If the release of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 signaled the imminent collapse of apartheid, what did the prospect of massive social change mean for South African poetry, a poetry for many years enmeshed in the liberation struggle? In an attempt to trace the patterns of response that are beginning to develop, the Boston Review invited South African poets to contribute new work.
We are grateful to Andries Oliphant, general editor at the Congress of South African Writers, and to Robert Berold, editor of New Coin, for their assistance in this project.
These are translations based on the “Bleek Collection,” |Xam (bushman) oral records taken down by the German linguist W.H. Bleek, and his assistant, Lucy Lloyd, in the 1870s. The “informants” listed are the |Xam people who related their poems and tales to Bleek and Lloyd. By the end of the century, the |Xam had been effectively exterminated; nobody on earth today can speak their language.
Catching a Porcupine
Father used to say
that if I were sitting,
waiting for a porcupine,
the time is always best
when the Milky Way turns back—
this is the time
when a porcupine returns.
Father also said
I should feel the wind.
He used to say
I should be careful
always to test
the direction of the wind.
The porcupine is not a thing
which will return, he’d say,
coming with the wind.
Rather, it moves
slant-wise, across it,
so that it can better
sniff the air and tell
if danger lurks ahead.
Father used to say
I should breathe softly
when sitting, waiting
for a porcupine.
It is a thing, he said,
which hears everything.
I must not even
make a rustling.
I must sit deadstill.
Father taught me
about the stars.
He used to say
that I should,
if sitting by a burrow,
I should watch the stars,
the places where they fell,
I should, above all,
watch them keenly,
for the places where stars fall,
he often taught,
really are the places
where porcupines can be caught.
Prayer to the New Moon
Moon now risen, returning new,
take my face, this life, with you,
give me back the young face, yours,
the living face, new-made, rising:
O moon, give me the face
with which you, having died, return.
Moon forever lost to me,
and never lost, returning;
be for me as you once were
that I may be as you:
Give me the face, O moon,
which you, having died, make new..
Moon, when new, you tell us
that that which dies returns;
your face returning says to me
that my face, dead, shall live:
O moon, give me the face
with which you, new-made, make new.
On the first day of the fast
you refused to go to mosque.
In face you spent the day with me
and in defiance we held a private party.
Later I felt guilty when the Imam caught me
and warned, ‘be quite in the yard!’
I turned off the music and lay on the ground.
Looking ahead I counted the stars until I lost track.
We are the children of Ibram, I know.
I kiss your beard, I wallow in your mouth.
I lift my tunic to sit on you.
This is what I want, not the ‘wisdom of stages.’
Will your clan love me
when we’ve settled down together?
Will they love their son-in-law
married to their son?
Will they feed me, stroke me,
if they don't
I will tear out my heart
and stamp on it with my foot.
I will never eat again.
Forever, I will fast.
From The Prophet’s Mosque
Al-Masjid Al-Nabawi, the mosque that kisses your feet,
as you bend to kneel I’m behind you.
I’m Ibn Gabirol, the boy-loving poet of Sephard.
And we are seeds of life in his forest.
Once, on a harbor quay we met.
Jews were fleeing conversion by boat
when they docked momentarily at a dusty Spanish port.
My mother was sailing south from Russia
when she bought a shawl from yours.
Your mother, selling cloth from India, was attracted
to the pale heavy face of the Jewess.
Our mothers kissed. Moslem and Jew. Then ate
from the sky. I saw you from my mother’s fertile
chamber. It opened, hotly. I was just a seed
Across the bed I looked at you—from the cunt
of the Jew to the Moslem cunt—we spied each other.
It was our foetal charm, of sinning babies
Your hair is black as thunder, your navel
sweet as sunrise, your muscle flowers.
Even the prophets of God haven’t sucked you!
How can they call themselves prophets, I ask?
For Leyvick Halpern
T.B. Sanatorium, Denver, Colorado
I have found my own true illness,
exile tremens: though a snowfall wads the glass,
recurring fevers burn back to the fires of my own country,
a torn footprint, a thin wolf running
with the poem between my teeth.
Had, eye, lip charred by goodbye,
I offered the fluorescent nurse my dream of liniment,
black leaves, caravans of linen
long enough to wrap us all into oblivion.
—And on the fourth night, opening her hands,
the two cool shards my eyes have longed for.
Past the smothered glass, a wagon,
loaded with new wheat, tilts on a rut,
collapses in the threshing yard—wheels
spinning in the window with a crazy flame.
Too many harvests! Look,
the sack of my despair thrown to the floor.
And still the voice above the mountains crying
Blessed art thou crossing on the frozen waters,
Blessed art thou on the high stone shore.
The poet and the muse, awake forever,
feet near-touching in a carved relief;
his folded book, her finger at her lip,
the stone disfigured beyond joy or grief.
the reconstructed palace of the czars,
only the birches offer up their ghosts
after the resolution and the wars.
This is our legacy, a semblance
of ourselves made permanent and given
to the light that brightens as it vanishes,
a human breath that moves from earth to heaven
returning each time nearer to the truth.
The birches ripple near the iron gate,
a double-headed eagle at the bars,
and from the roof of the red flag of the state.
—To start again now, knowing what deceives
us is a dream of power greater than our own,
the hard white trough of brilliance behind the leaves,
the axe resharpened on its whetting stone.
What is the truth? A scrape of gravel underfoot,
the single body passing once and then it’s gone;
too many dead between us and redemption;
and the stars now breaking into laughter, one by one.
ANDRIES WALTER OLIPHANT
Childhood in Heidelberg
I was born in a house where ancestors
were suspended from the walls.
On hot afternoons
they would descend and walk silently through
the cool passages
of the dark house, slowly
as if strolling through a womb.
The roof is a vantage point for birds and pigeons.
On the stoep in
an ancient folding chair my name-sake sits.
there is a giant gumtree
at the gate in which the sun sets.
The stars are candles
which my grandmother has lit.
Every morning father wakes to find a man
with a hole in his head
sleeping in the drift sand
of the furrow which runs
along the creosoted split-pole fence.
I go in search of the orchestra of crickets.
In the kitchen mother cries as she turns
the toast on the black plates
of the Welcome Dover. When
father packed my pigeons into boxes,
I ended up with Rover and the cats
on the back of a truck
with all the household goods.
I thought, if this is part of life, it’s fun.
At the end of the truck’s journey through
the sky, we arrived
in a toy town of match-box houses
lined up like tombstones in a graveyard.
At once, I understood why mother cried.
Night flows, the window floods with traffic.
Memory darkens like water in flood-pains:
children with no need for money flog milk
to invaders in wagons waiting out the water.
The sun rises every day.
Altitudes where clouds unwrap the small
of sky and mountain. The headwaters
glisten on the foliage free of blood and sand
cutting into the hard skin
of the earth shaped like the syntax of screams.
In basins below the slopes meandering days and
membranes build up the banks where the dead wait.
To the distant tune of turbines,
dancing crabs raise their pincers
below dragonflies in the arteries of landscapes.
Stones are homes of gillieminkies.*
We, shackled to the food chain,
fish for silicones in waters of remorse.
On plains below foothills
sleep is a vehicle
sunk to its axles in mud.
In these muddy reaches light bounces back.
The sky is seamless. Time is the distance
water takes to turn like gunships.
The dead burn in the turbulence
of glasses. Wires
run across the catchments of a land with red rivers.
In rapids and cascades, backwaters and pools
we cleanse, trying to remake ourselves.
Soft mirror frame frogs
croaking in the turbulence of rivers
freeing themselves to death.
[* small freshwater fish—EDJ]
In the beginning was an idea
It entered a man
Soon grew a root
That began to trouble
Making him restless and rootless.
He began visiting friends
To seek their counsel
Unable to be calmed,
Many became perturbed
And acted strangely.
There were men in the country
Whose peace was disturbed when they heard.
what an idea can do
If it invades the mind.
They began to reason with him
To fight against the thing
Before it got out of hand,
They offered him riches and kingdoms.
When all failed
They removed him
Took him away from the people
Tortured and killed his colleagues.
The idea remained.
Next Time Use a Rope
He lived fatherless
For thirty-five years.
Before he was ten
His mother abandoned
For a better life
Of vagrancy and
Hallucinations of meths
Turning her heart into a stone
A path he later chose
For escape or success.
In struggles to survive
He lost an eye as well,
The lamp was further dimmed.
One evening they found him groaning
Under a hedge like a bullfrog
Belly-taut with rattex.*
I met him coming from hospital
At his rodent appetite
He said life was biased.
Next time use a rope
You won’t fail
I advised him.
Two nights later
A school watchman
Found him dangling
Like a maize-cob from a hut roof.
Friends and relatives
Put him deep in the hole.
from Incarnate Eternity
blood is good for you
it is above all something red and liquid
like a strawberry in a shaft of sunlight
it wells up through bones and tissue
clotted with boundaries of hair and white fluids
this is the place the sun hides at night
bring it out, melt my hands with it
the ritual is to pour a cup
of someone’s blood onto the land,
this is your way of claiming your home,
your political truth, your existence
kiss me, my lips of it,
I live here
What happened to the magic of communion,
the mystic revolution of bread and wine,
to that strategy of expiation
clouded in a wax-and-balsam anodyne?
(Anaemic Cavalry: the brutal spirit’s nosh.)
But that’s all gone. The skill of vicary is lost.
Two thousand years ago we reached accord:
a decent god is made of meat and bone,
and covenants his slaughter from the start.
What scape now might play the saviour’s part?
We’ve but ourself! In other times, the horde
would slay their sheep upon a sacred stone.
Now, on the streets killing proceeds apace;
and we pack the church to register dissent.
In preachers’ knackered rhetoric, no trace
of knife, nor lamb. Their slobber, soaped with sense,
washes us clean. And, having drunk the suds,
we lurch out—raging for body and blood.
Remembering Solomon Mahlangu. Reburied This Week
A quick crick of the gallows
stretched his sentence to fame.
His neck rests in the narrow
lap of a lawful grave
but his deed slipped the noose
and dances, weightless, on the trap.
From reverent, or spiteful, use
it hangs from our tongues, declines
[Solomon Mahlangu, a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wings of the African National Congress), was sentenced to death as a “terrorist” in 1979. Fearing that his funeral would draw a huge crowd of ANC supporters, the prison authorities buried him in secret. On 6 April 1993 his remains were disinterred and re-buried in his hometown of Mamelodi.—ED]
for the oral
intuitive it is instructive expressive
it is excessive flaming it is flailing hand
knowledge of the age it is rage too hot
for the page it is searing on the wing
it is pain on the stage spit sweat fart
cunt cock your gun invective it is what i said
& what you haven’t heard censored in the night
& day inventive mass bounding it is binding
the heart in pieces it is blinding black
lightning bleeding through the mouth when
I shout vomiting bits of soul defecating
the faeces of my spirit ORAL it is moral
gut reaction purgation it is cleansing for a
social living purity it is superlative
super-charged kinetic it is MOTION in the word
unchained it is bounding across walls through
jail bars it is burning in my bloodstreams
groundbased exploding leaves igniting roots
it is pulling at my dreadlocks it is bark on
FIRE action multiple barreled at multitude
cannons it is man woman child non-animal killing
through they be human it is flaring at you between
the lines sharpening it teeth to chew your mind
it is mad psychopathic guilty before it’s charged
& high charged bombs guns knives shooting through
right between my lips blowing my brains
it is beating eardrums
it is savage barbaric just jumped down a tree with dr alban
from a hot mouth
ORAL not a blow job through it goes for the top
or maybe it is if you’re an academic
it’s got yeats on heat fat sweat keats bubbling to the beat
rock to the rhythm of this poem of the year Shakespeare
your bigotry begets my poetry
it is lkj speaking in voices of the living & the dead
it is checking it out muta style
it is rasta ranting in benjamin
it is grandma’s rocking chair rap from a broken lap
it is the lion’s roar n grandpa’s grey snore
it is baby’s dummy tit microphone
it is for all ages living at all stages
it is papa ramps lighting all the lamps
it is that & more it is blood & gore
it is not scratching the sore it is just getting to the core
to get the pus to come to pass
it is taking rubber stamps from power clamps
it is DEMOCRACY beyond the statute book
it is rocking to the rhythm of the drum & the bass
it is pumping up the pace of the human race
it is a smile on the face of a mental case
it is sunrays beyond our sorry days
it is simply
A Professional Dying
My last four stumps were drawn today
(the coup de grâce with syringe
and forceps delivered by a new dentist)
and I reflect that after all
my all too mortal teeth outlived
the old man who’d ambivalently built
and demolished their crumbling walls
during a twenty-five year siege.
He died some weeks ago,
about the time he had expected to.
I know because earlier this year,
although I had heard rumours,
I telephoned his rooms in my normal way
to make an appointment.
No receptionist but he himself answered the call:
Ah, no, he explained, he no longer practiced
because he was dying of cancer.
He was up at the rooms putting things
into order; he had a few months left.
“That’s how it goes…But I can’t
complain. I’ve had a good innings.”
In all our years he’d never spoken of himself.
I knew of him too straight and plain a man
to claim complacencies he had not mastered,
so pondered what such stoic claim bespoke:
the nobly unexamined life? paralysed despair?
or more philosophy than discursive man
(arguing themselves into importance,
hysteria, heroism) can muster?
Perhaps, withdrawn to empty rooms
to spare his ailing wife, his dignity,
he had already ridden out his breaking moment:
stopped amid papers and instruments
in a sudden hurricane of rage, bewilderment,
or dead at least of the enormous
little time that still remained.
Words For Ruth Miller
“Cthonic”: of the underworld—
one of those words I repeatedly learn
and forget. “Egregious”
is another, grasped often and then
lost into thin colloquial air,
elusive as the Pimpernel.
“Cthonic”’s meaning rather sinks away
each time into subconscious murk.
What a word! Strong and black,
like “coffee”; breathless as
“coffin” or passages in pyramids.
It is like “Gaudeng”, a name for Johannesburg
bestowed by men whose word and bodies
plumb and catacombs of shafts and stopes
that are this city’s chthonic cradle.
That’s how the strongest sense of things
is often underground, the stifled seed,
like some unthought-out phrase in our debate
which betrays the truth we want ignored.
Like Ruth Miller’s inner life—
obscured by her quotidian chaos-in-routine
while she breathed her day, then crushed
down by her death, our ignorance,
these twenty years’ amnesiac neglect—
chthonic until it comes to diamond light
in dormant rediscovered poems.
[Ruth Miller’s poetry, which is now gaining greater recognition, was long neglected due to its lack of explicit political content.—ED]
INGRID DE KOK
In and out, behind, across.
The formal gesture binds the cloth.
The stitchery’s a surgeon’s rhyme,
a Chinese stamp, a pantomime
of print. The spoor. Then trail of red.
Scabs rise, stigmata from the thread.
A cotton chronicle congealed.
A histogram of welts and weals.
The woman plies her ancient art.
Her needle sutures as it darts,
scoring, scripting, scarring, stitching,
the invisible mending of the heart.
The woman takes up all the space.
She spreads her legs
across the bed
as if she owns the place.
The man on the edge
of the occupied bed
can’t decide if he wants
her sleeping perfume
or the neat-sheeted tomb
of a bed in a room
where all’s effaced:
the woman’s legs,
her careless spread,
her loose-limbed night embrace.
in Tonquani Gorge
on a thin strip
next to a river
that talked its
my head touching
the cold rock
of a cliff that stretched
up to where
plain of families
and motor cars
my feet in the water—
all night long
the faint knock
like an egg
waiting for its spoon
Two Meditations on Chuang Tsu
Evening. Thatch of sunset.
From the West End Record bar:
mbaqanga. And the dry wind
burns with sound. Dlamini,
pretending madness, howls
in from of his brazier.
Washman stumbles from Malawi
into the neon fires of hell.
Soweto, Joburg’s shadow, sleeps:
thin walls, you cannot trust your neighbor’
they did not distinguish between great and small deeds
therefore they had no history.
The last star trembles.
The last train edges out.
The last wind weaves the lights.
Morning, lightning up the leaves,
will set alight the windows, shining
for an instant on the history within us,
the ancestors we’ve banished to the skies.
January. A Monday. Of the turning year.
Everyone’s gone home already
in Tshayingwe’s bus.
In the golden light, me and Wally
rake the weekend for insights.
Nothing but the same slow
trudging to the light. to the imagined light.
Chuang Tsu, in Merton’s version, wrote:
The purpose of the net is to catch fish.
When we have the fish, we may forget the net.
The purpose of words is to catch ideas,
when we have the meaning we may forget the words.
I’d like to meet the man, he said,
who has forgotten words.
I quote this now Wally as we lock up,
switch on the alarm. Driving home, the veld grass
has the sheen of autumn twilight.
I speak to Chuang across the centuries:
what would you have made of this place and this century
where everyone’s so certain of their ideologies?
He does not answer. In the greying light the veld
ablaze with feathery abundance,
of itself, for everyone.
I lie on my back, flat,
legs outstretched, stare
up at the ceiling’s boards.
More grey than white,
they expand contract,
by subliminal lights
into a hovering, winged thing.
I turn on my right side, stare
at the windowless, near wall,
draw up in the foetal position,
listening to a silence fall.
Soft steps brush past
so close I hear the shoes roll
a roundness in the lane.
Cat’s paws whisper on my roof,
sink into silence at its end:
waste-pipes, crawling up the backs
of nearby tenements,
rattle and are still:
the cat’s scream quavers suddenly, slips
through the shattering, thin air:
a dog, howling in the distance, yields
to a last car’s dwindling hum.
The silence, then, is silence of
the quivering, tensed pretty,
but sleep will come if I lie long
enough quite still.
Perhaps, then, the bed’s rough weave
beneath my sleeping cheek will turn
to soft, red sad, and a fire burn,
as it burned long years before,
besides me in that wild place
where a moon forever rose,
motionless, in a hushed sky,
and I had not yet lost the way.