a bowl of jellybeans offers itself,
standing on a mirror-plated platform, rather gaudy and cheap. She grabs a handful,
secretly lamenting again how the jellybean scheme has already been taken
(as if there aren’t enough to go around). She walks into the tall open space,
where everyone must choose their own trajectory, find their own secret pathway,
via the big long-windowed hall. There are bright pop-art beanbags and shaggy rugs
flung on the floor, which seems to be made of melted plasticine. Making a pit-stop
at the inevitable bar counter, she orders orange juice with a twist of some rare liqueur
only the barman can pronounce. It comes in a tall striped glass, with straws that can bend
their heads. Two of them. Music wafts from the suspended speakers, something dreadful
with a name like bananarama. There’s a joke in the air, and its circulating. 

With a name like bananarama, there’s a joke in the air, and its circulating.
Their heads, two of them. Music wafts from the suspended speakers, something dreadful
only the barman can pronounce. It comes in a tall striped glass, with straws that can bend.
At the inevitable bar counter, she orders orange juice with a twist of some rare liqueur,
flung on the floor, which seems to be made of melted plasticine. Making a pit-stop
via the big long-windowed hall, there are bright pop-art beanbags and shaggy rugs
where everyone must choose their own trajectory, find their own secret pathway
(as if there aren’t enough to go around). She walks into the tall open space,
secretly lamenting again how the jellybean scheme has already been taken.
Standing on a mirror-plated platform, rather gaudy and cheap, she grabs a handful.
She steps through the irregular frame: inside, a bowl of jellybeans offers itself.