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Jean McNeil
Jean McNeil

Jean McNeil is the author of ten books; her novels and a collection of short fiction are published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and co-convenor of the MA in Prose Fiction at the University of East Anglia.

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Jean McNeil Poetry

Indian Ocean Parables



Where do the near deaths congregate?


Amani sunbird, Sokoke Scops owl,

East coast akalat. After spotting the local

endemics David and I are on his

motorcycle when we are nearly run over

by a bus to Lamu called ‘Deliverance.’


We dismount on the shoulder, re-calibrate. Death

hovering in the margins of a Sunday morning.

Afterwards he takes me to the junction

and I board a matatu to Watamu. Everyone

on board so kind to the ghost in their midst.



Why are the things we most need impossible?


Dusk on the roof terrace. My first Mosque swallow

arrows across the sky etching silhouettes of now

and never. I’ve been listening to it on Bird Calls

 of East Africa while gliding through skyscrapers

on the Docklands Light Railway.


Their call is wind threaded through the muezzin’s

lips. They’ve spied you from the eaves in the lime

dusk, stalking the infinity pool with the sprung step

of an impala. The know the reverse ecstasy of betrayal,

negatives with their ghost silver nights, black suns.



Can I accept my fate?


We learned about exoskeletons, the scorpion

and solifuge have them, how they protect the

damp cathedral of the heart. I’m reassured

the matatu drivers of Mtwapa still want to kill me,

even if some stubborn ally won’t let them.


What logic keeps me here running in a

dhow-hued dawn, African paradise flycatcher

lisping in the trees? The askaris from the plantation

mansions walking home after the nightshift

leap into the air, shout in Swahili, ‘keep going sister!’



How old is Swahili civilisation?


Amelia the forensic archaeologist was digging on an island

off Lamu where they discovered bone much older

than previously thought. Arab traders from

the Yemen in their slim dhows, bull sharks

trailing them, were here as early as 800 BC.


Not far from here is a haunted beach staffed by

the ghosts of ruined German missionaries. They came

to Christianise the infidel and died

of madness. It is said that anyone who camps

or sleeps on that beach will die soon after.



Where are you?


We were tested on tracking. I can follow a hyena,

tell which paw and whether it was walking or

running. On the road in the Plantation morning

a snake track, giant millipedes, the press of boda-bodas

buzzing past last night. Dawn comes, a sick sun blaring

through Baobab. I slide through hunger days

buying oranges, and at night watch waterbirds fly home

along the creek and the ocean gather thunder.

Infinity Pool



Sullen humid days in slaughtered gardens. The house

on Bofa Road has no windows or mesh, only iron grates.

At night a wildcat rummages in the kitchen and I wake

to find a snake coiled around the lamp in the living room.

A staircase of salt-bracked cement spirals into vats of seaweed,

a foam of jade breakers and a greased Kusi sky.


The house is teak doorhandles, louvred windows

in mint and ochre. Dhow-brought chests of Lamu

driftwood and mangrovewood. It has only three walls,

like a theatre; the fourth is the ocean stalked

by an infinity pool. At its bottom shimmer

blue azulejos. Thin black men lugged sacks

of cement so that we could flourish in the

white limitless burn of the Indian Ocean. We wonder

who has rusted so that we can prosper.




Three dhows sleek out of the creek

at 5.30 in the morning into silver breakers

and a parchment sky, the Common bulbul

and a reluctant dawn their only witnesses.

The muezzin begins at 6.15 from the small green

mosque across the creek. I run through the dark sisal

plantation. Even now it is twenty-five degrees.

The future lives in gravity’s shadow. In my mouth

the warm iron taste of blood. I earned it

running through an inner city

on the edge of darkness.



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