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Ranjit Hoskote

Speaking a Dead Language

II trespass on sentences that ash has muffled,
the lichen overgrown; then re-kindle tropes
that farmers dropped in their kitchen grates
with the husked corn and blue glass beads
when the northmen rode in on champing roans.

Hindsight is a poor cousin to revelation.
Listening to the hiss and splatter of rain,
the crackle of fire between the words,
voicing my breath in strange shapes of mouth
is like looking for you.

The north-rose flowers in every direction
on the tattered map I pull from a chest,
a hidden magnet
around which iron filings frame a crown.

I flatten the continents on a table
and read there of our love,
not lost but translated,
its cadences learned again
in other countries by other tongues.

Landscapes with Saints

Mean as knives, his burnished limbs
rotted and stank when the gateman came
to call his number. Gorakh forgot
his body was just a borrowed suit,
one size too large.

He’s forgotten the river pilot’s song.
He’s above parrot gossip,
beyond the hawk’s warning cry.
Wrapping himself in the torn fabric of sky,
Kabir climbs on.

Dropping his nimbus in the grass, he looks
at the boats riding the stream below:
close enough to touch.
When the road ends,
Tuka takes a deep breath and leaps.

She sees a boatman rowing in sand,
shielding his skiff from the ocean’s roar.
Such a safe harbour, brother, sings Lalla,
it saves you the trouble
of charting your course.

His eyes would not rest on a quatrain of walls
and scanned the desert air instead:
mango trees balancing on their heads;
himself, Khushru,
a bird of paradise judged by earth.

Neglect leafs through his pages. Perfumes escape
from phials left unstoppered
on his shelves. Lead crumbles
in Attar’s mind; his hands,
wherever they rest, touch gold.

A torn cotton robe against the wind;
his limbs, nettle-pricked, transparent as prayers.
His name burnt out,
Milarepa sings to himself
as he travels the centuries.

The Murder of the Genie

in memoriam: Rene Magritte (1898-1967)

Deep scar, the ash-white day
brands itself on lavender walls.
The gulls strike deep
in crane territory.
A clock ticks in a robot’s head,
mindful of its destiny.

The fan spins till the breeze begins
to slap the blinds. In the squeeze between
iris and lid, the window feels
the first stir of unrest.
Who let the assassin spirit in?
Who armed him, who bailed him out?

He must have rehearsed his catgut lines
before putting on his ski-mask,
turning the doorknob.
An inkpot drops in a sailor’s head,
a letter comes to rest
in the cradle.

The mullions framing the gantry
ten miles away by skiff
are phantoms of mutiny
but don’t show it.
They hold their dignified pose.
Nothing connects.

A parrot ransoms the clock for a song.
They repeat each other faithfully, translate
as two chiming alibis.
The curtains shush the piercing needle
of the chime; the flash-gun springs
from behind a wrinkled tiger mask.

The curtains catch fire
even as the grammarian gropes
for crucial evidence, signs of a struggle
in the thick undergrowth of prescribed tropes
and the flowering false pretences
of language.

In the tanglewood, I leave a few odd cinders,
the spoor of a maple, the trace of a tune,
an eyeful of pale water,
my guillotined feet.
Draw and quarter fact.
Fight clues with clues.

This wisdom shall be proverbial
in the room’s unforgiving folklore.

A Poem for Grandmother

A door. A stair. And two steps inside that dark,
the straight-backed chair my grandmother sat in,
a lace net draped across its mahogany arm.
And on the table, a volume of stories
open at the flyleaf, its tissue quill-scarred.

The photographs seal her in a shell of relations:
the sepia corset would have her no more
than an empress delegating domestic chores;
in this room, imagine her gravely accepting
tributes of porcelain and sparkling brass
or setting tiger lilies afloat in bowls, or stocking
pots of pickled mango in the attic of summer.

But the wrong word kills, and empress is wrong,
an acrid graft on a delicate stock. Empire
was never her creed: grandmother had to learn
the principles of governance from practised hands.
She had to whet the brusque words of command
on waspish crones in the inner courtyard,
had to tame the peacocks in the garden
and dry the raisins of tact with aunts-in-law,
invalids who ruled from brass-bound chests
and serene beds of illness.

She grew up with her children, kept house
in a city of merchant ships and parade-ground strife,
made a home in the rain-gashed heart
of that world in whose lanes stowaway Chinese sang
the praises of their silk, and coolies peddled
cartloads of spices plucked for colder ports.
Like the poets of that city, she wrote in two languages,
spoke a third in polite company, the lines enjambed
over the trellises, the words trapped in porous stone.

She died giving birth to a daughter
on Armistice Day, 1931.
She grew into the earth, then, a storied fig tree
whose roots shot to heaven and branches burrowed
so deep they seeded a forest.

Giving consumed grandmother. Connected to her
by nothing more substantial than a spiralled thread
of protein, I wake some nights to find her eyes
staring at me from the mirror:
grandmother when she died, younger than I am now,
cut in half by the streetlight’s glare.

Hoard your powers, she says, do not give
from the core, my son, do not give.
Giving spites the flesh, corrodes intention.
Most unreliable of barters, most memorable of sins,
giving kills. My son, do not, like Karna,
rip off the armour that is your skin.


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