This is a vast country with such a mixed and turbulent political and social history – all of which has, necessarily, contributed its own elements to the poetic life of the nation – that it simply cannot be encapsulated in this short space. South Africa boasts eleven official languages, every one with its own rich blend of linguistic heritage, much of it still rooted in oral traditions, so it would take someone of far greater erudition and scholarship than I to begin any real analysis.
Instead, perhaps the very personal view of a latecomer to this wonderfully diverse country will suffice. Having visited SA for the first time in July 2007 and lived here since January 2008, I can feel truly confident only in the accuracy of that epithet: latecomer.
But I don’t say “outsider”, although maybe I should. To the great credit of the many, many poets and other writers I have met here, no one has ever made me feel like that. The welcome has been immense, both on a personal and a professional level. Two of the first South African poets I met (neither of whom, to my shame, I had come across before) were Don Maclennan and James Matthews.
Matthews was a courageous and persistent voice of opposition to the horrors of apartheid, recording from personal experience the realities of that miserable time. His is a heartfelt and persistent poetry of anger and resentment that accurately chronicles a period too soon and too readily forgotten. When I met him in Cape Town, where he still lives, he was determined that his major work, Cry Rage: Odyssey of a Dissident Poet, should live as a testament to the truth of what happened.
The late Don Maclennan, on the other hand, wrote more reflective, introspective poetry that nonetheless is a penetrating commentary on the period both during and after the apartheid years. A much-loved university teacher in Grahamstown and a deeply thoughtful interrogator of life in all its complexities, Maclennan’s work is described – accurately, in my opinion – in the blurb of his Collected Poems thus:
No poetry in the nation reveals greater passion for the mere fact of being alive…few can match its uncompromising honesty and courage in the face of physical collapse and impending death.
So that was my beginning. Since then I have become more and more aware of a vast array of poetries that permeate every corner of this country, ranging from traditional praise poetry to contemporary rap and hip-hop; from the provocatively outspoken Lesego Rampolokeng to the sagacity of Keorapetse Kgositsile; from poetry in performance to poetry on the page.
The five poets represented here, all writing in English, live within this world, part of a discernible shift away from the pervasive ‘struggle poetry’ of the late 20th century. Writers such as these comprise just one small part of something new sprouting from vigorous roots and proving enormously vibrant: the living arena that is South African poetry in the 21st century.
Author of seven collections of poetry, Gail Dendy was first published by Harold Pinter and has shared a poetry collection with Oscar Nominee Norman Corwin. A ballet-trained (and acclaimed) contemporary dancer, her passion for the non-verbal is evident in the rhythms which pervade her writing. She lives in Johannesburg with her husband and three cats, and is a researcher in an international law firm.
At just 22 years of age, Mishka Hoosen has already lived a full and sometimes arduous international life, the complexity of which results in a startlingly mature and richly textured poetry of pain, love, loss and transcendent joy that belies her youth. Expect to hear much more of this resourceful and empathetic new voice.
Sonwabo Meyi, who lives with his wife and young daughter in Port Elizabeth, is a gifted poet who creatively manipulates the English language to echo the ways it is used by young people. As an admirer of Steve Biko’s heritage of Black Consciousness, he speaks uncomfortable truths – social and political – with inventive courage.
Author of six collections of poetry, Harry Owen was brought up in Liverpool (UK) but now lives in Grahamstown. He is especially concerned with environmental threats to the natural world, a problem highlighted by violent poaching, especially of rhinos and elephants. The international poetry anthology For Rhino in a Shrinking World (The Poets Printery, 2013), which he edited, is a response to this grave issue.
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, the 2014 Commonwealth Poet, is an award-winning South African writer and performance artist based in Johannesburg. Her celebrated one-woman show, Original Skin, explores her sense of identity as a mixed-race woman in South Africa and has been performed to wide acclaim in numerous countries around the world. Her latest poetry collection is The Everyday Wife (Modjaji Books, 2011).
Grahamstown, South Africa
18 October 2014
The Prayer Everywhere
The day is a snare
Last night I imagined lying with you in Maine
telling you about everything. The wells in the eyes
of the psych ward in East London. The Bangladeshi woman
with the bleeding ankles holding my face in her hands,
How my hands have always come
unprepared, quick but too small,
clumsy, they’ve never
been able to hold enough, love, I was going to say.
I don’t know how I’d wake up, there, beside you
as if we weren’t a world away from each other.
I don’t know how I’d face a day with no beggars
or fruit sellers wailing at the gates. I was going to say,
love yesterday Joy comes and tells me
her baby was raped
and her shack burnt down. Can’t she have
some more money. Her sister’s just died
like she did last month. The tik
makes her eyes wander down the alleys.
Love do you even
know this country, it might be true – what do I do
with my hands?
Susannah told me during one of our fights
You don’t have to fucking account for everything.
I was listing the names of the shot miners
and the Palestinian high schoolers,
and the murdered eight year old
with her clitoris cut out in Joburg.
The little boy in Sao Paolo whose father pushed 50 needles into his body.
Damn it, not everything needs to be accounted for, she said to me
and left next day. I told her what do I do for this child
raped since four
by all the men of her family, who combed my hair,
shrieked laughing when I picked her up and spun her across the room.
What are all the things I meant to tell you?
I lit each smoke end to end that night when we skyped till four
telling you love my hands are too empty, my hands are so empty they ache. Can’t hold enough. Jack shit.
I was ten and he was ten, that child I was given to feed
at the hospital. He was ten, shriveled with hunger
to the size of a two year old. I was feeding him
drip by drip of cheap baby food
saying eat. Eat and grow. What is this
I said love what is this place where this happens. What do I do
in this place how do I live.
You said I love you, like that solved anything.
I said how am I going to wake up when I can’t hear
the wailing at the gates.
At a protest I hoist the banner with the man from
Joza, he says look, comrade, one of us
from the poor, one from the rich.
What am I holding in my hands that will not
be given? How do I give it?
In Mecca a bundle of rags turned out to be an old woman
with birdseed in her fist, sleeping
behind the barriers of the woman’s section.
I took tasbih from my bag, cut jade,
tucked them beside her and prayed God
let her sell them for food, or a blanket.
At Jabul Rahman the Mount of Mercy
someone was playing Fairouz on a car stereo
and all the beggars were lying under the sky, open mouthed, crying
Sadaqah, Sadaqah. I walked up burning rocks
with dry fingers brushing the hem of my robe
while Fairouz sang, I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.
In Saigon they sell dog tags engraved with names like Bob or Joe
and none of the women in the paintings has a face.
In Paris a Palestinian cab driver said
now I will tell you
what happened to us.
I wait year after year for my children to come here
from Gaza, but these things are not easy.
how do you leave your home? I watched my neighbor’s brains
soak into the dirt like honey into bread.
We are not without reverence here.
Even now, see beloved
how this child throws her head back,
grins, reaching her arms to the pigeons on the tin shack haram,
laugh burning like branches
with the voice of God.
It’s this love that keeps us hostage. Between my hands
the baby of the Somali woman at the Kaaba
rocked undisturbed by the crowd as we walked.
Once, back home in Newclare
under the jacarandas and the rain, I grabbed handfuls of earth,
ran my lips over them, so much dirt,
so much shit, so many trampled things.
Mine, mine, I was thinking. We are of each other.
I am kissing the ground at the crossroads.
I am feverish in every old hotel room
praying to the last God — Let me be ripped open.
Let the world in. Fill my belly
with the stones of this place.
Fill my throat with a language
this music takes me out of here
i hear the beats & screams of my ancestors
the feet of running elephants
bloodstained umbilical chords of afrikans
women grounding grinding creating food
rules & mules recording blues for the grass
mass movement of heads bobbing
heart-beats sobbing & robbing the soul
piano chords give birth to mon/stars
politicians create red-card fouls
you cannot try to sell ice to bushmen
rather sell fire to Eskimos
& supply condoms to moffies
give free make-up to widows
don’t forget to clean the windows
eyes wide shut hard looking at the tar
the grotesque image is painted with blood
when you listen closely
you can hear the slaves breathing
& the whiteman shouting
you can smell the gunpowder
your tongue craves the blood sweat & tears
your fingers itch & they are horny
look at them making love with hand-grenades
while the earth gives birth to civil wars
& cowards fly to mars
holding tight onto the wings of paper jets
& along the road
exist web magnets
— Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Luis wouldn’t kiss me when I gave him that blow job
said he couldn’t do that to his wife,
kisses were only for the woman he loves
That guy, hoots Gloria, he gave me a STD
my thing was so sore I could hardly walk,
he doesn’t even know that she gave it to him.
Ja, she’s doing Fernando.
Luis’s wife walks in at the door
hello ladies, the usual please.
Sure, Madam, says Gloria, the basin is free
would you like to take a seat? Bella,
make the Madam a cup of tea.
Luis’s wife lies back on the sink
her neck all open
like she’s on the guillotine
Proposal of Marriage
by a filthy rumpus of dike which glued
together two sides of the same field,
and out of which ricocheted a rat.
It slipstreamed up the shallow bank
and caused a zithering of grass
which parted and closed like a breath
long after the thought it intended
has ended. On the following day we saw it again,
its grey body the length of a child’s ballet shoe,
its death-grin already covered
by a congregation of ants, which, with the sun
on their backs, glittered like crystals.
You turned away, but not before
taking my hand and laying it as an invitation
quite close to your heart which I could feel beating.
And so I knew what you wanted to say
even though the time for saying it was already past
and you were booked to fly out later that afternoon.
Story of a Zimbabwean Farm
— Gail Dendy
You would search for the old place
only hesitantly, driving the 4X4
onwards down the potholed road
then, with a grind of gears, idle the engine
while you looked and looked
past the newly installed electric gates, down the tracks,
past the side of the tractor shed (now enlarged,
but the roof in need of repair),
and, finally, if you craned your neck enough,
through the soft coldness of the stone verandah.
I always wondered why you never stopped
dead, removed the keys from the ignition
and walked those last fifty paces. The new owners
would surely have let you in, shown you around.
You weren’t a threat any more.
All I know is that for forty years you’ve stood
in your bedroom, twelve years old, your mother leaning
to kiss your feverish face, your father not yet back
from the Bush War. Wherever the vultures had circled
that day, no one would tell.
You’d had a premonition, but nothing more.
Yesterday, with the help of a tracker, (unemployed,
he said, since Mugabe’s second term, his village burnt),
we found the spot, or something close enough –
a cross on rusted tin. And nothing else but knobthorns,
a duiker’s shattered bone, the crackling chant of bulbul.
Those last fifty paces would be the end of the story.
But there’s another one, too,
the one in which you’ve just turned eight
and your mother, knotting her apron behind her waist,
asks for help with slaughtering chickens.
You refuse, leave the house, slam all the doors
on your way out.
I was thirteen, and The Beatles
had just been unbanned. The airwaves
were thick with it, the new
sounds, like dead people
being brought back to life.
But Vorster was there, too,
a man perfect for radio
since he never smiled. But with
one twist of the dial, we’d erase him
with an off-station static
that was like a spell.
Each day the Official News was followed
by ‘Commentary’, as though
one box wasn’t enough
for thoughts, there had to be more,
more, which the Government provided
free instead of housing.
But I was just thirteen,
and my friends
John, Paul, George, and Ringo
were out there waiting.
It was a hard day’s night
that would one day end,
like wind-up watches, roneo machines,
trolley buses, one-rand notes,
and huge hand-washed sheets
hung up like wings.
The Beatles’ records were banned by the SABC from 1966 to 1971.
 Prime Minister of South Africa, 1966—1978. His dour demeanour earned him the nickname ‘Jolly John’.
Washed down from the moor by torrents
into a coarse alluvium of cities and towns,
we settle as dregs at the mouth of the great river.
Good at deposits, of course – on houses, cars,
plasma screens, wives – we find our lives weathered,
eroded, reduced from distant heights as
in wind, water, vodka, ice we bear before us
a deep scale of deposition in newly-worked
fragmenting ecosystems of the mind.
Next, thin precipitate of fluvial histories,
biota sluiced out to lacustrine gels shallow
as a salt-pan, the holy water of ourselves
evaporates as we harden into stone.
Or do we rather dream within the embrace
of sediment? What sands will scratch the epitaph
of our time: that we were betrothed and married
to the soil but proved unfaithful? Such silt
may yet leave grounds for an absolute decree
as frail splinters settle to stone, to earth again,
petrified words in the yawning mouths of rivers.
Mishka Hoosen is a South African writer originally from Johannesburg. An alumna of Interlochen Arts Academy in the US, she completed an MA in Creative Writing, focusing on nonfiction and poetry, at Rhodes University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rolling Stone South Africa, New Coin, Chimurenga, Hunger Mountain, and Ons Klyntji. Her book of nonfiction, Hollow the Bones, is forthcoming from Deep South Books in early 2015.
Gail Dendy was first published by Harold Pinter in 1993, with subsequent collections appearing in South Africa, the UK and the USA. Her seventh collection is Closer Than That (Dye Hard, 2011). Gail’s poems have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Carcanet’s A Field of Large Desires (2010). She was the Winner of the SA Pen Millennium Competition (Playwriting), a Finalist in the Herman Charles Bosman Award, shortlisted for the Thomas Pringle Award 2010 (prose), and for the EU/Sol Plaatje Poetry Prize 2011 and 2012. Gail has recently completed her first novel.
Sonwabo Meyi was born & bred in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape. He started writing protest poetry in 2004. He is quick to point out that he is a Black Consciousness activist, & therefore his writing is driven by BC principles. His first book of poetry rage against the beast is the manifestation of his activism. He has been published in a number of anthologies and is currently working on his second full collection, conversations with a mon/star. He lives in Port Elizabeth.
Multi-award winning South African poet, playwright and performance artist, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers is a graduate of the Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris. Her poetry ranges from the private to the political, exploring matters serious, satirical and sensual. She has published two collections of her work: Taller Than Buildings (Centre for the Book, 2006) and The Everyday Wife (Modjaji Books, 2010). In 2014 Phillippa was commissioned by the Commonwealth Education Trust to write a poem in celebration of Commonwealth Day, which was performed in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on 10 March as part of the Commonwealth Celebrations. She lives in Johannesburg.
Harry Owen lives in Grahamstown in South Africa’s Eastern Cape where he hosts the popular Reddits Poetry open floor poetry evenings every month. He is the author of six collections, the latest of which is Small Stones for Bromley (Lapwing Publications, Belfast), and has edited two anthologies, I Write Who I Am (2011), an anthology of poetry by young people from disadvantaged township schools, and For Rhino in a Shrinking World – An International Anthology (2013), both published by The Poets Printery, East London, South Africa.