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


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)


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))


Review: Paul Auster, Winter Journal

13 December 2012, 1:22 pm

(Originally appeared in Afrikaans, in Rapport, 2 Dec. 2012 )

Paul Auster, Winter Journal, Faber and Faber, 2012, ISBN 978-0-571-28321-7

Just before he turned 64 (in 2011), Paul Auster started on Winter Journal, a sort of memoir. Feeling partly lucky that he has reached his 60s and that he is still healthy, but also feeling that he is now nevertheless reaching the winter of his life, the book is a collection of reminiscences about childhood, youth, and adulthood, as well as the most recent past.

Unlike his friend, JM Coetzee, who wrote his autobiographical Boyhood and Youth in third person, Auster writes his Winter Journal in the second person: “You are ten years old, and the midsummer air is warm, oppressively warm,…” The point Coetzee was making was clear: autobiography contains fictions and manufactured memories. The “I” doing the writing is not the same “I” being written about. By writing about himself as “he”, Coetzee thus emphasizes this distance and forces us to think about the line between the “truth” of autobiography and the inventions of fiction.

But why write autobiography in the second person?

One reason for avoiding the “I” could be to lessen the self-regard that a collection of first person pronouns may create: “I grew up in Paarl. At six, I was the 100m sprinter for Blouhuis. I won the medals for the 100m and 400m relay.” The second person “you”, when it stands in for “I”, creates distance between the writing “I” and the “I” being written about. But it also draws the reader into identifying more closely with the person being written about: “You grew up in Paarl. At six, you were the 100m sprinter for Blouhuis. You won the medals for the 100m and 400m relay.” The effect of such a switch in autobiography, I would suggest, is perhaps more narcissistic than use of the “I” would have been. Overall then, I feel that Auster’s use of the “you” is more gimmick than a thought-through literary device.

Winter Journal does not present the writer’s life in a chronology. It ranges back and forth in time, using, instead, thematic associations and disassociations as connecting points. It is as if one is either in Auster’s head as he ruminates on his own life or listening to him during an after dinner conversation. The writing, in other words, flows smoothly and the changes in topics also occur organically.

And so one learns that Auster was a boisterous boy, who liked the physicality of play, who liked to play baseball, who injured himself often, and who did not hesitate to defend himself but soon turned away from situations where he would need to defend himself with violence. One learns about his adolescence and his burgeoning sexuality, his largely unsatisfying experiences with prostitutes and a freer, more satisfying sexual life at university. One learns about his parents’ divorce. One learns about what he liked to eat as a growing boy. Via a descriptive list of 50 pages one learns about all the places – the apartments and houses – he has lived in, by himself, with lovers, and finally with his wife (unnamed, but who we know is novelist Sviri Hustvedt). We learn a lot more.

I am always interested in reading writers’ autobiographical writing. There is often much to learn; more important is the confirmation I find as a writer – assonance with another writer’s obsessions or habits of mind. And given the intelligent fictions that Auster is capable of, one also reads his autobiographical writing hoping to come across some inkling of the source – or the mind – that produces those fictions.

What one encounters in Winter Journal, I have to admit, is bereft of intelligence. In both style and content, the book strains to find the profound in the mundane and ends up being, rather, banal. The language is flat, and often extraneous: “you will go down the hall to the library and stretch out on the sofa, which is long enough to accommodate your full extended body”. There are many such redundant explanations and qualifications.

In one short passage, where Auster considers an anecdote involving James Joyce, the language suddenly comes alive. Someone wants to shake the hand that wrote Ulysses. Joyce offers his hand and says that the hand had also done many other things. Auster delights in how Joyce leaves all possibilities of the hand’s activities to the listener: “what a delicious piece of smut and innuendo, all the more effective because he left everything to the woman’s imagination.” Would it that Auster had left most of his personal life to the reader’s imagination.


It has been such a long road – Alfred T. Qabula

6 November 2012, 8:31 am

This poem is one of the last pieces composed by Alfred T. Qabula (1942-2002), a poet from the trade union movement in Durban in the 1970s and early 1980s, famous for “Praise poem to FOSATU” and as one of the poets of Black Mamba Rising (1986). “It has been such a long road” was published in World Literature Today in 1996 and it is thus interesting to note this early critique of former comrades, now become moneyed government functionaries, from a worker and trade unionist’s perspective. (Here is an obituary and commemoration of Qabula by Ari Sitas.)

It has been such a long road

It has been a long road here
with me, marking the same rhythms
everyday.
Gentlemen, pass me by
Ladies, pass me by
Each one greets me, “eita!”
and adds:
“comrade, I will see you on my return
as you see I am in a hurry
but do not fear, I am with you and
understand your plight.”

“Do not worry
no harm will greet you
as long as I am alive.
We shall make plans with the guys
and we for sure will solve your problems.
You trust me don’t you?
I remember how hard you struggled
and your contribution is prized.
In fact everyone knows how hard it all had turned
when you were fighting for workers and for the community’s emancipation.”

Nothing lasts forever
and our friends now show us their backs
and they avoid eye-contact
pretending they never saw us.
Even those whom by chance our eyes did meet
would rush and promise and leave behind
a “see you later.”

“What is your phone number comrade?
I will call you after I finish with the planning
committee on this or that of the legislature
and then we shall work something out for you, be calm.”
Days have passed, weeks have passed
years have also passed
with us waiting like the ten virgins in the bible.

I remember the old days
when we had become used to calling them
from the other side of the river.
Some of them were in the caves and crevices
hiding when we called
but we hollered loud
until they heard and they responded to our voices.
As they came to us dust sprang up
and spiralled high all the way up to the sky.
When the dust of our struggle settled, there was no one there.
The dust covered my body
it cursed me into a pathetic fate
disguising me, making me unrecognisable
and whoever recognises me
is judged to be deluded, deceived
because the dust of their feet still covers my body.

And now we, the abominations, spook them
as the dust of their feet covers our bodies.
And they run away
each one of them saying: “hold up the sun
dear friend, doesn’t the fog cover each and every mountain?”

Although you don’t know us, we know ourselves:
we are the movable ladders
that take people up towards the skies,
left out in the open for the rain
left with the memories of teargas, panting for breath.

Winter and summer come and go and leave us the same.
The wind or the breeze has not changed us. Here is a summary of our praises -
the iron that doesn’t bend, even
Geneva has failed to bend it,
the small piece of bath-soap about which
meetings and conspiracies were hatched
to catch and destroy it.
It still continues to clean men and women
who desire to be cleaned.

It has been a long road here
see you again my friends
when you really need us
when the sun clears the fog from your eyes.

Alfred T Qabula, 1942-2002


The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims – Review

11 January 2012, 5:22 am

Achmat Davids, The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims (From 1815 to 1915), eds. Hein Willemse and Suleman E. Dangor, Protea Book House, 2011, ISBN 978-1-86919-236-5

Since the 1950s, linguists working on the history of Afrikaans have known that the earliest written and printed Afrikaans documents – a language recognisably distinct from Dutch – were written in “Arabic-Afrikaans” in the 1800s. That is, Arabic script was used to “spell out” and produce the sounds of the language that was then developing in the colony known as the Cape. The most well-known of these is Bayān al-Dīn (loosely, “Exposition of the Faith”) by the Kurdish scholar, Abubakr Effendi, who apparently came to SA, via complicated Ottoman allegiances to the British Empire, to teach Islam to the Muslims at the Cape. While Bayān al-Dīn was completed in 1869 and published in then Constantinople in 1877, Effendi makes reference to an earlier work of the same kind. For a foreigner to move here and learn how to write in this form must mean that there was an already established tradition of such writing, as Achmat Davids indeed claims.

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Peter Horn on Censorship, 1979

23 November 2011, 2:39 pm

Peter Horn, 1979, “The right of the people to censor the arts”,  In National Union of South African Students (Ed.), Dead in One’s Lifetime, Cape Town: NUSAS (1979) pp.92-105

The state which does not censor the arts, does not take the arts seriously. The state which does censor the arts, regards its citizens as minors, incapable of making rational choices. Any discussion of censorship and the relation of the state to the arts, which does not deal with both horns of this dilemma, will not come to grips with the complexity of the subject, and will end up with the irreconcilable dichotomy between the liberal stance of laissez faire and the authoritarian imposition of censorship.

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Peter Horn on Censorship, 1989

23 November 2011, 2:25 pm

Peter Horn, 1989, “Censorship: Creating pockets of ignorance”, in South, 22 June 1989, p.18

(South [Weekly] was an independent newspaper generally aligned with the UDF and ANC, edited by Moegsien Williams, 1988-1991.)

Any form of censorship assumes that there is one group – usually a minority – which is wiser, more intelligent, more moral than another, which protects another group which is prone to be seduced, led astray, outraged or insulted by some form of writing, painting, music or other form of self-expression. Any form of censorship therefore denies the full equality of all the members of a society. The censors depict themselves as adult and responsible, and insinuate patronisingly that the rest of humanity, the majority, is in a childlike state of irresponsibility.

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Two from Yusef Komunyakaa

16 November 2011, 11:09 am

Fog Galleon

Horse-headed clouds, flags
& pennants tied to black
Smokestacks in swamp mist.
From the quick green calm
Some nocturnal bird calls
Ship ahoy, ship ahoy!
I press against the taxicab
Window. I’m back here, interfaced
With a dead phosphorescence;
The whole town smells
Like the world’s oldest anger.
Scabrous residue hunkers down under
Sulfur & dioxide, waiting
For sunrise, like cargo
On a phantom ship outsde Gaul.
Cool glass against my cheek
Pulls me back from the black schooner
On a timeless sea – everything
Dwarfed beneath the papermill
Lights blinking behind the cloudy
Commerce of wheels, of chemicals
That turn workers into pulp
When they fall into vats
Of steamy serenity.

Salt

Lisa, Leona, Loretta?
She’s sipping a milkshake
in Woolworths, dressed in
Chiffon & fat pearls.
She looks up at me,
Grabs her purse
& pulls at the hem
Of her skirt. I want to say
I’m just here to buy
A box of Epsom salt
For my grandmother’s feet.
Lena, Lois? I feel her
Strain to not see me.
Lines are now etched
At the corners of her thin,
Pale mouth. Does she know
I know her grandfather
Rode a white horse
Through Poplas Quarters
Searching for black women,
How he killed Indians
& stole land with bribes
& fake deeds? I remember
She was seven & I was five
When she ran up to me like a cat
With a gypsy moth in its mouth
& we played doctor & house
Under the low branches of a raintree
Encircled with red rhododendrons.
We could pull back the leaves
& see grandmama ironing
At their wide window. Once
Her mother moved so close
To the yardman we thought they’d kiss.
What the children of housekeepers
& handymen knew was enough
To stop biological clocks,
& it’s hard now not to walk over
& mention how her grandmother
Killed her idot son
& salted him down
In a wooden barrel.

(from “New Poems”, Neon Vernacular, Wesleyan University Press/ University Press of New England, 1993)


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