Poetry on South Africa

“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”

Leonardo da Vinci



We live in Africa now,
the Americans just arrived.
Bored with our novels and Yahtzee,
candlelight sprawled on the floor,
we’re lonesome and lazy,
weary of dark clouds crowding our door.
We wait for the downpour to end
and pretend for a moment it’s fun.
We wait patiently for the adventure
that has already begun.




the silver coin

a remnant
of old experiment
a token of old fears
remembered in my hand
paul kruger
the first president
on the front
a springbok on the the back
suid afrika it says
soli deo gloria
still smooth
and ominous



african doctors welcome

maritzburg natal
the minister of justice
mr jimmy kruger
to whom an application had
been made grudgingly welcomes
or more succinctly allows
local african doctors
for the very first time five
brave yet foolhardy black men
will join the entrenched bigots




What You Say is True

We took this land from the Bantu.
In return,
we let them live
just beyond our thriving cities,
so that they might learn our ways.
We give them jobs,
because we must have servants
to keep our houses
and mind our meals.
We find it a pity
that they feel deprived
and yearn to be free of us.
But it does not matter.




2 sticks

as a cadet in a beret
in the transvaal
in step
in the kiln of summer
in the front row
with a drum and two
this is worth it
ive got the snare now
baby ive got it




You Are Bantu

They give you this generic name,
the same for all the tribes,
thinking it easier to tame you
and ironically it’s true
you are the people of this land.
they even call you so.




Prime Time 1971

Not to worry now,
about the secrets
the silence,
about the drugs and the alcohol
or the sex flexing
it’s muscles out in the yard,
the loneliness
the rage
or laying blame.

Not to worry now,
about the hours lost
tossed away like pages read,
rustling through the house
bled of interest.
It’s time to let down the guard
and conjure up games
like Yahtzee, Pinochle or cards
maybe even a play.

We’re good at charades.




It Must be Here

at Blood River

(so named after the defeat
of 16,000 Zulu impis on
Sunday, December 16, 1838)

It must be here
at the foot of Vegkop,
that blood poured the reddest.
I can feel it in the sickly motion
of water flowing thick against the grain.

And it must be here
near the banks of the Ncome,
that the hands of fat
lunged for the throat of a nation
proud in its African blood
and slated a war the natives couldn’t win.

It must be here
that white men finally
rushed the great tide,|
crushed the Zulu pride,
thought up a disease called Apartheid
and flushed it across the countryside.




Seasonal Showers

In November
Jacarandas grow
powerful summer flowers
showy blue in hue
and throughout December
violet showers blow
just so down
boulevards below.




Talk About my Girl

My girl doesn’t clean the toilet,
the sink, the bath, the floors
or this wood paneling
like a good maid should.
She doesn’t seem to care
that dust lays about my house
like it hasn’t been cleaned at all.
I try to be patient and explain
that thing must be very clean
but I don’t think she understands.
It’s so hard to find good help.
I hate to wonder
what her home looks like.
She’s lucky that I keep her.

My madam has a beautiful home,
Fine furniture, nice pots,
running water, more clothes
than I have ever seen at once
(except in stores) and many
Large rooms for her small family.
Rooms with many pretty pictures
that hang on the huge walls,
rooms larger than my entire house
and real floors, not dirt.
She tells me I must clean very well
like a good maid should
but everything is already clean,
so I pretend to clean again.
She’s very lucky
to have such a nice home.

My girl steals porridge, meat,
flour and sometimes fruit
from our trees in the garden.
I don’t know why she steals
when I give her extra food
from our plates after supper
to take home to her family.
I try to be patient and explain
that stealing is wrong
but I don’t think she understands.
It’s so hard to find good help.
I hate to wonder
what else she steals when I’m gone.
She’s lucky that I keep her.

My madam always has so much food.
Plenty of canned goods, flour,
meat pies and deserts, much more
than I think her small family
could eat in a whole year.
Sometimes she lets me take home
the leftover food I cook for them,
or bones to make soup.
But it is not enough to feed
my family and cousins,
who cannot find work in the city
because their passes are not in order.
Sometimes I must steal extra
to keep my family from starving.
She’s very lucky to have so much to eat.
Sometimes my girl doesn’t show up
for two or three days in a row
and I become very upset.
I don’t like to be without help.

Sometimes my madam is upset when
I cannot work for a day or two
because I must hide my husband
and my cousins when police raid my town.

Sometimes I think my girl
doesn’t bath herself at all.

Sometime I think my madam
must wash herself many times a day.

My girl is very lucky to work here.

My madam is very lucky to be White.




The Ridge Was on Fire Tonight

It was very hot
and it’s not the first time this year
that we’ve seen such mean heat.
It lit up the sky for miles around,
gave it a bright orange and yellow glow,
and it very nearly caught
the trees in the driveway on fire.
But my father and the natives
tired it out.
Fire fighters even came.
We feel lucky, because
it’s very dry here this time of year.
But there’s nothing to fear now,
except the snakes
flushed out,
bound to take the shortest way down,
toward us
away from the hot ground.




The Natives are Restless

Wrestled to the ground
Apartheid bound heart and soul
Repressed and held down




Mama Ruth

(in memory of Ruth First-
killed by a letter-bomb in 1982 while in Mozambique)

Of one mind, one spirit,
they called you a traitor,
an uppity bold white woman
kind enough, but ripe for the fall.
So they stalled for time
and confined you under ‘section 6’
behind their cold prison walls.
And they said that the halls
must be silent in your presence
and sent agents to correct you,
to sway the error of your ways.
But your way was to deny them
their pleasure, to fight and to die
by the tethered voice of your conscience.
Your choice was clear; no tears,
no nonsense, no fear,
just years of rough weather,
tough jailers turning questions
until finally
an answer to your challenge,
a surprise disguised as mail,
and no chance to turn away.





i see them circling above me
gliding around
butt ugly birds
i would know them anywhere




Soweto in my Pocket

Itching behind my fathers advice,
dont say anything son
its not like nairobi
dont speak out
not even on the phone
it might be tapped.
I fingered soweto in my pocket,
a prickly fossil to be savored
like the southern lights
No cotton mouth African thirst
ever made me question Hiskia or Anna,
little white boy on their heels,
but i let them tell me
whatever they would.

boy when my people rise boy
they might want to kill you boy
i will not stop them
i cannot stop them
you are white boy
they are my people




i saw a zulu woman once

kick her husbands teeth out
they fell from his mouth like
chiclets on a night like this
she snapped like a dry stick
she struck quick as lightning
a ruthless cobra stretching
the full length of her body
and he never saw it coming
but i did it didnt surprise me




The King’s Court

Unimpressed with clever chase,
graceful lunges and wild cat pirouettes
blurred by the pace of the hunt,
the king of the beasts rests
like a true leader, weary
and tense under a Knob thorn tree,
while his lionesses shop the veldt
to bring his dinner down.

He was born to these hunts
a cocky young cub, electric and fluid,
snubbed by his menacing pride
and left to his own devices,
to learn the taste of his fate,
to flaunt his scars like a fighter should.

But he’s as old as the sun in his eyes now
and eager for a fitful feast,
because he knows…
(like vultures onto scent)
there are bold young hopefuls about,
hungry for the kill
for first rights,
sharpening their virgin claws
and watching his every move.

He will need all the strength
and tricks experience can muster
from his flustered old bones
to keep his throne for another day.




Queen Nomzamo Madikezela

As a child
I dreamed of a finer Africa
than the one I know today.
I dreamed of my people proud
coming home to their rightful place.
I dreamed of beautiful gardens,
Jacaranda trees and Aloes along my stoep,
food-a-plenty and a happiness
of the sort that is born from freedom.
I imagined friendship with all races
and an attentive, gentle husband
who would be a powerful man and our king.
I dreamed of love.
But I never dreamed of Mandela
and the heavy legacy of his name,
barren cells, cold cement floors
and no shoes, or whistling bullets
biting children before my eyes.
I never dreamed my people would murder
one another for favors from the tyrants.
I never dreamed it would come to this.




Snakes Never Stray Far From Their Mates

for Daddy George

A fact of nature, you said,
poised and ready to strike again
as we watched the Night Adder die,
writhing it’s blood back and forth
across the floor in front of my dresser.
There’s always a mate nearby, you said,
and I hated you
for making me clean my room anyway.
Then came the psychotic game I played.
Where would the second be found?
At my feet?
Wrapped around the toilet seat?
Or maybe
lured to my bed by body heat
like the stories I’d heard.
I should have known,
two weeks to the day
on the very same spot,
once again
a taste of blood
pasted hot on the floor.
I waited by the door
until I knew by your breathing
another was dead,
relieved there were no more.
Unless there are eggs, you said.




Beyond Reach

Apartheid is a slow child
by the frantic pace of life,
dimwitted and abusive,
confused by the graceful space
between wrong and right,
outwitted by strife.

An only child
accused of so much,
when it pleases new friends,
but reluctant
to give up toys for them.






Vivid red, yellow and green
like a perfect plastic toy,
I made it a place in the freezer
(thinking to tease my sisters),
but returned to find it frozen,
color faded,
legs brittle and broken.



In Zululand
the natives favor them fried
and lightly seasoned for flavor.
They are offered to tourists as such.




porn chief let kinekor keep tango

the porn chief himself allowed the
affidavits had been made and
pirates were causing everyone
tons of frustration and
damages and
all those bloody rands
the major denied being friendly
with the directors or
that he was friendly at all even or
that he was so preoccupied
with milking his precious cattle on
his free state farm near parys
that he had in fact forgotten the

he denied he had discriminated
offering up that demon last tango
while deeming the clockwork orange
porno graphic

he had always been
unprejudiced he




Avocado Lovers

Blacker than the heated night,
they meet in secret
and fight each other
for the ripest of the virgin fruit.
Shameless, they strip down
to piano teeth and pindot eyes
that flash like beacons
and leer at the avocado trees.

There is something like lust here.

And they dig, and dig in a frenzy,
they dig and lay their seeds
deep under the trees.
They love the avocados.
They love to feel them slowly
and eat them without haste,
without waste,
without guilt.
They love to peel them gently
and indulge in the pasty taste
until their bellies bulge and shine
like their pregnant women.




Rowboats at Arniston

Rowboats swaying with the surf
jerk and tug at their moorings
like dogs caught on a leash,
as if they would be gone
from this pretty little village
hushed by charming white cottages,
one straight barren road
and an empty, white, two story hotel
dozing on the deserted ripe beach
between cliffs and brushed desert.
They want to be free
of this intoxicating and lonely flower.
They want to search for people at sea.




On the 5th of July

So it’s clean up time.
But dad and I don’t mind.
We find leftover firecrackers
and powder to make cannons,
or blast coffee cans
as high as we can.

We plan to swipe a lead pipe,
pack it with powder
and heavy duty bolts
to shoot out the windows
of the abandoned bus
behind our house.

And when dad goes back to work,
I want to blow the hoods
off the cars out back,
the ones I’ve tried
to pry open, but can’t.
I want to see
if there are engines inside.




Coming of Age

for Mark Mathabane

The beauty of your curious garden
is forever stained
a deep furious and painful red,
framed without answers
like questions left unsaid.
It is said
that some white men
are led to believe
you are better off dead
and blame
your lot in life,
your children’s innocent strife,
on father Ham, because he made your bed.
But I’m not deceived
by these centuries of useless excuses
and I grieve
for the life you’ve led,
thread bare,
spread eagle across the bed
of your homeland,
snared by the dreadful touch
of a free man’s careless thrust.
And sometimes I believe
in freedom
and justice,
but sometimes I simply grieve
for the Africa in me.




Coffee Cans and Petrol

Returning home once again
armpits burning
thick with ticks from the veldt,
I quickly find a coffee can
fill it with petrol
and pick the swollen things slowly
so their head don’t break off
and stay buried under my skin.
Then I drop them in the petrol,
where they pop like popcorn
and sometimes
like Tom Thumb crackers.





Twirling about in dizzy fight
claws biting flesh like switch blades,
the old king and his challenger
back off
parade back and forth
and circle,
their tails as angry as whips.

Roars attack the untamed silence
and shudder across the veldt
demanding attention
like gunshots at night.
And every living thing knows
there is a new threat in town,
the wind doesn’t blow quite the same,
something’s changed

a strong young killer, first cut,
is staking his claim
and taking the old one down.



Take a Separate Train

(Johannesburg to Cape Town) for Anna

The best in the world, they say
and it’s true
the Blue Train is special,
like a first kiss.

Picture a windowed mansion
whisked brashly down the line,
tailing a quick ocean scent.
Sailing through the vineyards,
intent on a smooth ride.
But they’ll hide you,
we both know they will,
on another train
as if to blame black pride
for your ties to this ripe country.
So your time must be spent
sitting up a straight 24 hour ride,
unable to lay down for sleep,
frustrated and hungry,
keeping track of the reasons
why you cannot ride with us.




For the Love of Lemons

Hot afternoons are opportune
to fondle plump lemons
the size of grapefruit,
to pierce the thick skin
grown tough
like years of sour regret,
to sink the teeth deep
suck the juice out
and believe the juice
is so very sweet,
like poetry,
powerfully sweet,
to swallow the seeds.




All Roads Lead to Johannesburg

The scent of gold
lingers over this city
like a hot summer day
and shouts boldly about
the money to be spent.

It screams loud and clear
across the countryside,
to those far and near,
we have work here.

And day and night
you can hear the idle talk
of a need for more in life,
you can hear them walking
from the homelands,
from Zululand,
the Transkei,
and Bechuanaland.

Across the land
they’re trying to survive,
they want to stay alive.

They’re going to Johannesburg.




Cry of the Peacock Silenced

Snagged without warning,
feathers sagging,
you stumbled upon me,
eyes wide,
flinging your head
from side to side,
from a crude wire trap
slapped tight around your neck.
Out of fear (I think)
you wouldn’t let me near
and disappeared,
dragging the morning behind you.





The boy pretends he doesn’t notice
the hatred in your voice, the fear
ripe in your eyes like choice fruit.
He pretends that his fate suits him.

He makes believe he’s been deceived
by your talk of friendship in the end.
He calls you master and is relieved
that you don’t notice his disbelief.

He pretends that he likes you too.
But deep in his soul, he’s incognito
and anxious to creep away unnoticed,
to have nothing to do with you.



Legend of the Baobab’s Sin

(a brief history of the Monkey-Bread Tree)

Legend has it
that some Arabs chanced upon you
acting very unlike a tree,
dancing up dust,
blushing whimsical lust
shining in the huge white flowers
that rushed to embrace the moon.
You know the game was up.

And soon it came to pass,
the Arabs harassed you
and conjured up a devil
who plucked you from the ground,
turned you upside down
and thrust your branches into the earth,
leaving only the roots exposed.

I suppose this explains
your curious, ancient repose,
the rows of gourd-like, woody fruit
grown pleasantly round from acid seeds,
the vegetable leaves thrown wild
to the ground by the African breeze,
but mostly,
a trunk grossly swollen
out of all proportion
by a thousand years of branches
groping about
growing stout

shouting from the inside out.




At the River

An airplane, stuttering fierce surprise
suddenly drones low over the river.
Birds fluttered away, wild eyed
and the lush foliage along the bank,
sucking in a deep gasping breath,
puckering and spit hippos out
like loaded shot from cannons
shattering the smooth glassy surface.

They sputter and bobbed like children
thrown into the water for the first time,
recover their wits, shift their bulk
turning into shadows in the murky water
with only their snouts jutting out,
oblivious to the crocodiles sliding by,
who, mesmerized by the groping ripples
hoping to find a fallen buck, or a human.




Don’t Forget Your Lesson

Don’t forget the hunger
silently humming underground
like a rash
violently drumming beneath city streets

Don’t forget the young
and the old dying in mines
sold for white man’s gold
bound and determined
to die for a thread of respect
or simply for bread

Don’t forget the thunder
of a thousand Zulu feet
dancing their blood down
flooding downtown
pitch-black-brown waves crashing
thrashing around white man’s door
cracking the concrete floor

Don’t forget to wonder

to suspect of
error in white man’s plunder.






To avoid requested assistance,
the children search for diversions
in smoke billowing spiral scents
of fired Angus beef, chicken, chops
and sausage piled high on the grill.
While across the garden’s stretch
entire tables filled with desserts,
cheese, fresh fruit and salads
spill oranges, peaches, naartjies,
granadilla seeds and mangos
to the ground with a sigh of relief.


Black servants dressed in white
hired for just such a calamity
rush to retrieve the mess,
brush off the tables
and polish the fallen fruit
as best they are able.
They are blessed, they think,
and grateful that madam doesn’t notice.




At Fourteen

In awkward silence
he left
our friend as death
a flower upturned
petals torn through




Questionable Rights

I  Full Rights

I have every right as a white man,
as the guardian of this nation,
of God’s chosen race,
to allocate space where inferior races
must live and work
and never leave.

II  Limited Rights

And the Asians, the Chinese
and the bastard Coloureds,
whom I have placed near at hand
with no power or vote
must stand true to the laws I promote.

III  No Rights

But the blacks,
the blacks have no rights
and must bow low before me.




Warthog Trot

Quick stuttering run
tail up like an antenna
two warts and two tusks

Skin almost naked
bristles along head and back
sudden stop tail down




Frank Talk

in memory of Stephen Biko


Does it matter
that I was excited by the country,
that I was enticed
by the beauty,  the danger,
the mountains, the valleys,
vineyards, beaches,
the vast array of insects, aloes,
lychees and peaches,
the leopards, the lions,
crocodiles, spiders and snakes,
the cries that hyenas make?

Does it matter
that I was astonished
by the way elephants’ ears flap
when they’re mad
and how they chase cars away,
how they flatten trees
just to scratch their backs,
the way anything will grow
if you just stick it in the ground,
the sound of a peacock’s anger,
the lemonade?

Does it matter
that I was a foreigner,
that I was eleven years old,
foretold and blindfolded,
but not bold enough to understand why
I was ashamed to be white?

Does it matter
that I learned to listen
and to watch,
to stop and consider the cost
of respect lost along the way,
to silently go away
sometimes afraid,
sometimes prepared to forget?

Does it matter
that I was taught to play rugby,
cricket, soccer, the guitar,
gymnastics and the fool,
that I was schooled hard
in fantastic stories
and useless attitudes
of what is right for a white boy?

Does it matter
that I was a prefect by nature
not a cadet,
that I let human nature
lure me in and out of love
and hate,
that I learned to see the line
between the two?

Does it matter
that I believe in freedom
and happiness,
that I was sixteen years old
when told we must go,
that I grieved
and that by then
I didn’t want to leave?

Does it matter
that I found poetry
in the oceans surrounding me,
that I needed the pounding surf
to convince me of safety
in African nights,
to silence the unfairness of life?

Is it important
that somehow I always knew
all along
the lies weren’t true,
that something was wrong,
that all was not well
in the land of sunshine and milk?




En Route to Hong Kong

See, if you can the patchwork system
of the earth below continually
altering changing as we go.

Eyelids fall and no longer
weep night time calls
enclosing a world called sleep.




Spoiled in the End

Seventeen years later
under duress at home in Chicago
I try to explain to my wife and a friend
how years of fruit fresh from the tree
have spoiled my taste for refrigerated fruit
and why Apartheid must spoil in the end.