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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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


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,

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))


25 November 2012, 5:58 pm


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,
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.

Catch a fire

25 November 2012, 5:47 pm

Catch a fire

I’m listening to the Wailers,
Catch a Fire
and I’m thinking: 1973,
where was I, seven years old?

And my father? Thirty-six?
My mother beautiful at thirty-three
in a short floral dress
bright in the stony front yard

of our small new house,
a “community development”
as people are kicked out
shunted east of the Berg River,

the short give
given begrudgingly
to us a people become a buffer
in someone else’s fearful strategy

and as some cruel joke
the place called “New Orleans”.
Perhaps we loved jazz
and we could imagine

ourselves somewhere else.
As I now imagine my parents
there in our lounge, low-lit,
in another time and place.

She in that floral dress,
he in jeans and pointers,
slicked back hair
little darlin’ stir it up…

They’re dancing,
in love in a world that would never be,
would never have been.

What is this dream I have,
at forty-six, listening
to Marley the Rude Boy
with short dreads

in a youth I could never have understood
but by way of the roots music
I came to love in 1980
when we all were all a revolution.

How they might have loved it,
this music of rebellion,
had they known then what I know now
or had they been somewhere else,

my parents, somewhere other
than the world of quietude and inner unrest
in the crimped horizons and hearts
of a people treated as pawns.

I want to hold them to me now
to let them know
how now, this night,
with Marley on the stereo,

how I want them to have been
or how I imagine
they could also have been
me now and then, and them then

also burning
like I did in youth
like I still do
in this broken republic that was once a fervent dream;

the child and the man confused
now become his parents
in an imagined youth
dancing in a rebellion

always already never to have been.

My parents never to see
what they only could dream,
dying instead in testimony
of what the rebels had wrought –

a nightmare of venal dreams.

Here are only broken melancholies:
a dream, ultimately, for a dream,
an ache for an elsewhere of the past
dreamed from the past

where now my parents dance,
they dance,
they… catch a fire
in love with each other

even as inside I know, I know
now my father cries:
he is become a man in a new house
but still on a white man’s terms.

Self-portrait in three colours

22 November 2012, 6:16 pm

Self-portrait in three colours
(after Charles Mingus)

Today I want to sit my father down
in my comfortable red chair,
tell him to hold his judgement,
forget about Islam and God,

just for now dissolve all prejudice,
and tell him about my music,
my love of jazz I got from him.
But mostly talk about Mingus

whom I never heard in his house
and who like him was a bassist.
Then play him some,
not too loud, Mingus just right, loud

enough, my father can feel
the bass notes tug
under his left pectoral,
where his heart stopped six years ago,

maybe restart the thing,
beating anew, but slightly different,
to a Mingus rhythm,
sad or joyful, the bass gentle, gentle

or furious up-down the fretboard
and out of such seeming chaos
see my father smile and sigh
as he finds a melody, a standard,

washing from it all and from inside
him, like a familiar, with a trumpet
calm and precise like a rock pool –
the clear water where we swim in summer.

And he, my father, is at peace
even as he sees me roll a joint
with some good Swazi
I nod and tell him I get from a friend;

or maybe it’s hashish,
an Arabic word, I say,
and tell him how it was used
to demean the Hassasin as rabble.

And I’ll pour us some whisky
or rum, and light up
and have him toke,
sip at his drink till we sit

as if we’re long-lost friends –
over years, through nights
of narcotics and music
having become known to each other,

then lost to each other
in the confused, silent decade
of my self-estrangement,
wary of him and his God.

But here we are now.
Better get it in your soul, I say,
the bass, Mingus, that music that music
that calls you to peace

but it can also share,
I say to him,
your anger at the world.
Mingus can be your comrade.

And there’s peace in that.

As he nods and the drugs
wash through him,
as he relaxes,
I want to see him find himself

tapping a foot, his hand
around his chill glass,
with the other reach for more marijuana,
sit back freely stoned

for now peaceable in knowing
I’m his son
wayward, but in love
with the same things he loved

and be called to peace –
a night’s comradeship
I carry like an ache
here under my left pectoral,

in my head a febrile dream.


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
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

Reunion, Durban

2 November 2012, 1:28 pm

Reunion, Durban

(for Gouslaye)

Because there are still [people] whose hearts
Bear the large optimistic burden of freedom and peace…
[T]here is a time of healing coming
Because these [people] of strength are with us.

– Owen Dodson, “For Edwin R. Emtree”

Ships lie three columns thick in the bay:
containers, grey tankers, oil and gas –
our consumption a monomania
congealing into dread disease,
the clots of commerce and commodities
ready to enter the harbour’s heart,
a folly against which we pitch our own.

From the fishermen on the pier
you have earlier magicked
a small green fish
on which we feed for a week
in exquisite folly, in laughter
at night when the ships’ lights flicker
like small, separate settlements
clustered each around a fictive bay
on shores unseen, distant and near.

No one can say with certitude
where you come from:
an everlasting colony,
a small island somewhere
we struggle to triangulate
in the Indian Ocean.

I see you
skin bronzed
like that of a childhood friend.
Your eyes like a green enlivening
the sunned shallows
where the children play.

I see you
hair like a forest of deep shade
where trees grow upwards
and sideways
in corkscrews and curls,
grow back to earth
in the welcome dark,
a sudden caldera at the back of my mind.

Your goatee a well-kept piece of chaos,
a magic garden around your mouth
itself a house
where we can live and eat.

Brush your warm skin against me
take my hand
and tell me again
of the Cirque de Mafate
and its maroon history,
its secret paths
from the transactions of masters.

I see you stride across the sea
bearing from your garden
vanilla, like small divining rods
which find in me sweet, forgotten water
and this small folly I return,
a gift of gentle verse.

Dear Comrades

12 October 2012, 2:17 pm

Dear Comrades

You who once were children, students,
young athletes become the heroes
of we the people warmly teeming
in the joyful new republic of our dreams,
a fulsome, healthy common weal;
you who once yourself were dreaming heroes
in your speechifying or in striking poses
defiant and heroic like Olympic gods
with raised fists over balustrades,
from balconies and stages
overlooking us,
and at the sides of graves
in vigil overlooking our fallen comrades
believing their blood makes fruitful
the earth of what would be that new republic.

A NEW republic!
How daring you were then,
almost almost the gods
we were keening for, that we’d make.
How daring then to have just that:
a dream. Just a dream.
Yet how you dreamed. In your dream
you were become a god who could defy the force of death.

And we would harbour you, we
the people in our council houses,
our shacks in winter damp –
was where we harboured you.

There we shared our consolations
with wood smoke from the coal stove
or the smell of paraffin.
There we cut the meat
into smaller, meagre pieces
made more to share with you;
added half a cup more meal
so you too could eat, then sleep,
then dream that dream which we too dreamed,
that dream in which we came upright
fully human, warm and dry.

That dream that was so fierce.
Did you then believe that dream?
Or back then dreamt already
of a house of proper, bourgeois dream
somewhere overlooking the sea
from where you would no longer
have to worry about still overlooking us;
dreamt already then
of how you’d sell our foolish dream,
or rip it
into the gilded tatters
of your newfound love for dear commodities –
a new, expensive car,
whiskies and cigars,
the fine cloth of another land –
the contraband you trade in off our once useful dream.

We are now become your fools,
our heroes’ fools.
Jeered at
for having believed in dream,
for having not known
that our better future
was forever always lost,
then already would have had the bitter dregs
and our heroes, you, always then already bound
in any case to end up
loosening forever the belt around your widening girth.

We admit, declare,
declare that we were fools to dream beyond our brokenness,
and that now breaks us more.
We must admit
we’re broken,

but broken from your dream.

Comrade, you must know
that dream we dreamed is dead,
that dream in which you once were almost god
is no longer yours. You can muster
only soporifics
like a wizened walrus lolling in the sun
or like your children too, fattening
like grubs on the food chain of this fetid ecology,
the corpse of our dream-dead republic.
You must know
you are no more a thing of us,
of our creation,
no more the welcome guest
when once again we build a dream.

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