With Earth on the killing altar, the gods are pacified with sweet but empty words

With Earth on the killing altar, the gods are pacified with sweet but empty words
Illustration: Midjourney / @Kailash

A poet’s job is to show us the unvarnished truth, even when it is difficult – including the fact that we are sacrificing the only planet we have.

The world is faced with challenges that all require a solution here and now. To be sure, there have always been problems humanity, and her natural siblings, the fauna and flora of our planet, have had to face through the centuries. In the distant past when there were volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, droughts and famines that we couldn’t even begin to explain, let alone protect ourselves against, our ancestors would attribute such calamities to angry gods, or to an angry God, presuming that it was punishment for something they had either done or not done. Sacrifices would then be in order.

And although natural disasters still visit us, we know much more about their workings today; we know their origin and we understand why they occur. As a result, we attribute their origin to the sole impulse of the physical world. Although there’s not much we can do to stop them, we are able to predict them, for one, and we have technology and scientific knowledge to survive some of their destructive muscle. In Japan, for example, tall buildings are built to be “rubbery”, so that they may absorb as much seismic wrath as possible.

The thing is that we are Homo sapiens. Progress and discovery are wired into us. During the Industrial Revolution we started acquiring and applying knowledge and know-how enough to start altering the physical world we depend on, mainly by burning coal and thereby increasing the quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If anything, we were beginning to become gods, or God, endowed with the power to modify or obliterate Earth, as if we had hitched a ride inside it, like the Greeks did in Troy, and we are now coming out of our fake gift horse.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we are not alone in this space. The woodpecker still jackhammers the tree trunk; bees still waggle dance to share coordinates; flowers still bloom to attract birds and bees. The genetic urge to survive and bear offspring drives everything and everyone. This has always been true for the individual. But of late this natural phenomenon has proven to be in the throes of failure.

Through eyes we did not know we had

To romanticise things, let us say that the poet evolved not to set things straight but to make everything bare, like the emperor’s clothes. They point to things for us to better understand them. Talking about a flower tells us to look at it with eyes we did not know we had. Writing about the corruption of a government removes the varnish with which such a government has painted itself, revealing its true colours beneath. Poets have been jailed and killed for removing governments’ whitewash.

In his poem Woodpecker, South African poet Kelwyn Sole writes, Woodpecker in the forest’s vast closed cupboard / raps to get out. / But it can’t. Who placed it in there? Sole and Charles Bukowski seem to agree, because the latter, in his poem Bluebird, writes, there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I pour whiskey on him and inhale / cigarette smoke / and the whores and the bartenders / and the grocery clerks / never know that / he’s / in there, as if the human heart itself has turned nature into its jailer, the way the apartheid regime’s heart turned against Dennis Brutus, Wally Serote and so many others.

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One wonders to whose predicament such a prison for the non-human world can be likened in the human world. Perhaps to the people who live close to that enduring world: the San of southern Africa, the Yanomami of South America, the first peoples of North America, and so many others who live inside and alongside nature, borrowing from it and giving back to it.

As we have seen, when things did not or do not go as expected (this continues to this day), humans tend to attribute incidents to deities or, in monotheistic religions, to a deity, a practice that birthed the idea of sacrifices, a sacrifice being a bid to appease an angry God.

One of the most famous incidents of a sacrifice in the Hebrew and Christian realm is the one of Isaac, the only son of Abraham and Sarah.

We are not going to belabour the point but instead let Jamaican American poet Geoffrey Philp tell it, in his poem Isaac’s Sacrifice, which opens with a difficult question: I wonder if he ever spoke to his father / again? Let us also wonder if the fate of our world and of our progeny lies in our hands or in the outcome of prayer and sacrifice.

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Our species has the ability to either protect nature or destroy it; we have the ability to free the woodpecker from the cupboard it’s in and the blue bird from the solitary confinement of our hearts. Isaac’s father ended up not killing his son because God provided a goat for the ultimate sacrifice. Philp’s poem ends: What would have happened if / the old goat hadn’t been so lost?

Who sacrifices their child? Are we or are we not in the process of sacrificing this rock we live on? It is evident that we indeed are.

If so, then Earth is our sacrificial goat at our killing altar, and the poets talking in the wind are false prophets trying to keep us from what we were put on this Earth to do. Or not. DM168


By Kelwyn Sole

Woodpecker in the forest’s vast closed cupboard
raps to get out. But it can’t. And the hammering
caroms from bill to bole, from tree to tree,
from ear to echo back to ear, till you are wholly
trapped within the collateral declensions of its hunger.
Nothing remains to twin any beat with its original –
just a kaleidophone of multiplying woodpeckers
afflicting wood with drumtaps whose single author’s
lost. You can no longer tell the woodpecker for
the trees of sound: so here you stand, abashed,
hoping to conjure a path out of all the ricocheting
directions made possible around you, then recollect
exactly when your body began to shatter; to collect
the slivers of yourself which are now mere detritus
of the act – irretrievable – of a single thoughtless bird.

Isaac’s Sacrifice

By Geoffrey Philp

I wonder if he ever spoke to his father
again? I mean, there he was playing
marbles in the dirt with his friends,
or out in the fields flying a kite
while John crows circled over the tamarinds,
and then, his father’s familiar bellow,
“Isaac, get the donkey, and stop
with those fool-fool games!
And what have I told you
about playing with those little hooligans
who don’t wear any sandals?”  But this time
it was different. This time his father
was as cross as a camel with a burr on its tail.

They climbed the hill without a word
between them, and Isaac gathered sticks
and bramble, washed himself clean in the cool
springs the way his father had ordered him
before he left to gather stones.

And after they were both finished,
Abraham, tears in his eyes, asked Isaac
to lie down on the makeshift altar
and being a good son, he obeyed,
even when he saw the long knife
hovering over his chest and didn’t blink
when his father turned away,
as if he had heard a different voice
and found a new sacrifice.

As they descended the hill,
and Isaac was kicking stones
out of the path without Abraham
complaining about ruining his new sandals,
and patting him on the head, saying,
“My boy, my only begotten son,”
trying to be his friend, again,
Isaac held Abraham’s trembling hand
against his cheek, and forgave him,
yet he couldn’t help but think,
“What would have happened if
the old goat hadn’t been so lost?

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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