Maverick Citizen: Obituary

Gus Ferguson, 1940-2020, kind mentor for a generation of southern Africa poets

By Helen Moffett 29 December 2020

On 27 December one of the nicest people I’ve known left his corporeal body (we lost his beautiful mind and heart a while back, thanks to the cruel claws of dementia).

Gus Ferguson Photo: Helen Moffett

Gus Ferguson, you were a pure soul, and I purely loved you. You almost single-handedly created a body of southern African poetry over decades through your various creaturely imprints (Snailpress and more) and your wonderful poetry journal, Carapace. But this formidable legacy pales in comparison with your extraordinary generosity, your sincere and energetic championing of writers – especially us skittish creatures, poets.

You were kind, kind, kind, without ever being sugary. You were the first professional poetry person to read the messy assemblage that would become my debut poetry collection, Strange Fruit. You wrote me an enthusiastic email about how you’d read it on the train, and told me I had a publishable collection. And you were the first person to print a poem by me, a rude one about a penis, in Carapace, and you were as excited about this event as I was, if a lot less nervous. I dedicated Strange Fruit to you – obviously – and I remember how surprised and touched you were.

The memories keep coming.

I wrote you a poem about my cat Meg’s first encounter, as a kitten, with a snail. All who knew you and your trademark obsession with molluscs will understand this. I have a signed cartoon by you hanging next to my front door, so I see it and think of you every time I leave the house or come in. (It shows a sage sitting cross-legged on a flying carpet as it zooms past Table Mountain, with the caption: “Ali Akbar rounds the Cape in 1353.”) Just one example of how your brilliant cartoons, never spiky but never sentimental, said and did so much with so little. I remember how, after Strange Fruit was published (by Modjaji), every time you saw me you prodded me: “Helen, are you still a poet?” – and how much it meant to me that that was how you saw me.

Your wit and realism: You would say that publishing poetry was like raking money into piles and burning it, and yet you kept on doing it, with verve and unquenchable enthusiasm. Your wry and wise advice to poets doing readings: “Your introduction to a poem should never last longer than the poem itself.” Your puns: In a class by themselves. Your passion for poetry about creatures, the smaller and humbler, the better. The time you read a poem about cockatoos at that creaky Victorian venue in Obz, A Touch of Madness, which ended with a SUPERB pun about the Holy Parakeet, and how the audience of heathen twenty-somethings looked mystified. Your clever, droll, humane poems, which you described as doggerel – they weren’t.

Here’s an appropriately seasonal example that presents a few characteristic facets: The apparent simplicity, snails (of course), your wonderful inversions of the familiar.

Snail Christmas Poem

Of Orient there were three snails

Who followed ancient Bedouin trails

To see the birth at Bethlehem

Their names were Nathan, Gar and Shem.

They crept behind a shining star

The going slow, the distance far.

And came, just thirteen years too late

The gospels don’t record their fate.

But lucky Nathan, Shem and Gar

Were present at the Bar Mitzvah.

I could go on recalling these and other good times. But this one sticks: you, Harry Garuba (professor of English at UCT) and I had been asked to judge a township schools poetry competition for the South African Education Project. We ploughed through tons of poems, and then you both came to my garden flat to confer, and ate tom yum soup. You were delighted because I lived in the same place Nicky, your wife, had lived when you were courting her, and you had fond recollections of climbing in and out the window, and sometimes sleeping on the grass outside, hating to be parted from her. You and Harry proceeded to judge that competition as thoughtfully and thoroughly as if it was the Man Booker Prize, and I learnt so much about how to spot raw talent, the genuinely fresh idea or original phrase from you that evening.

When the serious business was done, you turned up the volume on the blues playing gently in the background, and danced your heart out to Bob Dylan’s “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry” all the while analysing the lyrics, the chord sequences, the zeitgeist. I can still see you bopping around the room, and Harry gently waving his wine glass and tapping his feet, his smile a new moon.

Dear beaming, brilliant Harry. We lost him to leukemia at the beginning of this vile, unspeakable year. And now you are gone.

And what’s left is a loved and loving family, a monumental pile of beautiful, funny, witty, tender poems, books, collections, art, an entire generation of poets (including the teenagers who were prize winners in that competition), and so much else besides. It means more to me than any award that the last poem, on the last page, of the last issue of Carapace, is one of mine – a poem found in conversation with Joanne Hichens. It’s now reappeared in her newly published memoir, Death and the After Parties. What bright threads you wove and continue to go on weaving, darling Gus.

My heart goes out to Nicky, your family, and all those who loved you – which must be everyone who ever met you. DM/MC

Helen Moffett is an editor, writer, poet, teacher and scholar. Her most recent novel, Charlotte, was published in 2020.

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  • Who will drive poetry in SA now? Someone who has it in them like Gus did. But the humour will be irreplaceable. So much twitching-mouth irrepressible fun is a force of nature. Condolences to dear Nicky who nurtured a writer in my family too.

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