Two poems by Claire Askew, written on the Greek island of Hydra.
If I move now, the sun
naked between the trees
will melt me as I lie.
– Adrienne Rich
Because I am the one who speaks English,
they call me outside.
In the street, in an elbow of weak light
thrown by our porch, two tourists
mumble like fat, white grubs.
The boy comes up the steps to me,
hand round a bad map someone drew.
His face is hot, red, wet as a tongue.
The girl is crying. They are looking
for a house that, when they find it,
will be shuttered, lime-scale white
and dry. I want to say
that crying is a stupid luxury
the island women can’t afford:
I trained my babies early
not to dehydrate themselves this way.
I know it will be morning now
before this girl, her massive backpack
full of useless things, can find
the market, buy a quart
and pull that water back
inside herself again. But I’m quiet,
pour a glassful for her from our fridge.
She sputters thank you in our language.
Things that thrive here: mules
and stones, crickets loud as fire alarms,
the harder vines. Old women
whose hands and feet are tough,
whose men worked boats or built homes
all day in the big heat,
and died young. The boring sun.
Slow flies the size of grapes.
My father finds the torch and guides them
down the street’s steep shoulder,
holding the light down round their feet,
until they are out of sight.
All night, under the chattering fans,
I think about the girl’s chapped throat,
the boy she lies beside,
their mouths. None of us sleeps.
Everywhere you look is light
so exquisite it hurts. Light
off the taffeta sea, the brief white
rips of wake and surf; light
frosting the bleached houses’ sides
wedding-cake perfect; light
in the wires, in the cut pot roofs, light
that’s one hundred per cent proof. White-
washed island carefully dressed in light,
bridal; hung with thick sheets of light
like honeycombs, like dress shirts lightly
starched and hung to dry. Yachts in the bite
of the port, marshmallow white,
confettiing armfuls of chopped light
out into water clear and keen as ice.
And over the flat-topped hill as night
comes flirting on, the island saves its great light-
show for last. Ancient, many-headed light
that warms the kilns of myth: clay red, bright
pink, streaked ochre fingering the cloth of sky,
the undersides of all the thin white
clouds turned iris, mauve. And then the fine
pale strings of windows flared like Christmas lights
along the port; yachts flicker and go out, and high
across the strait the pinprick warning lights
flick one by one along the radar masts. Tonight,
insomniac in unfamiliar heat, I’ll write
under the moth-bothered kitchen light,
this is the life. Mine is the lightest, easiest life.
Claire Askew's debut poetry collection, This changes things, was published by Bloodaxe in 2016. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications and has been twice shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award (2014, 2016). She is also a novelist, and her debut novel-in-progress won the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. Claire works as Edinburgh's Scottish Book Trust Reading Champion and lives in North Edinburgh.
Photograph by Pedro Caetano CC 2.0