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.