Truths & Reconciliations
the miracles forgot –
but would you forgive the man
who made your father blind?
No single hand put out those eyes,
no blade or burning brand –
but you knew there was an Island,
though you never thought
of the detail at the time:
the slow and bitter years,
the chipped-out days,
the worn-down line of men
bent in the burning sun
to the glitter of the lime.
First published in 'Thoughts on Robben Island', The Island Review, June 2013.
Setting Up Experiments
I have forgotten the Periodic Table of the Elements,
apart from the famous few
and the look of the waxy scroll of text
unfurled against the science lab’s wall,
Earth’s Ten Commandments graphed in code.
I went with my father in the night as a little girl,
when he was setting up experiments,
sat long and studied it, in fascinated ignorance.
And I have forgotten basic chemistry,
apart from the dancing fizz of phosphorus
and the day my father’s sulphurous show and tell
expelled him and the Standard Nines, out
to the quad in search of air. The same quad where
I watched the senior girls rehearse their witchiness
around mysterious brew – their fire burn
and cauldron bubble scorched into my brain.
Goniwe, like my father, taught, not far away,
but then I didn’t know his name; Cradock
just another dusty settlement, minor satellite
to our own, all unrest pressed out to the margins –
his Lingelihle, our Umasizakhe stirring up
a history not taught in my calm classrooms.
And he was sent to prison in the town
where I was born, the Communist suppressed
and then so inconveniently returned.
I have forgotten, if I ever read,
what the Eastern Province Herald said
about their disappearances – Sparrow Mkhonto,
Fort Calata, Sicelo Mhlauli, Matthew Goniwe,
the Cradock Four. If they printed anything at all
until their permanent removal from society
(that terrible permission from on high) was clear.
Who thought to bring the telephone wire?
(Strangled, stabbed and shot – so dangerous
they needed all three types of violence?)
Who poured the petrol on each face
to sear away the individual flesh?
What did they talk of while the bodies burned?
And which one cut off Matthew’s hands?
What calculation was this and what settled score?
In the lab, my father readied for his class;
I watched Lady Macbeth try to erase the marks.
But I drive now with those men, Olifantshoek
to Bluewater Bay – the threatening
and the defiant, frightened for their lives.
That road, the darkest pass. These are the nights
we’ve no will to recall, but must, how
something evil always in among us was.
In memory of Matthew Goniwe, Sparrow Mkhonto, Fort Calata & Sicelo Mhlauli
A man pushes his rubbish
juggernaut up 7th Avenue,
Melville. Cresting the rise,
then swiftly switching sides
to brake – his shoulders braced –
his junk ship’s following wind,
that swift acceleration down the hill,
a slope of now-dishevelled affluence.
His mate, in Fair Isle pullover
(a find?) careens around the corner,
laden even more, merging
their flotsam fleets.
They’ve got in well before
the garbage trucks, cracking
the bins like jacaranda pods,
shucking them clean.
I imagine the whole Heath Robinson
embarrassment of cast-off riches:
Nelson’s fractured spyglass;
Napoleon’s tattered glove;
the battered Homburg
of a fallen president; a sleek jet
fashioned in an emptied flask
of Johnnie Walker Blue;
and all the debris that’s more
Spring efflorescence trumpets
noisy fuchsia, giant hibiscus
clamours loudly for attention,
too. A blur of sweet Bohemia.
Petal, rubble, scrap metal –
a supernova waits to blow.
Above, three mousebirds
delicately decorate the wires,
so unperturbed: Forget the barbs,
alarms, the locks, breakers
of locks, the pocket pickers,
of the loot, these streets are ours.
Glossary, from the Afrikaans:
raasbekke – loudmouths
karweiders – lowly carriers, porters
The Secret Peach
I remember the pale peaches of Cathcartvale:
light down as of a cheek
and the wet white flesh, firm to the bite.
Sweet fibre of peach in your teeth
and the pinkening fruit at the rosy wrinkled pip.
Rarer than the golden peaches
halved and boiled and syrup-drowned,
home-bottled, seldom from the shop.
A Consol jar of peaches and a tin of Ideal Milk
for pudding after school:
peaches-and-cream of the everyday.
Aunty Anna’s jars were the ones
with the peaches all sliced up.
But the white ones we ate fresh.
The trees were in the orchard by the house,
where the hanslammetjies were kept.
Peach blossom and fattening fruit
and rescued lambs.
Soft, milky noses and remembered nectar
and a farm now lost.
Do the trees still stand? Is there someone there
who picks the fruit?
An old woman fading in a foreign land
will thirst for that particular juice,
will call out for it, searching
for the peach's proper name,
forgetting that she never knew.