Haiku on Zambia

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Zambia’s oldest, largest park, Kafue National Park, is one of the stillest places I have ever been to. There is no traffic (you may see one other car if you drive through the park, but then again, you may not). There are very few people (if you stay at one of the remote lodges you may bump into a handful of people … or you may not, depending on the time of year). The animals move slowly. Time itself moves slowly.

When I sat down to write about Kafue, I realised haiku was probably the most perfect form in which to distill that stillness, that sense of being quite literally out of touch with everyone and everything – I was well out of cellphone range.

Kafue, Zambia

Grass shifts, with slight clicks,
murmurs. Living language. A
breeze across the vlei.

*

Waterbuck approach
the outpost of my silence.
Freeze, or look away.

*

Breeze through the tent-mesh.
Song of painted reed-frogs lost
for just a moment.

Image

The bay: in memoriam Stephen Watson

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This poem is for my late friend and long-time mentor, Stephen Watson, one of the finest poets and essayists of his generation.

The bay
in memoriam Stephen Watson

I.

There, on the shore, those broken rocks
fragment the light and shade. I see you
on the sand, now waving faintly
from that other side, where life
seems a mirage in dimming green.
You face comes clear, now seen-unseen,
because I am awake. The sea
forms you in waves in which you wade
until you’re almost solid again,
alive in the poems you made.

II.

You loved that bay. It glitters, of course,
with grey-tailed fish in swilling green,
a foaminess brewing in the sun
above a wave that runs without breaking.
Salt-air at morning, salt at night,
the fires of air and light that become
this beautiful place. Your shade stood here
and said to me: watch darkness come.

III.

What words, now, for those of us left?
We crowd around ourselves, we measure
our shadows fretfully. Like a child
that knows it is growing up too fast
and feels too small, I know that age
is duty, inevitable. What words –
for the friend you were, the light you brought
into every walk on foaming sand?
Your face half-gone in my deepest memories,
but resurfacing, clear, in dreams.

IV.

To write is to cry, or cry out, perhaps.
To wait for the burning horizon to tinge
to duskier darkness, less outraged.
Less understood than the words that bled
to the page, but seen by so many more.
That natural shore, that freak of nature…
How do I tell you what I feel now?
Writing may not be what can save us:
dull curse of a dimming consciousness
hurtling towards a dead end.

V.

Do I leave you here, or call you again?
When the doors unlock and the keys fall rusted,
what comes in? I’ve tried to escape
the inevitable, falling away
from holding everything tight, too tightly.
Now looking up at the vanishing sky
I imagine dying. Words are as nothing.
One keeps writing, God knows why.

VI.

There is a line of light foam teasing
water out, slowly, bubble by bubble.
Only the pink sand shows its meat-like,
underdone, helpless colour to us.
What’s out of reach is going, further
and further, into a washed-out past.
Do I follow you, line-inch by line-inch,
where waves pour and pour to themselves?

Fragments

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When you are dissatisfied with the way everyone else has expressed something, you have to write poetry. Only poetry will do.

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A poetry of dissent has to be counter-intuitive. Do you really want to produce a newspaper story chopped up and served as verse?

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“When all that consoled consoles no longer
loneliness finds a room inside the one it knows.”
– Howard Altmann

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Sometimes nature is truly the best poem.

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Poets tend to run from Classicism, rather than towards it, believing it serves no purpose today. But Classicism has given us clarity, simplicity, proportion, perspective: all the virtues.

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Cicada
– by Hosho McCreesh
Sick of his own face,
sick of his skin, of the dark,
he crawls outside himself
to sing—
a better poet than most.

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Fragments of poetry by the ancients are evocative. Especially the . . . .

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Less is always more. But you have to work through a library of ‘more’ to get the fine print that is the ‘less’.

Paying homage to Hart Crane

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The poetry of homage is as old as poetry itself.

Hart Crane’s complex lyric on death and the sea has a greater resonance given his almost certain suicide when he jumped over the rail of the Orizaba, 10 miles east of the coast of Florida. Perhaps his paying homage to Herman Melville, in the poem At Melville’s Tomb, was a poetic device; or perhaps not, given that Melville, too, found the ocean to be that most fertile of metaphors.

“There is one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath,” Melville wrote.

These ‘awful stirrings’ are the beginning of metaphor, and also of death:

At Melville’s Tomb

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

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My elegy for Hart Crane – a sonnet, no less – pays homage to his poetry, but also to his vision: volatile, nervous, romantic, more like the French symbolists than his fellow American writers.

He remains one of the least understood poets, opaque and dazzling. His curiously tragic life is now the subject of a film made by none other than James Franco. Not having seen the film, I can’t comment on it, but it’s good to see that Hart speaks to a new generation of readers: perhaps the first generation to really ‘get’ him.

This, then, is my own homage to Hart, a poet whose tragic life circumstances doubtless fed his poems. They also led to his death before the age of 33. One is always left wondering what a poet who had lived longer – Keats, say – would have gone on to write. But that is futile. We have to work with the poems left to us. And give them the honour due to them.

Hart Crane, 1899-1932

Prodigal, shucking off the first-class hell
of being you in bar and cheap hotel,
you leapt. The S.S. Orizaba churned
on anyway; propellers flensed and burned
the waters battering towards New York.
A fellow passenger, who saw you leap
and thrash, watched only for your body’s cork
to float up. As she shudders into sleep,

the juddering vessel, droning, is the bell
that sounds your verses, amplifies your voice,
American Rimbaud. Given the choice,
would you have gulped the broken world as well
in sober hopelessness? Your sailor’s voice
must first be lost in fatal tides to tell.

Three poems by Joop Bersee

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Dutch poet Joop Bersee lived in Cape Town from 1989 to 1996. During this time, his poems were published in the literary journal New Contrast – as were mine. I got to know and love his poetry, but oddly enough I never met him.

After many years, we re-connected and I told him I would be delighted to share some of his poems on my blog. So here they are.

Home

A snowflake on its way home,
lost between pine trees.
Wolf sniffs the frozen air.
The sky makes a dog white.

I am a black dot where flesh
hurts, my own shadow, thoughts
of the other, determined to drown
in a sleepy mouth. Nervous!

Beauty is a tree trunk,
its feet in the windows
of a howling wind,
the rain of terror blessed.

Away with myth and clouds,
veils and soft howls.
The valley counts eleven steel stars.
Loneliness cuts like a razor.


His Beard

His beard was hanging cold
in the rocked river of ice.
The stars turning like windmills
were blind, the whole house shivering,
raised between fingers and veins.

What was this blind man doing,
growing bright towards God’s breath?
Summer burst through a wall, carrying
the hairs of his beard one by one,
the method of bit by bit, the pale

thorns in his hair, each carrying a root,
a roof from house to house, from
loss to loss. But it was like the forest
of his youth, fresh leaves, curly ferns
arriving and dying like salmon in rivers.

I Don’t Know What Happened

I don’t know what happened, has
happened. It’s just that photo
of a young girl and flowers
strewn on the grass around it.
Trams running past her moment
of flowing away between
cracks in the road. She became
liquid, a few trees, lost the
child she was. It is now my
dead memory, always that
place, or was it the other
tree? Standing there rain has lost
its edge. First sign of fatigue.

Amsterdam, Weteringcircuit, 21.April.2012

The mighty Zambezi

I had read about the Zambezi, of course – that mighty, turbulent river that teems with fish and crocodiles, and throws itself off the rocks of Mosi-oa-Tunya in perpetual watery suicide. Then I went to Zambia and saw it.

Rivers have a particular pull – I have been on the Nile and the Zambezi and there is a romance to being on the water. Two weeks ago, I was on a boat in one of the quieter channels of the Zambezi, watching crocodiles slinking into the water from the banks of the Zimbabwe National Park.

The water-course that separates Zimbabwe and Zambia is a slim one, and the island in the middle is disputed territory, naturally. But I didn’t land on the island – I followed the water as it lap-lapped towards the rocks, where it gradually evolved into a torrential shushing that is not the falls themselves but could be mistaken for them.

My guide, Webby Sitwala, knows every sand-bank, every bird-call, and he can spot a monitor lizard in the dappled shadows of waterberry tree-roots with ease. The grey-green crocodiles, lying motionless on the green-grey banks, are so well camouflaged you have to look hard to see them. The hippos are fairly scarce but backs and ears bob above the water, close to the island.

Tiny emerald bee-eaters were so unafraid that they let us get right up close as they all but posed on overhanging branches.

The quiet water-ways are nothing like the roaring, foaming torrents near Livingstone Island. But watching the sun set behind mangosteen trees, with the water slowly settling and unsettling around the life it supports, makes me want to pack all I possess into one suitcase and move to Livingstone.

I suppose the best travel experiences seduce one with promises of an eternal boat-trip on an eternal river. The desire to be out of time never quite leaves one.

Of leopards and ghosts

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Tomorrow we’re headed for the Highlands in Mpumalanga. I’m writing a story about some of the small towns in this undeniably ‘green and pleasant’ province. I know it’s an area renowned for its fly-fishing and rock-climbing, its outdoor pursuits – I think, though, that what teases my mind is the fact is that the region is home to Africa’s only breeding community of wild black leopard. Or so I’m told.

And the region’s back-story is this: a number of South African (Anglo-Boer) War battles were fought here a century ago – in fact, Dullstroom was torched by British forces. I’ll keep my eyes open for ruined forts and trenches in the area. The Highlands Meander is, in fact, a war route; though now it’s more well-known for its farm-stalls, restaurants and scenery.

I’ll let you know if I see a black leopard. Or the ghost of a soldier. Or something. That’s if I’m not wholly sidetracked by the quiet streams and stone lodges.

 

 

We are all musicians

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For one reason or another, I haven’t given my blog much attention of late. Work has consumed me; financial worries have plagued me. Not that this has allowed writers to deter them in the past. I am guilty of dissembling.

But having said that, I have, at least, been reading more. Rediscovering Edward Said has been particularly important to me. His writing is an antidote to the soundbites of social media and all the nervous afflictions that accompany those compressions. I feel people are more interested in throwing verbal stones than having conversations nowadays. Being something of a political animal, I am sometimes drawn into debates, though I feel, now, that these are essentially futile. For the vast majority, the aim is not to understand but to judge or confirm a prejudice. No wonder, then, that the world is in a state of perpetual, toxic war.

From now on, I resolve to stay as far away from the poison that is ideology ruthlessly applied.

About 20 years ago, a BBC reporter asked a Bosnian refugee, “Are you Muslim or Croat?”

“I’m a musician,” he responded.

In his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism, Said writes:

Rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow. But for that kind of wider perception we need time and patient and skeptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.

Tipping my hat to John Burnside

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I couldn’t have been happier that John Burnside won this year’s T S Eliot prize. The Scottish poet is one of my favourites – I have his ‘Selected Poems’ next to my bed, along with Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Eavan Boland and Rita Dove. All are more or less fixtures there.

I’m also a big fan of David Harsent’s poetry – he was short-listed for the award.

In fact, it was a strong field of contenders, notwithstanding the fact that Alice Oswald and John Kinsella pulled out.

With 11 collections to his name, Burnside is a heavyweight, inhabiting his language like a boxer whose fists are probably most at home in his gloves. Here is his account of why he writes – and why winning the T S Eliot prize made him rethink his purpose.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/poetryandplaybookreviews/9020436/How-poetry-can-change-lives.html