Unlocked: Poems for Critical Times (Series Two, Part Six)
In times of uncertainty, many readers turn to poetry, seeking not just consolation but clarity. “Unlocked: Poems for Critical Times” brings South African poems to those facing the isolation, confusion and unease engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic. In a situation in which information is being transferred at disquieting speed, poetry asks us to slow down, to attend with care to the way poetic language re-creates our singular interior lives and loves as well as our shared social and political landscape.
Editors’ note to readers: The automated sound device that accompanies articles in the Daily Maverick is to assist readers who are blind or have reading difficulties. It is not designed for poetry. Where possible, we advise you to read the poems rather than listen.
Yvette Christiansë’s poignant poem “When All Else Fails” appears in her volume Castaway, a collection of poems containing multiple voices and set on the island of St Helena, a port of call for the slave trade.
The poem is lamentation and invocation, a girl slave’s hymn from the hull of a ship. She retains the memory of her unbound body, her freedom and her history by enumerating the privations and cruelties that enslave fingers, ankles, mouths. The resolute movement of the poem and the formal repeated entreaty “be kind” give life and breath to the resilient girl.
“Twice over” is also a poem in a gentle key, though its subject matter is very different. Haidee Kotze invokes an apparently simple domestic act: two adults teaching a small boy to bake a cake. Among other things what he and they learn is “how you measure” and that to make things “Right,” whether in everyday life or relationships, you might need to try again. Engaging instruction and fine description of the winter evening converges with introspection, repeated twice, that “we’ll remember/that”.
When All Else Fails
And now, be kind
stars, gods, be kind
whatever names you go by
in our many prayers
when our fingers break
against the wood that
when we hear our voices
fall flat out of the
childhood we lose
in the darkness,
when they wash us
heavily and feed us
with rough concessions
to our yesterdays, our
back theres, the generations
we shed as we squat
in place among strangers.
To our hands, be kind
to our ankles, our eyes
to our memories
From Castaway, Duke University Press, 1999
We baked that cake twice
over. We’ll remember
that. The Friday night. The boy
with his head over egg whites and flour
knotting the yellow light
between us. The winter evening flush
against the house. The slow
showing we save for small
hands. This is how you measure. This is how you whip.
This is how you make your wrist do the tender work
of folding. Between us
we showed him the slow temper of love
while the moon brewed like a fat ball of dough over the city.
Even so, we burnt it. Not much, just
so it wasn’t Right his face said
solemn over the singed crumbs. We looked
at each other over
the kitchen over his bright head. We said
There is more flour. And eggs and sugar. Mandarins. Oil.
And so we baked that cake
again. We’ll remember
From Scrim, Deep South, 2019. DM/ MC/ML