Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen

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

Unlocked: Poems for Critical Times (Series Two, Part Seven)
Kevin Brand: Pieta, 1996. Duct tape on masonry wall, 650 × 500 cm. Installation view, Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town. (Image courtesy of the artist)

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.

Enslaved, colonized and migrant people lose not only their communities, cultural life and countries but often their languages as well. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote poignantly about the pain involved in using the language of the overlord, but also about the power of remodelling a colonial language – in his case Spanish – to his own linguistic and political purposes.

In Words, wounds, scars the late, much loved Nigerian-born poet Harry Garuba, whose first language was Uneme, laments the loss of his ancestral language, a “voice from another life” which only returns to him in the summoned memory of a trilling Senegalese kingfisher. The injury feels physical, a scarring of the skin. But he takes his understanding of “wounded words” to students studying English, sensitizing them to similar wounds in the poems of Irish poets Yeats and Heaney “and in the words of all speakers/Of a language they own and do not own.”

Jolyn Phillips’ poem Diglossia is explosively inventive, a verdant assemblage of words and phrases that attempt to “break tongue,” and “disguise my voice.” Nursery rhymes, colloquial English and Afrikaans, new combinations of words as well as phrases from canonical writers like Alexander Pope rise “from language graves” to battle for authority over her poetic voice. She digs them up and then buries them again, wondering, it seems, which fragments to put to use, which “to kick to pieces”.

In Xhosa lessons Beverly Rycroft rehearses with onomatopoeic precision the difficulty the speaker has in learning to speak Xhosa. The poem centres on the struggle to make new sounds, change the shape of mouth and tongue, shift “English lips” to manage the “clickety click of X.” To learn a language gives access, even if only conditionally, to a different world view and community of voices. The poem ends with an urgent and humorous appeal for luck (is the learner like wood?) and the chance to enter the realm of the exacting language: “Knock on wood./Let me in.”


Words,  wounds,  scars

By Harry Garuba


A little blood drawn from the body

A little ink drawn from the soul

And a page of pain unfolds

In wounds, words, scars


There are scars in my words you cannot hear

Scars in my worlds you cannot see

Memories of wounds so deep the blood scars the skin


Every day without fail

Every dawn without let

The Senegalese kingfisher comes

To the tree outside my window

here in the quiet suburbs of the city where no cocks crow

and the dawn sleeps in a nest of mist and starlings quicken the day

the kingfisher comes trilling outside my window


It speaks to me in a voice from another life

in a guttural speech far removed from sound of the cityscapes

the hooting cars and the trafficked people chained to wheels

the Senegalese kingfisher speaks to me in the  language of the dead

the language of the ancestors of Uneme seeking the son

lost in an alien city, lost to the dialect of a different tribe.


I ply my trade of wounded words through the trail of streets

Potholes with the scars that tell their stories

and in the dilapidated lecture halls where students congregate

to learn how to purify the language of the English tribe

I ask them to identify the wounds and the scars in the poems

Left behind by Yeats and Heaney and in the words of all speakers

Of a language they own and do not own.


From Animist Chants and Memorials, Kraft Books Limited, 2017. With the kind permission of Zazi  Garuba.



By Jolyn Phillips

I am a collection of dismantled almosts 

– Anne Sexton 

my tongue has language graves which i dig up
                            dig out and bury again
with the help             of the devil from the
knapsack               he whispers the language disease 

“articulate          yourself      animal-like
in my
         break tongue         then you
                                     can.        siss be
                                   the one.          you want to be”

i deaftongue dulltongue flowertongue slow walker with my tongue
circle tribe language meal hessians     amassed the pete-my-lyre-idiom
the pick-up uh an a bonnet on the e       apas jypy mypy hopear
paptrat kapan jypy mos hopear        epek epen jypy papraat
the pie’s pepjapeldepuh tapaal

i lie the whole time as i break at
the language wheel the whole time i see my language
fracturing bones            the more i talk in my
tongue the more unintelligible i become
                                     a devourer at the wheel of prayer 

i sit in his earlobe i turn earwax-
words round and round the medieval story
his breakwheel is orphaned into a proverb
my tongue turns are braided clubbed
the spokedevil cites alexander pope
“who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” n.c.

the disglossia diphtong blindtongue         coat-turner-language is the
taste with my feelers                          my tonguebone breaks the worchest
toils at snail’s pace against the break             of other tongues that
disguise my voice the diddledee diddledee chickerie        dee oink
full of killed syl/la/bles/ver              pick a slat for your own hole 

what must my protest-tongue kick to pieces
                                                   to escape from my skin-languages?                           

First published in Afrikaans in Radbraak, Human and Rousseau, 2017.


Xhosa Lessons

By Beverly Rycroft

Palate and tongue
my mortar and pestle.
English lips shift
to tut C C C,
and clickety-click of X.

Tongue pounds Q
like whale-threshing tail
or fat raindrops exploding
in bucket made of tin: 

Qô Qô Qô
Knock on wood.
Let me in. 

From A Private Audience, Dyad Press Living Poets Series, 2017. DM/ MC/ ML


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