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

Keith Gottschalk, Beginning of a Beginning

13 April 2011, 2:15 pm

Cape Town poet, Keith Gottschalk, has a series of poems about space exploration. It started, I recall, with poems about the Soviet space programme, but has broadened beyond that.

Here’s a poem celebrating Yuri Gagarin’s orbit around the earth:

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Manning Marable

3 April 2011, 6:19 am

13 May 1950 – 1 April 2011

Intellectual giant. During the mid- to late-1990s, I learned a lot about post-Civil Rights politics in the USA from his pen. I was researching race and representation in the USA as I was developing an unhealthy obsession with early Spike Lee. This was post-1994, and so a lot of Marable’s analyses of the Civil Rights Movement, its victories and its massive shortfalls, were becoming apparent in the newly post-apartheid South Africa. Most specifically was his analysis of how organising along a politics of identity will only bring victories in representation. Without the actual transformation of institutions and society, it will only ever amount to representation without authority. Window dressing, in short.

Obituaries at New York Times and Racialicious.

Wikipedia page.

Review: Die Beginsel van Stof, Breytenbach

10 March 2011, 9:24 am

Breyten Breytenbach, Die Beginsel van Stof, Human & Rousseau, 2011

(originally published in Die Burger, 4 March 2011, translated by Willem de Vries. Afrikaans version online at Boekeblok.)

I was 14 in 1980 when my Afrikaans teacher lent me two banned books wrapped in brown paper: Brink’s Kennis van die Aand and Breytenbach’s Om te Vlieg. We were out on national school boycotts, becoming politicised and teachers who cared did what they could.

Of course the explicit sex in Brink was any teenage boy’s fantasy, and the book’s politics also took away the breath. But the Breytenbach book is the one that stayed with me, just as any fantastical dream stays with one. After the giggling at swear words, what remained of that book still remains: the complete otherness of the book. Om te Vlieg showed what was possible in a book, and what was possible in that book, what Breytenbach did in that book, has remained a hallmark of especially his Afrikaans work, specifically his poetry.

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Ramadan: not fasting but feasting

9 November 2010, 7:57 am


When a northerly wind blows, and the roads are quiet and the atmospherics right, I can hear the athaan (call to prayer) from one of the mosques down the road in Salt River. And sometimes I can hear more than one. Out of sync with each other, two calls to prayer can produce either an eerie echo or, if the pitch of both are similar, a harmony. Having grown up Muslim, there is something about the drawn out Arabic phrases, something about its familiarity, that casts me, at once, into spells of nostalgia and melancholia. But hearing the call can also be estranging. In Paarl, where I grew up, the two mosques in use during most of my childhood and teenage years were the mosques of the old Muslim neighbourhood before the Group Areas Act. No Muslims lived in earshot of the mosques anymore, and I didn’t grow up hearing the call to prayer from my house. I heard it when I was at or inside the mosque.

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Vincent Kolbe

6 September 2010, 10:21 am

Griot of District 6, 1933 – 3 September 2010.

Obituary, by John Edward Mason.

Short documentary by Rio Allen, aka The Filmo.

Google search.

Civil Society statement on POI Bill

19 August 2010, 6:59 pm

Note: The following is a statement drawn up, I understand, by Civil Society organisations, mainly for such organisations, but also for individuals, to endorse. The Institute for Security Studies is administering/organising it. According to the deadline has been extended to 20 August. Contact details are at the end of the document.

I wish to add my name to the statement.

Let the Truth be Told – Stop the Secrecy Bill!

A responsive and accountable democracy that can meet the basic needs of our people is built upon transparency and the free flow of information. The gains of South Africans’ struggle for freedom are threatened by the Protection of Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill) currently before Parliament. We accept the need to replace apartheid- era secrecy legislation. However, this Bill extends the veil of secrecy in a manner reminiscent of that same apartheid past. This Bill fundamentally undermines the struggle for whistleblower protection and access to information. It is one of a number of proposed measures which could have the combined effect of fundamentally undermining the right to access information and the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution.

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Waar die kranse antwoord gee

11 April 2010, 2:06 pm

Following is the English version of a column published in Rapport today, 11 April. This is a translation of the submitted original, thus prior to sub-editing. There are minor variations in expression and a few editorial additions (for the sake of nuance or precision) to the English translation.

Every now and then I fall down a rabbit hole on the internet. A few months ago, I wandered through a maze of broadly white right-wing South African blogs and forums. Some present a dry, professional political image with historical and constitutional analyses, seeking legal precedent and constitutional justification for a white Afrikaans volkstaat. Some factions seek an all-white volkstaat, other factions feel anyone who speaks Afrikaans as mother tongue might be welcome.

There are many factions amongst this broad movement of white dissatisfaction with the New South Africa. Some talk about armed resistance, while others caution against such ‘irresponsible’ talk. Some blogs focus on recording violent crime statistics, especially where crime victims are white. However, some blogs have now started to include all violent crime, irrespective of the victim’s race, so as to avoid accusations of racism.

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