Maverick Citizen

Days of Coronavirus

Unlocked: Poems for critical times (Part One)

Unlocked: Poems for critical times (Part One)
Gosiame carries newborn brother Umpile while standing outside their family house in Johannesburg after President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a National State of Disaster as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

In this new feature by Maverick Citizen, poet Ingrid de Kok will twice a week select a South African poem that sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, addresses the question of how to imagine ourselves, how to be, in the current situation. We asked her to start the cycle with a short introduction about why poetry matters at a time like this, followed by two of her own poems.

People have always turned to poetry at critical times, whether in periods of personal sorrow and stress or at times of great public upheaval, disquiet and dread. Perhaps this is because, at its finest, poetic language provides unique insights into shared human experience.

A poem can disrupt standard habits of attention, alert us to new connections, reshape how we think and refresh our sense of community with others and with nature. It can confront, cajole and console. And it offers us inestimable pleasure in the play of language itself, its rhythms, image-building and metaphorical capacity.

Poetry can make us alive to ourselves and others.

Most of the poems I select are by South African poets or poets linked to South Africa and most will have been published before. Different in tone, texture and context, some will be speculative, some rhetorical, some reflective, some sombre, some quirky.

Of course this cannot be a representative sampling of South African poets or poems. Reread your own favourites and share them with others; buy poetry collections; subscribe to South African poetry journals. And perhaps, if you have not already done so, begin the arduous task of writing poetry yourself.

The two poems below reflect on mortality, compassion and watchfulness in different ways. Compassionate Leave was written at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when people were dying in their thousands, neglected by the state. The poem makes reference to WH Auden’s great, unnerving poem, The Fall of Rome.


Out of season

         You who will die, watch over your life; don’t set sail

         at the wrong season, for at best no man lives long.

                                                          Alexander Aetolus


The wrong season to watch for whales

But we lean over the railing anyway.

An errant animal once heaved his cavernous

Body out of season towards our chance sight.

Today we might be lucky too.


Summer roadworks have blocked access

So our street has become a one-way route,

Simpler, quieter. The detour

On the hill plies metal on tar and we hear

Tyres screech from a distance, almost comforting.


No boats at sea this morning, no rush hour

For sails. No whales.

No one walking on the shore.

No one walking on the water.

But we watch, we watch over our lives.


From Other Signs, Kwela Books, 2011


Compassionate leave


Almost everyone’s on leave,

gone away


to the countryside

in threadbare trucks


to pay respects

in rooms and huts


to watch and pray for dying ones

shrunken under sheets,


to vigils through the night

in closed-off streets


where grandmothers prepare

small and smaller funeral feasts


after truncated prayers

chanted by tired priests


over cardboard caskets

in the deathwatch heat.


Gone to taxi ranks and stations

to wait for information


from billboards, radios,

word of mouth and trumpets in the sky


where ubiquitous hadedas,

unlike Auden’s mute impervious birds


blast their high shofars

over each infected space.


From Seasonal Fires: New and Selected poems, Umuzi, 2006 DM/ MC/ ML


"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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