Selina Rodrigues’ much-anticipated first collection takes a long look at the invisible ecology of contemporary urban living and working – call-centres, computer screens, night-shift cleaners – and the competing structures of time and money, labour and desire. It’s a book about online desires, migratory workers and childcare, and the flat-packed silences of alienation, all framed by city skylines.
Cover image: JR Korpa
Her baby growls on waking as the metal blinds rattle in eagerness and Rahena clicks fluorescents awake, stares at machines and starts to count 10s, 20s, 50s in her third brisk shop. Prepare early. A last secret lorry rolls through the city, she wonders which floorboard gave slightly then, a tendon of the building that pulls and yields, whilst the curved palm of moon fades in the lightening and birds start to chatter. A man wheels his cart pausing, bending, collecting and Rahena sees his lips move as if he murmurs the morning.
electricity loops around us, we are deeper than skulls and mosaics, than jewels. Clutter of a platform trails away. Thoughts are thin behind transport faces as we breathe a newspaper’s ink, sense warm hands on metal. Who is the stranger now, masked, or with lit cells. We are careless, torn headlines underfoot as we sway westbound, your chest, my thigh are all our bodies. Forget the pre-paid minutes and miles. Let’s never arrive. Here it is – containment. My mouth’s morning fur is as warm as this tunnel. Even the stray bag is tight within us. What is the danger now. We dream of each other. We want our rehearsed real fears. Flecks on your shoulder are to my lips. I trust you passenger, no buds of conversation opening around us. We are in awe of the cave, held in arches and in water as you sigh in my ear. Our risk meaning – nothing – anything – to me.
The morning star, a key at my shoulder. At 5am I walked 6 miles to school. I was lucky that we could pay. My parents were bored of learning. I was their fifth. One day ma squeezed me through the window to pa to push his knees where he lay, and I unlocked the door. We say carry only enough for your journey. I was spat to town, then to city, then another. Always space for quiet ones. Now, even oldest sisters want me to call in my calls, at 10, 11, midnight. Could be our last talk, they say. Lights waver across the Bund like thread we are not afraid of colour at our feet we cannot fear the future and the skyline is my future.
Dear Boss. Today your head is full of rain. Your husband wept, you scraped plates at 3am and still brought pastries. We watch. You are kind. Children run the office in your eyes, they run your heart with laughter. Imagine. We are all hands to this juddering system. Aire Street’s window is open a hair’s-width enough for you, a thin, steady breath. As sun sparks day, my wired head turns. Lambs are eating, dying, calling. It’s the season you say. Leave early because now the earth is open-mouthed and fields are torn for birth. So hours pass through us until I trip down tilting floors into ferocious spring – – the city’s form – feathered grey, slash, drop blue contained new buds. Dear Janie, away from you. Rain falls again from untrustworthy skies. I need the moors. For you, only commitment is right.
The swan bridge stretches and holds the tide and streams of hurried, stray commuters. A measured, silver wrap is at her side. Lou undoes her cuffs and inhales powder. Like ancient, herded sheep across a bridge the numbers bunch and then disappear. By day, at her desk the hundreds of zeros run over the screen. She flicks her fingers and shuffles the queen’s head, the queen’s head. By night currencies slip through other careless hands and Lou sighs beside her low-slung, hollow bridge. At last on a drift of powder she lies bare-legged, with silt covering her toes. The words repeat, I promise that I – I promise to pay. Away from the rows of digits and decimals, this water takes trillions and endless zeros. Louise bends towards white scurf and there beneath the swan’s wings, tastes the river.
I don’t know what I’m doing here. A strange open thing to say. You don’t usually speak and we don’t watch shadows fold and change across our desks or mark the sun’s gentle reach. It’s the afternoon hush and your voice is low. You want to live in a different place, to leave in spring, a delicate time to go, to cross a border’s paper-thin crease. Elsewhere – beyond these keys and screens go – open maps under mosaic roofs. Learn new notes from score or memory and sleep enveloped, as the proof of paper cuts heal. Jac, in April’s raw spring light, open the day’s atonal door
‘Selina Rodrigues writes with quiet passion about work and workers. Her language is precise, elliptical, and always surprising. The settings of these poems are offices, call-centres and shops, but the poems lift from an anonymous workforce to individual narratives of love, loss, complexity and contradiction. The lexicon of work – risk, impact, control – becomes metaphorical and transformative. A sense of wonder pervades the writing. This is captivating debut from a unique voice.’
‘These poems wind themselves around the reader with gentleness as well as ferocity. They explore and celebrate, in many different voices, how it feels to work: to sit among screens, yuccas and colleagues, to commute, to be raising metal shutters at dawn or working a call-centre late shift. Work life might never seem the same again after reading this collection.’
‘a promising first collection, brave in its subject matter, ambitious in design.’