Conjunctions:77 States of Play: The Games Issue

Six Poems

Let the games begin

He sits alone in a room broader than a river
his song choked to a rivulet

The supple girls have bathed him in milk
fed him grapes and honey
and themselves

Tomorrow they will dance at the festival
as he burns



Or how the Great Game continues in Afghanistan:
feint and parry, M-24 and Humvee

Word comes back
          from a border town
          trapped in an occupied country

The wali writes in code
       I’m sending you this fleece
       woven from mare’s tail and mare’s nest

It’ll fit in your rucksack
       Fold it away with your sketch
       of the fragile midwinter sun

Hide them from the skinflint clouds
         until I can come back
         who’s sent you nothing but warnings

Emcee of freak weather events
            I’ll lift your tugboats in the desert
            They’ll tow defunct countries behind them

as I chant spells from my Pashto grimoire and make it snow



A game of hide-and-seek reported from the bardo

Hiding behind the weekend
            you watch as the carpenter sizes up your boat
            and two old women start cutting your sails
            into nine coarse pairs of trousers

Take a break to look at the indigo clouds
         It’s time you owned up  
         to rinsing the heavens
         and hanging them out to dry

What do you think that huge fish was
          you hear the women whisper
          on which he rode around the whirlpool?
          He kept its skeleton by his bed his whole life

Here’s where you crouch
            above these shimmering currents
            gripping a river stone in your paused hand
            powder blue veined with white

A talisman
                 the colour of home
                 Throw it
                 as far as it can go



In which Barnum & Bailey play divide and rule

This road leads to the forgotten temple
        that hard-faced men towed here with straining hawsers
        a century maybe more ago

In the middle of the line you are writing about the temple
     you will forget the word for tiger and wait
     for the circus tent to go up and the flags of all nations

to flutter in an air so clear you could read
    newspapers by starlight
    but no headline could have seen ahead

how the circus hands would tear down the flags
        swarm to the temple and carry it off
        laying tracks to take it on tour

around the provinces uncaging among the crowds
            rushing to see the spectacle
            their forgotten and very hungry tiger



When you play Exquisite Corpse,
you don’t really wait for an answer

Clean your spear
apostle of silence
what legacy will you leave?

Not the shadow the darkness
             not the mask the face

Why would I rise from my body?
         What is that ruby-coloured fruit?


Guest from the future
gather the candidates
at the missing step

Distance is the spur the tangent
               streaking across the map

Drought’s the harvest not the cue
                       Every night in the cave I dreamt of lions


Chemist a thousand graveyards
could be accommodated
on your shelf

Tell me what holds you up
              what keeps you going

I stand firm
                  because I stand nowhere



Look sharp, because snakes could be ladders

In this country of silence
           soldiers are burning newspapers
missing hosts call to give their baffled guests
directions to the east harbor
which fills with the foghorns of unseen ships
           while plumbers hunt for silver spoons
           hoping their ladders won’t give way

In this country of cunning
           patrons looking for doors in the wind
find that bats read floor plans better than architects
       What can I say about this magic show
       when across the shriveling hours I see
the shops in the market bringing down their shutters
and the clouds apologize as a sandstorm rises?

In this country of exile
           charred wisps of newspapers float across the river
           no drumbeat follows no plucked string shivers
in their wake the sun is a searchlight
the jars in every stall brim with strawberry juice
and this tongue’s gone dry
                                          waiting for refugee songs to return

Ranjit Hoskote is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently, of Jonahwhale (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton India; published in the UK as The Atlas of Lost Beliefs by Arc, where it was a 2020 Poetry Book Society Recommendation) and, earlier this year, Hunchprose (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton India). Hoskote lives in Bombay, India