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Subject to Change: ‘Homesick’ by Eleanor Penny

Potrait of Eleanor
31 May 2018
7 min watch

For May’s Poem, Eleanor Penny reflects on the concept of home, exploring the political fractures within her heritage.

What inspired your poem this month? 
In the context of recent events in Israel/Palestine, I wanted to confront my own confusion and frustration with the fraught concepts of homeland and homecoming. Philip Larkin wrote that ‘home is so sad’: To go home is to confront the distance between idealisation and reality and I wanted to explore how all existing homelands are morally compromised and politically troubled. This seems particularly urgent given the tension many British Jews feel between different conceptions of Zionism and the actions of the Israeli government, in the context of a fraught public debate over Jewish identity. The poem isn’t autobiographical, but my familial connection to Israel and to diaspora Judaism drew me to the subject – particularly after reading some of Rachel Long’s recent work on families both as means of survival and myth-making machines.

Who do you think writes well on the subject of change?
Some of the best poets around have a way of capturing cinematic leaps between moments of silence and stillness, to distil vast sweeps of political change into the few minutes it takes you to read or listen to a poem. The poets who grapple best with this are those who try and grasp the political by reaching through the personal: Danez Smith, Patricia Smith, Claudia Rankine, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Ocean Vuong to name a handful.

Some of the best poets around have a way of capturing cinematic leaps between moments of silence and stillness

Why do you think poetry is a good way to talk about change?
As we’re always forced to the outer frontiers of history, we cannot make sense of the present in the same way we make sense of the past. We’re laying the rail tracks just in front of the moving train. It can feel incredibly disorienting, confusing and almost claustrophobic to live out these changes anchored in the partiality and uncertainty of our everyday lives. Poetry presents us with a mode of embracing that kind of doubt and uncertainty, giving us a way of writing through the chaos, exploring it not as something disorientating, but as a source of possibility. It gives us a way of staying with the trouble, dwelling in uncertainty – and hopefully, therefore, not retreating into despair or apathy.

How has poetry changed your life?
I’ve always read a lot of poetry – a preoccupation which started long before I ever thought to try my hand at actually writing it. Since then, the discipline of writing (the obsession, really) has nurtured a curiosity about the detail of everyday life; a hunger for the small strange intimate things is necessary if you’re continually dredging the world for new material.


(After Rachel Long)

‘Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate
and measured. We know where every bullet landed’.
Consider the homesickness of a bullet, blundered
dust-blind into the distance of a skull. I don’t think I can go home.

The earth smiles crooked. The women of Beit Sahour are digging fingers
in the laughter of the soil. Tugging out fistfuls of broken teeth. Patiently
attempting something beautiful. Their arms, anchored in the evening light,
look gold. Like surviving the process of holiness.

River tweezered from the dumb skin of un-desert – say artery, say blue, say
anything blood-under-skin, unsundered. A city rolls off hot-white, spilt milk
into water. Walk about Zion, go around her, count her towers. Walk into the river.
I know you were trying to be beautiful.

Home is a strange rumour of someone else’s skin.
I have seen maps where Jerusalem is pinned
onto the ventricles of christ, with doctor’s accuracy.
No one thinks a prophet anything besides a boy,
splayed open, limbs trussed, with the whole world
carved into his stomach.

I can’t go home. The moon half-sick of shrieking tumbles
from the blackest branches of the olive tree. Cradled
like a struck dove. We are always burying the moon
at the bottom of the garden in an unmarked box.
They think it looks barren, somehow full of secrets, from this distance,
like bone. They still think bone is barren somehow. Despite
the thousands of shot people who are living. Who are waking
in the dust. Crawling from the rubble newly precious, metal
jewelling their shoulders and their thighs.

I can’t go home. I know where the bullets went. Nothing was uncontrolled.
I keep them in a glass jar. Marry the man who can guess how many.
Your grandmother would have liked him. For his calmness
and his purposeful hands. It’s bad luck to name your children
for anyone except the headless men you once pulled
from the rubble. To keep their spirits near you. So they never call you
by your first name. So they run to you and say mother.
Say a birth stain or say wine mark on the sheets, hung damply from the
windows every morning like a small surrender. Weighted tooth-white
with little stones.

Ask where did you learn to run like that. Say I learned it
from my uncle, who pulled bodies from the rubble.
Every day he walks into the river like he’s practising. The river
isn’t thirsty. It remembers nothing. Doesn’t eat honey
with its fingers in the dog bark night when everybody
else is dreaming. The river isn’t dreaming. It’s running
to meet the ocean. My uncle doesn’t dream these days.
In the small hours, he eats pomegranates. By drowning
them in water bowls before he breaks them open. So
all the bitter pith rises to the surface, to be separated
from the sweet.

My cousins brush long hair from their foreheads. From their lines of sight.
Sometimes I say prayer and think prairie. The wolves are back, listening
to small fires sprung up in the night time. The highway drunk with flightless bees.
Through the windows, a vigilance of jewel-coloured insects fascinated
by the smell of breath. They are hungry, and angels also in the prairies,
moonstruck in the shadow of the wall. Barbed pink. Antiseptic eyed.
Breaking the necks of rabbits. If they build it, it must be beautiful.
They cannot go home. They say Zion and they mean it.

Somewhere in the shadow of the wall there are children
shaking oil drops from canisters on heaps of wood. Air-bellied.
Their names forgotten. Like we expect them to curl up
with the wolf cubs. And grow to build us cities on a wild hill.

The soldiers always come home. They shot seventeen people on a friday.
They shot two boys playing in the ocean. Sunk waist-deep impossibly
in blue. These days the fishermen stay out late. Boats bloating the horizon.
They trawl home netfuls of odd shoes instead of fish.

The soldiers are beckoning the shoreline.
The soldiers are rejoicing at the foot of the mountain.

My aunt imagines how they know where every bullet
landed. She has abandoned the necessity of miracles. Her god
the god of doorways. The god of beaming gentlemen, little certainties
and rotten fruit. Sometimes there are soldiers at the kitchen table,
still rejoicing. Summoning the old ghosts from the brickwork.
On the TV they shoot seventeen people. Afterwards she goes out
quietly to feed the horses. Who are always hungry and who have
no concept of counting. She shows me to bring spoonfuls of sugar
water to revive the bees. It’s good luck to heal the small
and stupid things. Outside her house, the burnt earth
glimmering with teaspoons.

Sometimes she tells me not to worry. That one summer
when bombs fell again they dragged garden chairs
onto the roof top to watch the rockets passing over head
like they were angels. Watched each of them fall out of sight.

Sometimes the children lay their weapons down. That
summer we read out the names of the dead. We starved
the horses blind. We mixed milk with honey, spilled it
everywhere. I don’t know what to tell you.

In the shadow of the wall there is a patch of iron-smelling earth,
which will not dry. Rust-coloured. I can’t go home.

Watch more Subject to Change

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