Self-portrait in blue

7 May 2014, 1:04 pm

Self-portrait in blue

 

When you look sometimes,
when you don’t mean to see,
but on a turn
from reaching for something else –
analgesics or the shaving brush –
you catch

the fugitive blur in the mirror

where should have been
someone like you,
bagged eyes, heavier jowl,
that pull of the mouth -
what you’d rather not see

or taste again:
the bitter, repetitive defeats
of a country where death is king,
all proudly trapped still
in the chauvinist isolations
of the past, or cocooned
in barren superstitions
that yet grow and multiply;

the poets, past comrades
who jump and prance
to render their rhymes to power
the venal rottage in the veins,
tendering mouths agape in metastasis,
lips glistening
with fat from the banquet

or who wander distracted
in every valley or hollow-treed glen,
mimics of empire
in the quiet, restful corruptions
of self-scrutiny.

So you turn rather away
from the indictments of the mirror,
focus not on the burdens
of this historical self.
Look less, see less.
Say less and settle back
through the self’s wordless fog
into the dull stasis of anodynes.


Derek Walcott – Eulogy to W.H. Auden

11 February 2014, 7:29 am

Eulogy to W.H. Auden

(Read at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine,
New York, October 17, 1983)

I

Assuredly, that fissured face
is wincing deeply, and must loathe
our solemn rubbish,
frown on our canonizing farce
as self-enhancing, in lines both
devout and snobbish.

Yet it may spare us who convene
against its wish in varnished pews
this autumn evening;
as maps remember countries, mien
defines a man, and his appears
at our beseeching.

Each granite feature, cracked and plain
as the ground in Giotto, is
apt to this chancel,
the wry mouth bracketed with pain,
the lizard eye whose motto is:
Opposites cancel.

For further voices will delight
in all that left the body of
the mortal Auden
centuries after candlelit
Kirchstetten freed its tenant of
Time and its burden;

for what we cherish is as much
our own fate, stricken with the light
of his strange calling,
and, once we leave this darkened church
and stand on pavements in the night
to see a falling

leaf like a seraph sign the arc
made by a streetlamp, and move on
to selfish futures,
our footsteps echoing in the dark
street have, for their companion,
his shadow with us.

Autumn is when small wars begin
drunken offensives; the skies spin
with reeling scanners;
but you, who left each feast at nine,
knew war, like free verse, is a sign
of awful manners.

Tonight, as every dish deploys
from sonar peaks its amplified
fireside oration,
we keep yours to ourselves, a voice
internal, intricately wired
as our salvation.

II

In your flat world of silence
the fissures made by speech
close. A sandpiper signs
the margin of the beach.

Soon, from whistling tundras,
geese following earth’s arc
will find an accurate Indies
in the lime-scented dark.

Our conjugations, Master,
are still based on the beat
of wings that gave their cast to
our cuneiform alphabet,

though shredders hum with rage through
the neon afternoon,
and dials guide earth’s marriage
to an irascible moon;

not needling Arcturus,
nor Saturn’s visible hum
have, on their disks, a chorus
of epithalamium;

the farther the space station
from the Newtonian self,
the more man’s conversation
increases with himself.

Once, past a wooden vestry,
down still colonial streets,
the hoisted chords of Wesley
were strong as miners’ throats;

in treachery and in union,
despite your Empire’s wrong,
I made my first communion
there, with the English tongue.

It was such dispossession
that made possession joy,
when, strict as Psalm or Lesson,
I learnt your poetry.

III

Twilight. Grey pigeons batten
on St. Mark’s slate. A face
startles us with its pattern
of sunlit fire escapes.

Your slippered shadow pities
the railings where it moves,
brightening with Nunc Dimittis
the city it still loves.

O craft, that strangely chooses
one mouth to speak for all,
O Light no dark refuses,
O Space impenetrable,

fix, among constellations,
the spark we honour here,
whose planetary patience
repeats this earthly prayer

that the City may be Just,
and humankind be kind.
A barge moves, caked with rust
in the East River wind,

and the mouths of all the rivers
are still, and the estuaries
shine with the wake that gives the
craftsman the gift of peace.

(from Derek Walcott, The Arkansas Testament, Faber&Faber, 1987, 1988)


A Manuscript belonging to a girl whose body tasted so sweet – Aslan Abidin

5 February 2014, 7:52 pm

A MANUSCRIPT BELONGING TO A GIRL WHOSE BODY TASTED SO SWEET – Aslan Abidin (transl. from Indonesian by Mikael Johani)

—circa 1789
what could be crueler than our own beaches?
they ran many ships aground, stuffed with
colonialists, missionaries and rats.

—they once greeted speelman* and
palakka** who came to destroy
the kingdoms of gowa and tallo.—***

i remembered this
beach, which has never ceased to
produce traitors. i was born
on the sand of this beach
that night, before i said:
“your body is as sweet as aren juice.”#

i got drunk on your body,
i could not find my way home.

“it destroyed me, trying not to remember you,”
you said one morning, as you were packing to leave.

—dutch flotillas came
to take away slaves, to sell them
alongside pigs at the cape of good hope.—

then foot soldiers brought you to baron
van reede tot de parkelaar, exiled ##
far away at the palace of the surakarta sunan.###
the senior resident loved to read the bible
while you sucked him off.

what could be crueler than our own beaches?
these ports have destroyed our bay
these ports have forced us to say too many goodbyes
these ports have shed many tears.
“it destroys me, trying to forget you,”
you said, as if suffering can have an end.

Makassar, 2008-2010

Notes
* Cornelis Speelman, governor of colonial Dutch East Indies, 1681-1684
** Arung Palakka, Speelman’s Buginese ally.
*** Gowa, Tallo: places in Southwestern Sulawesi (formerly known as Celebes), where Makassar is situated. The rebel, Sheikh Yusuf, as well as many slaves were brought from there to the Cape, thus Macassar in the Cape, where Yusuf was buried.
# aren – feathered palm
## Van Reede tot de Parkeler – Dutch colonial merchant
### Surakarta Sunan – Sunan = ruler

Poem taken from What’s Poetry – Antologi Puisi, Henk Publica 2012, pp.240-241


October, Java

19 January 2014, 11:56 am

October, Java

The buzz of scooters die down
past the bamboo compound
revamped for tourists
tramping to and from an ancient temple.

Fresh and flushed by showers,
groups and couples compare their pics
and laugh and cluck, and muse
at what they can only describe
as the riches of the land:

the rice, the strange fruit,
the smiling waiters
and the call to evening prayer
hardly heard above the rain
rushing from the eaves and gutters,
roaring in the ears and in the head.

The rain stops as it started, sudden.
A moment’s hush
then the click of knives on bone and plate
and the global benefits
of American, English, Dutch.

Under the grinning moon
the river runs by silently, runs
mercurial by bridge and bamboo,
by crabs sidling like henchmen
past the tourist’s dream,
through the sleep of history.

The foreigners will cluck and leave,
heaving bolts of batik and temple curios
wrapped like careful metaphors
for their inner peace
bought with rijksdaalders, pounds, murderous dollars.

Only the sun tomorrow will cast its eye
on river-rock brown like fingers
clawing at the shore;
on a tree stump stuck in the stream
like a torso shorn of limbs,
streaking red, its banners long washed out to sea;

Only the sun will raise its weary eye
on the gecko fled from the burning walls,
its tail left twisting in wordless testimony;
on gods in flames,
their ashes falling on the killing fields.


The gods of war

31 August 2013, 8:24 am

The gods of war

SistersbyHomsi LensPhotograph of two sisters in Homs, by “Young Homsi Lens“, 6 October 2012.*

 

Your gods are long all now dead,
only a white dread of sea noise,
grey hair like a cloth of stars
in their slowest motion out there in the night sky
or a cloud of frogspawn, only now
dark tadpoles for the dark stars,
a flicker of dark frequencies from the mud.

Dig deeper and it is darker still,
slime, rock
some force,
a monstrous noise
rushing in the head and ears,
the noise from which we come
the anti-matter of our gods.

We made them, they made us;
we made them then tell us
we thirst for nothing
but
blood and oil
and the crushing of people who have nothing
save some idea of god

a god they hope, believe, is on their side
if only he would help
every time they pull a trigger.
But all gods are dead
have died a billion times,
dead dead dead all through millennia.

*

But they might believe,
the smiling children –
two sisters somewhere in Syria –
may still believe in a god.

Look at their smiles
that crop the war from the picture,
that tries make god anew
who yet watches, off-frame,
an oilman check his shares
an arms executive drive his child to school
a ruler worry about how he looks on Facebook.

And also off-frame,
perhaps some blocks away,
a fighter for his god of freedom
rots already.
In another town not far perhaps,
already a tank rolls slow and unheard
over a dead child,
the commander obeying orders
only from Mammon.

Perhaps the older sister knows
already that a god may die.

A brother or uncle has told her
and gave as holy gift
the bullet she now wears as pendant.

When she sees a parent or a sibling
smeared on tarmac by a bomb
she’ll be told all along
when god was mocking her,
it was a test,
that a god’s wisdom is infinite
yet he cannot, cares not to explain
the murder and rape of children.

Who wants to be god of all this?
Or a disciple? Or us?
All of us shuffling in
to a pliant mass,
quiet and respectful
in our churches, in our mosques
of flat-screen TVs
and all the other comforts of oil

that dull the blood,
that leaven the self-loathing
until we can’t care
to care
anymore
not even in this verse
we thought were once the enclave of gods

but now given everywhere
to the oily minutiae of our decent, respectable selves
in lines like broken anti-matter
because we cannot
do not
want to bear it any more.

Who wants to rule this tired republic
of shameful verse
and lead our crawl
back from gods
back into mud?
Better never to have been born,

better not to have grown to think,
to build edifices to our minds
so magnificent
they can ignore slaughter and rape
over which men in suits
argue ethics
until their mouths run red

from bloodied thumbs
counting their murderous dollars,
smirking
while god dies where he was made
in Syria

but also everywhere
where a commodity begins:
in a mine
where a rock-fall or a shotgun kills god
and a widow grows bitter,
in a micro-chip factory
where young workers stop dreaming
and we bow to the great God Automaton.

What does it matter?

 

(* Thank you to Young Homsi Lens for permission to use the photograph.)


Kingdom of Rain II

14 February 2013, 7:13 pm

Kingdom of rain II

I still dream of one day seeing,
sniffing at the ground not far from me,
softly grunting, a grizzly bear;
or sat down pulling at a vine of berries
or a sapling, oblivious to me or not caring,
or, even, knowing that I’m there
but with no malevolence,
with nothing more than wanting to stare
and wonder at it just being bear
and hope it will let me in –
not hunter, nor prey –
somewhere in a North American jungle
with god knows what else around us
but still just me, the trees, the bear.

Or sitting by a river, on watch with a bald eagle
guarding over time as time turns into dream,
the sound only of water over stones
like a chuckle dim and soothing
from a favourite uncle now gone
whom you try too late to love back
and the memory of him fading,
remorse too, trickling away
like some river where I dream
on watch with an eagle
which with a screech wakes itself
and me, and maybe the bear is gone
and the eagle flaps away
and time returns, the insoluble matrix.

FirstpeopleMajesty_in_the_Pines-1152x864

Or maybe somewhere in a forest in India,
crawling by some small, slow river
to lie on the bank and watch
how with a muted plash surprising for its size,
a lone tiger breaks the algae on the water
and swims to the other side.
That I’d like to see, and see it rise
with its wet fur onto the far bank,
turn once, its whiskers dripping,
to look at me here outside of history, in dream
as in the idyll of this poem,
and then slip away, gone through the green reeds.

hSRoychoudhury1

Many animals I dream of seeing.
The coelacanth which swims as if it walks.
A mustang fast and dark against a swathe of green.
Some rare bird whose name I still must learn.
A fox, a hedgehog, the astonished ratel.
Watch them from up close
or hold them in my hand, like once
a baby octopus at Blombos
in a two-second spell and it was off.
I would want them to know I mean no harm
but seek only these moments from their lives
so I may sometimes become no more human.
I’ll tell them tell the gecko too, and the salamander.

V4-2Coelacanth_750

Most of all I dream of the sun on a rock
by the Molenaars up in Du Toit’s Kloof
and on the other side
by some small, still curve of the river
where from up a deep ravine forever in shade
a clear trickle runs in cold through fern and fynbos
where in a damp patch next to dark green moss
my father years ago may have pointed at a paw print.
I dream of lying in the sun there and watching
for that rare leopard to come and drink;
to see its paws settle on a stone,
to see its shy head lowered between rising shoulders,
to see the whole mechanics of leopard
in its easy possession of what belongs to it

and all would be that leopard and me,
the lap-lap of its tongue,
the soothing, chuckling water.
And it may stop and raise its head,
twitch its ears and squint,
then return to drink,
taking me in as if I belong,
knowing that it’s only me, it,
the water, the sun this idyll and the unseen;
that this is only dream
and that I seek no deeper meaning,
no encounter by which to turn this verse
into a dispatch from some other kingdom
or the failed settlements of philosophy.

4385307122_ae9258f5f0

Yet, I want to let that leopard know
that it is part of me
and I am part of it
in all the ways that that could mean.

—————————

Picture sources and credits:

1. Grizzly bear: First People; http://www.firstpeople.us/pictures/bear/adult-grizzly-bear.html

2. Bald eagle: First People; http://www.firstpeople.us/pictures/eagles/1152×864/Majesty-in-the-Pines-1152×864.html

3. Tiger: The Everyman Photo Contest, 2009, Landscape/Nature winner, Sudip Roychoudhury; http://www.theeveryman.com/images/2009/emP/hSRoychoudhury1.jpg

4. Sculpture of coelacanth: photograph provided with kind permission of sculptor, Stuart Gold; http://www.shadowandlight.com/html/sculpture/CoelacanthV4B.html

5. Leopard: photograph provided with kind permission by Tiffany Turkington; http://www.flickr.com/photos/tiffanytp/4385307122/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Poem from Groundwork, Kwelabooks/Snailpress, 2012.

See also Kingdom of Rain, from This Carting Life, Kwela/Snailpress, 2012.


Love Poem – Kelwyn Sole

2 February 2013, 1:28 pm

LOVE POEM

I am a coward. Away from a suffering homeland
I feel very little and can tell you even less.
What would you need to know? That the sun squeezes up
like a pip in a pale blue bowl, regularly? I yawn
and rub gum from my eyes as I watch it.
There is the stumble of lightning
in the distance.

I build myself a house in the desert,
white and tiny, where birds flirt and tangle
and thunder on the tin roof: here I weld poems
under the vast sky that mocks me,
kick sloughed adders’ skins out of the way,
get drunk, fall monotously in love.
My thighs wrinkle into shadow

I cannot think of a precision of ideas
brighter than lovers’ teeth, and undending generation
from their dark cavities.
It’s not that I fear touch – it’s easy to fall in love -
it is easy to fall in love…

Everything is quiet in the village. Girls weep over
unforseen pregnancy and take brutal husbands.
Their speech, mine, is full of consequences.
All this has happened before.

We find time for beauty simply in the violence of the rain.
People die quickly from alcohol
or being stood upon by snakes:
these and adultery our only pastimes,
the burgeoning pumpkins we tend. And shudder
at the thought we may already have surrendered.
To what, nobody knows.

Kelwyn Sole, The Blood Of Our Silence (Ravan Press, 1987)


That river, that river

18 December 2012, 4:39 am

That river, that river

For Sean Africa

Then there’s one moment I’m doing everything:
dusting books, shelving them.
Brewing coffee.
On the stereo

Bob Marley, slow and sad:
‘Johnny was a good man,
never did a thing wrong.’
Another moment

and Melancholia is my name.
And I’m floating down a river,
down that river,
down that river,

sifting through a pile of chapbooks,
then regret, regret.
I tell you, Regret is my name.
And Desolate my heart’s.

A funeral programme,
the photograph of an old friend,
his hint of a jowl
like mine too now in age.

I look for him now
down that river, that river,
paging the thin programme:
the pallbearers’ names ring in long friendship

from home, into the church,
out of the church;
names who are still here to bear you
and me through the estranging decades.

But then there are only pages of hymns,
thin, inconsequential hymns
in the new, awkward poetry, or no poetry:
‘Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale.’

What kind of God will respond
to His own absence in the mirror we hold to Him?
When God Himself is inconsequential?
As this funeral programme now is

with its inconsequential notes
scribbled in my own inconsequential hand:
‘Thunder rolling over the Boland’
and whispers overheard from schoolchildren,

or, no, it was from a friend: ‘Juffrou is ook hier.’

Juffrou is ook hier. Five syllables
and a life of consequence,
full of chalkboards and class registers,
the dedicated Juffrou who worries

about the children, all the children,
and the slowest among them,
whether they’ve eaten, whether there’s trouble
at home and in your heart again.

Juffrou is ook hier.

In that moment comes a life
more full than any poetry
or the prose of the anthropologist;
a poetry of consequence more than any god’s ken

and which is solace to all my names,
a raft down that river,
that river, that river.
Who knows how strong that river,

Sean,
that river that took you in?
Meneer Africa, of solace
and consequence

to the schoolchildren
who knew your care
and who now stand by the river,
thunder rolling in over the Boland,

rain over the warm earth
and up in the mountains
more water over rock,
more rivers gathering strength.

(from Groundwork, Kwelabooks/Snailpress, 2012)


Derek Walcott, A Far Cry from Africa

17 December 2012, 11:23 am

A Far Cry from Africa

A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
Batten upon  the bloodstreams of the veld.
Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
“Waste no compassion on these separate dead!”
Statistics justify and scholars seize
The salients of colonial policy.
What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
To savages, expendable as Jews?

Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
In a white dust of ibises whose cries
Have wheeled since civilisation’s dawn
From the parched river or beast teeming plain.
The violence of beast on beast is read
As natural law, but upright man
Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
While he calls courage still that native dread
Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
I who have cursed
The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
Betray them both, or give back what they give?
How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
How can I turn from Africa and live?

(Derek Walcott, from Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (1986/1992); originally from In A Green Night (1962))


Elegy

25 November 2012, 5:58 pm

Elegy

It is for my mother I write now
these poems about my father,
the visions attempts to conjure him
by a lost son who seeks to soothe her melancholy.

Let it be for her what little anodyne it can be
when she reads this
my tired magic against a faded back-drop,
a show only a mother would applaud.

Let it be. She loved him,
he loved her
despite times of acrimony
because she had done this or that

or had not done this or that
in submission to God,
or in rearing the children,
the influence she was on her youngest

who in their shared love of books
certainly would grow wayward,
“westernised”
and wandering lost in every valley

but home or God’s house.

Let that be. Let it be just
the dim echo of an ache through the years
because, she says,
he grew gentle and softer

and, you hear ring true in her voice,
more loving,
as she looks down at her hands
then at you, then into the distance.

For her I wish I could return the times
of their early retirement
more than any of this conjuring
by image and doleful metaphor,

to look in the distance long enough
and have him here beside her
from some unseen beyond
that my mother husbands inside

from which he may materialise.


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