Maverick Life

Days of Coronavirus

Unlocked: Poems for critical times (Part Two)

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Poet Ingrid de Kok selects every week a South African poem that sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely, addresses the question of how to imagine ourselves, how to be, in the current situation.

The two poems that follow are different in style and context, but both speak to the potential of language and gesture to reach “through the bars.” Gabeba Baderoon’s poem laments a heedless betrayal of the human need “not to be alone.” Jeremy Cronin’s dramatic poem, written during his imprisonment under the Terrorism Act, re-enacts the gestural inventiveness and solidarity between isolated political prisoners.


Poetry for Beginners

By Gabeba Baderoon


In the evening poetry class for beginners

a girl in a thick brown coat she doesn’t take off


breathes in deep

and risking something says fast


My boyfriend’s in prison


I’m here to find out

how to write to him through the bars


and someone laughs


and she pulls herself back into her coat

and from inside looks past us


and the next week

doesn’t come back


and I think of her for years

and what poetry is


I think this is my origin

where poetry is risk, is betrayal


And the memory of the first question

how not to be alone


From The History of Intimacy, Kwela Books, 2018





By Jeremy Cronin


By holding my mirror out of the window I see

Clear to the end of the passage

There’s a person down there.

A prisoner polishing a door handle.

In the mirror I see him see

My face in the mirror,

I see the fingertips of his free hand

Bunch together, as if to make

An object the size of a badge

Which travels up to his forehead

The place of an imaginary cap.

(This means: A warder.)

Two fingers are extended in a vee

And wiggle like two antennae.

(He’s being watched.)

A finger of his free hand makes a watch-hand’s arc

On the wrist of his polishing arm without

Disrupting the slow-slow rhythm of his work.

(Later. Maybe, later we can speak.)

Hey! Wat maak jy daar?

 – a voice from around the corner.

No. Just polishing baas.

He turns his back to me, now watch

His free hand, the talkative one,

Slips quietly behind

-Strength brother, it says,

In my mirror,

A black fist.


From Inside and Out, David Philip Publishers, Cape Town, 1999. DM/MC/ ML


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