For W.

30 December 2014, 8:22 am

For W.

1. Ohio, 1994

When the shutter clicked, you jumped back
and hated me for that one moment
you had glanced into my camera,
as if my shutter had fallen
like a guillotine
through parts of you.

I should have known. Weeks before,
smoking outside after class,
we both mauled Gary Snyder
for playing the vegetarian
shaman astride the turtle back
of his American mountain.

Somewhere down a parent’s line,
you said and looked earthwards
at your toecaps pawing grey
Midwestern gravel. Somewhere
down the line, native blood pushes
at your insides. As if you had said

too much, you looked over my shoulder,
shook your head and blew smoke
through pursed lips at the stars and stripes,
its rope sounding the flagpole.
Native, you said again and reached back
to smooth your ponytail.

Then you lifted your sleeve
and showed me the tattoo:
inked thickly inside a circle,
a brave’s head; and dangling
from his stiffly banded ponytail,
two feathers breaching the ring.

2. Cape Town, 1995

Now, reading again of Wounded Knee,
the Trail of Tears, I test
names by my tongue: Oglala Sioux,
Lakota Sioux, many Sioux;
difficult ones: Wampanoag,
Kwakiutl; the easier Mohawk,

Iroquois, Shawnee. And I measure
the distance and proximity
from Choctaw to Xhosa, Arawak
to Hawequas; probe velum and palate,
wondering how names here might sound
if you curled your tongue

around Goringhaiqua, Khoi-Khoi
and tasted the many trails of tears
of all of us, the salt lick of wounds,
the many long lines that lead,
always, from pox to romance,
from colony to the encircling museum.

 

(from This Carting Life, Kwelabooks/Snailpress)


Christmas Eve

23 December 2014, 8:43 am

Christmas Eve

Almost all is ruin –
the Mozart fugue that fails
its promise
of deliberate consolation,

the unending ticker and swish
of a sprinkler outside,
and the roads angry
with traffic

in last-minute errands
as the year breaks again,
breaks again
into its manifold terrors –

Christmas Eve and its solitudes
for the holy and the damned;
and the thin disguise the lonely wear
as if shirked by God

or shirked by friends
who vanish to gods
in small towns
where the earth’s bounty lies:

jungle, waterfall, placid lake.
But the earth is weary.
The thin earth
will admit it’s lonely

as it makes the jagged cliff its own,
the arid plain,
its bare spaces
where some still go.

 

(from Groundwork, Kwela/Snailpress, 2012)


This carting life

15 December 2014, 5:34 pm

This carting life

I met History once, but he ain’t recognize me.
– Derek Walcott, ‘The Schooner Flight’

On pilgrimage down damp steps, deep inside
the British Museum, among boxes stocked
roof-high, I rummage. And sniff like a dog
and pause, snout snuffling for my nearest quarry,
for the tacks to my own, final shit.

Which box fell from Father’s cart
knocking about through the Karoo, farm to farm
as he tendered his art to anyone
who’d pay him a bauble or some jot of tripe
for shearing a sheep, planting a split pole?

In regulation tatters, did we children
skulk behind Mother as Father would
talk over terms of trade with the farmer
or foreman: yes, you may pitch there
draw water here; firewood you find yourself?

Did we all pitch in? Unpack and pile
box and sack and pole? And Father swore
and hammered, tied all into a bigger box,
our pitching home for a few days
until we had to cart it off again?

Did I search for the giant spiders
tempered overnight into tangles of dead wood,
their many legs that make good kindling
shadowed like webs under gutless bodies?
Did I drag back bundles, scoring long lines

that led to our fire at night?
And how then we did dream. Learning to play
the bow, did I pluck at hamstrung song, coddling
my instrument? And the others rocked?
Swinging his dregs out in a dark arc

did Father cough and rise, and from his box
fetch shears, a jar of used, black oil
and a heavy lump wrapped in greased cloth;
then, hands trembling as if it were our saving
charm, bare the ever-dwindling whetstone?

While my string thrummed, stopped, quivered again,
like the incomplete tongues troubling in me,
was the slap and slick of stone on iron
Father’s reluctant percussion?
Did he sing? And Mother too? The young ones

staring at the flame and coal? And I fixed
on the stars to try hold the course of my string?
Was this how sleep stalked us, as song rung
in our cambering heads, the children
soon propping each other, then carried

to bed down in the smells of smoke and sand,
of gods and people, burled like kooigras?
And we did sleep until dawn brought the clang
of cup and shears strung to Father’s waist
as, stooping, out he went to work?

Did I later take him shards of potbread
spread with fat? Kneeling on the spine
of a sheep, did he withhold his shears, look up
and say the sheep are nearly done, tonight
we roast tripe, but tell Mother to pack

we go north tomorrow, yes we go north …?

Did we then lose the box, when we left?
Fallen from the cart over some unbidden bump?
Or with wind in our heads did we forget
the box, a lone tombstone among footprints,
the tools a rattle of charms, like bones,

like runes without which we were turned
from farm to enclosed farm? But north,
always north we trekked,
until we hung from the cracked lip
of a vast, somnolent desert?

And did we stray there many days?
Did we turn south again and, hungry
at the first fence, did Father unroll
his bow and quiver,
long forgot?

*

But all that came later. And somewhere
in these many cunning passages must lie
a box that holds our shears and whetstone.
For now, I reach for the nearest box.
It shifts and pitches in my hands
as unknown weights rollick unbound inside.

I steady it and place it down, kneel
and blow at the dust. Then wait for history
to settle around me. Is this box my own
making? To hoard a craft predating carts
and shears? Or did I roll into it

among others tossed too like bones?
Predicting life running, wandering, skulking?
And death? And after death
enclosure in boxes? And kept from
boxed-in earth and sky?

Did we see it coming? And now can do
nothing but roll and bump our heads?
And stare visionless, with sockets
hollowed by science and filled with baubles,
at our own lives our interrogators?

My lips drawn but caught in mid-cry
as I screamed not for help but yearned
the province of the mantis? Stalled
in prayer, cut off from grace?
Because in supplication we refused

the first fences that already ran
from sun-up to where night pummelled the sky?
And kept our arrows trained on cattle?
Belly-slow after a feast,
could we not run fast enough? And sought

to meld with moon, rock, inadequate shrub?
Close to the ground, did we hear the hooves
drum, the horsemen, the dedicants of prophecy?
Did we crouch and wait
for seven muskets hanging from the clouds

like unequivocal fingers of some foreign god?
And then lead balls did prod us
to silence for the real work
of bayonets punching stars in our bodies?
Stagnant stars that in days would turn blue?

Blue stars by whose unsounded frequencies
vultures would tack on course, dip into
cartwheels and circle unseen above us,
to triangulate the closest hopping distance
so that in feast they may unburden the earth?

By then our disremembered bodies
asserting their span of land only
by the reach of that temporary smell
of bloat? All this unseen by us boxed-in
heads, heading for port?

How we did feel the thrum of blades
on our necks. Like gods run amok
under the skin, the madness that sings
before the first nick; as the nick promises
the first inch opening, and so on,

unzipping further as bayonets sawed
through our necks. Was I alive still?
Even as in their cold ecstasy stars
untimely had spangled my body like some pox?
And I did feel and smell the hand

that tilted my jaw and had not charity?
Did I scream then and it was cut
out of me, stopped short of godhead? And how
did they negotiate vertebrae, cartilage?
And did a bookbinder, fingers adept

at pampering vellum, tuck flaps of neck-skin
under our jaws, sealing thus the servants
of the praying mantis in their foreheads?
Our souls now caught as recompense
for some flank of beef just-begotten?

*

Is this then the infirm box I stall before
and play at wiping gloves of dust
from me, as an intercom intones
closing time: five minutes to go
before I’m enclosed in the museum?

Will I leave this box unopened too,
heads unrolled onto my lap, and break
into a brisk walk into damp London?
And will a drizzle soon clot the dust
on my clothes as I run for shelter,

fugitively wiping at my knees and elbows?

(from This Carting Life, Kwela/Snailpress, 2005)


Safari

1 December 2014, 7:40 pm

Safari

Every now and then foreigners
come across the plain
stop for shade
speak through an interpreter
to the assenting chief.

They go look at the school
speak to the principal
see the children.

A boy, older, shows them
the scar like a long lunar crater
below his knee
the girl the large mangled star
in the crook of her elbow –

landmines, guns, machete, spear.

The principal smiles or laughs.

She was lucky, he says,
her father was killed
but her wounds, and her mother’s
were not so serious.

The girl rubs lightly at her temple
looking up her eyes searching
the foreigners’ for their concern
for their reason to stop here
like they would

for antelope or elephant.

They wipe their brows with worry
hand out notepads and pens
and do their bit
praising the chief’s “cosy” hut

then climb their 4x4s
gunning, gunning the engines
away from their charitable incomprehension
back to a house
on Complicity Street.


The wind in the morning

13 August 2014, 10:07 am

The wind in the morning

The man wakes from dream
to nightmare,
his night-aged knees
buckling
over rubble
outside when he emerges
from the black mouth of his house

its burnt shell a meagre shelter
from the wind
now tugging at a loose something
and the blight it brings
like a scythe through the valleys.

Let the sun rise if it must.
Let it burn through the wind.
Let it dry them eventual white
and broken as the earth –
his neighbours the two lovers

charred in copulation
on the blackened bed
as if they unleashed the starbursts
of the bombs,
that burning burning out their love.

What’s left are the wind-worn harvests:
the neighbours’ ache,
friends’ unanswered calls,
a mother who cries,
who wanders
until death
among the millions of the unconsoled.

We who also wake
but turn away cowed, unshamed,
we whisper only to each other
of the murdered and the maimed:
single, multiple, mass –
the killing fields the index of our regress
back from Auschwitz-Birkenau.


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.


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.


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))


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


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