Fiona Zerbst, Four Poems

27 May 2009, 2:20 pm

FIONA ZERBST’s fourth volume of poetry, Oleander, is due soon from Modjaji Books, and will be launched alongside volumes from Sindiwe Magona,  Joan Metelerkamp and Helen Moffett. Here are four poems from Oleander:


At night, they bloom to light, like buds that burst
for air. As if they had no wings, they startle
into glass. That muffled knock
again, again, again –
they are like stars that break against the darkness,
break like vases,
brown containers,
tiny insect vessels of a great hope; longing
for the light; even dying for it.

Hart Crane, 1899-1932

Prodigal, shucking off the first-class hell
of being you in bar and cheap hotel,
you leapt. The S.S. Orizaba churned
on anyway; propellers flensed and burned
the waters battering towards New York.
A fellow passenger, who saw you leap
and thrash, watched only for your body’s cork
to float up. As she shudders into sleep,

the juddering vessel, droning, is the bell
that sounds your verses, amplifies your voice,
American Rimbaud. Given the choice,
would you have gulped the broken world as well
in sober hopelessness? Your sailor’s voice
must first be lost in fatal tides to tell.


India’s alarming Pakistan.
America is rumbling, after oil
and vengeance. And I’m fumbling with one
completely dud, half-burnt mosquito coil.

It’s winter. Still, those insects will attack.
Lights go out and houses in the street
begin to flicker. Candles offer heat
as much as arguments do, and looking back

it seems as if we’ve argued far too much.
The world’s an angry red; the smudgy blue
of dawn-lit ash is arty, but the hue
is cold-cut bloodless; flesh you dare not touch.

We stutter with the paper’s platitudes.
A drive into the country’s dull and sad.
Not even death can end the bloody feuds
that families have and so I’m very glad

we don’t have kids, my grandfather’s dead
and nobody but you and I can suffer pain.
Last night, in a clumsy leap from bed,
I smeared a big mosquito as a stain,

against a wall. I wiped the dry remains
away this morning. Commas of our blood
were brown, unreadable. And later, floods
came swollen, breaking on a white-flat plain:

a natural disaster. Sheep and cows
went under, surging to a muddy end.
You held my hand. A multitude of ‘nows’
came crowding back. Of course I won’t pretend

you haven’t stung me, gutted me, deprived
my life of air. I’m grateful all the same.
All’s fair in love, war, etc. Your game
remains apolitical, hopelessly contrived

yet pure. The Middle East is poised for war.
Relief’s been sent for victims of the flood.
Food and candles. Fresh-donated blood.
You reach me, wordless, as I cross the floor.

In praise of loss

Until the loss
Feels right.

Lose at cards.
Refuse to play.

Don’t respond
To provocations,

Don’t invest.
Be certain
That it doesn’t matter.

Hold yourself
Aloof; lose
The men you know

To other women.
Refuse to play.

It’s no shame
To spare your neck.
Let it in,

The knowledge
Of this loss
That is dying, living.

© Fiona Zerbst, 2009
© Modjaji Books, 2009

(Thank you to Fiona Zerbst and Modjaji Books for granting permission to have the poems appear at Groundwork. See below for details of the launch and a sample from Moffett’s book, Strange Fruit.)

Helen Moffett, Four Poems

24 May 2009, 4:02 pm

THE FOLLOWING poems are from Helen Moffett’s forthcoming debut volume of poetry, Strange Fruit, published by Modjaji Books (manifesto). Strange Fruit will be launched, together with three other volumes of poetry, at the Cape Town Book Fair on Sunday, 14 June at 5.30 to 6.30 pm at the DALRO space in the Exhibition Hall. Thank you to Helen Moffett and to Colleen Higgs of Modjaji Books for granting permission to publish the poems. Copyright remains with the author and the publisher.

Gathering waterblommetjies

A wintergreen afternoon in the Overberg:
the bust of a woman on a shelf of dam-water
her frizzed halo electrified by four o’ clock sun –
one hand holds a plastic bag aloft
the other threshes, garnering from
the raft of slippery porpoise blooms
upon which she rests her stolid breasts.


Loving me must be like visiting the Balkans.
I’m told it’s lovely there; seen the pictures
of pastoral valleys, dappled woods
secluded inlets of blue dispersing islands;
all dotted with bridges, quaint villages
and monasteries of antique masonry
speaking eloquently of culture and craft.
But a flak jacket and tin hat are advised;
over some innocent hill you’ll find,
without warning, a site where violation
has soaked into the earth, something
has been razed, horror still haunts,
with shrapnel and tank-traps in the lulling grass.

And the history – the history: no matter
how hard you try, you’ll never quite grasp
why one sniping shot triggers a world war.


The penis is an amphibious creature;
mostly it lives on dry land,
but given the chance, it slips
joyously back into a moister
environment, where it grows
gills of glee, glides in this
primordial clime, this balmy
tropical sea, swimming
in ambergris and musk,
slithering through humid clasp
and pulse, leaping
higher, diving deeper:
in its element.


This is my lot: to see pregnant women,
mothers with babies everywhere,
families, parents with orbiting children,
the parade never seems to stop.
So envy and I are very old friends:
I have the upper hand – mostly –
although the odd shaft runs me through.

But the clammy agony subsides in the end,
I don’t go careening down the street,
screaming, hissing, stabbing at eyes with nails:
instead, I attend baby showers and christenings
armed with thoughtful gifts and tasteful hats;
I congratulate, dispense adorable booties,
make casseroles and allowances too.

This is my dubious gift, the compensatory coin
the bad fairy left behind when cursing me:
the capacity to contain without spilling
the viridian bile. Others are quite safe from it,
especially you, poor forked thing, a man –
wombless, childless: you have nothing I want.

© Helen Moffett, 2009
© Modjaji Books, 2009

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