Grandmothers croak welcome, and crows
watch from a sagging power line.
While I unpack the presents from a bulky suitcase
Grandmothers test me with my sisters,
engaged to marry sons of the soil. I’m their favourite, but
Grandmothers think my nose ring is for free girls.
Grandmothers ask: Do your shoulders move one by one,
when you dance the mbwaya?
Did you swallow cloven hoofs or horse meat?
So why do you rob our peace?
Who fed you eggs before you were two?
Who named you swallow?
Do you know where your umbilical’s buried?
What kenekene thing ate your tongue?
In the market, between purple pyramids of
piled-up tomatoes, orange culubar, and bush plums,
Grandmothers ask me how many home boys,
my any-kind careless talk mouth’s thrown away.
The cool palm to my forehead is a blessing before
Grandmothers squat to the fireplace,
muttering: If you’re going to cook a white frog, choose a fat one,
if you’re going to eat snails, don’t expect to win a hundred-metre-dash.
I’m asking my grandmothers if we were too much, too soon,
too loud, too young?
We all have a need for sweetness, Grandmothers reply
What would you rather be? A meal or a snack?
My grandmothers ask: If you give the milk away,
who’s going to buy the cow?
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2021. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor for 2021 was Hugh McMillan.
Down here, where I am, when meeting folk for the first time the auld heids are always interested to find out about ‘their people’. The need to understand and reflect on roots and legacy goes deep especially in rural areas. This wonderful, wistful and melodic poem examines the ties that bind us, the guilt we feel when we of necessity break them and the conflicting demands of past and present. We all have our grandmothers in our heads, but this brilliant, busy poem gives marvellous expression to them.
This poem could have been an immigrant fairytale. Women in my family have walked away from the village fire, over the next hill, into the unknown. The regions where I have lived myself changed names, imperial rulers, and languages many times. Things, like blouses, relationships, and countries, tended to fall apart. My maternal ancestors left only a few letters to each other. The poem is directed into a space of wonder, of speculation about a possible return. It longs for home. It demands ancestral wisdom. It features strange pieces of life advice: some are loving, all reveal the inadequacies with which many humans are plagued.
Self-help books suggest that if we only change one more thing, all will be well. But the hand of entropy has us by the collar and all will not, in the long run, be well. How much self-belief it takes to live in the absence of certainty.