The wind in the morning

14 November 2015, 4:11 pm

The wind in the morning

The man wakes from dream
to nightmare,
his night-aged knees
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.


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.

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

Two from Yusef Komunyakaa

16 November 2011, 11:09 am

Fog Galleon

Horse-headed clouds, flags
& pennants tied to black
Smokestacks in swamp mist.
From the quick green calm
Some nocturnal bird calls
Ship ahoy, ship ahoy!
I press against the taxicab
Window. I’m back here, interfaced
With a dead phosphorescence;
The whole town smells
Like the world’s oldest anger.
Scabrous residue hunkers down under
Sulfur & dioxide, waiting
For sunrise, like cargo
On a phantom ship outsde Gaul.
Cool glass against my cheek
Pulls me back from the black schooner
On a timeless sea – everything
Dwarfed beneath the papermill
Lights blinking behind the cloudy
Commerce of wheels, of chemicals
That turn workers into pulp
When they fall into vats
Of steamy serenity.


Lisa, Leona, Loretta?
She’s sipping a milkshake
in Woolworths, dressed in
Chiffon & fat pearls.
She looks up at me,
Grabs her purse
& pulls at the hem
Of her skirt. I want to say
I’m just here to buy
A box of Epsom salt
For my grandmother’s feet.
Lena, Lois? I feel her
Strain to not see me.
Lines are now etched
At the corners of her thin,
Pale mouth. Does she know
I know her grandfather
Rode a white horse
Through Poplas Quarters
Searching for black women,
How he killed Indians
& stole land with bribes
& fake deeds? I remember
She was seven & I was five
When she ran up to me like a cat
With a gypsy moth in its mouth
& we played doctor & house
Under the low branches of a raintree
Encircled with red rhododendrons.
We could pull back the leaves
& see grandmama ironing
At their wide window. Once
Her mother moved so close
To the yardman we thought they’d kiss.
What the children of housekeepers
& handymen knew was enough
To stop biological clocks,
& it’s hard now not to walk over
& mention how her grandmother
Killed her idot son
& salted him down
In a wooden barrel.

(from “New Poems”, Neon Vernacular, Wesleyan University Press/ University Press of New England, 1993)

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

Review: Stephen Watson, The Music in the Ice

6 June 2011, 6:41 pm

Stephen Watson, The Music in the Ice: On Writers, Writing and Other Things, Penguin Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-143-02690-7

(originally published in WordsEtc, February 2011)


In Stephen Watson’s poetry I have always found a certain obligatory distance, even when poems are in homage to a friend. It could be his modernist legacy, a suspicion of emotion stemming from T.S. Eliot: to display emotion is an aesthetic betrayal which undermines a certain truth and redemption in aesthetics, the pursuit of which is the poet’s metier. I often feel, when reading the poetry, that I am tapping at a thick, determinedly post-Romantic carapace.

But this distancing is in a way the enabling step for what is Watson’s metier: landscape. He is at his best – in poetry and prose – when describing a de-peopled landscape, stony or lush, clouds gathering or in the play of light. When I think of a Watson landscape, I think of flint: hard, sharp in relief, containing sparks, process of formation unclear, but clearly formed over a long period.

In this book of essays variously written over the last twenty years, one gets an idea of those geological processes. But this is also a book on Watson’s enthusiasms and obsessions. Most surprisingly are “Leonard Cohen & Longing”, “Buiten Street” (which ruminates on a first love lost) and “Hannah Hunter Watson” (on the birth of, and addressed to, his first child and daughter) because of their self-disclosure. These essays maintain a flintiness, but they also contain confessions about the author’s neuroses, early ambition and, at times, a Buddhist’s desire for resolution through dissolution. A few weeks before the daughter’s birth:

I wanted all the books I had read, and all the more the books I’d written, to un-write themselves, to return to the nothingness out of which they’d been wrested, leaving the silence unstained. Beauty remained only in those things that bore no sign of human aspiration, and most of all the taint of my own. I longed for anonymity, to disappear. (“Hannah Hunter Watson”)

And then, after the birth:

I was no longer that man on the outside, looking in on the world from a great distance. I was now joined to another story – a wider, deeper story – to the great human family and the common fate.

It is a surprising rebirth of the dyspeptic figure behind “A Version of Melancholy” (1989), an early essay about Cape Town and the despair it invokes, as well as of the critic who in his Ph.D. thesis (1993) gags at “imaginative and metaphysical deficiencies” in South African poetry, “a kind of deficiency which is also present in South African culture as a whole”. Like Naipaul’s infamous dismissal of his native Caribbean, Watson cannot believe that anything of cultural worth can come from South Africa (Coetzee, Ibrahim, Sekoto?).

For Watson, however, there are exceptions to “South African culture as a whole”: an essay on Guy Butler, who is also commemorated alongside Alan Paton, Lionel Abrahams and Francois Krige, the painter, in “Four South African Epitaphs”. But he also returns to his uncertain relationship with South African culture in “The Rhetoric of Violence in South African Poetry” where he posits a causal relationship, among others, between the rhetoric of violence in “struggle poetry” and the normalised violence we now experience. It is a sobering read, but also a sociological morass which I am not sure the writer who “was no longer that man on the outside, looking in on the world from a great distance” negotiates successfully. One wishes in this essay for a descent from Olympus to the temper of self-reflection that returns the writer, in “Hannah Hunter Watson”, to the writer and man who “was now joined to another story… to the great human family and the common fate”.

The Free City of Benghazi

22 April 2011, 2:27 pm

The Free City of Benghazi
(After W.B. Yeats)

I want to live now and go, and go to Libya, Benghazi,
and there brew some coffee, bake bread;
a few chairs where people can sit and look out on the sea
and tell me how it is to arise from the dead…

(full poem forthcoming in Groundwork, Kwela Books/ Snailpress, 2012)

(This poem is based on W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’)

The lines and idea came to me as I was listening to this song by Libyan revolutionaries in the Nafusa Mountains (link tweeted by one of the Libyan tweeters I follow).

The English translation reads:

Where do you want us to go?
Give me your hand
So we can go to Benghazi
The City of Freedom
So we can go to Zawiya
The City of Martyrs
So we can go to Zintan
The City of Knights
And in the end Libya will be free, and we will live in love and tranquility

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