the anatomy of a poem

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 40th birthday.

Toni Stuart
South African
b. 1983

 

I

we share the same teacher, she and I.
he, who considers each poem
a breathing, pulsing thing

brain, muscle, skeleton, breath
all essential for it to thrive
on its own, without its creator

and how these boundaries overlap
breath floods brain
rhythm drives intention home

meeting in the space where silence
lives in the body on the page –
the in-between.

II

next week, when deadlines haranguing
her head have passed, she will go in search
of the in-between

and write those poems
waiting within her
a selfless, selfish act

of reaching within
to reach without

Uneasy Sleep

Yvette Christiansë
South African
b. 1954

 

Who was it that cried out? This cry,
a call that opens night
breaks out like a bird
breaking to greet dawn, or
the arrival of a high tide
that brings schools of fish
whose scales make the waters
glint and shimmer, glint and shimmer.

Who cried? Who woke us
to such things on such a dark night?
Do not ask. No, do not ask.
The moon will make a basin
for tears and where your heart beats
a well will dry up and the weight
of ships leaning against the wind
will make you think of a woman
hanging in the hammock
of an early death.

a footnote under the night of history

We present this work in honor of the Day of Reconciliation.

Breyten Breytenbach
South African
b. 1939

 

in the night when everything was black
burnt to a cross of ash
on the blind glass
and the dog’s bark a dark kite
blowing away in darkness
to where the moon
tears like the keel of a sinking boat
I dreamt my language

the title page smeared black
with signs now undecipherable raw
and inside the book
I saw my reflection
standing there three times

first among dead friends
with mottled grieving faces
like dogs staring directly into the blind window
while their thoughts like empty glasses
turning in the hands
and I was there
thin neck and moustache
our poems are slaves each with a full wave
feathers proudly on the head

then in a tableau at departure
in the garden of the night
with cape of white hair
my mother an aged virgin in my embrace
and further back
in the folds of memory
all other trusteds as torches of forgetting

were I now the prophet
sent to spy if there is life
in this world
or the senseless exile returning to say
our language was a footnote
under the illegible page history?

a last time on a bench in the empty garden
of a madhouse of toothless ageds
as skeletons with little bitter flesh
swaddled in the blanket
and wild tuft and eyes blind marbles

bow and mutter bow and mutter
many words oh many words
but only the whispering of dead slaves
but not enough to groove or make boat
and outside of the book beyond all listening
the bark and the wind and the ash
of the moon in dark water

Translation by Ampie Coetzee

What is Knowledge?

We present this work in honor of the 75th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Benedict Wallet Vilakazi
South African
1906 – 1947

 

Tell me friend,
What is knowledge?
I dress up nicely,
I carry a cane,
I get on the road,
I eat well?

Tell me my peer,
What is knowledge?
Is it going to school,
Reading the book
Until I am bald,
Turning over pages?

Tell me mother,
What is knowledge?
Is it to be a speaker,
Be applauded by the whole world,
Interpreting the laws
Without understanding?

Tell my father,
What is knowledge?
Come my boy,
Let me pull your ears:
“Talk a little
Do bigger.”

Translation by Gabi Mkhize

Immigrant

We present this work in honor of the South African holiday, Heritage Day.

Elisabeth Eybers
South African
1915 – 2007

I’ve nothing for hands and feet here,
the rest was lost in transit:
the dazed heart, the nervous tension –
then again, what would be made of them?

To compare what’s been lost
to what’s around, to grasp at light and sound
though I don’t look or listen,
I still have the senses on my face.

And in my breast and belly space
I apprehend something else was in that place.
Who’d have known that emptiness would be
so heavy, that being unimpeded would result in such a bind?

Translation by Jacquelyn Pope

In Detention

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 65th birthday.

Chris Van Wyk
South African
1957 – 2014

 

He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

Friends?

We present this work in honor of the poet’s 65th birthday.

Makhosazana Xaba
South African
b. 1957

 

She is my friend. No, she was my friend –
Over time, we went our separate ways.

She became richer when her father died;
I became poorer when my parents retired.

When she moved to the coast, another inconvenience:
The distance between our homes.

When she visits the city, she worries about the safety of her car outside my home.
When I travel for work not too far from the coast, I cannot afford to travel to hers.

Although we still chat, the content builds walls between us;
Her holidays longer, the number of her white friends larger.

Although she still plans on learning an indigenous language,
I—her preferred practice ground—have become an absence.

She was my friend when we were anti-apartheid activists.
What are we today? The common enemy has yet to surface.

I am With Those

We present this work in honor of the South African holiday, Youth Day.

06-16 Jonker
Ingrid Jonker
South African
1933 – 1965

I am with those
who abuse sex
because the individual doesn’t count
with those who get drunk
against the abyss of the brain
against the illusion that life
once was good or had beauty or sense
against the garden parties of falsehood
against the silence that beats into the temples
with those who poor and old
race against death the atom-bomb of the days
and in shacks count the last
flies on the walls
with those stupefied in institutions
shocked with electric currents
through the cataracts of the senses
with those who have been depraived of their hearts
like the light out of the robot of safety
with those coloured, african dispossessed
with those who murder
because every death confirms anew
the lie of life
And please forget
about justice it doesn’t exist
about brotherhood it’s deceit
about love it has no right

Buried Treasure

05-16 Magona
Sindiwe Magona
South African
b. 1943

Here lies, buried, precious treasure
The future of our beloved land
Pride of our fledgling nation
Our youth, our joy, our hope,
Now turned to sorrowing dust.

They were all young, but children, really
In the full flush of youth
Such promise for the hungry tomorrow
Blessings betrayed and all rules
Of nature turned upside down.

The girls gaily giggled
The young men, boys, really,
Whistled and winked as they strutted about
It was all such fun, such youthful fun
The words of parents paled beside.

The words of parents, mostly whispered;
And even that by but a few.
A whole nation looked on, but shirked duty
As the future swiftly withered and died.

They were in school, but the teachers taught nothing.
Some went to church, but the priests spoke little about daily living;
Pie in the sky and peace and bliss hereafter, their only platform.

Gone too, the wisdom of the Old
Foresaken, the knowledge of yesteryear
That knew and accepted what is only natural
Understood the folly that would block the swells of a surging river
And knew how all children needed mothers and fathers;
Embraced all thildren; charged every man and woman with their nurturing.

‘It takes a village’, belatedly, we now say; at last remembering
Faded lessons, traditions hastily discarded in blind pursuit
Of progress, of fashion, of assimilation. Now, finally seeing
How we ran open-armed, embracing our annihilation.
Now, sorrow jogs memory and we join empty hands
As we frantically try once more to guide,
To lead the new generation as before,
To show the way to the House of Adulthood
Leaving none behind, losing few as can be.

Eye turned back to a time long forgotten
When the measure of a man
Was not the fatness of his pocket
But his deeds of glory; shunning abomination.
When neighbour trusted neighbour; his safety secure at his presence
His home, his folk, his property – all sovereign
His neighbour, his best protection against all
His children, insurance against old age and infirmity.
But that was before the nation learnt to bury all its children;
See its morrow fade, its treasure interred;
The youth, its pride, its hope and joy obliterated.
The nation’s tomorrow, no more – ah, sad day,
When we buried our most precious treasures!