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)


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.


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.


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

* 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.

Breyten Breytenbach: Reflections of a prisoner-poet

25 November 2013, 3:47 pm

Rethabile Masilo of Poéfrika sent me a clipping of an interview conducted by Adriaan van Dis with Breyten Breytenbach for NRC Handelsblad a week after Breytenbach’s release from prison at the end of 1982. The Star then ran it on 3 January 1983. It was tricky scanning it – on pages 1-2 and 4-5, follow the columns across the page-break (paragraphs are repeated after the page-break):





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
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
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,
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.)

Spring – light and dark

6 April 2013, 9:55 am

(Published in VISI Magazine, December 2012)

I have been living in Cape Town for 25 years and enjoy living here, even if this city is, after all, a visdorpie compared to most cities the world over. More than anything else about Cape Town as a city, I enjoy walking the streets of the CBD and discovering yet another small, independent coffee shop or another view or angle onto a street with its mix of hidden mosques and colonial, apartheid and modern-global architecture.

But almost every Spring something both light and dark tugs at the heart. It may be a bush of jasmine pouring over a wall in Tamboerskloof or the change of light on the face of Table Mountain that draws me back to what I call my home-home, the house and garden where I grew up in Paarl, the environs of the town, the mountains surrounding it. Then tugs at my heart a nostalgia lit by Boland sun, yet dark as any winter.

Many of my city friends react with disbelief to my childhood stories, which strike them often as stories of a rural idyll, notwithstanding that my home town, Paarl, was, even back in the 1970s and 1980s, peri- and semi-urban. But it was still a place where you had to negotiate Bothma’s cows being herded to a nearby grazing field on your way to (primary) school, or where, on your way from school, you might stop at a stream to catch tadpoles with friends.

Before we had climate change and shifting seasons, back when the seasons coincided with certain months, schoolboys celebrated 1 September by arguing with their mothers to be allowed to go to school barefoot and in shorts. It was indeed as if something tightly coiled had suddenly sprung free. And it is this verve that I associate with spring, a verve, alas, not always visible in the city and not always so tangible in adult life.

When I do see a jasmine bush in the city, it enlivens me and takes me back to the bush we had back home, just outside the kitchen door, pouring its green vines through the terra cotta wall closing off the front garden from the backyard and sweetening the morning air. It takes me back to my late father’s garden: a magnificent bush of mint growing underneath the garden tap a few feet away from the jasmine, and also, in other parts of the garden, yesterday, today and tomorrow, katjiepiering (gardenia), wisteria, sweetpeas, bottlebrush, violets, pansies. Mrs. Martin next door also had jakob-regop (zinnia) and leeubekkies (snapdragon).

Spring in Paarl. In my memory it is always about colours brightening. In high-school years, it was the oak trees with bright buds in front of the white school building: Noorder Paarl Secondary, an old-world school, built with community funds, opened in 1926, and left – during apartheid – in a then white area. Across from the school, on the banks of the Berg River, a veld of green with white clumps of varkblom (arum lilies).

But spring also carries its toll. With the warming weather, the lawn had to be mowed more regularly. What child wants to be emptying grass cuttings onto a compost heap that was now starting to “talk” as the days warmed? What child would not want to be out with friends, barefoot and in shorts, playing cricket on the sandy patch under a stand of pines in the veld just across the road from our neighbourhood?

The dark undertow to spring is that it is also, in a manner of speaking, short-lived, temporary, ephemeral as the buds and blossoms that define the season and not mitigated by the fact that, like all seasons, spring will come around again. As much as the child wants to jump out of his shoes and forget the chills of winter, as much as spring symbolises new life, one is always aware that, soon enough, next March, a sudden chill will fall over the late afternoon, that the vine leaves will turn red and brown. Squirrels know this.

If spring represents rejuvenation and life, looking at spring past and present is as much a reckoning of past winters and, perhaps, a dread of future ones. What has gone, what will be gone. The school still stands, but the stand of pines is gone – it had to make way for more houses, for more human lives, for that very thing that spring symbolises: life. The picturesque white mosque with the palm tree in Breda Street, central Paarl now stands largely unused, painted in a cast-off colour, as the Muslim community has expanded in the once new Group Areas, where they are served by an ugly, modern mosque and madressah complex – three storeys but nevertheless a squat building. Not all newness rejuvenates, not all change is as good as a holiday.

What would Jesus do?

6 April 2013, 9:48 am

JM Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus, Harvill Secker, 2013 (Review published in Cape Times, 22 March 2013)

In “A House in Spain”, a ‘story’ by JM Coetzee in Architectural Digest (2000), a protagonist crabbily considers the inflated language by which people define their relationships with objects, e.g. to fall “in love” with a house. In that rarefied mixture of autobiography and fiction that JM Coetzee has made his own, this man (perhaps Coetzee?), who has bought a house in Spain, realises that his fastidiousness about the slackness of such language hides “the envy of a man grown too old, too rigid, to ever fall in love”. This is so because he finds that the house he has bought occupies his mind when he is not in Spain. Details of the house – of its identity – occupy his thoughts and he starts thinking of the house as if it were analogous to a woman. His attentions in fixing the house assume the modalities of love, where previously he had considered ownership of property as simply functional.

There is enough autobiographical information in the story to suggest that the protagonist is a version of Coetzee. At the same time, the competing forces of different truths – in autobiography, in fiction – have been one of Coetzee’s own enduring intellectual preoccupations, so that Coetzee autobiography can be as enigmatic as Coetzee fiction. But I refer to “A House in Spain” because his new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, is set in “Spain” and the protagonist, Simón, seems similarly crabby. And so one looks for the autobiographical in the fiction. Not for the plots and crude facts that one can graft onto the real life of the writer for the reader’s prurient confirmation, but for the parallel situations that spur the protagonist/s to discourse on their preoccupations, for the facts that make the writer’s fictions and autobiographies.

A refugee from somewhere unknown, Simón has been given this name by the functionaries at a refugee camp and he is urged, like all refugees here, to forget his past. In this new place, where everybody, especially the bureaucrats, behave with dull decency and goodwill, Simón reacts against such denatured living. Passion is what he is looking for.

With Simón is a boy who was also given a new name: Davíd (all refugees are given new names). Simón has ended up, by happenstance, as a guardian to Davíd, the boy having travelled unaccompanied and having lost a letter which identifies his mother. Simón has promised Davíd to help him find his mother, a promise which is a keystone to Simón’s ethics. In this new place, the bureaucrats are kind, decent, helpful (even if the help often leads Simón and Davíd up the garden path), but their systems come across, nevertheless, as less than humane – lifeless. It is a place full of worthiness, but it fails to recognise what Simón considers worthy: keeping his promise. When Simón asks a friendly bureaucrat, Anna, to give him access to registers so he can trace Davíd’s mother, Anna shows him the futility of the task, in the dull and decent bureaucratic logic of the bizarre utopia in which they find themselves. Here, no one cares about the past and the bureaucracy is built on ridding people of “old attachments”. People have been “washed clean”, as, moments later, Anna will tell Davíd to tell Simón that he has been washed clean.

So dogged is Simón in keeping his promise that he will fulfil it even if by fiction. He will later convince a woman, Ynes, that she is Davíd’s mother, a role she takes up with eventual conviction. So much so, in fact, that she rescues Davíd from the education authorities when they want to send him to a school for rebellious and delinquent children. By now Simón and Ynes have become convinced that there is something special about Davíd. When the boy gets into trouble at school, they are quick to take his side, even to believe his version of events when reality clearly contradicts him. In short, they have faith in his fictions. Eventually, the three of them set off in a car, heading north towards a place called Estrellita (little star, feminine).

Since his youth, the Coetzee who has bought a house in Spain “has had a fondness for Spain”, but his “bookish” Castilian marks him as an outsider to the Catalonian locals of Bellpuig. “What he hopes for, and what he gets, is toleration.” He tries to meld in with the village, using the same colour paints for the house, planting, like his neighbours, geraniums in terra-cotta pots beside the front door. But as much as he wants to disappear, he also wants to leave a mark of sorts. Moreover, unlike his functional relationships with previous property, here “he hopes that in some sense the house itself will bear the memory of him” (“House”).

When is the outsider no longer an outsider? The foreman of the stevedores among whom Simón finds work early on, remarks on Simón’s apologetic, halting Spanish: “As for your Spanish, don’t worry, persist. One day it will cease to feel like a language, it will become the way things are.”

In its quietly compelled probing at the borders of human life – what is it to be a refugee in a place that nurtures an overwhelming, all-encompassing semblance of decency yet bears little of the substantively human with its contradictions and waywardness, with its passions and blind faith? – The Childhood of Jesus is signature Coetzee.* But whereas in books like Life and Times of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians the outsider is set against systems of malicious intent, in Childhood this opposition is set against an anodyne world – or, at least, a world where systems that process people, specifically refugees, are evidently decent, even as they are the shucked shells of humanist discourse. The novel may well be a meditation on what might happen were Jesus to be a child refugee in the European Union. But then again, it’s a Coetzee fiction – only, marvellously so.


* For some inexplicable reason this sentence was sub-edited to: “In its quietly compelled probing at the borders of human life, what is it to be a refugee in a place that nurtures an overwhelming, all-encompassing semblance of decency yet bears little of the substantively human with its contradictions and waywardness, with its passions and blind faith?// The Childhood of Jesus is signature Coetzee.” The title was changed to “What would Jesus have done?”

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)

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