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Maverick Citizen

Unlocked: Poems for Critical Times (Series Two, Part Six)

Unlocked: Poems for Critical Times (Series Two, Part Six)
Photograph: Jo Ractliffe, The gifts in the trees, Oaxaca, 2018.  Silver gelatine photograph, 20 x 25 cm. Courtesy of Jo Ractliffe. 

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

Yvette Christiansë


And now, be kind

stars, gods, be kind

whatever names you go by

in our many prayers

and thanksgivings

                                  be kind

when our fingers break

against the wood that

holds us

                                   be kind

when we hear our voices

fall flat out of the 

childhood we lose

                                    be kind

in the darkness,

                                   be kind

when they wash us

heavily and feed us

with rough concessions

                                    be kind

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

                                 be kind

to our memories


our forgetting.


From Castaway, Duke University Press, 1999


Twice over

Haidee Kotze


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.
It’s early.

And so we baked that cake
again. We’ll remember

From Scrim, Deep South, 2019. DM/ MC/ML



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