Seventeen Poems from Land (Footprints and Dreamstalkings)
Scum of shipwrecks and the enclosures of Europe, outcasts made greedy by hunger, pitiful ghosts, how present your absence is in me! - calm only in a legacy of displacement I can't shake off; the insinuation within, wherever I might turn, not to belong to anyone.
Women and men grown tired of the commonplace of your lives, the crumbling slums and hamlets you were raised in; you have arrived. What arrogance the shopkeeper and the soldier will invoke from the accident of your first, lost, tentative footstep on this hot sand!
how much wealth can be squandered over the years for a dialogue of beads bickering their brightnesses on a necklace? How many cattle must be stolen for safekeeping in kraals or behind tangles of wild almond?
Each morning the calculations of profit will seep further into the land.
You have left me with this inheritance: innuendoes of chains, of prayers, of broken promises, of child servants ripped from their families, of wages for the hangman, of bellowed orders to reload. You have left me befuddled with a language that preens on my tongue but hides its guilty secrets. You have left me with the vertigo of teetering on the edge of three centuries of landfall.
Already, on this unimaginable shore, before you have sat down to draw your first breath, you have ensured in me that there will never more be trust.
The king who could not bow his neck took his people and departed towards the horizon of his own arrogance. Which was never going to be far enough. His enemies, of course, prayed that when he reached that distance it would find a way to trip him up. But even when this came about they could no longer see him, and became old themselves unsolaced.
Listen to me now. For many years Makaba had been loved, and held his people's beasts in trust fat and plentiful. Then Sebetwane arrived with the Mantatees and finished him off. Of Makaba's sons, the eldest, Tshosa - who had pricked his father with the thorn of treachery - was already with the ancestors. Young Segotshane was mad enough to escape eastwards to the Barolong, there too near to those barbaric countries held by Mzilikazi or the whites. They were to be no neighbours; were scattered in their turn. So near this place only Sebego stayed, because he became wise enough in trouble to kiss the hot sand of the desert with his people's feet. That was his only wisdom; he knew that to look too deep into Mzilikazi's eyes was to ponder the likelihood of digging many graves.
Today the grass is dry with winter, with regret. The plaintive sour electricity of ghosts fleeing slaughtered bodies still prickles on the wind. I stoop; pick up a shard of pottery smoothed expressionless by rain, or drought.
These days Sebego is remembered best, but not with our gratitude. A person full of courage, the distributor, son of He-Who-Threatens. A man whose steps were heard through jangling copper, bearer of an axe. But Segotshane came back; that was the end of him.
Around about wink old cans, and the discarded corpses of tyres humped up like rock outcrops towards the hill. Plains that drummed with feet scar these days with new dongas widening every time you come. When you stand at the lip of any one the earth crumbles a bleached brown, without a hint of moisture.
Then Segotshane himself was marauded and fled to Tlhaping. So what was I saying? Oh yes - Sebego wore a kobo even on the hottest day and saw you from a head wrapped round with the skin of snakes. So why did I call him distributor? I should have said attacker. I should have said 'attacker of people'!
By slow touch you can still unearth the thighbones of beasts, flints, broken glass, and ancient arrowheads. The grass strains to hold too many of its heads aloft, to commemorate what spring must have been like.
I came with the attacker from the country of Hereroes; I watched the fight for dark-brown cattle, men killing each other with a single spear-thrust.
In their dishevelment the tufts resemble the nodding plumes of warriors not in the slightest. A child wails in alarm from the distant village. The weekly grocer with his truck full of fresh vegetables from Gauteng grates through his gears; backfires. Jars with resolve through pothole after pothole. There is no hope of provoking a further seeding.
So plough quickly, and then flee. He who ploughs slowly is now coming.
BUKI SELLS HIS FLUTE
Everyone knew Buki was suspect. The funny thing was, no one had the heart to let him know we knew. Other blacks would look at him kind of funny - it was before the necklace - and mutter about izimpimpi, but then they weren't around a lot. So we could ignore it. It was the time of BC, see, and very few of them were prepared to be seen hanging out with us honkies that is, unless we were a paying public.
But you could count on Buki, with his little ferret eyes and his beard that never grew in properly, to come round regular as clockwork to George's flat. Sometimes he would bring other spades from Diepkloof with him, and we'd get stoned and groove together to the Doors and Season of the Witch and talk shit. If George could also persuade Boo and Angie to join us it was the cherry on the top. Boo had laid some lecturer to pass Introduction to Roman Law I, so we all thought if we got her high enough she would put out for us too. Mind you, she never did now that I remember.
I guess Buki could be a real arsehole sometimes, when he wasn't stoned and remembered he should be trying to get stuff out of us for his bosses there at John Vorster Square; but that didn't ever last too long. We had squat interesting to tell him anyway: but none of us had the heart to tell him that either.
Sometimes in public he pretended not to notice us, but not often. Once we took him to a lecture at varsity on Skinner vs. Pavlov or some such shit, and he looked bored and squirmed around until, about twenty minutes in, he jumped on the benches and started scatting to an old Johnny Hodges tune he had in his head. The old fogey in the front did his nut! Man, that was far out: but we could never take him back there again.
Then one day I suppose Buki's pig bosses gave him a lecture about blending in with us hippies. So he started to wear an old dashiki that had seen better days, and to carry a flute. No one ever saw him play it, but after that you never saw him without it. He must have slept with it. Well - wrong! He might has well have started to wear a sign above his head with an arrow pointing down, saying 'SPY'. He wasn't cool to be with anymore, because you could see the straights on campus sniggering behind their hands at him, and us. To be laughed at by straights!
How did it end? Man, someone fed him acid. It was a mistake, big time. He got a permanent glazed look in his eyes, and then - as the weeks passed and whoever it was fed him more and more of the stuff - start to ramble on in a mixture of english and afrikaans and zulu or something so we couldn't understand him. And he started to beg, even from us, to keep the highs going; or threaten us when we told him to eff off.
George had a spyhole put in his door so we could pretend we weren't around when he knocked with his sheep face. But once, near Joubert Park, a year or so later, I couldn't avoid bumping into him in the street. He didn't have the flute anymore, I saw: he'd sold it, he said, 'to take care of some business', whatever that meant. I was with a new really cool chick I'd just met, so I was less than forthcoming. So when he started to explain further - I knew he was getting round to ask me for some money - I slapped him heartily on the back, and made up some excuse about being in a hurry. He hesitated a moment, and stared at me; then weaved off, through the traffic, his scrawny butt scrawnier than ever, to get lost among the crowds. Later we'd heard he'd crossed the border and was in Angola: after that, nothing.
What kind of dumb beast, he wondered, would be stupid enough to wander out onto a shooting range? And us six months in the army already and a few gone prematurely bosbefok - and man, they had just given us those LMG's. Ja.. Beauteous fucking weapons. How many rounds a minute? It was amazing, though, how long the donder lasted ...
The donkey never stood a chance. By the time I got there, with the next platoon that had come on the scene, it seemed little more at first than a shapeless grey mass in the middle of a field - so covered with dirt as to be indistinguishable. But if you had the courage to keep on looking there were two huge holes in its side you could have put a fist into, and you could see the yellow toothpicks of three ribs poking through all that mess of red. One ear was hanging almost completely off. Though it still tensed its neck from time to time in a woebegone effort to lift its head. And it kept scrabbling at the dirt with one hoof, too, for quite a while.
I felt squeamish but couldn't show it. So I was relieved when I was one of those sent into the trench behind the targets, to raise and lower them at shouted commands. This seemed safer. At least I hoped so: I had never before stood in front of the business end of a gun being fired, and the bullets tearing through the air above us were terrifying: a wall of air coming at you. It was from that moment on I realised I was a coward.
Did I say it seemed safer? Well it wasn't. The target frames we had to raise and lower were wooden, and had started in places to rot away. A bullet caught one of the nails extruding from a joint in the timber; which dislodged at breakneck speed down towards us. Wilkes, the platoon misfit, who was standing there right next to me with his flat feet and boils and myopia that we all used to laugh in his face about, caught it just above the collarbone. He might have been kak at everything he did, but boy could he bleed like a soldier.
Blood, even Wilkes', was sobering. It needed some kind of adjustment on our part. Two days later, we were taken to a beautiful spot to practise fighting in - a valley surrounded on both sides by rolling, rocky hills, with trees and waving early summer grass in between. We were told to split up the regiment and ambush each other. Trouble was, this required a great deal of aimless stalking about, and running, and diving down into the grass. And this was caterpillar season, and they were everywhere: hairy, bloated, black and red bastards which not so much stung, as flensed the skin off you and left a huge red weal when they made contact with an arm or face. Soon the air was heavy with swearing, with muffled imprecations, with brief sounds of agony.
There was a way out. I was machine gunner for my section; but, for this exercise, all they could give me was an old Bren, world war two vintage, so old the practice rounds were wooden bullets. These hurt, but did little damage. They couldn't even take out an eye at more than ten yards. But for the caterpillars, they were armageddon. If you pushed the barrel up close enough, and pulled the trigger, they just fucking disappeared. Boom. Hiroshima. Let's rid the world of butterfly scum.
My corporal, van Wyk, and I'd smoked dagga together and awol'ed before, so it was easy to get him into it. The rest of the okes were just sheep, and baa'ed along. We went a grove of trees away from the rest, where it was difficult to see specifically what we were up to. Ceremoniously, we agreed we had all killed each other and were consequently dead; lay down for a few moments, and then rolled a couple of joints.
Occasionally, when a caterpillar came too close, I was asked to come over. So, to the occasional stutter of machine gun fire, for the rest of the afternoon we wandered around, admired the view, jogged on the spot, and sometimes yelled fake battle cries, giggling happily all the while.
Coffin manufacturing courses: start your own profitable business with high earning potential. Little capital or skills required.
Grassstalks itch through their palette of parched browns into haze and uncertainty: the rim of the world is so far away as to be without weight. Closer to hand, a line of willows genuflect above a dried-up spruit that vacillates across the land. Fire here is an awaited guest.
Once a year, at the same time - taking time off from his rounds selling skin lotion and hand creams to small town matrons - he comes to sit on this stoep and remember the two lovers his friends who moved here, briefly, thirty years ago - two indulged idealists who thought to puzzle out an option to their parental city. The house is long deserted. Walls undo themselves and crumble further; already start to duplicate the holes present in broken panes and doorways. A few remaining fenceposts trail awry necklaces of wire that mark other failures at self-definition.
Despite all this, once a day, when evening begins to slant across the shimmering earth, he feels as if he's floating on a sea of bleached light, away from his own body.
There is one place only to avoid. Behind the jumbled remnants of the kraal an old rinkhals still hold fast to her kingdom. Sometimes, when the sun is steady, she pushes her coils up through the fissures between the stones into his vision and lies out at full length, brooding and vulnerable.
Nowhere else to go. Each path he finds these days falters and expires within a dozen yards; defends its forgotten destination with rusted tins or broken glass or khakiweed or blackjacks. A step in whatever direction ends up the same. No matter: he guesses that the intermittent vlei where creatures eked out small existences, flinching at every shadow, is no longer to be found.
Over the years, on the other hand, the outline of a distant factory belching and farting greasy plumes of smoke has bred a twin; and another; and yet another.
With all the world spread out around him, he wonders why his eyes are drawn always back there.
FINDING A YOU TO BE TRUE TO
We all now understand the need to privatise our economy: but what about the need to privatise yourself?
You may well ask: what is this new skill of personal branding? It's an extension of who you are when you work out who you want to be.
And it's not just about the boardroom: it's about you choosing to give a competitive edge to the whole of your life.
(The image you project is the you to which others will connect: you won't get a second chance to make a first impression!).
So don't just think of yourself as an entrepreneur trying to float a company think of yourself as 'Me, Pty., Ltd.'
Look at Vusi here: he's an adman, but he looks like he owns a goldmine. Or Mercia: a flower vendor, but she could be a Khoi princess. Or maybe Simon: an insurance salesman; but would you pass him by uncaring at the Wild Coast Sun?
See their awesome synchronicity of poise, body language and clothing, and the subliminal signs they put out that whisper 'self-possession'!
(What's different? They took a crucial step. They self-invented. Sad to say, no one falls in love with those who don't exact a price for themselves).
Once you can project your inner (wo)man outwards, is it such a difficult idea to use this to project the outer world into your inner (wo)man? Well then!
Take the next step: accessorise yourself. Use style to motivate your charm and broadcast your confidence.. Become irresistible. There are no limits to who you can be if you can access for others the right version of your vision of yourself.
And remember: with the right attitude, personal branding can be extended to empower whole families, races, even nations.
(Coming soon, to a life near you).
I NEVER MEANT TO CROSS THE RIVER
Who is weeping bereft inside our yard?
O mother! Why can't you hear from me the endless rustling in my heart?
Yes I went with him to the river. Mother, I went along
but I never meant to cross the river.
You told me he had cattle. You told me his mother was your friend. Yet I found his smile a tricking, lazy thing that crawled across his lips.
His face is not a sun to rise each day above my sleeping. His hands were two chickens pecking at the hard seeds on my breasts. I told him to leave my mouth alone.
He said he had a condom. He said
o mother: I never meant to cross the river.
I said I want to go back home. I tried. My feet disobeyed me on the wet rocks. Mother, I tried to run.
Mother, help me. I am sore between my legs; I am sore all the way deep to my heart.
I try to tell you this and try to tell my aunts. Why will nobody hear me? Why do your faces turn away?
My aunts shout: it's all your fault: none of this can be our business.
Mother, I beg of you.
I told him no: I never meant to cross the river.
A deserted moon plumbing its bright well of light down deep through the ocean's surface
also limns clouds that bloat and melt, over and over, and hide the mountain's summit. The wind stays steady from the south-east.
On the beach two sets of footprints are a broken necklace flung behind to be slowly scrubbed away.
He stops: wants to know why her face - when she looks at him -becomes shipwrecked between emotions
and she speaks quietly. If we have nothing more to say to one another, whose voice is it that cries out
from inside our silence?
HE HAD TO COME IN
There were too many mosquitoes by now around the outside light so he had to come in. Besides, despite the moon, evening mist had covered up the dance of tiny mirrors in the vlei, the stars were all out, and he had no excuse left. He had sat still on the balcony for so long through the chill biting to his bones, though, that a marsh owl had perched on a stump nearby and stared fixedly at him for quite a while. For some reason this had made him uncomfortable.
- What are you doing? she said to him, as he closed the door. She was pretending to fuss over supper.
- Nothing, he said.
He watched her, tried to avoid scratching the open sores near his wrist until she stopped watching. She seemed really calm tonight.
- You look a little less pale. Are you feeling ok?
- Well, at least I'm not losing weight any more, he said.
- Are you sure? You know the doctor said your cell count wasn't as it should be. She picked up some knives and forks: dropped one. And you still look so thin to me. Don't you think you should eat something? Don't you think
- Actually, I feel goddamn awful: are you happy that I've said it? As soon as the words came out, he regretted them: she had decided not to leave him, after all.
- I don't really know why you think you can still talk that way to me, she said. She turned back to the counter and pretended to wipe it. He could see that she was going to start crying again, and sighed.
But she didn't. Instead, she turned fully to face him: looked straight at him.
- It's not my love that's killing you, she said.
After an hour walking along a parched watercourse, just as all our feet began to hurt, the sun rose higher, and the thorns for one brief instant became beautiful. Shards of light, they glittered on the silhouettes of their branches. And the wind spoke, gently at first; then increasingly in earnest.
Horizons of stone. The sky above is a bowl of glass so clear it hurts. It you raised a hand to flick at it, you risk provoking a tinkling of solemn, tiny bells. Wind that tears its silk along the edges of the sky, then prods inside the eardrum.
I can no longer entreat my gaze much higher than a semaphoring of boots. Noon limps towards us on hot feet: the blundering weight of man is forced to walk softly here, among fossils, among hyena traps. Windmills trawl ancient rock in a chorus of disconsolate, creaking voices. Ablating wind.
We pass the flies' perilous song above malodorous holes where the aardvark waits for night. We pass small white houses shaped like ovens. Inside the thick walls and deep, shuttered windows who is kept from view; whose dreams, whose tasks, whose boredom? Wind that cools their lives.
A monotony of flint-bright stones on roads that lead you somewhere, although they never make a promise. The shepherd seeks shoots of green to tempt his flock of fat-tailed sheep. Any traveller will tell you if you move too fast, you stay always in the selfsame place.
Wind that drives my voice away
None (my shortsightedness)
except thrush song to foretell the first glaze of dawn that splays through the underbrush
except a stork parley guessing at winter then scribbling its prophesy across the sky
except a tinker barbet, chipping away at silence
except a kingfisher that greases the air with its passing
except a lark hidden even in the desert of the heart.
There is a sky lost a little behind its mountains, that forgets it cannot go away, pinned upright by granite and solitude.
On its paths also lost a little a single cloud appears and disappears between swart cliffs and then, further away, loses heart.
He has passed you, the lone rastaman in his white cloak with his eye for colours and beard of bees, sewing the rocks together with bare feet. His staff links immensities.
The day allows more sun the higher your labour (This is not a steady promise)
till you cannot see below you the river beribboned, nor its banks a lace of birdsong, disturbed now by no one's attentive ears.
There is no place to place your foot except here, in front of you.
DREAMING OF THE MASTER
I am hidden in this house.
I have planted a welcome of thorns for the stranger. I have placed a lock on the sky. If your feet crunch the gravel scattered on my driveway I will not smile you, nor will I open the gates. I am afraid of who you might become .
I try to stand guard all night though there is a fissure a crack that leads out of my dreams
every night I have to squeeze through
past sentimental landscapes the backdrops for rehearsals of blood
in my dreams I walk a bondage of enemies I thought I had forgotten and friends who turn away their faces
as for the past we squabble anew
each of us with a different treasured photograph of the past as memento inside the head
waking there is no right of way a migrant I pass through a thought called my country
my dreams only open up pathways to danger I am lost in a land tied up inside its borders
none of its doors open to this morning I stumble
past dismembered hulks of cars iron-and-asbestos shacks begging children burnt tyres rusted spokes of bicycles that have served a purpose I wish only to forget
wilted armfuls of grass flaunting bangles of torn newspaper used condoms that have burst on the sidewalks into a dire white writing
here lovers are caught like fish in the net of their skins and the worm has patience, mistaking nothing
even our vistas that stretch out into beauty are counterfeited
bartered off to tourists so we can wash their dirty laundry of money
freed my countrymen we have learnt only platitudes
I call to you beyond my fences who are we destined to become
people embarked for a new fashion of slavery
Man, whatever you try, don't ask me about the majita. I dunno where they are all I know is they'll be back soon. Until then give me two tigers, sharp, and I'll maybe talk to you a little.
My name is Kwaaiboy but my guys call me Respect. I'm hot, and everyone here just knows it. Lots of girls hang round here because they want to be with me.
They call me Respect because I have this lucky thing. When we are all into the car to do a job, I load my piece so's they all can see - like this, né? - and shout: 'My name is Kwaaiboy, son of no one. Today I'll teach them to respect. I'll teach them to shit when they hear my name!'.
When I hit the streets I don't have any fear. This is our territory and they know who I am. But we don't do petty crime. We are car dealers.
I used to have more guys. Jabu went because I had to beat him up to show him. He caused a lot of shit for us. Then Elvis got sick from the tickeyline. And three nights ago my close guy Frank was hassling a dude when he didn't know this dude had an okapi in his pocket. I watched him being stuck over and over again. There was blood on his chin and shirt but he didn't look angry or surprised. He looked at me - I could see his spirit reach out to me. That was all.
Do you see how we live in this neighbourhood? Trouble comes out of nowhere. I won't be on earth forever. So? I'm here right now. Here! Here! I know God is playing with me. Thug life is hard and He always takes my guys.
When you have money though you can do anything.
WHEN THE EARTH MOVES AGAIN
Say for a moment that you are trapped in a machine, and can't get out, and have been for so long you no longer even want to. Say for a second - just a brief instant of time - that you become aware that you are bound in to finitude, to the sad rhythms of an aging body, despite the magic of a technology you otherwise despise. Let the subject move from point a. to point b. on a meandering line.
The forest is past; and the world opens up, wider and more puzzling than before. Eventually at some stage there will be a village in a grassland, with tiny figures gesticulating for rides. Blink. Or a scrub-born platteland edged with dust-devils and mountains purpling reluctantly through haze. Blink. Or an estuary winding into an ocean, stunned by sun and the shouted, neon-and-concrete assaults of commerce. Blink. And blink again.
You learnt, after a while, the way dorps and suburbs segue into each other without hesitation. The rest you sought in hotels or at friends or even at home each night was always too short, and increasingly curiously unsatisfying. Towns called Middelburg and Richmond twinned themselves and began to follow you. Rivers repeated adjectives no longer even close to describing what inspired them: Olifants. Blinkwater. eMolweni. Beyond the window over and over only incommensurate worlds, flattened out in mid-career. Until this moment when you come to
to yourself, on a ribbon of macadam between Cold Stream and Holgat se Kloof - in other words, sixty-two precise kilometres between nowhere and nowhere - after a rainstorm, at noon, in the corner of your sight crow-flecks rising from ploughed fields and the first glimmers of green blood oozing from wounded and over-utilised soil, and with no wind left to cure the heat searing down upon your neck and arm
as a country which you have never in your life done anything but guess at recedes backwards from you, at great speed, into the distance.
On a musty shelf in a second-hand shop, stuck away behind Ethical Consumerism and Feng Shui for the Busy, is a book called The Iron Heel. Its pages are curled up and rancid from aeons of damp. But on the inside cover in an arthritic hand you will find it is Een boek van myn broertjie Willem Jacobus die dood geskoten is op die 10de Maart 1922 met die grote staken te Johannesburg. En die ik nou tot gedachtenos van hom houden - Alicia (illegible).
* * * *
HOW WE CAN LIVE WITHOUT WATER? HOW WE CAN LIVE WITHOUT A HOME TO REST OUR HEADS? Her face is a sheen of perspiration from walking the unfamiliar miles up and down blazing green hills away towards town. But the old, heavy woman with keys jangling from her sari and her home-made cardboard placard scrbbled on in crayon gets her three seconds of fame: a postmodern cameraman sticks his lens in her face, and she is briefly framed that night between interviews with a captain of industry and a Minister of Finance.
* * * *
"I heard his lifela while he was standing there in line at the Labour Recruitment Bureau, waiting for the bus to Jo'burg: 'Ke monna wa leduba-dubo; that's what they say about me,' he shouted, it seemed at the time to no one in particular. 'They say Ha e le bona bo ntsoa ke ho sebetsa feela. I say this to them: ke leshano; ba ea re thetsa.' I rushed to the closest shop: but by time I found fresh batteries for my tape, the bus was gone."
* * * *
'Why must you stay here with your rubbish friends, lounging around my house all day talking nonsense? do you want to sit on your hands forever? They have stolen from your forefathers: go and steal from them!'
* * * *
Tentative songs take heart, grow in strength, echoing off the colonial wedding cake of Parliament's facade. Amabhulu amnyama asenzel' iwari!, they sing, and jeer, and wave their banners. Waiting for the petition to arrive, flanked by a gaggle of cameras and reporters, a black politician fumes to a manager he'd been networking with at lunch: "Look what they're calling us now!"
* * * *
'Come away from that window; if they see you, they'll come looking for your father!'
* * * *
And somewhere - maybe at this very moment - a sweating bull of a migrant looks around a hall at those become by chance his comrades, wipes his face with a rumpled handkerchief, and says: "We cannot sit by like frightened frogs in the face of a dying snake. What are we waiting for? More promises?"
* * * *
The voice the street alone allows them, together.
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