Pomes, unfamous ‘cos unknown

Then there are the poems – pomes, John Lennon called them – which are unfamous by definition, since they never were published, or submitted for publication.

This is a conceit, of course – these poems like their published cousins would doubtless be languishing in the same dry obscurity even if they had been published. Still, it’s a nice point to make – you know, I coulda been champion of the world!

Here’s one of them.

The Journey

Some journeys are a metaphor, and this

Just past, continues in my mind.

It’s true, we’ve travelled down this way before,

But love sees more when love is blind.

 

The journey outward seemed like a return.

Once in the air, our thoughts turned south.

Though coming home was leaving all again,

I touched your knee, and longed to kiss your mouth.

 

We both knew better. But who cared?

Time heals, it seems, but does not cure.

A different kind of truth was bared.

We said goodbye, but wanted more.

 

My darling, though you are not mine,

My journey has a different aim:

To leave until you give the sign

That brings me to your heart again.

Unfamous Poem

Woodsmoke. Embers. Whisky. Cigar. Good jazz playing, on a really nice system – Class A Marantz amp, Arcam CD player, B&W speakers, fat cables. Don’t get me started.

But the sound is warm, detailed, alive – every lick of the snares, grunt of the sax, deep and present, three-dimensional. Not loud, just there. As here as I am.

You stare into the fire – the oldest mystery – and see yourself there, in its flickering dance, dissolving. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.

What do you do, when your wife is in Chicago, far away in lunatic Trumpistan, visiting her kissing cuz and her kissing cuz’s drily entertaining husband, and you are on your own, on your darkened porch in Johannesburg, staring into the fire, watching African TV, in your Danish fire-pit?

You wax philosophical, sentimental – remember past exploits, vanities, disappointments, and then you think (topping up your whisky, reaching for the chocolate) – remember that poem I published (one of maybe seven or eight, max – ok, going easy on myself, maybe a dozen, that I managed to get published in my whole life) – shouldn’t you dig it out of that box of old magazines, and give it up to the universe?

So here is a poem I wrote, I poem I had published, back in the day, when I still had words and I still had bollocks: my contribution to the (large and over/underwhelming) world of unfamous poems.

The magazine, incidentally, was Sesame, No. 12, Spring ’89, just before the Wall fell and the floodgates opened – the opening page of the magazine (it is not exactly a foreword, or introduction – it’s hard to know what it is, and there is no name attached, though as I recall, Sesame at this time was edited by Lionel Abrahams, a minor but genuine and loveable literary lion of the Johannesburg scene, quite a few of whose evening poetical workshops or working seances I attended at that time) – and it was supported, generously, by the Anglo-American Chairman’s Fund, to the tune of R1800 per annum, about $180 Canadian in today’s money, with a three-year grant, a fact which Lionel loyally and necessarily reported.

The magazine sold for R3. I never got a penny. Just my name in lights.

 

Dream – Bloubergstrand

In my dream your head

the colour of bleached oak sails

vulnerable and proud on the current

in the langorous curve of my arm:

eager trader trim voyager

and my shipshape love!

 

Oh, there is more to it, I confess;

for example in old paintings of the Cape

we see East-Indiamen squall-flattened

driven towards the dunes of Bloubergstrand;

the wrack of vessels smashed up in the bay

litters the foreground. But in these

dreams you sail free; sunlit and upwind,

bucking the violent tide.

 

In these dreams. There are others.

My dear, if you stand on the blown dunes

at Blouberg, if you stare across the violent

beautiful bay, half-closing your eyes

against the Sunday-trippers, the unleashed

dogs, can you imagine the bared architecture

of the San gatherers, plunderers in turn

of plundered cargoes, laid like the bones

of antique ships beneath the sand: do you see

the San-girl’s finger-bone welded to the buckle

of the long-drowned sailor’s belt?

 

In these dreams I am afraid

for us; and I know that you too

are fearful. If my arm

is a sea then like any sea

it deals destruction and tranquillity

indifferently. No anchor holds

on the high crossroads of the bay.

And any sea, being sea, may smash,

beloved, much loved and valiant craft.

 

That, my dear, is one reading, true

when it is true, but false

as all human truths are.

My arm is a tranquil bay

where once you lay

at rest, rising, falling

on the tide of your breath, turned by

the limpid current of my veins.

Storms did not deter us,

nor will again. It is your

finger in my belt-buckle, indissoluble.

Family Matters

It’s hard to imagine, but it’s only last Tuesday that Eve and Shaun and little Joshua boarded their plane en route to Toronto. I was up until the small hours of Thursday morning, waiting for confirmation that they had landed and got through immigration. Their departure was always going to be stressful, but it had turned out a near disaster, with Eve needing to get an electronic travel authorization, at the very last moment, even though she was travelling on an Irish passport, and had been led to believe that no other documentation was needed. So it’s perhaps understandable that I was on tenterhooks in case there was any last minute screw-up with their paperwork when they landed at Pearson!

All was well, fortunately, and although it took a little time, they not only got through in one piece but emerged with their social insurance numbers already in hand, meaning that they could do all sorts of useful things right away, like opening a bank account and applying for employment.

Not that that was on their minds immediately – by all accounts, they were totally exhausted and only too  happy to go straight to sleep.

A fortnight before they left, Rob and I had brought my mother up from Cape Town so that she could meet her great grandson for the first time before he flew off to the other side of the world to become Canuck. I took a zillion photos and haven’t even begun to sort through them. But here is one for the record, captured quite literally in the very first moments of their initial encounter.

First meeting, mom and Josh # 1

What with the first meeting with Joshua, and the whole Kroukamp – Canada adventure, Kathy and Gareth have taken a bit of a back seat in these recent family postcards – you’ll pardon the mixed (horribly mangled!) metaphor – but they have been very much in my thoughts too, and all the more so as Kathy approaches her own big – no, her own HUGE moment.

You can see what I’m talking about in the photo below, taken on the same day I took a photo of Josh and his great-grandmother – the celebration, after all, took place in Kathy’s backyard.

Kathy # 1

Three poems from Staffrider

I was going through a box of old diaries and papers last night (there are things in there that will go with me to my grave!) and came across a few copies of New Coin, Sesame, Staffrider – small South African literary magazines from the 80s and 90s. I knew there were a few old poems of mine in there somewhere, one that I remembered in outline, and others I had more or less forgotten about (though I doubt you ever forget these things, these words you have struggled over, completely).

Here are three that I published in Staffrider, in 1989 and 1990. Those were different times, back then.

Emergency

The neck is the place the yoke rests

heavily; after all it was made by god

or whoever to suffer

submissive the pull

of the plough

something like that

 

which is a way of saying

finding the escape route of the poem

the bars of the police state

are erected in the muscles of the neck

like fate

 

On the Wire

A dislocation: this

lapse in our voices

immobility of branch of leaf

the locked grip of the shrike

on the telephone wire:

 

life in its full sudden flood.

Observe how telephone wires

link cortex to cortex: wars

torture detention killings

the intolerable suffering

 

and our silences, syllables of love.

Consider. It is our silences

that leap soft-tongued

into the ear; that lavish

gestures of tenderness, hope

 

the strong warm wine of the flesh.

But this nausea rage

the daily news makes speech brutal:

the swift bloody thrust of the shrike

off the wire.

 

This is Not the Time

This is not the time

for leading the Lippizaner horse

of diction clip-clop-clopping

over the coarse sawdust: asses waggling

in the acid brilliance of the

circus ring:

 

this is the time for straight talking.

The dead are hauled behind fences while

teargas rolls off the steel flanks of behemoths

in our townships. The regular procession

paces itself: the mounted military grinds

blindly past watchers

who are mostly hidden

who are bent over their dead

who call for guns.

 

Poets who eye

the grass thick as butter in the paddock

horses nuzzling moving easily

in the cool of the morning

who know love’s fecund ellipses:

 

this is not the time.

Contemplating Havana’s Malecon…

The Vedado end of the eight-or-so kilometre Malecon in Havana has a very different feel to it, from the more grandly built-up and fortified stretch toward the harbour mouth. Crumbling apartment buildings face across the dual carriageway, and the sea that crashes coldly into the rocks seems a metaphor for isolation and banishment. People sit on the battered sea-wall, or stare in vain at the horizon, as if waiting for something – the future? – to appear.

Here is a final set of images.

Out and about in Habana Vieja

I thought I was done with my Havana portfolio, but I’m not – at least not yet. I had planned, this morning, to pull up a final set of images of the Malecon for processing, but decided to go through the complete file, just in case – and came up with these photos instead, which I hope you will agree deserve a life of their own.

After this past ten days in South Africa – a midnight reshuffle of the Cabinet, two ratings downgrades to junk status, by Standard & Poors and Fitch, after protests against Zuma all across the country (followed by wooden-headed declarations from the ANC Youth League and Women’s League, to the effect, ‘who needs the ratings agencies anyway – we love our President!’- as if that’s an argument) I  can’t help thinking, this is what South Africa could look like, if the tenderpreneurs, the state capture crowd, the ‘a looter continua’ brigade, have their merry way.

Roll on 2019, I say – we still have democratic elections, so let’s throw the bums out.

Enjoy the photographs.

The Malecon, Habana

You may recall that I had said that I wanted to post a final set of photographs of Havana’s grand and crumbling esplanade, the Malecon; you may also recall that I’d  said that it might be some time before I got to this, what with the move back to South Africa, finding a house and a car, moving, settling in and so on and so on.

This doesn’t mean I had forgotten: so here, then, is a first set of photographs, taken one mild and mellow evening at the beginning of our stay in Havana, as the sun was going down over the harbour mouth and the twin forts that guard its entrance.

For me, these images have something to say, not only about an evening, a tourist attraction, but something, too, about Cuba. I hope you enjoy them.

– There is a final set of images, still to come, of the Malecon, taken on another day, as we walked from the Vedado end of the 8 kilometre avenue and sea-wall. But that will be for another time.

South Africa in the news

For our overseas family and friends: South Africa is in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons. President Jacob Zuma’s “night of the long knives,” in which he purged a third of his cabinet, including the respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, and Gordhan’s deputy, Jonas Mncebisi,  has caused consternation and a growing backlash, not least amongst members of his own party.

The country’s Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, has spoken out openly against the decision, as has the party’s Secretary-General, Gwede Mantashe. The South African Communist Party, which is in alliance with the ANC and has a number of ministers in Zuma’s cabinet, called on Friday for the President’s resignation. What happens over the next few days and weeks is likely to have long-term repercussions, and consequences for the ANC at the 2019 elections.

The project that has brought me back to South Africa from Canada is housed in the Government Technical Advisory Centre, a component of Treasury. Everyone we have spoken to has been acutely aware of the storm clouds gathering. And yet, what has struck me the most, perhaps, is the strong dedication one senses, amongst senior officials, to the Treasury as a key national institution and pillar of good governance. This is one of the things that gives one hope for the country.

The other, of course, is the pushback from ordinary people, who are sick and tired of incompetence and corruption, and are vocally reclaiming the space for democracy. At the funeral this week for struggle stalwart Ahmed Kathrada there was loud applause for Gordhan, and even louder applause when a former president, Kgalema Motlanthe, read from a letter that Kathrada had sent to Zuma, calling on him to step down in the interests of the country.

Listening to the talk shows on radio, and following the conversations on Twitter, one hears the occasional voice in defence of the President’s actions, but the overwhelming mood, it seems, is one of anger and defiance. South Africa may be entering perhaps the most decisive period in its post-apartheid history, and the currents of freedom and democracy are running deep and strong. Whether they are enough to turn back the tide is something we will no doubt find out, over the next year or two.

It is a privilege, meanwhile, to be here, in this country I love, with all of its faults and its troubled history, working alongside the proud public servants who have served this country so well and will continue to do so.