Gabeba Baderoon’s Tribute to Prof. Keorapetse Kgositsile
17 Jan 2018
At a time of such keenly-felt loss in South African literature, we felt a generic statement of grief would not constitute a fitting tribute to Keorapetse Kgositsile, who died on 3 January 2018 after a short illness. In lieu, we asked PEN SA Board Member Gabeba Baderoon to contribute a more personal statement. We believe Gabeba’s recollections say something new, unexpected and appropriately loving about the late Poet Laureate.
On hearing the news, I was struck wordless. I couldn’t move or think or even close my mouth for a time. This was an impossible loss. A sudden, breath-robbing punch to the chest. Keorapetse, endlessly generous – and death, impervious to beseeching, abrupt. Keorapetse, whom I’d recently seen at Abantu Book Festival in the most memorable event of the three-day gathering. Whom I had the chance to greet that Sunday, but not speak with over rooibos and good coffee, not the usual nourishing occasion to ask each other about work, not hear one of his new poems.
The first person I told is my partner Dorn, who loved Keorapetse as much as I did. They spoke jazz together and could lose themselves in talking about it, though to me it remains a mystery despite my love of it, like a painting I glimpse in a nearby room. Keorapetse came to stay with us once in the quiet house we rented while I was writing my PhD. After all he had given of himself, to poetry, to the struggle, to all the poets whose words he burnished, what thanks could we offer? This question made us fall silent. We gave him our bedroom that faced the mountain. In this place where few people came, on the one morning we had his company, someone came to fix an electrical fault in his room and I had to wake him. Too early, too early, I knocked on his door and when he called to come in, I opened the door and saw he was a small figure in black and white pyjamas in one corner of the bed.
How he met your eyes. The genuineness of his smile. He looked at you so that you felt you deserved it. He saw the best in you. He saw that. That’s what Dorn remembered of him through tears on hearing of his passing.
I met Keorapetse when he was a Writer in Residence at the University of Cape Town in the 90s. I did not know how to speak to writers then, so I simply listened to him and what he said unfurled in my mind over many years. One day he read a poem of mine and changed my life. I love this poem, he said. It even makes me like an ugly word like “fibrillate.” An ugly word. Even after almost a dozen years of studying English, his word ‘ugly’ taught me what I didn’t know until then, how to feel through the body how words belonged, or didn’t, in a line. How saying them out loud taught you something, the way they felt in the mouth. He taught me this about my own lines.
And as a result, I realized how much I needed to learn, so for years after we met I took occasional extra-mural classes in poetry in addition to writing my PhD. After putting together my homework for a couple of these classes, I sent them to Keorapetse and Ingrid Fiske. Unbeknown to me and to each other, both these beloved poets sent my homework to Gus Ferguson at Snailpress. One day in 2004, I received an email from Gus asking me what I’d like to have on the cover of my book. And that book became The Dream in the Next Body.
Keorapetse was there before the book, before the classes, before the homework, when all I knew was that he was a writer I needed to hear, one whose life fused together the word and the act, one who read each line magnetically, one who saw something in you before it existed, something which came into being because of what he saw. I think of what he was teaching me and the others who came to him that first time and all the times after – how to look at one another and the world, how to learn through the body, how to taste the words. I think of him in a nearby room, resting, at peace, his words unfurling in our minds.
(Image by Victor Dlamini, courtesy of the Johannesburg Review of Books)