11 February 2012

So pale she was, so pale

Ségou, Mali, 1993

She floats above the river like a shade
Of summer in her yellow cotton dress,
As pale and perfect as the moon’s caress;
With blood-red fingers slicing down the blade,
Then tracing tracks across the roughly-made
Old linen of those maps, which only guess
At crimes the conquerors dare not confess.
She hesitates: for now she is afraid
I want her. But, in truth, we never met -
Just some conceit that I may know her need,
While empires rise and empires fall - and yet
The hope remains that we may still be freed
From fear, to lay a perfume on our sweat,
To have, to hold, to love until we bleed.



  1. Gorgeous writing. So rich and vivid. I'd really love to know what the historical context for this piece is. The images put me in mind of Ophelia as she drowns.

    1. Thank you Leanne.
      During the early part of 1993 I was a passenger in a truck travelling across west Africa. As we drove through Ségou in Mali I caught a glimpse of a young woman, maybe eighteen years old, walking along the road near the river, wearing a pale yellow dress and a broad-brimmed sun hat. I only saw her for a few seconds but the image has haunted me ever since, this young white woman, looking like a figure from an old photograph, striding alone through a black African city.
      Ségou was once a French colonial base, so she may have been connected with a continuing French presence there. Impossible to say for sure, though she certainly didn't look like your average Western backpacker.
      And so the poem is a fantasy about her, and about colonialism. I saw some other singular sights during my six months in Africa. Some of them may make it into poems in the future. Or maybe I'll return to this vision again.