Thursday, 23 February 2017

Bellyache Jake

Yesterday, while out scouring the beach,
I bumped into Bellyache,
looking happier than I’d ever known him,
strolling hand in hand
with an orangutan in a floral dress
who he introduced as Helena.
They wore matching Panama hats,
‘Just Married’ printed on the bands.
The hair on Helena’s stocky arms and legs
glowed a dark vivid red
in the early evening sun. Her eyes
were a pair of freshly roasted coffee beans.
Bellyache recognised me, telling Helena,
‘This is an old classmate of mine…’
but then, having trailed off awkwardly,
he obliged me to offer my name
as I stooped to shake her hand. 
Her fingers were long and leathery,
her grip disconcertingly firm. 
For a moment I considered kissing
her cheek, but refrained,
unsure how she’d take it.
We’d given Jake the nickname ‘Bellyache’
because of how relentlessly
he’d grumble about everyone and everything,
making him colicky company
and notably noxious to the ladies.
I suppose time changes all
of us in one way or another.
I, for example, make my living
collecting the droppings of sea birds,
can no longer play the harp,
and am lonely enough to covet
the orangutan bride of
a man I once thought of
as understanding nothing.

This poem was commended in the The Interpreter's House Poetry Competition and published in issue 62 of their magazine.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

I Decided to Take Up Ostrich Racing 

I trained at the best ostrich racing school in the world, in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, where I excelled, soon overtaking my trainers in terms of my ostrich racing skills. I was faster than they were, bolder, more determined. I was on the international circuit in no time, competing in races from Australia to Alaska, and winning most of them. My favourite steed was Apunda, a sturdy hen with kind eyes and a permanent sneer. People were intimidated by her sneer, but I knew there was nothing in it. That was just the way her face was set.

Seven years into our career, Apunda and I were on our longest winning streak – 24 consecutive victories – when something went wrong. We were taking a corner – tight, but nothing we hadn’t breezed before – when Apunda’s left leg flew out from under her. We’d been going over 50 miles an hour, so we went down hard, tumbling over and over along the dry dirt floor. Apunda broke her right leg; I broke my left and fractured a couple of ribs. Neither of us could move. We had just two working legs between us, and – as we lay there in a jumbled heap – I wasn’t sure which was hers and which was mine. The medics had to disentangle us before we could be stretchered to hospital.

It was while recovering from my injuries that I began knitting. During those months of convalescence, I made 14 hats, nine pairs of mittens and half a dozen cardigans. For Apunda I knitted an extra-long yellow and turquoise scarf to keep her warm during the cold South African winters. I presented it to her at the party we threw to mark the end of our successful partnership. I could tell she was pleased by the way her sneer softened - just a touch – as she took the scarf in her beak and wrapped it around her long featherless neck. 

'As Jazzy as They Come' written by Benjamin Palmer
Illustration by Charly Arias

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sleepless City (Brooklyn Bridge Nocturne)

(Translated from the Spanish of Federico García Lorca)

In the sky, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
Moon creatures sniff and prowl about their cabins.
Iguanas will come and bite the dreamless men
and the brokenhearted one who flees will meet, on corners,
the incredible crocodile, calm beneath the tenderly protesting stars.

On Earth, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
A corpse in the farthest graveyard
complains for three years
because his knee is a desert;
and the boy they buried this morning cried so hard
they had to call the dogs to shut him up.

Life is not a dream. Beware! Beware! Beware!
We fall down stairs to eat moist earth
or climb to the edge of snow with the choir of dead dahlias.
But there's no forgetting, no dreaming:
raw flesh. Kisses bind mouths
into a tangle of fresh veins
and those pained by wounds will be pained ceaselessly
and those afraid of death will carry it on their shoulders.

One day
horses will live in taverns
and the furious ants
will attack the yellow skies that hide in the eyes of cows.
Another day
we’ll see the resurrection of the desiccated butterflies
and, still walking through a land of grey sponges and silent ships,
we’ll see our ring sparkle and roses spill from our tongue.
Beware! Beware! Beware!
To those still marked by claw and rainstorm,
to that boy who cries because he hasn’t heard about the invention of the bridge
or that corpse who has nothing but a head and a shoe,
they must be taken to the wall where iguanas and snakes are waiting,
where the bear’s teeth are waiting,
where the child’s mummified hand is waiting
and the camel’s hair bristles with a violent blue chill.

In the sky, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
No one sleeps.
But if somebody closes their eyes,
whip him, my boys, whip him!
Let there be a scene of opened eyes
and bitter ulcers burning.
On Earth, no one sleeps. No one, no one.
I’ve said it already.
No one sleeps.
But at night, if somebody has too much moss on their temples,
open the trapdoors so they can see, beneath the light of the moon,
the false cups, the poison and the skull of theatres.

Ciudad sin sueño (Nocturno del Brooklyn Bridge)

No duerme nadie por el cielo. Nadie, nadie.
No duerme nadie.
Las criaturas de la luna huelen y rondan sus cabañas.
Vendrán las iguanas vivas a morder a los hombres que no sueñan
y el que huye con el corazón roto encontrará por las esquinas
al increíble cocodrilo quieto bajo la tierna protesta de los astros.

No duerme nadie por el mundo. Nadie, nadie.
No duerme nadie.
Hay un muerto en el cementerio más lejano
que se queja tres años
porque tiene un paisaje seco en la rodilla;
y el niño que enterraron esta mañana lloraba tanto
que hubo necesidad de llamar a los perros para que callase.

No es sueño la vida. ¡Alerta! ¡Alerta! ¡Alerta!
Nos caemos por las escaleras para comer la tierra húmeda
o subimos al filo de la nieve con el coro de las dalias muertas.
Pero no hay olvido, ni sueño:
carne viva. Los besos atan las bocas
en una maraña de venas recientes
y al que le duele su dolor le dolerá sin descanso
y al que teme la muerte la llevará sobre sus hombros.

Un día
los caballos vivirán en las tabernas
y las hormigas furiosas
atacarán los cielos amarillos que se refugian en los ojos de las vacas.
Otro día
veremos la resurrección de las mariposas disecadas
y aún andando por un paisaje de esponjas grises y barcos mudos
veremos brillar nuestro anillo y manar rosas de nuestra lengua.
¡Alerta! ¡Alerta! ¡Alerta!
A los que guardan todavía huellas de zarpa y aguacero,
a aquel muchacho que llora porque no sabe la invención del puente
o a aquel muerto que ya no tiene más que la cabeza y un zapato,
hay que llevarlos al muro donde iguanas y sierpes esperan,
donde espera la dentadura del oso,
donde espera la mano momificada del niño
y la piel del camello se eriza con un violento escalofrío azul.

No duerme nadie por el cielo. Nadie, nadie.
No duerme nadie.
Pero si alguien cierra los ojos,
¡azotadlo, hijos míos, azotadlo!
Haya un panorama de ojos abiertos
y amargas llagas encendidas.
No duerme nadie por el mundo. Nadie, nadie.
Ya lo he dicho.
No duerme nadie.
Pero si alguien tiene por la noche exceso de musgo en las sienes,
abrid los escotillones para que vea bajo la luna
las copas falsas, el veneno y la calavera de los teatros.

Poem by Federico García Lorca
Translation by Benjamin Palmer

Monday, 7 November 2016

Leonora Carrington’s The Giantess (The Guardian of the Egg)

She's as long-bodied as a sequoia tree but her hands and feet are delicate and pretty. She bows down to tap at the windows of countryfolk to ask what they think of her elegant digits. They eulogise so effusively that the giantess blushes and begs them to stop. When they stop, she begs them to say it again. But she's gentle and gives many great gifts, so people forgive her for interrupting their dinners with her compulsive fishing for compliments.

The giantess goes barefoot to show off her comely toes. These get tickled by bushes and hedgerows so she can often be heard tittering as she strolls the hills. 

When it's cloudy, her head becomes moist. This makes her hair frizzy – and her unhappy. At such moments she reaches into her pocket and fondles her most beloved possession: a black porcelain egg – as big as a bale of hay.

The giantess stole the egg from a bad-tempered deity at the beginning of time. He's forever trying to take it back, but she's too clever for him. She keeps it safe. One day it will hatch and the bright, feathered creature that emerges will fly over the earth, gobbling up sorrows until there are none left.

Art by Leonora Carrington
Poem by Benjamin Palmer

Monday, 31 October 2016

Little Boy Blue

His teeth don’t chatter 
all night like they used to.
He sings with frogs, polishes the wings
of beetles, sits on the lips of wells,
legs hanging down,
like a pair of thirsty tongues.

He sad-clowns for the barn owls –
tough crowd but he coaxes
a couple of hoots before they carry
their heart-shaped faces and hunger
for warm, wriggling things
off into the dark.

He builds tiny churches for ants
from pine cones and feathers.
He stares into nests for hours.
Eggs obsess him. And baby mice: 
so bald and blind;
so terribly pink.

Into the bark of an old elder tree,
hunched near the edge of town,
he scores, each evening with a rusty blade,
a different boy’s name –
Tim, Owen, Arthur – hoping
one day to read back his own.

Take a walk that way 
and he might greet you, opening wide 
his ribcage, like a coat 
lined with counterfeit watches. 
You won’t see him, but a faint 
ticking will trouble the air.

Clouds remind him of something,
but he can never remember what.
He lets the wind play him like a flute
– or an oboe when he’s blue.
In lonely meadows, scarecrows 
sway to his tunes.

He makes snow angels and asks them
questions until they melt into the ground.
None have answered yet.
He’ll sigh from time to time, so softly,
upon your resting eyelids,
and this is how he steals sleep from you.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Entertainers

We found a clown in the woods
and brought him home.
Now he lives in our chicken coop.
We give him corn to peck.

At first we encouraged him
to lay us some eggs,
but all he’d yield
were brittle little jokes
that crumbled
as they left his lips.

We let him out
from time to time
and he helps us in the garden,
watering the plants
from the plastic sunflower on his lapel,
which appears to never run dry.

At night we hear him trying to lift
the spirits of the poet
we keep hog-tied in the pigpen,
dancing on his hands,
smacking himself in the face with a spade,
mock-bawling like a babe…

But it’s a hopeless task –
the poet’s been dismal
ever since we fished him 
out of that filthy old river.

One day we’re hoping
to get a real pig
and some genuine,
egg-laying chickens.

Then we’ll take the clown
and the poet
back where we found them
and they’ll have to fend
for themselves.

This poem was first published by New Welsh Review