For Guy Williams
1. That moment
There comes a moment
when you don’t know where you end
and the creature in your arms begins.
The long rains.
Two years on from the accident
and the day after my sister left —
the day we knew we could be lovers no more
than sun and moon embrace the cradled earth.
I almost missed it in the market,
the monsoon slapping down,
but turned to see what I’d ignored:
wrapped in a faded, torn kikoy, a wriggle
and her hopeless eyes staring into me:
and all of Africa’s anger and sex and wildness
were riding in there.
2. The price
And there she was —
I said —
and not one of the blue baboons
you find upcountry
but a golden baboon from the coast,
a six-week-old Monroe blonde
who was already in my arms,
her little hands fast around the buttons of my shirt.
(Where d’you get her?)
I asked the Giriama —
one of the untouchable bushmen
of the coast —
he’d shot her mother,
drugged her with arrows to feed alive
to his pet python
and I bought her there and then,
for a ten bob cheque
written in pencil
3. Her name
Why did I give her such a tragic name?
Perhaps it was the Hamlet I’d just done
but more to the point — at only fifteen
I guess I’d guessed what was to come;
and she as motherless as me
that when I stared into her eyes —
and it’s this that I want to remember —
that look when you look into an animal
and see your own soul’s country
deep in there, beyond the dark horizon.
And she brought me flowers, petals from the garden,
and her moon-coloured cries at night.
Whatever I ate, she ate — and from my bowl:
stone-sized chunks of aloneness
and whatever else my father’s allowance allowed.
Sometimes an arm of grass, poured on a silver plate
from which her shining black fingers deftly sorted
all the seeds, which she ate
like a queen, buzzing away to herself,
while I lay on the sofa
Tricks? Yes, she could do tricks:
she could outdrink anyone in the New Stanley,
pints of Elephant beer, though once
so drunk she jumped on Jack Block’s head —
the owner deep in concentrated talk
trying to sell the place again.
He banned us for ever then.
And her noise a wonder in my bed at night.
But it wasn’t her tricks so much
as just her being there:
at the chai kiosks and foodcarts of River Rd.
we ate African for free
sikuma wiki, posho, mukate maiyai —
for the punters we brought in.
And once, her first time on heat,
I woke in the dark to find her
wanking us off —
both of us together.
6. Inner child
Stare into her eyes —
the fires and shining greens, the night’s bright gems.
Do we reflect each other? Yes, we reflect each other —
but I want to enter that look and live in there for ever
to know what the child inside her thinks of me
and this other country, this dream I’ve brought her to.
And we stared into each other’s eyes —
careless because we didn’t care
fearless because there was nothing to fear
but the death we both inhabited
laughing as we waited for the final act —
like I was her Player King
and she my Player Queen.
But it wasn’t all roses.
Have you ever tried
to house-train a baboon?
Shit everywhere. In our bed
at night, in the kitchen:
the houseboy fled after two days.
The old soliloquies of abuse:
I cursed her, I wished her gone —
away into the prayers and habits of
And was it physical abuse?
Yes, it was physical abuse:
I rubbed her face in it.
I beat her.
I locked her in the toilet
where Africa’s tongue accused me,
screaming her wonderful noise.
8. A story
My little put-put, my 50cc Yamaha —
that’s how she travelled, riding pillion,
clinging to my waist, slipped inside my shirt.
Langata Rd., 4 a.m. — army roadblock:
spikes and chains, and cavalettis on the road
like a riding school.
The soldiers relax around me, smiling:
Habari aku, bwana? Pleasantries of the black night —
no matter this mzungu on a bike.
Then, her tail twitches and stands up
on the seat behind me — like a rod: Shaitani!
Shaitani! Devil! and their guns all cocked at me.
‘Hey, whoa . . .’ holding to the softness in my voice.
‘It’s only my baboon’ — and as always in Africa
the childlike roar of laughter at ourselves
and friends for life, for ever.
9. What was to come
The Ministry of Wildlife was on to me.
My friends were on to me. My sister
was on to me, and the houseboys.
Through it all, Ophelia muttered at nothing.
She picked the lice from my hair.
She brought me avocados from high up the tree —
their dark jade glowing in her shiny black palms,
in the creases of her fingers.
10. For ever
What is time to a baboon?
What did it mean to those eyes
that followed me from room to room,
or through the shantytowns
and Arab Quarter alleys
where children play soccer in the dust
and call for her, and follow her,
who followed me.
And even when she wasn’t there,
when I locked her in the bathroom,
I could feel her gargoyle eyes on me,
the scrutiny that wildness grants —
to have this second sight with me.
But I don’t know what time meant to her,
though if I had to guess
I’d say it meant simply this:
that we were there, together in that moment
and that the passing of each moment
was for ever, or is for ever
in the present simple tense to her.
I had to do something.
A ‘husband’ must be found for her.
A born-free solution. After all,
this was Adamson Land.
I took her to a farm in Macharkos —
Eden Hill. For three weeks I climbed
through trees with her,
teaching her to swing through them —
to teach her to survive.
And then I betrayed her twice on paper:
I divorced her with my signature.
I gave up such rights as I was said to have
and read again my traitor’s name —
printed in carbon on a BOAC ticket,
bound for England.
Under the flyover, a council flat in Hammersmith,
where the letter came, falling like an autumn leaf,
wrapped in someone’s white bandages.
It said that she’d been killed by bees,
stung to death,
trying to rob their honey.
I wept. I didn’t want to believe.
I couldn’t weep her out of me.
I wept her out of me.
Time knows many ways of passing.
A yew tree in the graveyard at Stoke Gabriel —
green smoke of its branches
hangs above the tombs.
Its roots are said to feed in every grave.
Carvings on the church door.
The gargoyle style
they call baboonery —
how is it I forget you,
for all of thirty years?
I look up at the stone faces:
a worn-out Herne the Hunter,
the wild hunt searching for souls —
and hold you as I come into myself,
feeding on that moment
where I don’t know where I end
and the baboon in my arms begins.
LISTEN to ‘Ophelia’ by Cliff Fell
Cliff Fell was born in London in 1955, to a New Zealand father and an English mother. In 1997 he moved to New Zealand, to Motueka, where he lives on a small farm and works as a tutor in the School of Arts at NMIT in Nelson.
His poems have been published in New Zealand and the United Kingdom in magazines, chapbooks and anthologies, including The New Exeter Book of Riddles (Enitharmon, London, 1999), and have been broadcast on Saturday Morning with Kim Hill on National Radio.
In 2002 he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University and was the first poet to win the Adam Prize. His first collection, The Adulterer’s Bible was published by Victoria University Press in 2003.
Fell comments: ‘ “Ophelia” was written in response to an exercise set by Bill Manhire – and as can happen with exercises, it ploughed open an unexpected furrow. The instruction was to write about “My pet”, with the direction that the pet had to be imaginary. In my case, exercises usually stimulate immediate ideas, but this time I was completely stumped. It kept taking me back to Class 1 of Infant School, which wasn’t somewhere I really wanted to go.
‘Two days left until submitting and still not a dickey-bird. That afternoon, a murky April autumn day, we acquired a billy-goat. I watched in awe, and with a certain degree of admiration, as he ferociously served 14 of our 16 doe-goats in about ten minutes. It was then that it occurred to me that sex would be an unusual take on the “my pet” theme. But, goats? . . . no, somehow I thought not, wonderful companions though they can be.
‘As it happens, I’d started reading Jumping the train-tracks with Angela by Paul Durcan earlier that day, and later that evening I came across the fine and funny poem, I think it’s called “The Giraffe”, in which the poet ends up in bed with a fellow lover of giraffes. And that was it – it kicked me back to the late 1970s when I lived and travelled in Africa with a friend, the actor Guy Williams, now based in London.
‘Guy had been born and brought up in Kenya, and as I reread the Durcan poem I recalled him telling me that during a particularly wild and lonely period of his teenage years, after he’d been expelled from school, he’d rescued and raised a baby baboon.
‘I also remembered how fascinating it is to watch baboons in the wild – from a respectful distance. Out on the plains of East Africa their troops can number in the hundreds and take an hour or more to pass, during which time they display the full range of primate behaviours, not least the young adults’ uninhibited onanism.
‘But now, as the idea of a poem was beginning to take shape, all I could remember of Guy’s baboon was that he’d called her Ophelia and that she’d once had him mistaken for the devil. I hadn’t seen or spoken to Guy for eight years, but I had a phone number, and he answered. Needless to say, it was as if we’d last spoken two days before – and he was enthusiastic about the poem idea and immediately began to regale me with memories of his Ophelia . . .
‘So, in some ways, the poem is a kind of found poem – there are lines, from the monkey’s mouth, as it were, that are just as I scribbled them onto a scrap of paper, the phone clamped between my ear and shoulder. And when Guy stopped to comment on their relationship, to try and analyse it for me, and said her jealousy of friends and visitors was almost sexual in its intensity, I saw how easily I could take the poem into a deeper layer of “truth”. I wrote most of the poem the next day, in about 45 minutes.
‘And if my Ophelia has a quality of tenderness and emotion that is “almost human”, as they say, it most likely comes from the nature of the other primates on this planet – and our relationship with them. In a recent copy of New Internationalist I came across this report by Abraham Odeke, of BBC Uganda, which illustrates what I mean:
Baboons protest road killing
A group of baboons by a busy highway in eastern Uganda became furious after
a speeding lorry killed a female from their troop.
They surrounded her body in the middle of the road and held a ‘sit-in’, refusing to move
for 30 minutes and blocking the highway completely, even when witnesses threw them
Last year a similar incident occurred when the baboons hurled sticks and stones at
passing cars after a baby baboon was killed on the same road.’
New Internationalist, July 2003