Poetry on South Africa

“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.”

Leonardo da Vinci

 

Blackout

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

1967

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

marching

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

sticks

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.

Unwittingly,

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 fate

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

like snow

floating to and fro

slowly

down the flowing

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.

 

 

 

vultures

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

winded

by the frantic pace of life,

dimwitted and abusive,

confused by the graceful space

between wrong and right,

outwitted by strife.

 

An only child

riled,

accused of so much,

mild-mannered

when it pleases new friends,

but reluctant

to give up toys for them.

 

 

 

Grasshoppers

I

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.

 

II

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

unexpectedly

shockingly

the porn chief himself allowed the

unthinkable

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

facts

 

he denied he had discriminated

favoritized

offering up that demon last tango

while deeming the clockwork orange

porno graphic

 

he had always been

unprejudiced he

said

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Dethroned

Twirling about in dizzy fight

claws biting flesh like switch blades,

the old king and his challenger

fight

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

slowly

squeeze

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,

Bophthatawana

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,

Exhausted,

feathers sagging,

you stumbled upon me,

eyes wide,

flinging your head

from side to side,

gagging

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.

 

 

 

Incognito

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.

 

 

 

Braaivleis

I

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.

 

II

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.