Michael Cope, The Star-Gatherer

15 July 2011, 9:06 am

The Star-Gatherer

(for Sophie Rose)

Photograph by Victor Dlamini, 2011

All day I gather the stars that have fallen
out of the sky. They are hard to find,
they have become mica and crystal and pollen
or concealed themselves in water or behind
the light in eyes. Some have been lost, stolen
or forgotten, but I collect them all in my mind
and as evening falls I put them back,
one by one, in their places in the black.

W.B. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

13 July 2011, 7:23 am

Sailing to Byzantium

(With photographs by Victor Dlamini)




That is no country for old men. The young
In another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Kelwyn Sole, Another version of melancholy

22 June 2011, 7:23 am

Another version of melancholy


The South-Easter’s here:

a vacuum in the air
announces it’s coming.

It really is something.
With a pale light infected
my soul sighs, dejected –
molehills, dead weeds,
wattles (no seeds)
bear thorns. The Flats
shift old sand, while rats
twitter on church spires
like sparrows. New fires

are set, arsonated.
No one’s over-elated
with this turn of events,
this oozing sense:

my sensitivity deflates.

The wind never abates,
stays on the increase;

no chance of release.
Relentless, rainless,
verging on brainless,
the ice-cream queue
is blown right through
the gulch in the mountain
to Rondebosch fountain
from Sea Point. Slow
the sand turns to dough:

you might not care
but I stop and stare –

for this cultural experience
is completely at variance
with most people’s notion
as they rush to the ocean

and (so easily) forgotten
by South Africans besotten
with politics, books,
films or sultry looks
at each other. For
who’s wise in this zephyr?

As the wind howls the keener
I gaze far to Messina
from my home on the hill.
All hope is as nil.


While apartheid is lessening
my gloom’s only strengthening;
quite different from Sartre
unrelaxed on Montmartre
this bad feeling of mine
‘ll beat his every time:

with De Klerk’s new reform
my nausea’s now the norm.

It’s not quite as viscid
it’s a thinness, so gelid…
though you never quite realise
it has ice-crazed your lives
with bad videos, and shopping
and new hair-do’s: not stopping!
As you walk in the street
it nibbles you, discreet –
watch out! frère, semblable!

when I considered you able
to have fun and repine
at this vision of mine –

you’ve stepped in a huge turd
of the existentially absurd!


Our Nature’s too exotic.
It’s not democratic
like the stuff in Westminster.
It’s so left, it’s sinister –

the bad vibes will shiver
your soul from Hex River
onwards. Telephone wires
and bursting car tires

till the doom-drenched poet
pops in his (her?) throat
a pus of aridity
like psychic acne…

The sky! the sky!
Too high, too high!
and all those plains
just boil my brains;

that frost-glazed grass
where bottles wink
their shattered glass,
and stinkblaars stink;

the meaningless fucks
in chintzy halls,
with plaster ducks
climbing the walls:

while an orange dust
(nature’s pollution)
decimates your lust –
so that’s no solution.

Off the national road
you learn to inhale
a despair you’ve sowed
in plastic and shale.

Though you aim to squirt
your hose on your flowers
and try to flirt
with a neighbour who glowers
each time that you smile:

as the hot stones pant
and the evening sun,
scowling, begins to run
pastel in the dirt
on each moribund hill
towards nothing. Still
gathers our spiritual

Your leers beguile
only that which, small
stands ready erect
outside of her home.

It’s not what you’d want
to expect:
it’s not much fun,
it starts to pall,
seducing her kinky garden gnome.


Jacobson gets it right
where he writes from his white
domicile (Golders Green)
he sees what I’ve seen:

the land’s people all sad –
every one a nomad –
homelessness transcendental –
as they hurry pell-mell

from that this to this that:
while the true artist Goldblatt
points his lens (between yawns)
at Boksburg’s drab lawns,

to capture the essence
of our mass deliquescence
of culture (no one can beat
the cul-de-sac street

which ends in the veld
where sensibilties melt).
Read Nicol the poet –
he’ll shove down your throat

the cluttered shop-windows
of ignorance. He shows
in one-dimensional verse
what’s one-dimensionally worse:

and, faint through the fear
of flat Coke lurking there,
shows via the sublime
failure of his rhyme

the real haunting sound
that bores through our ground.
No one can aspire
to anything higher,

take this fact from me:
I’ve tried, as you see…


If you were like us
you’d make quite a fuss:

but there’s still the enigma
that you read the dead dogma

of that putrid Karl Marx,
and quote Fanon’s remarks;

the extreme melancholy
implicit in the folly

of that ideologue Louis
Althusser, who’s screwy.

Who imagines it’s svelte
to Foucault in the veld?

Won’t you cast off the fetter
of not wanting verse better?

I enquire, really, truly,
can you tolerate Mbuli?

(I’m getting so cross
my great mind’s at a loss.)


Yet, despite your indifference
some of us will continue
to do best what we do
with such dogged persistence:

our acumen will not be
unremarked, unrewarded;
each poem’ll be hoarded,
a trove for the cognoscenti.

Posterity will gather
our art’s far superior
to the blatant hysteria
of ideological blather;

then, our genius unfurled
and the hoi polloi gaping,
just watch us escaping
(so passé)

Kelwyn Sole, Projections in the Past Tense, Ravan Press, 1992

William Everson, The Poet Is Dead

21 April 2011, 12:08 pm

The Poet is Dead

A memorial for Robinson Jeffers

In the evening the dusk
Stipples with light. The long shore
Gathers darkness in on itself
And goes cold. From the lap of silence
All the tide-crest’s pivotal immensity
Lifts into the land.


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Keith Gottschalk, Beginning of a Beginning

13 April 2011, 2:15 pm

Cape Town poet, Keith Gottschalk, has a series of poems about space exploration. It started, I recall, with poems about the Soviet space programme, but has broadened beyond that.

Here’s a poem celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s orbit around the earth:

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Derek Walcott cribbed

6 December 2010, 11:20 am

Volcano – Derek Walcott

Joyce was afraid of thunder
but lions roared at his funeral
from the Zurich zoo.
Was it Trieste or Zurich?
No matter. These are legends, as much
as the death of Joyce is a legend,
or the strong rumour that Conrad
is dead, and that Victory is ironic.
On the edge of the night-horizon
from this beach house on the cliffs
there are now, till dawn,
two glares from the miles-out-
at-sea derricks; they are like
the glow of the cigar
and the glow of the volcano
at Victory‘s end.
One could abandon writing
for the slow-burning signals
of the great, to be, instead,
their ideal reader, ruminative,
voracious, making the love of masterpieces
superior to attempting
to repeat or outdo them,
and be the greatest reader in the world.
At least it requires awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have seen everything,
so many people can predict,
so many refuse to enter the silence
of victory, the indolence
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
erect ash, like the cigar,
so many take thunder for granted.
How common is the lightning,
how lost the leviathans
we no longer look for!
There were giants in those days.
In those days they made good cigars.
I must read more carefully.

(from Sea Grapes, 1976)


My crib, “Lighthouse”

Mingus feared driving over dogs
and died beneath the underdog
in was it New York or L.A.?
Doesn’t matter. Legends,
as he dead now is a legend
or the vicious one Hendrix
he dead, and that the ‘Star-spangled
was distorted, and they American.
Here in Cape Town, city confused
between summer and cloud,
it’ll be me and Mingus, till dawn
but only him glaring
like a lighthouse
whose rhythm is come and gone
like ‘Fables of Faubus’.
One wishes to fuck this ill
urge, this crippling, crippled writing
for the slow ache and rage
of these the great, to be forever
the ideal listener, seduced,
consuming and being consumed,
taken by the swirl of rage,
understanding that rage
rather than trying to repeat
and express and exceed that rage,
and be the greatest comrade in the world.
At least it requires fucking awe,
which has been lost to our time;
so many people have heard everything,
so many can predict and dance
to the jingles of the nation
and refuse to enter the silence
of racial rage, the slow ache
that burns at the core,
so many are no more than
ad copy for beer.
So many take driving for granted.
How common is death.
How lost is Mudjaji
whom we no longer look for!
Yes, there were giants in those days.
In those days, in those days.
I must listen to more Mingus.

(ca. 2005)

Rethabile Masilo, six poems

20 October 2010, 9:06 am

For a long time I have wanted to place some of Rethabile Masilo’s poems at Groundwork. It’s taken too long, but here now are six poems by him.

Originally from Lesotho, Masilo lives in France. I was first introduced to his blog in 2007 when he requested permission to use one of my own poems at Poéfrika. Since then, and via correspondence (alas, as these go, not frequently enough), we have discussed things literary and other shared fondnesses, reggae especially.

I like his poetry mainly for its tone: there’s a world-weariness in it, but it is never without hope. I hope that soon we’ll see a volume by him.

Poem for Troy Davis*

The sun that is rising
comes into view at last;
how stunning, the way it leans
like a moon above marshes
that fleeing slaves –
yelped at by dogs and sought
by glimmering lamp –
must have tramped!
Sometimes I just walk
across town and back again,
considering it: your mother
has come here each morning
to tend to her plot, like,
through the years all along
she’s known how this
should not have happened.
And each day she takes
a look in the mirror at
the hole the sun left when
it rose, as without a word
the world turns and turns.

She took herself

Like a coat from
behind a door
she took herself,
past dawn half asleep
she walked away
past neon lights
that wink at streets.

And now below his
window whores laugh
as if they know
that she’s gone,
whores all of them,
as he lies there
next to himself.

And when sleep does
claim him at last,
he withdraws into
a separate shell,
the hard chamber
where he and all
his alcohol do well.

White canes bend at two places, like fingers

Cities through fingertips inebriate me.
Everywhere I travel lies this pavement
defining the town with a kerb that may
or may not curve to where I go. Patient,
I like to try and see it with my cane,
slightly slanted in the hand. Not a stick,
a pen I use to trace my life again
as I walk and tap or touch stone or brick
or granite at my feet. No need to prove
God or splendour. If you don’t listen well
to night you may miss the bat that moves
with rubber wing, and flickers round walls
in a feeding frenzy. For the glory
of everything belongs truly to the night,
which holds day as dead retinas carry
light, to watch life with previous sight.

(first published in Orbis 143, Spring 2008)

The Weapon
for Nelson Mandela

As you took up arms, ntate,
we stood by and admired your guns
and your uniform, while you prepared
to mount the country to kill railways
and post-offices, we nodded agreement,
we acknowledged how the continent
was a pistol facing earthward, with the trigger
right at Nigeria’s oily wars of religion between
once-peaceful regions, the left hand now hacking
and being hacked by the right.
From out in the cold you made sense
of lives the way a bullet never can,
our poetry on the shore, washed up on the rocks;
doves came and sat on the eaves.
We thought it was a mistake – I am prepared to die,
but it was in your voice, carried to our door
by the choice of words, joined by others
from village to village, where cold and hot
scuffle for the light of dawn, east and west,
the chill of night when the wind is still
and stars are out. Somalia’s hammer
is just now falling into place on land and sea
where ghosts whimper your name, on the island
where no one is, save webbed gulls and dolphins
that know your tribe, and seek us among
painful rocks. From then on the smell
of gun-powder would be with the world. Yes,
and we rubbed the struggle into our hair,
our jeans, our black mining boots, walked
to the freedom of our lives, leaving a thin curl
of smoke rising from South-Africa’s
muzzle, into crisp, morning air.

The Prophet Seekers

Today I know we’re going to unbury the dead
to get this over with before it engulfs us.
We’ll wake Motuba up, Fischer,
rouse Biko and Lumumba, Hani,
put their hands on a stack of bibles or not,
and let the questions begin. To hell, then,
if we can’t bring the child to the tree
on which their bodies were hanged,
arcs stopped dead like broken pendulums,
the mechanism smashed, time strangled.

Here is my body to light the night;
as the flame goes higher and higher,
take please my name off your certificates,
you can display my culture in glass cases,
libraries, to learn how to build a pyramid;
through the season of our discontent
our children have always faced their history,
as all children must, one day or another,
nineteen sixty, nineteen seventy-six.
And this century is only at its start.

We’ll take our kids to the prophet’s tomb
whose engravings and marks scar our face
as hieroglyphs are necessarily Egyptian,
and we’ll sprout roots, shoots, stronger limbs,
standing here on this path to the minster,
swinging fists at the heavens to question
their political stance in the face of all this,
like Dennis Brutus when death stopped him,
ready to get at last to the bottom of it. We
are gonna have to see this thing through.

The Grotto of Chehrabad**

There’s a point between water and fire
where lies my dream, where a woman without fear
navigates the continent on her way
to the sea, a sparkle in the eye as she goes,
a tempest caught in her dress,
driving her into voyages across time.
I’m a salt man, and I watch her stoop
as with the grace of a goddess she scoops water
and lifts her cup of love,
raising the chalice that keeps us alive,
that contains all the fire and water,
all of it, and the rage of our winter,
knowing that my siblings and I live in
this hollowed out cavern we call heaven.

(first published in The Mom Egg, #7, 2009)



* Troy Davis

** Chehrabad Saltman

Derek Walcott, White Egrets, #2

31 August 2010, 9:04 am

Your two cats squat, heraldic sphinxes, with such
desert indifference, such “who-the-hell-are-you?” calm,
they rise and stride away leisurely from your touch,
waiting for you only. To be cradled in one arm,
belly turned upward to be stroked by a brush
tugging burrs from their fur, eyes slitted
in ecstacy. The January sun spreads its balm
on earth’s upturned belly, shadows that have always fitted
their shapes, re-fit them. Breakers spread welcome.
Accept it. Watch how spray will burst
like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,
gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first,
its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall
to the lace-rocked foam. That is the heart, coming home,
trying to fasten on everything it moved from,
how salted things only increase its thirst.

(from White Egrets, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010)

Sergey Gandlevsky – The Monument

21 August 2009, 9:56 am

UNCLE SERYOZHA has lost his marbles, and, very spryly for a man of his age, jumps onto the running board of the general conversation in order to dictate its itinerary:  the storied times when sour cream was so thick a spoon would stand upright in it, and he could have dinner for a ruble and still have enough for a Belomor smoke and beer, keg beer with some heated beer poured into the cold, and salted crackers shaped like rings . . . . Now it’s all over:  the hosts are embarrassed, the guests slink away.  Uncle Seryozha—that’s me.

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Sergey Gandlevsky – Stanzas, The Use of Poetry

16 August 2009, 9:46 am

—In Memory of My Mother


Speak. But what do you want to say? Perhaps
How the barge moved along the city river, trailing sunset,
How all June until the solstice
Summer stretched on its tiptoes to the light,
How breath of linden blew through sultry squares
And how thunder rolled from all directions that July?
You once believed that speech needs an underlying cause
And a grave occasion. But that’s a lie.


Listen: the grocery store reeks of watermelon rot,
An empty crate clatters at a back door around the corner.
From the suburbs, a breeze carries the echo of a handcar
And buries the asphalt in archive leaves.
Drop the Rubik’s Cube to the ground – it’s not worth the trouble.
When all plans fail, eat grapes in the rain,
Sit in the silent yard. Just look with your own eyes.
This is what you’ll recall among the crags and crevices of hell-


So get going. Yet a naked branch – the upas
Of school texts – stubbornly touches the window
Just as it did long ago, at night, especially during rain,
Feeling the pane that mama washed.
Though I remember very little from school
I can still see each grain of sand pouring through
The narrow glass neck, an unforgettable rustle.
A primitive instrument, but what a throat for sorrow!


Strike spitefully on the floor your ever-wobbly tripod,
Haggard charlatan, not hiding your crookedness,
So that a clear specter of water streams out, smells of ozone
Under the leaking roof of a state-owned house.
The chair jolts you with static electricity,
So speak again, as if tortured, sans schools and manifestoes,
If this hopeless time and god-forsaken place
Instill in you, a total deadbeat, such love.


The widower, forty-seven year old Aizenstadt
Now roams the kitchen, can’t cop his usual downer.
Is there reason to smile at this, my friend? I think not.
Even if his funeral-black boxers hang down to his knees.
In this world, where one needs spirits to be happy,
Behind empty crates the guys who’ve seen better days
Raise a toast to Sergey Esenin or Andy Chenier,
Squander their latest check on drink by tradition.


After death I’ll go to the outskirts of the city I love,
Lift my snout to sky, throw back my antlers-
Taken by sadness, I’ll trumpet into autumn space
What human words could not express.
How the barge sailed into the wake of sunsetting day,
How iron time on my left wrist sang like a starling,
How the secret door was unlocked with a house key.
Speak. There’s nothing else you can do with this affliction.



The Use of Poetry

A prize for poetry can baffle its recipient – when a private thing, a personal predilection that’s almost a whim, is rewarded. It’s as if an inveterate mushroom-hunter or lover of ice fishing were given a prize. It’s customary to think that there are all kinds of whims but poetry is a serious and hardly useless pastime. Yet in the last twenty years, many (and certainly the best) Russain poets have recoiled from the word “use.” Like little children, poets demand that they be loved for no other reason than that they exist.

Society is correct to treat poetry with seriousness, but poetry is also correct to hold onto the bulwark of its own uselessness.

It’s good to sit in the hot sun on the grass and look at a river. But the supposition that the sun, the plants, and the water have the goal and purpose of giving us pleasure hardly enters the healthy mind; about the meaning of nature we can only guess – each person is remitted a certain amount of imagination, intelligence, and temperatment. Such is poetry; its ulimate direct aspirations are unclear and mysterious; the impressions that it produces are only the indirect consequences of its existence.

We can hope that poetry will help us, but we cannot demand help from it. Poetry is a gift, not a salary. Only when we finally take into account, when we get used to the idea that the natural responsibility of poetry is to be poetry, it is conceivable, I think, to fold down your fingers and estimate whether poetry has an earthly task. Not insisting especially on anything, I’ll offer a few thoughts.

First. Occupied primarily by words and by himself, the poet day in and day out writes his ideal self-portrait, personifies on the page a dream about himself. The tactical allegory “lyrical hero” we should understand in its original meaning – the poet “heroizes” himself, displays the most vivid attributes of his personality, subdued in daily life by routine conflict. A constant contact with the ideal twin disciplines the author, helps him not to give up. The author feels that the gap is too wide between himself and the lyrical hero – it’s disasterous for both: the devastation responds as muteness in the best instance, and in the worst, idle chatter.

But the moral return from creativity is known not only to those who write; readers feel it as well.

Poetry relates to reality like a finished manuscript to a rough draft. Art didn’t invent the drama of life. The drama is in the nature of things, but things obscure it. Poetry focuses life to a sharp clarity, and the main celebratory foundation of existence becomes visible from everyday babble. Poetry is the subjunctive mood of life, to remember how we would be, if we were not…. In short, poetry is in a position to better our morals.

Second. Everyone knows that life is not sugar; loneliness is perhaps the most bitter of its burdens. A person often cannot share his despondency, his sudden thoughts, his good moods, but he opens a book, and he’s somehow not alone. It turns out that total strangers were already here, were thinking, were happy or angry like he was, and for the same reason that he is. Suddenly, these people are no longer strange to him. That revealed spiritual likeness bothers the teenager’s feelings of his own exclusivity, but soon enough we become adults and have it up to here with our own exclusivity. In other words, art is also a communication. And poetry is the best means of communication, because it’s the most emotional.

And third. Coffee boils over on the stove just as if it’s trying to put its head through a sweater; the Russian word “train” [poezd] is already preparation for “delay” [opozdanie]; after a twenty-year intermission, the old forgotten poet appears in public in a sport coat, buttoned enthusiastically in the wrong hole. This is all the costly small change of the world, in which we for some reason awaken once and for the last time. It is shameful to be hard of hearing and half-blind. If only inattention to our small creativity, not to say anything about apathy toward Creation, or the ailment of mechanical existence offended us more than profanity! Poetry can help us to value life. Even when a poet curses the universe, he has nevertheless noticed it; it has genuinely disturbed him. “Keen observation,” Mandelstam said, “is the virtue of the lyrical poet.” I dare to add that keen observation is a kind of gratefulness. Poetry, in the end, is always the artless gratitude to the world for the fact of existence. [1997]


“Stanzas” and ‘The Use of Poetry” both from: Sergey GandlevskyA Kindred Orphanhood (transl. Philip Metres), 2003, Zephyr Press, Brookline, MA. Thank you to Sergey Gandlevsky for granting permission to publish these at Groundwork. Spasibo.

(Here are some audio files of Gandlevsky reading.)

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