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Sonnets from Zawia (AZZAWIYA)

Sunday, 27 Feb 2011

Venus at Sabratha

Here are some sonnets that I wrote when working on Azzawiya Oil Refinery from 1980 to 1982. They were published in my fourth collection "In the Country of Birds" published by Carcanet in 2003. I drove through Zawia during a business trip in 2006 and the town was bigger although essentially the same. I thought given the current revolution in Libya visitors to my website might be interested in the flavour of Libya thirty years ago. It might be of ironic interest that the Boney M song "by the Rivers of Babylon" was immensely popular in Libya at this time. The image is from the Roman site at Sabratha twenty-five kilometres from Zawia.




























SONNETS FROM ZAWIA

ON COOKING CHICKENS



1.


The newcomers and their families wait


For the Zawia bus. It’s their first chance


To do a little more than appreciate


This place of wind and abundance


Where spray from irrigation water swirls


And grit is driven hard enough to bruise


The scrubbed faces of British wives, still girls


So young they talk excitedly of shoes.




How long before their husbands worry


That many of us are single men


As we mention shortages and hurry


To advise on where to school a daughter


And how to hasten the plucking of a hen


By putting it in boiling water?


2


Some hens struggle under a seat.


Their wings thud against the leather


Rhythmically like a hanged man’s feet.


Minutes ago they crowded together


Tied with a green flex which hobbled


Their legs so only their heads could blink


From side to side as they gobbled


Imagined grain. Too tired to think


We carry to the coach the best


Cuts of meat, loves and potatoes.


Our driver rises from his rest


Next to a well in which he throws


His cigarette while sunlight clings


To stone blurring the form of things.


3.


Now the light relinquishes its grip


On architecture and the glazed, lopped heads


Of bullocks piled along the butcher’s strip


Where we bargained for glossy sweetbreads.


Our driver has a gentle villainy


Jolting us home through date palms which ripen


To a sticky brown. We think of money


Or argue how to cook a Libyan hen.


Could we be called down to earth? We are less


Than the dusk is with its lack of light,


Reduced more than we’d care to confess


To these newcomers waving us goodnight


As we wither away from them while they stand


Dangling a live bird in each free hand.


EVENING


In front of me hawks squeal and must swoop


Around the water tower. They aren’t clear forms


But lines of flight inscribed above a loop


Of sea tinted by the first winter storms


Which quiver soundlessly miles away.


Close to me the tamarisk branches seem


Flaws in the dusk’s raw silk or else they sway


From an ageing Japanese artist’s dream


Of touch made visible. But nightfall


Takes that royal luminous idea


Leaving me only able to recall


From the minute republic of the ear


As tomcats squabble on the garden wall


And cockroaches whistle in the hall.


THE
MEDITERRANEAN

The body politic shakes within a change


Of mood. What he was promised now becomes


A might-have-been. But he preferred the strange


And left home. The strange was strange. So he thumbs


His way back to original design.


His mother’s words come to flood him with excess


Like hormones accelerating a decline.


Will he be reborn and achieve success?


Perhaps. The sea is ageing and impure.


In media terra her glad blue eye


Wrinkles in its orbit to ensure


His handsome middle age where he can lie


Upon a beach between her infected calms


And a fly-blown future under palms.


THE FIFTH MAN


Clouds must have built up since no glints show


As I stroll outside after listening


To a relative on the radio


Confess his treachery of years ago.


At the newcomers’ flat a chicken screams


Strangled behind jalousies glistening


With drizzle. It’s a night when dreams


Will turn hints dropped in childhood to themes


For fairy tales where a wicked uncle


Makes a lost father seem magical


Though the broadcast should not mean much to me,


Noticed rather as if an animal


Had whimpered above the whisper of the sea


Which is unconcerned, random, free.


LITERACY


The calligraphy of cloud above me


Embroiders the Arabic word for rain


While a hoopoe casts an economy


Of shadow swaying, like a weathervane,


On power lines. My worst pupil passes


With a hawk upon his wrist. He makes me look


At the bird and his new pair of glasses.


For eighteen months he has read “black” as“book.”


“Now reading good,” he claims and indicates


His cataract and the hawk’s uncovered


Chilling eyes. He stoops to sniff a pinion


As water’s alphabet evaporates


Over that valley where he discovered


More than thirty species of scorpion.


MONTH OF FASTING


A scorpion crawls beneath my mattress.


Its tail flickers like a gas jet


When I brush it into a plastic bin.


It gives me something to gossip about


As clouds lower and earth and sea compress


Ramadan to hours in which I sweat


Unused, yet paid for all of it. I grin


Like a monetarist “toughing it out”


Since I know the sea breeze will lift the press


Of slick air, upturn my mosquito net,


Creak shutters against their hooks and begin


To challenge a hush so complete I’d doubt


Anything moved if it weren’t for the sound


Of the scorpion scuttling round and round.


SPRING IN THE DESERT


Like awkward deer, tentatively greedy


For sugar, girls sidle close then run


Giggling to their mothers while we make fun


Of our friend, the policeman Al Hamidi,


Gesturing to a mountain shattered by heat,


Swept bare by flashflood, a ruined face


Staring at this green, Gaddafi’s perfect place


Where no family picnic is complete


Without a father crouching to cut stocks


Of fodder for his sheep as stereos play,


Shining like tiny silver tower blocks,


And where each group, as far as the eye can see,


Has a son or daughter who stands up to sway


To a song from Radio Tripoli:


“By the rivers of
Babylon

There we sat down,


Yea, we wept,


When we remembered
Zion.”
























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