Val di Canneto - photo by JCM

Scorched Lands by Emma Roper-Evans

in Poetry

Scorched lands, the six-babied women toiling, toiling, dragging their feet, gnarled and multi-skinned, a baby on each hip, faces pulled by grief, each grey strand a flight of pain. The young looked through multi-lashed eyes, ran as fast as they could, away, away, left the wondrous mountains with their dark secrets, grinding poverty. Fled to London, Liverpool, Cardiff, and Edinburgh to make coffee, sweep streets, sell ice cream, cigarettes, fresh pasta out of dark corners browned into nineteenth century streets. Bringing cheer and fragrant food to the thud of industry, the mash of machines, smiling country smiles, up at surly indigenous.

The red & white checked table cloth, game for food. The slurp of coffee bubbling up gunmetal channels, dolce ice cream shinyly arranged in beguiling glass-plated counters, it mouth watering flow. Pasta, pale yellow or spinache, bound in tight bows, ribboned, shelled, twisted and eeling across trays, parcels of ricotta, knots of ham pressed into gorgeous rows. The starving left the mountains to feed proletarian northern cities full of cold fog, wreathed in rain, sparkled by furnesses which roar and roar, filling the heavy air with points of bright gold, the theatre of industrial production all noise and certainty, lightened by Italian nourishment. Toes in enormous boots wiggling with spaghetti as they bear girders, building life supports, across the yards. Office workers too, their neat hands tinged with espresso, suppers bought ready-made, a dip in boing water all that’s needed to deliver a pile of deliciousness, make bodies ready for ledgers, the endless lining up of figures in rows of black: Adding and subtracting illiterate numbers. Shifting from one  column to the next, hairless Samson’s unable to keep the structure from crumbling.

Writing letters on heavy typewriters each key pounding letters of regret, acquisition, dismissal and concern, that flick across the globe to other imperial parts. Wrapping it up in colonial typeface.

Musicians too, fill wet squares, huddle under eaves, fiddling pastoral airs to the urban poor. Letting their ears enjoy for a moment, songs of love and longing, summit scenes, strolls over forests, up mountain paths trodden by mules and goats, as cars rush past, honking and splashing, the humble fiddler and his singer, but they go on, regardless, making music for a land of drudgery.

A century later, others, from much further away, take perilous journeys through Libya, mostly, where armed gangs stop people in the streets, demand their purses, watches, rings then shoot them in the head, leave delighted at their bounty as corpses mould the stone un-mourned. Any boat will do, any damn bit of wood with a helm and a promise…a log of wood with a tiller is fine, as long as it can get them far away from here. They all pile in, on, this captive crew, defrauded passengers, fleeced as Jasons, assured of security, safety, bare necessities…if they pay enough.  Boats dipped in water, laden with bodies. Some dreaming; some dying. Each wave an invasion, each swell an assault. For some, the sea an untameable beast, a wild, unfathomable watery wall, to be endured. Traversing rings of water, circles of hell, liquid inferno, they go, all seeking dry land, shelter food. By this time their faith in humankind is waning, after miles and miles of colonial lines laid down irrespective of faith, community, language, livings, just badges of ownership for bright white faces, polished mien swanking over a wet shiny Piccadilly, a century ago. Pulling chinchillas, Gaberdine round well-nourished bones. Those bodies long gone now, but their careless haughty cartography still there, despite the intervention of history, interruption of time. So they trudge through gates and checkpoints manned, alert with guns, paying endless fees for visas, rights of passage, vouchers, certificates, grants and tokens of existence. Their photos taken on cheap cameras that bleed their faces into multi-stamped papers, proiving they have paid their dues. A world parcelled up by white men long ago, who had no thought for any creature in it, on it, under it, over it. So, at last, they reach the sea, are packed onto barely boats, clinging to their papers, their children. All goods long gone, what use belongings to those that don’t belong/

Less than human now, mere vessels made of skin, receptacles of blood. Those that survive corralled into army camps, pushed from pillar to post, made to queue and queue.

Refugees, or migrants, nomads, Gypsies, always execrated. The owners of the world, after trashing it, now turn to preventing all who flee emergencies they created. France won’t let them in, Germany doesbut hersds them in lines to be assessed. Italy is kinder fro a while so they go there – from scicily to rome, rome to Atina a small town in the mountains, where the butcherm baker, candlestick maker have left. So the circle closes, the gird fastens as they step in to take their places. A neat girl from morocco becomes the pasticceria lady, twisting neat shells, rolling rigatoni tubes, laying strips of fettuccini in pale yellow and green across the Frosinone counter, a hijab neatly tied round her perfect head. Another cuts and dresses hair, some drive cabs and cars, trucks and vans, delivering tables, tomatoes round the valley. The children go to school and answer molten Arabic in rural Italian, whilst their mothers train their tongues to chchh and aaaaa, to iiiii and ow, smiling shyly from behind beautiful eyes. The young men may go to the city to drive and stevedore in dusty ports nearby.

Meanwhile in the mountains the deer fight behind the trees bellowing and barking ferociously, night and day, day and night as wolves sun themselves on cliffs overhanging the trees, disturbed occasionally by groups of walkers, day trippers.

The stars at night are so silver they smelt the sky, the Milky Way blazing past constellations that truly tell of things to come and all that has past. All history seen by those rocks up there, those planets, stars, celestial bodies, high, high up. It is like going back to the very beginning when humans first crept out of ape form, began to point, linger and consider.

Perhaps all is not lost then, we can retain: Ancient and Modern, Prehistory and Today. Hold it in a single hand, share round to each. These things are possible. In a single marvellous day, I saw them all!

Bio: Emma Roper-Evans is a London based writer and translator, winner of Glimmer Train Award and Füst Milan Hungarian literary translation Award
She runs writing workshops for children and migrants and is currently working on an expanded novel.

Jude Cowan Montague is an artist and broadcaster. She produces 'The News Agents' for Resonance FM, a weekly show experimenting with international story and the arts. She worked at Reuters Television News for many years as an archivist and this has informed her poetry and some of her art. She's an award winning printmaker and a composer. Her graphic memoir 'Love on the Isle of Dogs' is available from Central Books.

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