Autumn 2011

(click on link to go to poet or scroll down to read)

Days like these

Why we need darkness:

No more heroes


The Jump

Suscipe me


Say My Name


last of the highway tales

Manah: Abandoned mud town

The Old World Emissary’s Meal at Santa Rosa
The Wardrobe Mistress

Poems from a Canadian diary

Shako’s Dance

The Dying Day


Recognizing genius

The Practice of Presence in the Zen Garden at Ixopo

Christmas in November

Before speech

Rock Formations at De Kelders

Golden angles
Lake Lullaby

Predictive Text

Chinese box
On reflection


Debbie Allen
Chantal Collings
Andre Lemmer
Mandy Mitchell
Kobus Moolman
Gregor Rohrig
Marie Viljoen

Puttenham Common, England -Debbie Allen


Steam lifts lazily
from the marbling milk
in my cup of morning coffee.

Days like these
On days like these
I eke my way
through the front door
sigh into a chair,
cold and hungry,
worn through.

From Piece Work, Modjaji Books, 2010


Why we need darkness:
Sometimes my world caves in
and I am trapped by landslides
that bury my wide afternoons.

I remember how
the San knew caves
and the dark –
their first singing
put the stars
in the sky.

There is something about
The miners
eclipsed in the black earth
for 69 days make me remember
days in the dark
in the belly of the earth.

I sing
songs to the granite sky
to stay sane.
Until rescuers
punch a hole into the rocky roof.

I forget that I need darkness,
to be buried alive
in a dark chamber – waiting,
recording the oxygen I use,
anthems to put the stars


No more heroes
An old man goes to a public phone booth, gets in and closes the door tightly behind him. He picks up the receiver and dials a number. It rings and rings but nobody answers, which is just as well, since he has no money. As he puts down the receiver and tries to open the door, he finds it is jammed and he is stuck inside.

He waits 10 minutes in silence.

Then he takes out a cigarette lighter and sets fire to his coat, trying to get someone’s attention. But as the flames leap higher and engulf him, he realises there are no more heroes.

No one will come.



And so we gather once again
For the wringing of the hands
Hushed whispers, damp cheeks
Doorbells ringing in the night
To confirm what we already know:

Two ambulances, three cop cars
The broken door, the silent circle
Of policemen not at liberty to speak
On behalf of our neighbour
Who chose eternal silence
Instead of howling hopelessly
As she stumbled blindly
Along the narrow footpath
Circling the infinite chasm

We read the warning signs
But the nights are long and dark
Sometimes we only see the outcome
Of bad turns, invisible decisions

And so we gather once again
To scrape our windshields
Shocked that we were unprepared
For the ice and snow of winter
Wringing our hands while
Our children stand waving
To their friend, the boy
Who lives in the house
With the broken door.

Hout bay harbour - Gregor Rohrig


The Jump

Don’t look down, he said,
but the wind was up
for the first time in days,
transforming the grass
into feathered tufts
I could run my fingers through.

I could run my fingers through
his red, tufted hair,
pull playfully on its roots
so that his head, too large
and somewhat awkward,
was brought into sight
as an orbiting satellite
on nights it seemed too hot
to breathe.
                Don’t look down,
he said, and instead we’d count
the stars between the drainpipe
and the gable of the roof.

Above the gable of the roof
where the heat has blistered
both wood and paint,
the tiles appear to climb
the gradient. And so do we.
                Don’t look down,

I said to my brain-damaged boy
who struggled, blue-faced,
against my grasp. He was
so very light,

almost as a bunch of feathers
in my arms. I was sure he’d fly
even as I dropped.
And the wind was up
for the first time in days.


Suscipe me
There is a moment
in white, when
the mist clings,
and birdsongs cease,

when two hands grip a
breviary with ribbons set,
a monk’s nervous fingers
end their motion,

when eyes freeze
on a floor pattern
and yet, no longer see it
and breathing stops.

that moment,
right before rising to stand
when we ask for God’s help,
it seems, after the fact.


For how long now
it has been blocked.
The tunnel full of ragged plastic bags, dead branches
washed down from the townships.
The water tainted with faeces.

Stagnant as oil sludge
it pools, dirty, like unresolved pain.

The concrete pipe
fires half-hearted salvoes
into the sea,
a rifle unable to master the waves
muddying its shallow mouth.

Years ago,
a girl walked there with her mother
speaking of who she might become.

Now a woman walks alone
wondering, in the shadows
how she will ever know
what it is she needs to say.

Poisoned water pisses out of the conduit,
fanning the sand beneath it
into delicate patterns.

She holds a glass shard,
smoothed by the sea.

Stands indeterminate
at the edge of the water,
waiting for the clear words to come.

from Conduit, Modjaji Books, 2011


Say My Name
I love the way you say my
name. How you round
the vowels. Flatten the
consonants. How you hold me
in your mouth, let my name go

When you called this morning
I forgot to tell you that it is raining.
Grey clouds drifting gusts and
flurries of wind driving rain
and sorrow through me.
I miss your umbrella.


You asked me to lift
up your branded shirt, you
wanted to show me the scars you
have that say you

once fell
off your skateboard
onto your back.

I traced the carved-out area
with my fore-finger.
Carved-out as though you
had been branded. Hot iron. Cold
Skin. Cold, I know

I was supposed to see
pictures, beauty in your
weaknesses. And I know

there should have been intimacy in this
intimate moment but you

pulled away and covered your
scars, shocked

by my touch. Shocked
that I would touch something that is
(so clearly)

West Houston Street - Marie Viljoen


last of the highway tales
the shell was selling
only cold samoosas,
but they were hungry.

both driving through
from late night jo’burg city,
both eyeing the cold triangles ruefully.

they glanced at each other,
awkward, looked away…
began to pick at their
samoosas shyly.

but made confident by appetite,
their chewing gained momentum…
eyes may even have briefly closed
as the starch found its mark;
easing out the empty cramp of
hunger in their hearts.

suddenly, his voice broke clear –
you’re hungry? he asked.
yes, she smiled.
me too, he said.
and on they ate…

nurturing contentment and
the pleasures of their needs fulfilled,
within the rhythms of their eating
they bit and chewed and swallowed,
as if part of the same body,
as if sustaining the same being.

whose paper napkin
was whose paper napkin?
whose hands rubbed
whose grease clean?
whose wet tongue licking
the last of the spicy juices
from whose lips?
whose fingers stuck
deep in to dislodge
that delicious morsel?

feeling life pulsating through
their hands, mouths, bellies –
bodies destroying matter
together, creating energy
together –
they swallowed.
they sighed.

and then it was over…

feeling strangely sad,
she moved to speak –
but he had already
raised a hand
in farewell.

stepping sharply to his car, he turned
and tossed his crumpled paper napkin
a full eight metres into the open mouth
of a waiting black rubbish bin.

smiling, light, and mock saluting,
he drove back out onto the highway…

(to appear in Everyday Anomalies due shortly from aerial publishing)


Manah: Abandoned mud town<br /
This withered wood,
These tattered towers,
This crumbled mix
Of mud and straw and stone,
This lightless lamp,
These empty jugs –

Mud Town Tower - Andre Lemmer

Faded echoes
Of disgruntled ghosts:

Here we answered
Every summons:
No muezzin
Sang an empty azzan.
No rakat was refused.
We bowed to our
It was all halal
And haram:
All was

We patched these walls
That now are breached.
We cleared the falaj,
Watered the goats,
Cared for camels,
Fetched the fodder,
Climbed for dates,
Filled the hib,
Passed the dalla,
Served coffee
To all our neighbours.

We swaddled and buried
Our babies:
Cared for grandmothers
Carried the grandfathers.

Now you’ve let
Korans tatter
Bummahs collapse
Mihrabs crumble
Where is Mecca now?

You’ve let this grime
And verdigris
Layer all our years.

All our archways fall:
Hard-won adobe
Is become a dust.

Our inscriptions mock us;
Our hieroglyphics
That told you all
Are indecipherable.

Mud Town- Andre Lemmer


The Old World Emissary’s Meal at Santa Rosa

Sunning themselves outside the basilica
in Puebla’s plaza, the old women tell me
that Sor Andrea de la Asunción was given three hours
in which to prepare a dish fit for the bishop.

To hear them, you’d swear they’d lived
in the colonial city centuries ago,
trailed the Dominican sister
around the convent’s high-ceilinged kitchen.

First, the remaining turkey was slaughtered,
plucked, then browned in corn oil;
the chillies – ancho, pasilla, mulato, chipotle
were seeded, stemmed and softened in broth.

After Juanita, the Tehuacan novitiate,
had sautéed the garlic, onions and tomatillos,
Sor Andrea raided the cache
of anise, sesame, coriander and cinnamon,

stirred thyme and marjoram
into the sauce, added handfuls of almonds,
raisins and pumpkin seeds,
crumbled tortillas, day-old bolillo.

They argue about what happened next:
Did the nun – divinely inspired –
slip the bitter chocolate into the cazuela
or, in a moment’s distraction, knock it in?

Regardless, they agree, the mole poblano
was ladled over the steaming fowl
and served to His Grace Francisco Luis Ortega
on a blue and white Talavera platter.

The Wardrobe Mistress
For years she’s waited
in the wings choreographing
quick changes, lacing corsets,
buttoning boots, retrieving
stray hairpieces.

Her memories hang on racks
beneath the Alhambra’s boards.
This dressing gown, she’ll tell you,
was made for Lord Goring
in An Ideal Husband,

that frock coat was Lear’s
in nineteen seventy two.
She wears eau de violette,
won’t abide peacock feathers
or whistling in Wardrobe.

Her carpetbag conceals
a programme signed with love
Larry Olivier, a card postmarked
Prague (she’ll never visit),
Epsom salts, a sewing kit.

Some nights, when the bus
has climbed the hill from her stop,
she’ll check the coast is clear,
curtsey deeply, knees creaking,
and bask in the applause.


Poems from a Canadian diary – Calgary, Alberta: Feb-March 2010.

He devours the landscape with his hot eyes:
the thin trees, the wooden houses, the frozen bridge
across the river, the black field, the cars with
long lights, the grey sky with shadows.
It all goes in. Through the moving screen
of his eyes, and in to his mouth.
And when he opens his mouth,
at the end of the long road, words come out
in the shape of trees, houses, frozen bridges
across the frozen sky.

Canada - Kobus Moolman

I carry a geography of the dark
with me across oceans, frozen lakes,
mountains whiter than ice, where wind
contours a need urgent as flesh.
This dark, the dark I know,
that does not ever, even in the glare
of dreaming, leave me, this recognition
familiar and strange as any echo
returning white across a frozen sea,
this dark is you – as long as you,
like the dark, carry absence
in the shape I carry with me.
Everywhere. The geography of a heart
in two halves.


Shako’s Dance
My silent, defiant grandmother
Is smiling
See her tongue hiss and whip
Watch my jerking shoulders
Keep your eyes on my feet

My silent, defiant grandmother
Is calling
Hear her warn against hidden dangers
Watch my pulsing back
Keep your ears open to this rhythm

My silent, defiant grandmother
Is singing
Feel her in your bones as she vibrates in mine
Watch my shimmering skin
Keep your heart tender, here she comes

My dance is the receiving, the carrying
My living is the treasuring of her name


The Dying Day
We toss death around as lightly as love
“You’ll be the death of me,” we say.
But sit for lost hours next to tubes
and pumps and liquid in bags
and withered hands on the white sheet
and the intrusive care of machines
that hiss and blink and warn.
Breathe in the metallic scent of pain,
unwilling witness in the bleak half light.

Oh close your eyes.
Don’t be alive while you’re dying.
Let me not know that you know.


I want to hold the hand inside you:
secure my grip
in that dark visceral space
between the scarlet sponge of your lungs
and the textured ribbing of your heart.


Recognizing genius
When I was twelve
I read Shakespeare in Hebrew.
It was in a middle-school in Tel-Aviv
and the teacher tried hard
to illustrate the Bard’s British genius.
The class had difficulty to follow her argument,
but I got it.

After her long lecture
suddenly it hit me
that he was not an Israeli
yet he could write so well.

Admittedly his Hebrew
was slightly old-fashioned and stilted
but I was amazed;
my granny had lived in Israel for twenty years
and her Hebrew was not much better than his.
At that tender age
I realized how talented some people are.

Some four decades later
teaching literature
in Cape Town South Africa,
I still appreciate Shakespeare’s genius;
quite obviously
not for the same reasons.


The Practice of Presence in the Zen Garden at Ixopo
Along a leaf close to my eye,
a snail small as the letter O,
senses space with filament feelers.
Soft curd body extends in silence.
Translucent skin reveals
the workings of each inner part.

I watch the measured stately slide,
fluid as my Chi Kung motions,
or the flow of meditation.
I breathe in…
The leaf tip looms…
followed by a chasm.

My breath suspends…
Antennae wave,
pause, discern the void.
Self assured,
he lifts halfway
into endless space.

Grounded in the present,
he reaches for the infinite.
Stretches like a piece of taffy.
Conscious of another leaf,
finds purchase on its edge,
grips the thin trapeze,
then promptly
tugs the rest of him.

I breathe out.
Self-contained again,
he trails slickly along
the leafy pathway
unaware of my silent ovation.

White Stinkwood Mandy Mitchell


Christmas in November
Trapped on the cusp of thirty
they wait.
The shelf beckons.
They hope for marriage,
children, homes in the suburbs, lives.
The future neutral,
they have no way of knowing
how it will turn out, or what will happen.
We were there once.
Christmas lights garland the aluminium awning,
white lights blink on a small tin tree.
It’s nearly the end of the month,
Christmas in November.
Their lives before them:
still, one is having a mid-life crisis,
another thinks life is going too quickly,
and all feel time’s ticking.
We stare from the other side.
I’ll be passing from this decade in a year,
and the rest talk from middle-age.
The concerns seem quaint, antique almost,
yet desperate.
And I remember.
There is no link between then and now,
We try.
Disco music bridges the gap.
The beat goes on.
Stutters, starts, Elton John, Abba, Air Supply, and the Loslappies Song.

In the midst of it,
near midnight,
the woman who is forty-five strips off her African-patterned dress
and plunges into the swimming pool in her own rush at life.
Fish lights dance on the surface.

They lament not having had fun in their twenties,
they spent the decade studying.
My mouth is dry of words.
Ten years flash by.
I studied, worked, wrote, travelled, had sex, fell in love, lived,
I too tried hard to have fun in that turbulent decade.
I’m not so sure I succeeded either.

I have no advice.
Live, I’d want to say, live,
but I can’t find the right pitch,
tone, expression.
I’m talking to myself now,
Live, I want to say, live,
but I haven’t heard the words either,
nor found the tools.

The night becomes morning.
Wind breathes suddenly,
the dogs bark at a fallen leaf,
and we go on.
Through chocolate cake and melktert,
and coffee brews,
and the thick aroma of the beans is like food
as we suck at the air,
like fish gasping for water.

For Venise, Louise and Estelle,in friendship

Brooklyn roof with puddle -Marie Viljoen


Before speech
I had this dream of you
you are in the middle
of a vast room
of bleached wood,
huge cupboards and stark angles
under a slow fan,
                no door
and the windows open, nothing
to staunch the smell of an impending sea
and the honey of midmorning light poured in

we have nothing left to fear nothing
no reason to glance backwards and wonder
who may know us or even care
just a workaday world surrounding
and the boon
                of two ordinary bodies

the avidity of who we are

so that you stride towards me, with purpose,
holding a wineglass, your lips pooched up into that usual
quizzical expression, half tenderness,
half sardonic laughter

until I turn
fully to face you:
                whereupon you smile,
and say


Rock Formations at De Kelders

For PP

Not everyone loves
a rocky coastline,
the Atlantic sting

its cut-glass water
that pierces the skin.
But some things glisten

around these icy pools,
grow clearer in the shock
of waves that can cut

through rock: that slap, and slap
till they knock the breath
from the landscape.

The chipping
and chipping
that sculpts a story

over millions of years.
Here along the cliffs,
staring out over the water

stand a thousand tall
rock pillars, straining ahead,
licked by the wind.

They are people, my father says,
led from slavery to this lonely coast
through the slow grind of generations.

They stand so still now,
hunched forward,
all different sizes:

man, child. Here and there
a head visible,
a bent shoulder –

and up ahead, with his eroded face,
head bowed forward
turned to stone

midway through the greatest journey
he would ever make: stutter
long since fallen silent

under the ceaseless pounding
of the waves –
Moses: the stooping man,

eyes still on the horizon,
leading his Israelites
out through the sea.


Golden angles
Golden angles
of ray and disc florets
spiral in successive Fibonacci numbers;
twist and turn from east to west
on calloused stems, tall.

Like Icarus, they burn
for the sun, but never fly.
Petal by petal they lose their wings
and finally rest in the south
waiting for van Gogh.

Lake Lullaby
This body, goose-bumped
in memory of the lake

wraps itself in summer
sky and sunned rock.

Weighted by heat,
the bones and flesh are summoned

to sleep. An arm bends
to protect eyes from the staring


Through droplets of lake, captured
in tiny blond hairs

and dark lashes,
the sun plays sigh

like a xylophone.

Mind hushes,
listens to the kaleidoscope.

Khayelitsha garden -Marie Viljoen


Predictive Text
My cellphone
keeps changing
Clive to alive.

There is nothing
I would not give
for this to be true.


Chinese box
Of an afternoon, you can catch
the clasp of this beautiful Chinese box:

trace hexagonal dragons over
the edge, or fix a pattern of thread

that’s meant to be fire, blooming always
out of the curls of pearl-polished snouts…

When those dragons glide off the lid,
they scratch against you, claws in your fingers,

breath in your hair. In one afternoon,
they’ll slide into you and give you fire.

This is no myth: you’re scratched and singed,
spattered with red. Though you’ve hidden

them once again – that box on a high shelf –
you could still find them. Ecstasy. Dread.

On reflection
I came to the land
with my own cropped silence
notched in me,
like a tree one marks
one’s shade on.

Walked from thorn
to fever tree,
the ashen beds
of terrible waiting.

Mirrors of rivers hang,
upside down,
the long reflection
of ancient faces.

Here, where the land
gives heat, marks time,
I live in my silence,
listening, watching for poetry.

Chantal Collings