Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen

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

Unlocked: Poems for Critical Times (Series Two, Part Eight)
Paysage intérieur, 1993, Acrylic on canvas, 146 x 114cm, Credit: ©Breyten Breytenbach. Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.

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.

In the presence of death poets speak with particular urgency. Our own impending deaths or those of others generate a language of mystery while the things of the world, in their poignant ordinariness, call us back to life and the known.

Breyten Breytenbach is a magician of language, particularly but not only in Afrikaans. His linguistic and rhythmic virtuosity, surreal painterly descriptions and shifting registers, from the tender to the excoriating, illuminate dark corners of experience. The poems below dance and shimmer, or crystallize like frozen shards. 

Dancing invites us to contemplate what it might mean “to forsake the earth”. While we do not know “..who or what goes away..” the experience will be a solitary one, accompanied perhaps, only by “dancing spaces” and then “a wind silence.”

The steely elegy The Nomadic Conversation, an exchange with Mahmoud Darwish, recalls the modesty, clarity and political commitment of that great Palestinian poet. His exemplary instructions about how to be remembered when he dies include “ grand display” and no flag draped over his coffin. He allows “at best a blinding quatrain,” music, laughter, wine: “just this, just this”.

In It is called grieving for the present, one of two Afrikaans poems reprinted here, the speaker confronts us with a set of ambiguities: when we die, the present and everything we love dies for us; when others die, we die for them too. And thus in the presence of anticipated loss “nou weet jy hoe dit is/om te lewe.” 

The previously unpublished poem en waarvan sal die hart bly sing? with its affecting repetitions, rhymes and half-rhymes, asks more unanswerable questions about finding “daardie laaste lyn” to record the inevitable relinquishing of words and the loss of the enigmatic visual world. 




it is going to be tough

to forsake this earth

(but who or what goes away?)

the terrible spaces of dispossession

always yours alone


dark hill over there

like a bowl of shimmering light

with trees still bearing the signs of wind

in joint and wound and miracle of breath,

and here a mudslide

slopes and plains

and black vegetation


all suffering is distance –

how could you know of people in the mud?

what is lived? what seen, heard

or merely imagined,

and what matters?


when walls crumble

and the unimpeded cry

opens in you

a pealing, shimmering incantation

of dancing spaces –

a wind silence


From Voices from the Middle World, Haymarket Books, 2009


The Nomadic Conversation

     With Mahmoud Darwish


when you die, Mahmoud

when your aorta thrashing

like a purple snake bursts

because the lines can no longer

carry the perfect metaphor

and your heart as poem spurts

the final blood

in that hospital of foreign parts

of the barbarian land,

when your heart at last

could be a wingless bird


a moon starts growing above the island

among slithering clouds

of this ‘little winter season’

which soon will spill dark ink

in long verses over the waves

so that crows and goats and dirt-poor children

in song may plash in the mud

as if celebrating liberation


three, four, five days and nights

invisible by day, invisible like dying

or the movement surfacing in a stanza words

decay in the night

when times takes its time as reaper

over the fields of the body


until the loose fleece fades

and shadows over the naked land

fall away like tufts of flesh

and the moon bloats virginally full


a sloop of bone

your skull, Mahmoud




cover me quickly, you said

no wailing and no grand display

write at best a blinding quatrain

so that the object of your poem’s pain

may be eclipsed

there’s no identity

just a soughing space of shiver

all is movement until it stops moving

to sing,

time is the timeless lover

over image patterns of the skin


drape no flag over my coffin, you said

a flag is to have a shirt cut from cloth

for the homeless

a flag is the rag with which the clown

teaches a child in the circus of color

and the blue of betrayal

our flag blows free to remember the Nakba

when olive trees were wrapped in dead fire

while bird coops of verse were written for us


just this, just this


let there be music, you said

a feast with much laughter for my friends

and a glass of wine lifted high to the day

as red as the ringing throb and wash of a heart


From Voices from the Middle World, Haymarket Books, 2009


It is called grieving for the present

Longing for ancient times and grieving for the present, my heart is exhausted.” Ryokan, “Reading the ‘Record of Eihei Dōgen’”  


nou weet jy wat dit is

om dood te gaan:

dat alles en almal en dit en dié

hier vir wie jy lief was

sonder om daarvan bewus te wees

moes sterwe tewyl jy nog leef


en nou terugkom in musiek

die effense blaarbeweging

tussen kyk en sien

die randjie van ’n gliplag

oor die malligheid van die lewe


nou weet jy hoe dit is 

om te lewe:

dat alles en almal en dit en dié

daardie daar vir wie jy lief is

nie daarvan weet nie maar wéét

hulle sal lewe terwyl jy nog sterf 


From op weg na , Human and Rousseau, 2019.


en waarvan sal die hart bly sing?


so lank soek ek al

maar het ek ooit regtig gesoek ?


na daardie laaste lyne

waaraan ek my op kan hang


waarmee die lus na dood my sal vang

om die oë toe te maak


en die oë oop kan maak

om blind die lig te ontvang ?


dit is dan so voor die hand liggend

in pyn se synkronkels omlyn met stilte


want wat is ‘n boom tog

sonder die hond ?


en wat is sneeu

as dit nie was vir ‘n hemel ?


en wat sou die hand kon wees

en weeg sonder beweging ?

Study for late self, 2014, Mixed media on paper, 42 x 30cm, ©Breyten Breytenbach. Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.



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