Rachael de Moravia

the poet

Rachael de Moravia is a writer, journalist and university lecturer whose arts, culture, travel and business features have appeared in UK and international publications. She's been a magazine editor, broadcast journalist and radio news presenter, and her essays, fiction and poetry have been published widely – both in print and online. Rachael was granted an Authors’ Foundation Award from the Society of Authors in 2019.

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the poems

The Topography of War

Home

00:00 / 03:36

By the window, a grandmother sits, grey
eyes on the jagged edges of buildings, a no-
longer city of disorder and dust, powdered to
destruction, the ashes of white marble.
Precious ancient city, my ash-Shahbaa,
living, breathing, marble {white} veined
with porphyry {red} and diorite {green},
cracked and broken, open-veined, bleeding
into dust, emptiness and substance bleeding
out together on the margins of the streets.
In dreams she hears {impact} the sound of
one glass edge against another glass edge
almost like a whisper; in waking she sits
with splintered glass in her lap like jewels
embroidered in the folds of black fabric,
here in the frame of the once-window.
Framed as in a painting, and, if looking up
from the streets, caught in a moment,
the moment a painter imprisons his seated
subject looking elsewhere towards an
imagined horizon, eternal gaze falling into
the distance, she sits.
Ancient city of calcined bone-ash, powdered
minarets, ash-drift alleys, souqs submerged.
{annihilate}

They leave, they return.
They burn, they destroy.
They come to hide, shelter, rebuild;
dredging, sifting, dreading, shifting.
She doesn’t recognise the map laid out
beyond the window now,
the chart in the frame.
Cartographer of disorder, she scans the ruins
of the city. She tries to trace the arches of
the caravanserai, delineate the rooves of the
hammam. The walls of the citadel lay in
ruins in the scarred landscape of her
memory. Streets cede to dust cede to twisted
steel, twisted like the limbs of pistachio trees
in the orchards she knew as a girl. She is in
the orchards and at home, past and present
eviscerated, past and present forming a
continuous loop as she sits in the window of
the horizonless city.
The grey city suffocates its past in a toxic
fog of dust, and, sitting by the window, she
recalls fragments of childhood; technicolour
days and vivid past-lives preserved in black
and white on glossy paper in the unsealing
peeling plastic film of dry albums in dusty
boxes. Former adhesions unstick in the
present; mortar crumbles, families fragment,
half-lives corrode.
Mortars fall, mortar disintegrates.
What holds together is torn apart,
coherence to chaos.
{mortar // mortar}
For millennia we spoke this language of
binding and building — now the words
crumble in our mouths like broken teeth in
bad dreams and we spit out destruction.
{mort // morte}
Steel shell-fragments pierce the words of a
poem daubed on the lime-mortared citadel
walls. City of learning, here is the lesson:
lessen, lessen.

Hospital

00:00 / 03:32

The evening sun gives the city a golden
aura, hushed and hallowed, phoenix-feather
clouds the colour of fire.
It lays itself across the white façades like the
yellowing photos in dry albums, a sepia city.
{sepia // sepsis} Yellowbrown,
sulfur mustard, toxic halo.
A pause in the bombardment and the smoky
city tries to catch its breath,
but its lungs fill with weaponised air,
bronchial alleyways and arches {inhale}
grilles // gills {breathe} balconies, lintels
{breathe} vaults, cupolas {breathe} the
vapour penetrating tunnels and passageways,
and deep into the alveoli of filigree windows
and lattice-work shutters.
Porous structures exhale their dead.
A father carries his child through the
scorched streets.
The shattered concrete of the hospital climbs
to eat the sky and spits out shell-casings
caught between its teeth.


He sits by the bed, fingers pulling at the thin
white sheet, fingers flexing and tensing
against the fabric the way he once gripped
bedsheets in ecstasy. Now he rents in agony.
His child lays, dustgrey skin, ashes to ashes
to ashes, the hell of this skindust,
fleshwounding red. Doctors shout to be
heard but despair is louder. Louder still are
eyes {clawed} and throats {raw}.
Strip-lights flicker — doctors pause —
flicker again and go out.
The hospital is lit only by the evening, by
the dark greyscape of trauma, and in the
dark, bodies {pupils fixed} still writhing and
convulsing. The blind acrid air scavenges in
the dark for verbs: to choke, to vomit, to
curdle. Powerless, the ventilators and
monitors are silent, dead as the back-up
generator in the basement where the dead
used to lay.
Now they lay in the dust.
Treating the just-living, doctors scratch the
cupboards bare for antidote, for atropine, for
alkaloid. Running through corridors
{bloodstream} labyrinthine in the dark, they
go hunting for liquid relief, for release.
Desperate to stay awake, exhausted, a father
{don’t leave me} drifts bodily to the halfworld
of dream-state where he walks
between the planted lines of pistachio trees,
the lines he walked a thousand times with
brothers and uncles at harvest time. In the
dark of his sleep the lines of trees become
lines running into bodies, the lines of
hospital drips and tubes, the bodies
dissolving into sheets on beds, threadbare
sheets becoming brittle sheets of paper, lines
drawn on paper like careless borders drawn
on maps, terrible and stained and perishing
maps, scrawled with places he once knew,
pock-marked and blood-flecked like bulletholes
in walls, and all his life-lines written
on the {palimpsest} landscape.
In the black night, a father sits in the
hospital. Over his heart a shirt pocket,
and within it a photo.

Hollow

00:00 / 04:55

Not far from the border, a mother sits in a
hollow of earth, sheltering from the snow.
Navigating by day away from smokedrifts
over the city {remains}, at night she rests.
She walks the limestone massif through the
Dead Cities of antiquity. Beyond these
forgotten cities, farmlands to the north and
west where the olive and nut trees grow,
orchards abandoned, the earth heavy and
pregnant with unharvested fallen yields.
Hungry, hollow-cheeked and skull-thin, she
moves the tip of her tongue across the velvet
bone of her lower jaw to feel the space
where her wisdom teeth once buried their
roots. Enamel may be the strongest
substance in the body, but even teeth rot.
These roots are not so firm that they can’t be
displaced by metal. The doctor said bone
would grow back over time, and each
passing month the gumflesh swallows the
void, little by little.
Flesh grows back with healthy blood-flow.
Flesh grows back unless you’re dead.
She tongues the root-hollows and tastes the
air — acid that carries for miles with the
wind. She tastes metal on bone, metal on
flesh.
Her body, too, hollow after bearing a child,
born still, and her whole hollow body cries
into the cold of the night, unheard.
In the silence of the hollow {in the stillness
of her womb} echoes of voices, anisotropic,
immeasurable, like the echoes of shells
falling in the city where a grandmother sits
in grey dust // where shrieking echoes of
mortars bounce off the carcasses of
buildings // where the shrieks of children
echo in the streets where bombs fall
indiscriminate // where the children feel it in
their eyes and throats and lungs before they
even know it is raining at all.
In the silence of the hollow, a memory of her
brothers’ voices in the rows of pistachio
trees, seeds closed-mouthed and ripening,
shells splitting, an ecstasy of dehiscence.
She recalls the orchard arteries, trees planted
in parallel avenues, rooted deep like teeth,
lines of gnarly trunks, rough-ridged grey
bark, twisted limbs {like the children falling
in the streets} waxy-leaved, canopy-dense,
fruit-heavy. She recalls the changing colour
of ripening drupes, the soft grey-green
smooth nut inside, soft like the velvet gums
against her tongue inside her hungry mouth
which waters when she thinks of the harvest.
She swallows the saliva, unsated.
She thinks of the harvest, of sorting the nuts,
open-mouthed shells here, closed-mouthed
shells here, the abrupt splitting apart, the
audible pop of hundreds of ripening,
opening seeds in the fertile orchards like
rapid joyous gun-fire. She cannot forget how
the shells fall — in the orchards, in the city,
on the hospital. She cannot forget the cracks
in the citadel walls, or the crack of nutshells
underfoot at harvesttime.
From her shelter in the hollow she draws
lines in the softly falling snow on the frozen
ground, rudimentary map-making, marking
out cities, coastlines and borders. The snow
melts to her touch. She draws slowly, a lover
running her fingers across another body,
tracing blood rivers and sinew paths and
flesh hollows.
Mapping her thoughts, she finds some lines
are organic: natural forms like rivers and
plateaus and mountain ranges. Others are
territorial, made by man, deliberately drawn
and visible, like train tracks and roads and
borders. But the best sort of lines are
invisible to the eye: ley lines and desire lines
and the shortcut she took through the trees to
play with her sisters in the orchard —drawn
by intuition, by routine, by heart— and how
these undrawn lines seemed to her the most
human topographical feature of all.
Not far from the border, a mother sits in a
hollow of earth, sheltering from the snow.
It is night, and the land is nothing more than
a colourless spectrum that spreads itself out
between the black and the white.

Publishing credits

All poems: FELT: Aesthetics of Grey (ZenoPress)

© original authors 2020

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