Nearly at the frontier
Almost impossible not to think of it
with military signage still in place,
yet here we are, the bus pulled up
by busy smallholders’ stalls,
headscarfed women laughing.
Not so far from watchtowers
and mass grave sites,
witnesses still being called
to austere and stifling courtrooms,
scar tissue terrains give way
to towns whose plain hope shows –
and only last night outside a bar
weren’t we greeted by all those passers-by?
We’ll soon be off down widened roads,
through newly coppiced woodland,
carrying on towards the frontier’s
persistent machinery –
but for now the driver’s having a smoke,
and with questions unresolved
or best avoided, we are in the sun.
Stepping out of the lift,
I’m to cross your threshold
before we shake hands.
So custom has it, and here
I am, encumbered with rucksack,
unsure of where to stow
my shoes, but ushered in
to this different place, your home –
my first mistake to think
it will matter how well I know
these ins and outs of etiquette.
Breeze through an open balcony door,
this clement September ...
It’s not so long since chance
connections firmed into
your open invitation.
Already, beyond apartment blocks,
roseate fireworks promise I’ll return:
like a statue’s stroked hand,
a witnessed wedding acts as guarantee.
And you just back from your daughter’s.
So, yes, six storeys up, I’m floored
by language and trust, in this district
whose name you can’t precisely translate.
‘Friendship’, ‘companionship’, ‘acquaintanceship’:
you try each one but none will do –
though I might hazard a guess
as to where we are: figures emerging
as if from heat-haze into proximity
on what’s now becoming common ground.
These neat little espressos
he said he wasn’t sure he could make
with the closed-up café’s machine
are the precise and distilled opposite
of expansive summer light
across meadows unbroken until
the river marking the border.
As usual, there’s too much
I want to say or dare
when I can’t translate
a solitary look across the table.
Preventing the petrol tang
in this pit-stop forecourt
becoming regret’s occasion
is my concern: you stack
our empty paper cups
while he relocks the café door.
A generous landscape divulges
itself, nothing more, despite
what I might think to decipher
from forested gorges, sun patterns
across tilted pastures, the scent
of plants in a clearing.
While we’re talking of this and that,
you’re giving away details
of a life I’ve hardly known –
and me, I’m wandering
into a wood which, if luck lasts,
will have been my own invention.
Brief conversation in the kitchen
It’s as if I’ve been here before,
sitting on this chair beneath
your painting of red peppers.
It’s as if I’m meeting again
people I knew in some other life –
as if you could ask me to pass
a particular plate or fork
and, without so much as a thought,
I’d reach for the drawer
where it’s always been kept.
It’s one way to explain
this atmosphere, this ease –
and, of course, we’ve spoken
via email, and I’ve seen on Skype
your painting in this kitchen
where friends, not guests, are entertained.
It’s only as you make to leave,
to cycle across the city,
it’s as if I’m doing a disservice.
There was no other life,
It’s as if I’ve forgotten the word
in my own language – although,
as we’re saying our goodbyes,
I’m not so sure it ever had one.
[Tom Phillips is a freelance writer living in Bristol, UK. His poetry has been published in a wide variety of magazines, in two chapbooks and in the full-length collection Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012). Recent work also includes the play Coastal Defences (Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol, 2014) and the children’s story Nicholas – The Stolen Reindeer (x-ovation, 2014). He works on translation and cultural exchange projects with writers and artists in SE Europe and is co-founder of Anglo-Bulgarian online collaboration Colourful Star.]
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