Reflections on Tillmans

The work of Wolfgang Tillmans, a German photographer, seems perfectly housed in the downtown, chaotic, teeming environment in which the Johannesburg Art Gallery has washed up, like a shipwreck on the beach after Fukushima, faintly radioactive.

Much of Tillman’s art is seemingly artless – and sometimes, in his work, to my eye at least, art less means without art. Yet there are images, too, in his world of found objects, circumstance, accident, composition and observation, that are interesting, unsettling, and occasionally quite powerful.

These half-dozen images are images of Tillman’s images, but also reflections.


Sea Washing

On the north side of the quay, just across the way from the Cape Grace Hotel, is the Victoria Basin, and a dry-dock where Taiwanese trawlers come to have their paintwork and their bodywork done – like elderly ladies at a beauty parlour. It is a study in contrasts.

A contrast I like even more, is this image of seaman’s washing, hanging on the rigging of one of the trawlers to dry, with the Zeitz-MOCAA – the Museum of Contemporary African Art – in the background.

Think of it as an outdoor installation. I call it, if you’ll go with the play on words, ‘Sea Washing.’

Sea washing, before the Zeitz-MOCAA

Sunday constitutional

I was taking my Sunday constitutional, last weekend, at the Emmarentia Dam, just down the road from where we used to live, and on my way in to the Botanical Gardens, just over the dam wall where there is a little harbour and model lighthouse, I saw yachts – a dozen or two model yachts, racing each other in the autumn sunlight, while their owners/sailors watched from the shoreline, completely rapt and intent, and content to allow me to clamber around taking photographs.

Here are five images, taken hand-held with the little Leica, which I hope do something to capture that blissful stillness, that time out of time, when adults can be children, and play and unwind, and let the noisome world take care of itself. I will be taking my Sunday constitutional again, a little later.

And as I do so, Rob in Toronto will be checking her bags and her passport, saying goodbye to the house on Marchmount Road for the last time in who knows how long, and saying goodbye to the kids, big and small, and by the time I am in bed, sailing off into dreamland, she will be lifting into the skies and heading up the huge, brooding St Lawrence towards the Atlantic.


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.

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.


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.

Modernity bypassed…

Another Sunday, another post. Once again, Havana – a few images, this time, a sampling, of some of the marvellous Art Deco and modernist architecture that flowers, unexpectedly, amongst the colonial ruins of old Havana.

Their homage to the airplane, the machine, jazz and the cinema, a striving for escape velocity. How ironic, then, to see them stranded.

I’ve chosen, on this occasion, to present the photographs in colour – I’ve a feeling they might work as well, or better, in black and white also.

Bosque de La Habana

The Bosque de La Habana tells you something about the city. A patch of shady woodland along the banks of the Rio Almedares, it is crossed at one end by a picturesque stone bridge. Drawn by the bridge, and the shade, and the river below, the open Chevies and Buicks in their bright colours gather, with their cargoes of tourists.

But the bridge is crumbling, the grotto is littered, the stream a stinking grey intestine. The drivers pull in, nonetheless, and the assembly of vintage automobiles, and the luxuriant foliage, and the scattered light filtering through the leaves and branches, make it all seem romantic. But you can’t help wondering – at the neglect, at the lack of maintenance, the pollution, the seeming absence of initiative to fix the place up and – at the same time – the easy charm and resilience.

Life goes on, it seems, despite tourists and communism, and the old cars retain their air of romance, even if they are markers of isolation and impoverishment rather than celebrations of heritage.