A Member Poetry Special! Poems from the New Collections of CJ Driver, Gabeba Baderoon, Saaleha Idrees Bamjee, and Christine Coates!
26 Sep 2018
With a slowly growing market, a steady stream of emerging voices in both print and spoken word, and the establishment of several interesting small presses, English-language poetry in South Africa is in as good a place as it’s ever been.
With so much tumult in the world – literary and otherwise – we thought we would do something different for our first newsletter of spring proper. This week we’re celebrating four PEN SA members who have recently brought out new collections of poetry, from a debut writer to two garlanded mid-career poets and a well-known, old hand at verse.
These poems show us the variety and scope of work being created now by South African writers, and how much more that is begging to be written, begging to be explored.
(All poems are reproduced with the permission of the authors, or their publishers. Please do not reproduce them elsewhere.)
First published as a sequence in New Contrast, Before is finally available for the first time in a dedicated volume, published by African Sun Press and Crane River. An autobiographical “sequence” of poems, CJ ‘Jonty’ Driver’s Before courageously explores how one’s homeland can be both paradise and prison. Once political prisoner, once stateless exile, Driver’s turns his unique and almost dreamlike perspective on his own formative moments, questioning the foundation of his experiences, and of experience itself.
Imagine, if you will, that someone died
Of ‘homelessness’. Of hopeless homelessness,
I guess, for if I knew–or merely prayed–
That I would certainly return one day
I’d be content to wait. It can’t be ‘know’
But might be ‘hope;, precisely where the prayer
Comes sauntering in, as if to say–off-hand–
“You might as well try me; I sometimes work.”
I’m glad I can’t return; I’m glad the place
Is not the same that once I knew. Perverse
Would be to pray for passage home. The years
Displaced themselves are are no longer there.
The country that I left is subterfuge
And apprehension, shadows on a screen,
And not a holy place, but compromised
And grim with lies as thick as city walls.
How strange to hope that oen might end one’s days
Back where one never really lived at all.
PEN SA Board Member Gabeba Baderoon’s fourth collection of poems crafts breathtaking intimacies and private hurts into lyrical form, sharp-eyed, but in perspective. In new poems on desiring what is furthest from you, memories of a midnight swim, how children work out the laws of existence, the stakes of speaking a forbidden word, elegies to a jazz prodigy and a beloved poet, and how not to be alone, Baderoon stakes her claim as one of the most inventive and graceful of poets working in South Africa today.
On button. Red light we learn the meaning of.
In 1976, the Soweto student protests are erased from the black and white television that arrives that year in the front room and from then a line is drawn between what happened and did not, what is real and is not.
Each night, the children eat hurriedly in the next room, our eyes already sidling through the door to the blank screen. Just before six, waiting on chairs facing the new centre, we watch an intuition pulse through black and white snow. It flickers then hisses and turns into the high whine of the test pattern that on the dot of six becomes a face.
Prayer starts the evening as prayer will end it at midnight with the Epilogue.
The continuity announcer’s lips slide suddenly into sidelong fractions till we jiggle the bunny aerial and prop it upside down against the wall behind the screen.
My parents make a timetable. No watching after the 8 o’clock news, so after the news becomes a genre for grownups. No TV on Sundays when the state teaches you to become Christian.
Telefunken, Fuchsware, Tedelex – the names next to the On button change as our TVs break over the years. The single channel alternates between English and Afrikaans, then the government creates new stations in Zulu and Xhosa. We are trained into separate realities.
The first time I see a black woman on TV is in an advert for dishwashing liquid in which a white woman praises her domestic servant for choosing a new detergent. “Betsy, you’re so clever,” to which the black woman responds shyly, “Oh, madam.” Even as a child, I can see this is not about cleaning dishes, but some other kind of labour.
We watch to become ourselves.
TV teaches us good black voices. The black people reading the news sound as though they are sitting inside glass, and come from nowhere we know.
In 1982, my mother buys a Phillips video cassette recorder with semi-remote control at the Rand Easter Show and one day someone trips over the 12-foot cord and after that the VCR only works with the cord plugged in.
In Live and Let Die, my eyes widen when James Bond has sex with Rosie Carver, a desire apartheid seemed to make almost biologically impossible. I press rewind on the semi-remote and watch again.
My brother buys an Apple computer with a green screen and orange cursor he hooks up to the TV. We play tennis and the ball sounds hollow but urgent, our fingers sore from slamming the arrow keys, the beginning of games that hurt and where only the screen makes a sound.
In the early days of the internet I navigate with arrow keys and DOS and in 1994 choose my first email name, gab. Messages sent to it still reach me today. In 2002 I move for a year to England, the centre of the real, and have to queue in person at the bank because their online world seems not to exist. Down here, we rejig every technology and accelerate the virtual in the absence of the physical.
But capital is watching and tells us airtime is as necessary as oxygen, a perfect philosophy of the real. In our houses ghost technologies run down the prepaid electric meters.
Precise injuries of the neck, thumb and eye create a new kind of body. The machines we hold close prompt infinite new desires and an infinite hunger for newness.
We don’t notice when the category of the evening disappears – the word for after 5, an Off button that once brought the day to a close.
Zikr, the debut collection by Johannesburg-based writer and photographer Saaleha Idrees Bamjee, declares the arrival of a subtle and startling new poet. To be resolute in faith – in God, in oneself – in times of grief and disappointment. To unapologetically assert one’s woman- and personhood in a society that attempts to devalue both. In Zikr’s beguilingly measured and covertly powerful poems, Bamjee achieves these often difficult tasks, as well as introducing new idioms and understandings of Muslim identity to South African poetry. A collection of fine metaphors, concrete turns of phrase, and a refreshing specificity of image, place, and self.
My grandmother breaks her hip
My grandmother says we’ve brought her here to die.
Her broken bone picks under our fingernails,
a splintered stick splitting the tissue-beds, prying us apart.
We give her pills for our pain. Her cataracts cloud over her,
but she can see old blood on the ceiling of the state hospital.
My mother is wrung out; the guilt stretches across her bed,
nesting on sheets of the unsigned hospital plan.
The doctor at the clinic tells my uncle hip operations
cost hundreds of thousands; old people don’t make it that far.
My mother says we’ve put a price on my grandmother.
Poetry offers a way to transform difficult circumstances into opportunities for learning, introspection and growth, as in Christine Coates’ Fire Drought Water. These poems, published by Coates’ own Damselfly press, chart a domestic life from the disastrous Cape fires of 2015 and the three-year drought that followed it, scuppering Coates’ efforts at rebuilding and rehabilitating the landscape she lived in. A portrait of an urban dweller coming to terms with the extremes of the natural world, and what people do to survive and to thrive.
It is late at night,
the moon floats between the oaks.
People wait their turn,
holding canisters, bottles,
the lines become longer.
An old Muslim man arrives
carrying his plastic canister.
He’s been doing this for decades,
he says, for his health.
Now we’re all just trying to survive.
He lugs the twenty-five-litre container
to the tap,
fills it with water,
struggles back to his car.
The taps continue to flow.
Now the lines loop around the corner,
people chat softly, the murmur,
the sound of bottles
Water levels us all.