Place legends

For Richard Lannoy

Mother Goddess

Pepper vines ring the jackfruit tree
that is her shrine. She claims
tributes of colour: indigo is hers,
and saffron, and carmine.

The rain has washed her altar.
You cannot see the blood that quit
her veins when the storm-god's iron mace
split her head, pinned and broke her arms.

Her stone skin breathes, sweats, watches
over anthill Harappas. It is not blind,
this torso tapering to a cleft
between child-wide hips.

I do not deceive myself.
She grows inside me.

Hero Stone

Stone smeared with vermilion,
the raddled god stands guard
over furrows where dead cities sleep.

Once it was blood, still warm
from his victim's pierced abdomen,
that anointed him.

One hand carries a drawn sword,
the other dips out of sight
behind the relief of the horse

Perhaps that hand, surreptitious, feels
for what the rustic sculptor
did not carve:

his testicles, twin planets that the god
is afraid will withdraw into a cleft,
twin planets without which he cannot ride.


Find me a tailor whose needles can mend
the sky's ripped tent.
Or find me a mimic who can report
the taste of sugar on his dry tongue.

I was a simple basket-maker
until, one day, a lion roared
through my mouth and my fingers bent
into claws around the cane.

The lin has now learned to cleave and rein
the rattan staves to fit a bright ring
in his head: the lion has learned
to finger a rosary, wear a green robe.

He is turning into a saint, this lion.
He is learning to weave the perfect basket,
a basket that can hold

the water that homes in on thirst.


Master of first drafts,
mason of untrowelled walls,
frugal householder,
he hoards the coinage of poems.
Circling the ruins, you hunt for his lost
clearing house of fonts,
chase the smell of his clay horses
with patents.

The original minotaur, he bellows,
savage in a labyrinth of versions.
A magneto coiled in his own rage,
he melts the hall of mirrors you've devised
to catch him, retreats chafing from your locksmith gaze.
You'll never tell concave from convex in this hell
of inversions. I tell you, wherever you look
is the wrong place.

The camera lucida moves to screen him.
Slashing through its jammed celluloid,
you hope to grab the missing guru, the stable truth
metallic behind the moving frame.
The projector, agape, spews reams
of looped film at you: a mujahid machine gun
clipping out magazines
of staccato laughter.

He has married a sleeping audience,
turned projectionist, mixed up the reels,
escaped among the garbled images.
You docket the proof to build a case
of polygamy: Garbo, nautilus, carbon, woodrose.
But when it's time to pin the blame,
turn your satchel inside out
and you'll shake loose only shadows.

His trademark. Next, with vetch and kale,
blue-green travellers' tales, he sows
a garden on the beach.
Caretaker of crumbling manuscripts, he needs
neither cartridges nor identity cards:
he is the turnings of the maze,
the flickering instants on the screen.
You are the catatonic, he the genius:

he masks himself as you, you face yourself
as him. Kabir weaves a shawl
with no edge: the horizon
is his garden's boundary.


The most beautiful is the object
which does not exist
– Zbigniav Herbert: 'Study of the Object'


The most beautiful bride is she who does not exist,
she who bears no heroes, who carries no firewood:

the classical absence pinned with jasper brooches,
she who is hope, the high-strung trope

of an extinct rhetoric, her limbs fragile as hieroglyphs
that I must collect with arms thrown wide

as metal detectors. She is a puzzle that I must
assemble into a body of coherent evidence.


The most beautiful bride is music, not sculpture:
she will wear flowers of water in her hair

and sew garlands at nightfall from fistfuls of corn,
gather splashes of stars at her wrists.

In the wilderness of speech, she will be my farewell
to the sins of too much talk, too much prayer;

in a high-walled town on a plain flat as a palm,
she will absolve me of all my crazed pieties

of hindsight. She will be the rain of grace
bursting from the pods of the wishing tree.


She is a sphinx, the most beautiful bride.
Defying the logic of her own riddles,

she will relay me from cuneiform to runic,
cursive to blackletter. So copied from hand

to hand, version to version,
the words of my charter are amended:

I will always be other than I am,
a translation of the original text of the tribe

burnt in sacked cities, buried with jewel-hoards,
torn apart by ravening wolves.


She crafts me on her parchment sheaves:
I am no territory but only borderlines

born of her artifice. She writes me even as I write
this marriage poem for her

and I climb out of the dark night
of her beloved body, the most beautiful bride.

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Himal Southasian