- Vol. 7
- Chapter 01
When my uncle said he lived on ‘this tiny island,’ I imagined him floating in the middle of a mass of water surrounded by land. I grew up in Enugu where all you could see were hills rolling into hills rolling into hills.
Last year, two days after my sixth birthday, my uncle came and swooped me off to Lagos, to his home on the island. I imagined the two of us floating in the middle of water, and I didn’t want to go.
But I was six and the world had fallen apart. Day, my uncle said, had turned to night and Enugu was no place to leave a little girl who had just witnessed what I had and where would I live without my mother and father, whose bloated bodies had been dragged out in front of me. We had gone picnicking at Nike Lake – my mother, my father and me. My father had gone swimming, ‘A quick swim and I’ll be out.’ But we heard him shouting and my mother said to stay where I was, that she’d be back with him soon.
I was afraid of water, of being surrounded by it, and how would I play, uncle? Do we eat underwater? 'I’ll look after you,' my uncle said. ‘You have no reason to fear.’
I am seven now and I know better. My uncle’s ‘tiny island’ is a massive house on Victoria Island with a backyard and trees for me to hide in. Now I know that words do not always mean what they say and there’re worse things to fear than water.
I grew up on this tiny little island – less than 14 miles long and two and a half miles wide. And it seemed enormous to me when I was a child, riding the subway to someplace so different than where I lived. But later, I realised I could walk that island in a day, walk down Broadway until I reached Harlem, the Upper West Side, the glass and steel of Midtown, the Village, the abandoned factories turned into art studios in SoHo, the old Financial District, and down to Battery Park at the very end.
I grew up on a tiny little island with 1.6 million people living on it, daytime population bringing in 2.3 million more. Daytime population? People coming in from all the places around it and beyond. I hate it when people say bridge and tunnel now, when they say it to make fun of people who live beyond. But I didn’t then. When I was growing up there, I felt like I had to claim it, say it was mine. And I still think, I know this tiny little island better than I know any place in the world. It’s my territory. But I still don’t know everything that’s there.
I grew up on a tiny little island in a city where almost 800 different languages are spoken. Sometimes I used to wander in places that were unfamiliar and familiar at the same time – like places that appear in a dream: the flower district where potted palms lined the streets, the shops on the south of the island where you could buy cheap tropical fish, the streets that the girl from school showed me where they only sold ribbons and buttons and lace.
I grew up on a tiny little island with a halo of bus exhaust above its sidewalks, above its elevated trainlines, above its fire escapes, above its trespassed rooftops, above its claustrophobically small parks.
Read more >
Poppy fell first. A crash, then come dawn—seventy foot of land had collapsed into the sea, taking her remains and grave-marker (Ah carve them myself) with it. Beyond that, nowt save the water’s hoary chop.
My Poppy were arithmetical. Ah’d say, Two plus two? And she’d go woof woof, woof woof. Eerie acumen, that, for a Jack Russell—and if you think Ah’m yarning, sod you. She passed last spring. Fourteen years, eight months. Ah miss her. She were last to die, so her plot were furthest from the house, meaning first to be swallowed.
Though not last.
Rufus fell soon after. A good boy, Rufus. The rare times Ah ventured out, he'd tremble at the window of the salt-flayed house, high up on the eroding crag. So Ah stopped venturing. Ah despised the island’s blether and snark anyhow, and they scorned me likewise. So it were for the best—Rufus knew afore Ah did.
Next, Cecil. For reasons better left unstated, the 1980s were a difficult time, though Ah found great solace in Cecil during my dark spells.
Tasha Ah only had three months. Poisoned by cowards.
Then Shep. Shep bit the Flett woman that once Ah took leave of my senses and invited her up. The Flett woman put it about Ah’d sicced Shep on her, but animals can sense the canker inside certain folk. And he were vindicated in the end, weren’t he? After what they found in the Flett woman’s root cellar.Read more >
an island the size of a country
with water edges
I grew up on this tiny island,
mostly in the city. I worshipped
the light of the air pollution
and the great victoria line.
Why did the romans/vikings/celts/
pagans/french/other historical peoples
settle where it was too cold to live
I ask my island dad, in winter;
I grew up on this tiny island.
My dad does a dna test
to see if he is from this tiny
little island too (it is only the size of a country
built from bones
even the city
even the celestial sky)
an island the size of a forest
with water edges
Call us the Bastard Wing of Europe,
a Kneecapped Ulysses,
Little Island Floating in its own Ennui.
Call us Goat Sacrificed By Greed,
Undrinkable Water Found In A Stream Running Past a Deconsecrated Church.
A See-Saw of Drunken Economists.
Call us Fanfare for the Common Tory,
Pomp and Ridiculous Circumstance,
Violin Elegy on Down-tuned Strings Play by a Three-fingered Fool.
Call us anything but "Great,"
anything but "United,"
a Negative Contribution Towards the Work of a Nation,
a Traditional Apprentice Towards Subsidisation,
an Unemployed Pollster,
a Jester of the Parliament.
But Europe, don’t call us;
we’ll call you
once we’re dried out our futurologies
and blown out our home-grown wings.
The noise of rain slants the roof, and in
tiny island of I played in loops
tingles all of the dark I've ever sinned.
I hid underneath Pa's table with
sheet shifting focus from the outside —
and thus I have been growing up, scared, beat.
The island of one. I lead the pack.
A howl of none, and all unladen,
a bit shattered. I build walls surrounding
and I see bugs crawling up; my island
and yet I coup against my fences
frightening myself who abhors changes.
Rain noise slants the timber and table.
The treble and trouble gambles with
my nerves. My island sinks, rises. Now and then.
I grew up on this tiny little island
believed its decency was faultless
like our teachers said
believed we were right to aspire
to educate other peoples other lands
about courts democracy and parliaments
lies don’t last I lost my innocence
one by one I saw plain truths
and our rulers dank veils of deception rotted
before my wet eyes hydroponic breeding
grounds for sights from hell
each month each year
from eighteen on my fabric decayed
I learnt of Empire
people exploited and betrayed
I learnt of wealth well stored
in manicured hands not of the many
just the few and saw blood stained
rodent paws of rich predators
safe and well to do
today final curses abound
misspoken by Eton snobs rooted
in hedge fund soil entitlement waste.
I beg you give me flight to Europe
my heart breaks I must disown
my xenophobic home
As a child, I liked to draw islands. I would draw the ragged outline, eaten away by the buffeting sea. I would populate it with trees and flowers and lakes and mountains and people and sometimes monsters and sometimes hidden treasure. I would carefully colour it in. My map of a new world.
I never felt myself to be wholly of this tiny island where I grew up. My DNA test shows that I am 30% of this place but that ancestry dates back over 150 years. My forefathers and mothers with that DNA left this island to forge their way on a new continent, Turtle Island, in pursuit of the dream of freedom and fortune. I am 49% of a land with many tiny islands in the midst of lakes, covered with trees. I just happened to be born on this island.
Now I wonder what world we are creating on this tiny island. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. In June 2016, I wore a T-shirt with the words “No man is an island. No country by itself.”
In all of the discussion of the last three years, this seems to me to be the discussion that we have been missing. One of identity. Are we islanders in the literal sense? Do we want as individuals and a country to be an island? Or do we have a bigger sense of self? Do we want to have connections with people in our communities, local and global?
“Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
I grew up on this tiny island. I feel it shrinking around me. Shrink-wrapping me.
We need to get out our colouring pens and redraw the map. And not mistake the map for the territory.
Goats clinging to cliffs,
children in white embroidered shirts—
running as one in the village.
created with nimble, loving hands—
they sat around the kitchen table—
a cottage with no plumbing.
Headstones tilting and sinking in the field—
Cora grew up on this tiny island of Saba.
We hear the hum of memories,
raise our arms to the wind
and the rustling of all things past.
The labored breath of ancestors
lives in the things we carry—
heavy baskets of unknown burdens
and expectations, the color of dusty feet.
Woven into the threaded initials
of her blue handkerchief
is the place we knew of
only through small footsteps
and gulps of thick Malta—
Uncle Lyle’s sweet tobacco smoke
leaving traces of volcanic ash.
In there, all that I was and all that I knew were surrounded by the sea;
I've had toys fashioned from polished coconut shells for heads, palm leaves twisted around for flesh,
scratched out smiles and pouts,
I've had castles made of sand, our drinking water has always had a touch of saline;
Our looking mirrors have always been puddles of clear water;
Yes I grew up in that tiny little island.
It was never a routine to spot a tug or tanker, or a ship,
To just let them come and go, like occasional meteors shooting across the sky;
And you cannot blame a child for her curiosity,
And you cannot blame me now, when decades later, I stand on this alien land,
run out to what they call 'the beaches' every noon and spot my crying dolls floating amidst the tides, waving their torn-out, palm-leaf skins at me...
And you cannot blame a grown up woman out at the shore, on her knees, wailing out to the sea, as though she just lost her baby...
Even though I could swim,
I stayed. Tiptoed all over
my tiny little island home
I could dance across it
one side to the other.
I rolled in the green grasses,
flew kites over, jogged around
the jagged shore and slept
outdoors below the birds in trees
and a star splattered sky.
Life on a lily pad was enough
while I was young. I cherished
knowing home and nothing
beyond. But once grown,
I began to wonder if more
was going on without me
somewhere else. I sailed away
to explore the peace and pain
I grew up here.
The old couple next door
had a grandson in Spain. Every summer
he'd visit and we'd play
video games on dusty consoles,
run laps around the garden,
read books a bit too old for us
in different languages.
I went to school here.
The French boy in my class
taught me a song:
"Alouette, gentille alouette,
Alouette, je te plumerai."
We chanted it in the playground,
a dozen Scots-lilted larks,
and we counted oon doo twa.
I studied here.
Eraserhead, RockSoc, what's it like
in Bratislava? Introducing friends
over a Bergman movie,
a Slovak and a Romanian
discussing Irvine Welsh novels.
They got married last month.
We all wore kilts. The Bride
saved someone's life the next day.
There is a vital difference, I’d suggest
A key distinction we’d do well to cogitate
Between ‘grow upon’ and ‘grow up on’
A close perusal here, for All —
Therefore I am...?
But view this island Earth
From vantage point of distance and —
Where am I?
Are we the favoured few?
Fated children living out charmed lives of plenty
Provided for by an endlessly bountiful and tolerant mother?
Or multi-coloured microbial cultures?
Inexorably crowding out the agar-agar of our little Petri dish
Until the only food source is used up and all die out?
There is a vital difference, I’d suggest
That we would all do well to cogitate —
To ‘grow up on’ or ‘grow upon’ this tiny little island.
Dejamos la cornisa
y nos aventamos a las llamas
nos quemaban el cuerpo
pero ahí nos quedamos.
I grew up in this tiny little island
dejamos las aulas de clase
y levantamos la voz.
las aulas de clase son otra tiny little island
Dejamos nuestros trabajos
y las estaciones del metro
(nos quemaban las entrañas)
para salir a las calles.
I grew up in this tiny little island
los estudiantes como yo
vuelven en féretros o no vuelven.
Al final las calles son otra tiny little island
Debes de saber que la traducción de tiny little island es: América Latina.
tiny little island thing
gay at fifteen
to our Rhodesian ridgeback
curled between the bookcase &
the shoe rack
because she was
scared of lightning
dad taught me drystone walling
dad taught me peg the elms back make some fencing
dad taught me isolation is splendid
taught me homing
I taught myself the facts
I looked us up in the dictionary
I curled my tongue around my teeth on the school bus
Pretending to be ordinary
mum taught me you so pretty
mum taught me don’t tell anybody
mum taught me to quiet that chat, taught me the phrase that is famous for everything
home taught me plant the alder deep
strip the bark from the birch in spring
don’t be too hard on yourself
watch the seasons change
dig in your feet you’re a chick you’re a fledgling thing
Nobody’s an island surrounded by
a salt sea of despair where mobility’s
measured by access; experiential growth
flourishes despite obstacles like
Herakles’s twelve labors, providing
fodder for the poet, exposure to the painter.
The Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnel’s
shoulders square off majestically
like inner city subway walls on the
breathing peninsula where I was raised;
standing tall, towering over tiny, little indifferences,
petty preferences, perfect reasoning
street artists assert individuality through layered
strokes of 3D graffiti, multicolored hands scrawl
inventive doodles, lewd epithets, pornographic
renderings, across pallid, grey cement
canvasses that breathe life into nothingness.
Interlocking and connecting points wildstyle,
murals of rebellion, personal expression and
high art push boundaries, venerate avant-garde
conceptions, apply three colored tags like pissing,
bombing and rolling—blockbuster creations that
too often sacrifice aesthetics for spray painter speed—
bring life to deathly concrete through artistic inspiration,
thrive in defiance amid a maelstrom of surprises,
political gambits, and social barriers.
Your smooth ampersand curves
glowed when wire-walking,
taut like the ‘v’ in love.
Living on a tiny island, we lit
our backgrounds luminous
with words. All the colours; lime
green, purple, yellow
were slicked in doorway lights.
Letters tethered like grounded kites
on a brick-lined rainy city night.
The sound of your falling
Was muffled and brittle —
sweet, transient, you slipped
through the wires and spiraled,
descending past perspective,
dissolved like rice paper
or rainbow drops. I still hold
our letters; fly them each dry night.
Chinese lanterns in the dark.
“Kick him in the groin. Kick him in the groin!”
Madge, fifteen year old daughter of a Madonna fan, lowered her Smartphone to give Nigel a look.
“The balls … the–”
Julian shifted so that he was sitting on the targets chest [pinning his arms and glared back over his shoulder.
“Are you recording this or what? We only let you in because you got the fancy kit. So get on– Oi, that was me!”
“Sorry, man, got overenthusiastic. “ Jeff was older than all the others, but slower.
“Oooh, listen to him and his big word,” Richard crowed.
“I can learn things too.”
“Well friggin learn not to be kicking me instead of the invader here.”
“Ha ha ha – big dumb loser,” Richard taunted as Madge trained her phone on Julian again.
“And you can get back to your vapid cheerleading. Dick – I wouldn’t want you to tax yer brain,” Julian said with a touch of acid.
“He’s stopped moving,” Madge informed them with no little concern.
“I’m sitting on him. Of course–”Read more >
I suppose I shan't die in Paris on a rainy Thursday afternoon,
leaves left behind and shelved into a drink-soaked trunk or gutter
to have the sanitized cover removed before use, royalties or release;
perhaps to imagine neatly drafting the notes of the music of the words
that will keep the armful soldiers of alphabehomophobic civil guards from violating
an island retreat and heartattacking me in the wake of living confessions
that flee me to the African aridity of junking success;
the protective custody of declared incompetence to unmisplace minds
in a home for the mentally traitorous and crown trust of impersonae;
beyond eighty-year-rust or plus content with running blades of turf
or malcontent flowers of approchement in Venice or Khubla Khan
without apparatchik to say well to quell fevers fervors and sweats;
standing running white fingers through my certainly troubled hair
heated in the crowded aisles of the non-express back from the centre,
I and hire respect will be penniless to take the air-conditioned bus.
I shift uneasily
in my window seat
aboard a passenger plane
bound for Malta International Airport.
has caused constant turbulence
and a silent fear
through dark, electrically charged clouds
towards that tiny little island
is rapid, rocky,
I cannot remember
the message in the captain’s words,
only the infectious trepidation
evident in them.
we drop more rapidly.
I turn my head to see
that my plane window
has become a porthole
with a cloudy view of the sea
mere meters below.
A nearby scream of terror
pierces the fearful silence. Read more >
Living on an island of pines and dirt roads, only the trucks break the silence of things. A roar that disappears. How alone we are. We grew up here, in cabins astride hillsides, clinging to hills, about to tumble, but never tumbling into the valleys. Astride the hills, we take to our ATVs and Keystone Lights, seeking euphoria in islands of booze, even as it flees us, even as the mountains beckon us to be better people, their dusk shadows gently chiding our worn souls. We promise to relinquish them, to spend time with nature in full communion, but we keep going back to the little markets for more, seeking adventure while we linger in the beer aisles. We complain of things we cannot have in cities, streetlamps and bars and fun at our choosing. We talk of escape, but we stay and complain. Pave the roads, we howl. But we feel the beauty of dirt on our bodies. We claim to hate the pines, but at night, we whisper our appreciation after the beer and illusions have left us. We watch the moon, even as we complain about the brightness of country night. We live in an island of pines and we want out. Not just today. Tomorrow, perhaps. Perhaps. A shaky perhaps, as shaky as the things beneath us.
Experiencing the hardships beyond all imagination;
enduring pain and suffering unique in the universe;
embracing the potential and nature’s gifts which none appreciate
with wisdom unknown by the mundane norm –
and loving beyond saints and lovers combined –
we are each imprisoned in crowded and chaotic solitude
on the island of I.
I grew up on this bright and tiny island
where hands were axes in shadows
down to size
under large green palms.
It was sport, and life, and love.
Joyful exchanges that helped to pass the time
after work—a glowing sun slowly dropping
before we ate fish stew,
hummed familiar melodies,
and communed throughout the night.
The question of where one hails from
has special meaning for me because
where I grew up no longer exists as a place
one can go to or visit. I can go to the exact
coordinates and there will be nothing there.
Oh it exists in memory and the experience is
embedded in all that I am, but once I’m gone
even that marker will be gone.
As I grew to become a man, the island I call home
grew rapidly smaller and I don’t mean in the sense
of outgrowing a place, the way young adults
must leave home—I mean geographically, the island
where I grew up shrank to become tiny. How tiny?
So tiny one could walk from one end to the other in
Thirty minutes and as the distance shortened so did the time.
It was necessary to stay dry for everyone to move
closer and closer to each other until we joined
into one big family, living in one tent in the highest
part of the island. When we realized we could not
build horizontally we built vertically; one shack
on top of another, or up in the trees.
Those who struggled with claustrophobia couldn’t
cope and so swam out to join the horizon and were
never heard from again. Others consciously
meditated on being small, stopped eating which
only led to anorexia and more death. True enough
we welcomed it for the space newly made available.
Read more >
The sky is my best memory of it,
a reddish violet, sometimes lavender,
a far, far colour before the brightness
of streetlamps poured down sheets
of luminesque. In the fog that light
seemed like stardust from a galaxy
far, far, far away, some place on
the edge of my daydreams that
played out in the Odeon Theatre.
Our village had a brass band that
infected the air with bleating noise.
Drove the dogs crazy. It drove old
widow Cragg’s macaw crazy, too.
Or might’ve been that widow Cragg
went crazy. Facts as truth – that
bird hung itself on its birdie swing.
Somebody did wrong to that bird,
but nobody’s raising a hand for it.
My mum always told me that ours
was a tiny island, surrounded by
nothing but greedy water licking
at the shores. She said there was
nought out there beyond the bare
horizon, everything was metabolised –
I think that’s the word she used.
So I never bothered, never thought
to look beyond the line of seaweed
I grew up on this tiny little island
set in the green and wide, loquacious sea.
I grew up in sight of a modest mountain
and plucked the apples from the apple tree.
I grew up knowing that the world could be
this paradise of insular delights;
this scene of greens and purples, blues and yellows,
where life pursued a free and easy pattern.
But then the waves rose in their ruthless heights
to make a houseless hulk out of my homeland.
I have since mended my philosophy
to match a life of long-remembered sorrows.
I grew up on this tiny little island,
not quite the quiet place it claims to be,
thanks to trade, tourism and the great powers –
the legacy of greed we all inherit.
My mother, flown in from a former colony.
My father, out of Anglo-Scottish stock.
Their lives heard times of music, times of war,
the better things in balance with the worse –
or so some surely said. Now, squinting back,
we cannot say the same. Just: lucky us,
to have made it here and now unscathed, safe
in the cruel privilege of what we are –
“What do you make of this, Carstairs?"
“It’s obviously some sort of code, sir.”
“Well, can you decipher the damn thing? I’m being leaned on by the 5th floor.”
“I”ll get my team on it straight away, sir.”
“Well, be quick about it. I’ll give you three days.”
“Do my best, sir.”
“Carstairs here, sir. I think we’ve cracked the code.”
“Yes, go on.”
“Well, when we assigned each letter in the text with its inverse position in the alphabet, i.e. A = 26, then doubled it, added 7, divided by 3.78, then ran the result through the Groshneedle Stramier Random Sequencing Programme. We found it matched a language used by a remote Inuit community.”
“So what does it say, Carstairs?”
“It says ‘Any chance of publishing the attached on this month’s Visual Verse website?'”
it is no longer possible to live
on an iceberg
your own cool island
where it was always possible to try
and find a snug hollow
beautiful and empty
with a slightly misty horizon
panoramas of open sea –
the issues of plumbing
changes of clothing
a balanced diet
blacken a brief paradise
as the ice diminishes
lessens by the day
in a journey south
where chance of polar bear
is idle fear
though expanse of ocean so much greater
I dream about a nursery, my special destiny
in ages long ago, when I was still me.
It was a microcosm, but unaware of itself.
I couldn’t grow up; there was only room for a child.
They were outraged when I tried to grow.
There was a veiled threat in their demeanor.
Everyone drew circles about each other.
As long as no one stepped over the line, it was fine.
I drew one circle around them all,
as I stood outside, alone and unrecognized.
Sometimes I think of going back there to see
just what it was that made me so unsatisfied.
But I’d have to draw a circle outside the one I drew,
and step backward into that tiny little room.
I remember that place where the white flowers
grew, sparse and fragile between the rocks,
up past the trees where we would sit
on cold stone and gaze out to sea, away from
this empty life and the empty people with
tiny dreams we vowed we would never become –
little white petals, like wishes, and an
island that would never set us free.
I look out at the ocean,
I grew up beside these waves,
The blue-white foam, the crashing water,
It surrounds this island of illusion.
I turn around and see the forest,
I grew up on this tiny little island,
Just dark trees, winding their way from shore to shore, darkness, loneliness.
There is naught but forest on this island.
I feel the wind on my face and close my eyes,
I grew up walking against the wind,
It whips my hair behind my head, flyaway curls, careless locks,
I want not to open my eyes, but I must see my island.
I look back out at my tiny little island, covered in sand, and sand alone,
I grew up on this tiny little island,
Just red hot sand, blowing not, for there is no wind, never wind here,
There is only sand from one water's edge to the other.
My tiny little island can be whatever I wish,
Covered in the dust of imagination,
As I sit in my city apartment, I close my eyes
and travel to the tiny little island of illusion on which I grew up,
which can be whatever I wish it to be.