Thursday, 4 June 2020


I buried a blackbird today,
but I left his beak free.

That's the hardest part to cover, in the end,
even when eyes can't see, or mouth can't speak.

It seems wrong to further silence
what has already been silenced.

He was a tri-coloured bird.
Black everywhere, except the inside of his beak,

his unseeing lids, which were white,
and red for the last entrails, last vestige of pulsing blood.

He was in perfect form, though limp of neck,
falling exactly between the road running right

and the road running left. He was just outside
our driveway, central to my vision.

Waiting for me to pick him up,
and tenderly bring him home.

for George Floyd

(joining in the work of other poets at DVerse Poets' Open Link Night).

Sunday, 31 May 2020


Two months ago, a man disappeared. He had dementia, so it was not an unexpected manifestation. Three weeks after the disappearance, his body was found. And the world paid their obituary dues. The world that knew him, or of him. His name was Peter Beard.

Some names float into our consciousness but don’t take root. We are usually too distracted. Sometimes we simply aren’t ready. One of the great joys of being human is the discovery of an old being, or way of life, new to us. That is why age is of so little consequence or significance in the knowing and understanding of ourselves. Someone can always teach you something, if you are brave enough not to be foolishly arrogant.

Peter Beard was a photographer. Born into the wealth of a Gatsby like family in Manhattan, he sidestepped the suggestion he ‘go into advertising’ (money making more money), and instead, inspired by Karen Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’, found himself at 17, in Africa. His guide was Quentin Keynes, the photographer (son of scholar collector Geoffrey Keynes, nephew of economist Maynard Keynes, grandson of Charles Darwin). Peter bought Hog Ranch, in Kenya, a few years later, and there, tickling warthogs, feeding giraffes and falling asleep under stars, made the world his home. Animals weren’t always so amenable. An elephant matriarch charged him once, goring her tusk into his leg and crunching his ribs. ‘We are real apes,’ he said. ‘It just so happens that we have learned how to think, quite a lot more than we ever expected.’

The world made him their home too, as is our wont with humans who inspire. Thus Francis Bacon painted him nine times in triptych, he was befriended by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali claimed Beard as his late younger brother, resurrected, and Beard himself ‘found’ Iman on the streets of Nairobi - he liked to describe her as an illiterate Somali goatherd; she, who spoke four languages and knew nothing of jungles. The fashion world naturally adored him for the extraordinary image combination of the modern body beautiful set within the first continent’s natural charm. A double seduction of the camera. There was, of course, something about the white colonial about him... but he was conscious of his own part in the conversational destruction of our ecology.

What most fascinates me about Peter is the way he lived in collage.

There is a powerful trend today (brought on by our worst excesses) to minimise and tidy. When I look around my home, which is two houses in one (at least) - India in England - I sometimes feel it’s all too much, since none of it can be taken, Pharoah style, into the next world. I have spent portions of my twenty years in lupus quarantine, tidying and sorting, only to wake the next day to naughty elves having opened the cupboards and cabinets and released a fresh hurricane of things, each containing its own halcyon of memories. The naughty elf is me, of course. Because to be neat, tidy and indexed is far removed from my nature. Mine is the nature of a Peter Beard collage, collecting, gathering, foresting for survival against the long hours of isolation. Spiritual fodder for humans does not come from the mind and psyche alone. We have always needed stones, pebbles, shells, feathers, sparkling crystals and rusty, broken but reusable furniture. Photographs are pensieves for our memories, runes from the past. Letters are a fellow human’s call to us.

In your quarantine, did you tidy? Or did you lovingly admire the gatherings of your years on earth, appreciating the textures of your collected self?

(P.s. a Pensieve is a shallow basin into which you can place your memories, and sort through meaning from chaos. If you are Professor Albus Dumbledore, that is...)

Friday, 22 May 2020


Sometimes we hear the train, Dad and I, as we perambulate the length of the garden. Sometimes we  hear only wind. I see the tops of trees, ours, but not ours; they could be found anywhere, in any other clearing.

May is rounding out her month and soon June will be sent our way. Is your honeysuckle out? We have the scent of Syringha, planted for Shelagh...

I woke up this morning with a burning left eye, and now even after the sun has set, the rice is on the stove, and the song thrush is harmonising her final duets, I have the look of a badger about me.

Delftia some weeks ago, and now Klebsiella - ought I to take comfort in the strange fact that even my colonisations of bacteria have poetic names? My immunology nurse mentioned the word ‘strange’ over and over again. ‘These are strange times,’ she said. Strange, strange, strange.

My heart does funny loops and a bell is tolling like an echo in some distant yet ever near place. Do you hear this bell too? The Great Bell in Buddhism is a reminder to return to ourselves. This quieter bell seems more sinister, pulling us away from ourselves. To where?

I am reading Laurens Jan van der Post on his friend Jung. My dearest Colette sent me her copy of ‘Jung and the Story of our Time’. I feel I have already loosened the binding of this 1976 Penguin edition as I carry the book around with me, and move forward, and return to passages, and read aloud to Dad. ‘Hopkins! Schweitzer! Meister Eckehart!’ He hails these old friends as they are mentioned. Reading of the great ‘thuses of life’, what the fourteenth century Dominican mystic Meister Eckehart called istigkeit, the ‘isness’ of time and place, what Buddha called tathagata or ‘suchness’ - I am glad of mystery and the uncomfortable comfort of consciousness.

What are you reading now? And does it bring you comfort?

Thursday, 14 May 2020


A broken bird feeder found its way to me last year.
I painted it in shades of country cream.

I filled a cup of water, and sprinkled a meal, 
fit, I thought, for any feathered queen.

No bird came. Months passed by,
and today, hurrah, a visit made.

Bib of blue, and frankly suspicious, she flitted 
and flirted, from lilac to magnolia, 

to her new wooden house,
unconscious of my joyful gaze.

Chaffinch and sparrow followed, drinking in the rain,
picking through the catkin carpet,

the willow leaves, 
the tall, unwieldy, unmowed grass. 

Meanwhile, the news. Meanwhile, the roll call of names 
we never knew, strangers perching gently on our hearts. 

You ask me if I believe in God.
I say, What is God? What is a poem

I say, I lost my friends one by one to time, 
but when the birds came to call,

I found I had lost not one of my friends, 
not one of them at all. 

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020

Today, May 14th, was the birthday of both my Uncle Motu and my Aunty Saida. They weren’t twins. Aunty was five years older. They loved us kids equally. Growing up, we were showered with love when they visited our Bombay home, which had been their childhood home, and then when we moved to our shared new homeland of England, love continued, unperturbed by changed geographical boundaries. They are both gone now, into the other world ... but the memory of love remains.

Thursday, 30 April 2020


A tiny bowl slipped out of my hands this evening
as I stopped to gaze at a bird in flight,

light streaming from her wings, the curve 
unimaginable to me, heavy on the floor of the world.

It was a dessert bowl, crystal, part of a set.
They are always part of a set, these cups 

and saucers that fall and smash around my feet.
A pool of diamonds glinting in concrete cracks,

so beautiful, so dangerous. My heart missed 
not a beat, as though inured now 

to my unintentional, careless ways. 
Sweep after sweep is not enough; 

my faithful eyes find more shards, jewel bright, 
shining still, for my faithless eyes. 

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020

A few days ago I heard the news that my friend and MA tutor, the Cambridge poet and novelist Caron Freeborn, had left this world, suddenly, and almost without notice. I didn’t know she had been recently diagnosed with cancer; I only knew I had been thinking of her and missing her. I wrote to her, but only silence came. When I heard the news, the silence was even more numbing. In the wake of a poet leaving, the air sounds a little different. 

Into the companion of my shattered glass bowl, I floated something green, and every day she grows, reminding me of something... something I forget when the light is bleak.

(a poem shared with Dverse Poets, on Open Link Night)

Tuesday, 21 April 2020


My cousin Barbara asks me if I have been writing lots of poetry. It struck her the other night that there was poetry in this, this time of strangeness, of discovering one's ability to adapt, perhaps - the beauty inherent in that. And indeed, Carol Ann Duffy has just initiated a project titled 'Write Where We Are Now', gathering the thoughts and feelings of her fellow poets on our global viral tidal wave. We surprise ourselves with adaptation, and it thrills us to discover - still here, still here. No matter what. Tsunami, earthquake, the plague, coronavirus. The Great Depression, Wall Street Crash, demonetisation. The end of circuses, the beginning of Tiger King. The end of letter writing, the beginning of emoticons. Lose limbs, become an Olympic athlete. Hospital a dangerous place? Self inject.
What gets lost in the adaptation? The transition. The nuances within those transitions. My anxiety before the sub cut training, my sleepless nights. My terrible sense of the cold once I had penetrated my flesh, in two different sites, slowly, each ml a painful new reality. 'You'll get used to it.' 'Some people love it.' 'You won't even feel it.' Later, someday. You'll be like the others. Who smile and laugh and brush this off. It's nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

The extremely vulnerable must continue to isolate. It is for their own protection. Meanwhile we rush to open our vital economies. Our schools. Life must be returned to normal. Meanwhile there is a rush on Hydroxychloroquine. India closes her borders to exporting the raw materials. Poor lupus patients. Meanwhile it's possible that doesn't matter because being on immunosuppressive therapies may explain why auto-immune patients aren't dying en masse. You're fine, lupus patients. Your cytokine storms aren't as wild and intemperate as ours. As you were. But all the same, stay home afterwards. After our storms subside. Our bodies are the frontlines. We will protect you. We may also infect you. Just stay quiet. With that needle in your flesh. It's for your own good. The front door is your safest bet. Behind that front door... well, never mind that.

That sense of cold I mentioned? It is the place of loneliness, of abandonment. Of being protected for one's own good under strictly controlled guidelines. Of the new normal being the old normal, only with an edge. An edgier edge. But it must be contained, or else our little cup of sunshine will be consumed with the single thought that threatens to destroy us on any ordinary day. The lupus patient was never meant to survive.

And yet she does, with a paintbrush in her hands. Where poetry fails me, I paint my reality. Back and forth. Wax on, wax off. Until I become something akin to the Buddhist novice, who, in elevating a simple monotonous task with consciousness, finds nirvana.

Tuesday, 7 April 2020


Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes
gazes out at me, behind the window frame,
half content to be in Billy Collins’ world,
half wishing to be me;

cross-legged in the evening sun,
drinking rose petal tea.

I can name the Yellow Rose, the Frilly Poppy,
the Bee, longing for that same tea;
the half-eaten, bruised cherries,
the guzzling, drunken, blackbird feast.

Deep in the shadows, lazy snakes
of ivy curl, and the wind is a Tempest again.

I walk among the unnamed things,
the secret, hidden lives;
I pronounce the names of Latinate things,
and trip on the words and smile:

Cerastium tomentosum, snow in summer.
Gallium odoratum, stars in spring.
Lavendula angustifolia,
where the herb garden sings.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020

Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes is the title of one of Billy Collins' poetry collections. He is one of my favourite poets, a playful and compassionate storyteller. Our cherry tree is slowly turning brown. If only the bright white blossom would last longer, but alas the winds have tumbled the petals down. These are slow times, which suit the person used to slowness (however much she may have fought the way it was forced upon her). I hope you are all coping with the pace newly forced upon you. I am determined to learn the names of things, which a poet really ought to know... but what else are we here to do, other than learn, forget, and promise ourselves we will learn again?  

Friday, 27 March 2020


Over the course of this week, beginning Monday 23rd March, I have had a swathe of texts from the NHS Coronavirus service. The very first one instructed me to stay home for 12 weeks and this morning’s told me to make sure I phone a friend or relative everyday. I’m phoning in this way, through my blog and vlog.

The willow and cherry trees sandwich our home and I try to keep my mind steady. In some ways life is unchanged for me, and in other ways everything is new because everyone else is experiencing it for the first time - this global disorder to the sense your life made to you. I have experienced a microcosm of this disorder every single day for the past twenty years... and still make little sense of it.

So I walk on ... as you do... taking one step at a time.... que sera sera ... except we don’t really believe that, or adhere to it. We don’t want it to be what it will be. We want to make it what we want it to be. Who wins this? The men in power keep speaking in war analogies. No room for softness and gentleness even in this time of great vulnerability. My walks with Dad can only be described as gentle and vulnerable. Especially now that I can’t manage them anymore. I have a heavy cold, cough and sore throat, have re-started antibiotics on the recommendation of my immunologists and need to stay away to protect him, and Mum, for a while.  I’m glad we walked when we could.

Saturday, 21 March 2020


Am I naive to call it that? Probably. But I would rather be naively hopeful during a global pandemic than be destroyed by fear of a thing I exist with daily, hourly. And that is extinction by infection. Talk about unromantic language. Some English consonants are not the prettiest sounding.

There are cars whizzing past, still. And the sound of conversation, laughter and once, a child crying next door. My mother is chopping vegetables for soup tonight. And my father is doing his floor exercises. On Friday, schools closed their gates around Britain, following suit behind most of Europe. The supermarkets are buckling under the strain but community morale and practical solutions are being invented by a world used to being superhuman, charged by motivation and productivity and consumption. Oh dear. More of those consonants.

Let’s steer towards the sea. And Venice’s clear waters.

On Monday, I had my six monthly dose of Rituximab, which depletes my B cells, and takes me on a briefly intense chemotherapy journey. Then it passes. But the meeting place of a new virus, further immunosuppressive drug therapy and continuing chronic illness is... interesting. This slow paced, enforced self-isolation life? This is my jam. This is where I dwell as a matter of course. This place is never quite comfortable in a world of motion and forward full speed ahead-ness, but it is home, for me. Am I better prepared than you for the quiet life? Perhaps. Well, except for the extinction by infection part.

The post and delivery men come and go. Retired NHS staff are returning with sleeves rolled up in solidarity. The birds were riotous earlier this week, but sounded a little subdued today. Humans, eh? they roll their eyes at each other. Just can’t tell what they’ll be up to next.

Are you coping alright? Is the quieter pace of life easy for you to adapt to? Or are you among the population who are busy doing at home work-outs, creating community cohesion networks, magazines, reading groups? I feel tired just thinking of the ways in which people are stopping, slowing down and finding ways to ‘do things’ in a time of government mandated no-doing. Perhaps this is because I have had a winter of respiratory infections already, and I have almost no energy to worry about a virus that seems to be making most people very considerate. But I gathered just enough to upload a vlog to my ancient channel, in case you want a little glimpse into my life! My skills are desperate, but there's always a chance I'll get better :)

Thursday, 6 February 2020


From June to June I don't know who I am,
though I walk the old familiar paths, 
tracing and retracing into muscle and sinew

Who are you?
Who are you?
Who are you?

I am a Pokemon hunter
with chronic illness and no car, no invisibility 
cloak to protect me. 

I am a daughter, but not a mother.
I am a Queen of this, 
but not that.

I am a traveller who stays still for so long
she forgets she once walked 
among Inukshuk, and between redwoods. 

I am a reader who ceased to read.

Instead, I watch a bright screen move me
while my eyes and brain exchange 
the same, tired greeting

Here again?
Here again.
Here. Again.

A muntjac looked across the field 
at me, not trusting the scent of me.

We share this earth so cautiously. 

(c) Shaista Tayabali, 2020
prompt from Dverse Poets, ('What day is it anyway?'); image from Wildlife Watch: Forest of Dean
inspiration: my friend Helena, who walked in the garden with me, sunshine on our faces, muntjac footprints beneath our feet, and the wild world of hope blinking in the possibilities (Helena reminds me... I keep forgetting, am too tired, too sick, gripped by infections and fibromyalgia.) 

Friday, 17 January 2020


It’s 2020! Which matches neatly for anyone who likes their numbers mirrored or believes in numerical significance. I think I belong to that crowd ... like when I glance at my watch and see the time is 17:17 or 23:23. It happens so often I take it in my stride as one of those natural oddities. So far so good, or so meaningful.

But does anyone really experience a seismic change for the prosperous? And it usually is prosperity (or a pleasant change in the fate of one’s circumstance) that we are hoping the clock will provide on the twelfth beat of the midnight hour. Luck be a lady tonight. Lady, be lucky tonight. Be mine, lucky lady. Be mine, luck. And somehow sandwiched between one year end and one year start, we hold faith on an inbreath and release, eventually, into the real, once again.

What was real for you? For me, it was the influenza virus. How do you know you have the flu, asked the infectious diseases registrar in the emergency department. How did you know you had the flu, asked the immunology consultant on the ward, the next day. I can taste it, I said. It has a certain flavour, an aroma, a texture known to the memory of my cells. (They were listening to me, thinking, ‘Mm-hmm. Sure, kid, gal, woman. Whatever you say.’) Of course, I knew I had the flu because my nephew brought it on a plane from Singapore. I’m going to call you the NOD, I told him. The Nephew of Doom. Dang it Shai, thanks a lot, said the nephew of doom, taking it on his small chin. He made up for it by reading me several pages of Eva Ibbotson’s ‘Journey to the River Sea’. He read most of the book by himself, which pleased his aunt enormously. He knows about Eva. That she had The Lupus. He's not happy she died of it. But he understands she matters to me. I haven't introduced him to Flannery O'Connor yet... I'm not completely merciless.

One month has caterpillared across the seemingly endless bouts of coughing, fever, vomiting (oh, you know about the 'flu? I shall desist from further details)... my immunology consultant wants to see me again on Monday. Yesterday I had a heart monitor fitted to check on its speedy action (we in the biz call it tachycardia) and a few days ago, I had a ghastly paralysing attack of fibromyalgia. 

Dang it, 2020! To quote my precious nephew of delight. See, Raf? That works too. NOD. Nephew of Delight. Also, Nieces of Delight. All four of my delights are just that. 'Don't eat me!' they say. 'Cook me!' they say. 'Are you listening to me?' they demand. 'Copy me!' they command. Alright, 2020, if that's all you have in store for me, along with this writing m'larky, I'll take it.