Sunday, September 3, 2017

A flame that burned to the end * – by Harry Owen

The sad truth is that, before I first came here ten years ago, I knew almost nothing about South African poets. That changed very quickly, however.
One of the first books I was given (in May 2007) was called Dog Latin by someone I had never heard of at the time but whom I would later come to know as both fellow poet and friend – Norman Morrissey. A year later, in June 2008 at the launch of his new collection, Triptych, at the old Reddits Books & Coffee in New Street, he signed my book with the note: “Harry, The first copy sold!” I had come a long way in twelve months.
So it was with a sense of profound sadness that I learned of Norman’s death last week. He had retired owing to ill health in 2002 from his career as a lecturer in English at several South African universities, including UCT and Fort Hare, in order to concentrate on his writing at his home in Hogsback.
But before that he had to undergo lengthy treatment for profound depression, a debilitating condition which he faced with candour and courage. As he writes in ‘Preface to St Mark’s Diary’ about poems written during this period: “I was working through a breakdown, doing cold turkey on years of sleeping pills and painkillers, and at last getting full clinical diagnosis on a condition that began with an infection trashing my nervous system in November 1962, a month after my 13th birthday.”
Undoubtedly, Norman struggled – and so, inevitably, did those with whom he shared his life; he could not then have been easy to live with. Yet he wrote his way through it all, latterly with the love and companionship of another poet – Silke Heiss, whom he married in 2013 and who added immeasurably to the quality of his final years.
That same year I was privileged to include a wonderful poem by Norman in the anthology For Rhino in a Shrinking World.  Called ‘Lord of Life’, it tells the magical true story, from when he worked as a ranger for the old Natal Parks Board, of Norman’s relationship with a bull rhino whose “quiet gravity saved me, I’m sure/ many a vanity or vagueness of phrase”. I heard Norman read this poem twice: once at Reddits Poetry here in Grahamstown and once at the McGregor Poetry Festival in 2015.
So while I will certainly miss Norman Morrissey I shall also continue to be inspired by his courage, his fortitude and his unrelenting belief, enriched ultimately by the devotion of his wife Silke, in the power of love to prevail over all hardship. This was his prayer, and I think it was answered.

Prayer

The candle gutters down
till the wick floats in the last wax,
burns at both ends,

gives twice the light
because
of its nearing extinction:

let me
be
like that

the whole thread of my life
a flame
from childhood to old age

in one
clear, unwavering
consummation.

Norman Morrissey
(from Strandloop, Echoing Green Press, 2016)

Norman's Memorial Event in Hogsback will be held tomorrow, Saturday 5th August 2017, in the Vula Vista Conference Centre at 3:30pm. The Memorial Event at Outeniqua Moon near Mossel Bay will be held on Saturday 2nd September 2017 at 3:30pm.
 

*This article appeared in Grahamstown's Grocotts Mail, 4 August 2017

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Four poems for Norman by Brian Walter

Presences

Your monkey troop clambers
in the winter magnolia – chuckling
and chirping and reaching for buds,

scampering and riding
high the bending branches
like boys in a Frost poem.

And in the lit morning,
from the next house, the strains
of Pianoman finger the air.

These are the sounds you hear
in a poet’s garden, he having left
this while, and roving out west. 

29th July 2017
  
Seer

On an autumn day in Africa
you came from your mountain

to tell of a face you saw
in your almond tree.  Nothing

you say could alarm me: I trust
your eyes and mind: ancestors

have been kind enough to call
on you.  Myths are making you

their own.  When you left, humbly
I plucked for my autumn vase

a living twig of wild olive,
the last sprig of almond

from my tree, and one bronze
chrysanthemum, the first

this season.  Autumn: you see past
foliage to the very word of tree. 

from Tracks

Gaga footbridge

                   Alice days, for Norman Morrissey

Time was the skies opened,
and we on a motorbike
going home via Chitibunga’s bottle store:
but the dip of the Gaga was flooded,
so we ducked off right, and over
the footbridge, undaunted and soaking.

After our transaction, kindly and warm ‒
do you know the big guy was later killed
by robbers, right at his till, and he so hardy
and big-boned ‒ you held our two packets
of beer, one in each hand, on the pillion,

balancing, arms dependent. Times like these,
I remember the first beer, standing now
in dry clothes ‒ watching the downpour hitting
at everything, water washing in gushes
where we never thought water would flow ‒

and laughing,

life balanced in your safe hands,
motorcycle passenger,
over the straight and narrow footbridge.
  
from Poems Packed for Travel

Ngqika’s Kop 

A smoke haze rises from far-off forests
this weekend, while we work about the house,
or watch patches of cricket on TV.  “Pine-forest fire,
in the hills,” we agree, and consider
how the forecast cold front, that now chills
the test in Cape Town, will soon quench this blaze.                         

But tonight flames still crackle in the dark,
crowning the mountains, right up where the stars
hold the sky.  And then ― this Monday morning ―
snow.  That African hill stands majestic,
wears white Ethiopian skirts, and appears so brave
and blessed that all looks well with the world. 

Watching from our lowlands, we did not know
that you’d spent the holidays fire-fighting,
beating raging flames from neighbour houses,
smoke-choked and seared; and how your team
of volunteers rushed to ever moving
crisis-points, calling details and command;                                           
               
how, late that Sunday night, so many of you,
hearing sounds of peaceful susurration,
left exhausted houses to stand outside,
calm in the dousing rain that at last fell,
then crept indoors to sleep; and how your dreams
coalesced collectively into snow.

from Mousebirds

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Events

Musing,
dozing, wrapped in a blanket,
the fire alive as a serpent’s tongue

I’m lost
in the events
amidst the embers.

9.6.2017

Snake

All day
I’ve been the snake of the medicine cards:
weaving over the sands of my mind,

thoughts coruscations I slide across
and leave
along the way.

10.6.2017

Matter

My legs folded,
I went down on my knees
before the filthy gutter

– but kind folk came,
got me back on my feet,
steadied me,

made
the experience
matter.

19.6.2017

No matter

Where can we write:
tissues of visions
that melt into one another
no matter how one withers.

17.7.2017 (This was Norman’s penultimate poem)


Norman Morrissey

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Best drier

The best drier
of tears
is the wind.

23.7.2017

Still calls

I put your underpants
back in the drawer,
your t-shirt into the cupboard.

A time will come
to lose
those rituals

but for now
the Wood owl
still calls.

25.7.2017

In each other

At our usual
picnic spot
on the R63

I stop
to note my gladness
at these places

across
the country
we shared.

We were
without wanting
to be

a restless pair
forced to travel
these roads

– never really
at home
except

in
each
other.

16.8.2017

Silke Heiss

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Time

Three women sit,
cooking, eating lunch,
while the working team
shovels and pours cement,
pounds down the shapes.

At the door of the container
where wind swirls, it is cool.
Inside, the office part
and storage space for brick-making machines
is deeper in heat.

The women’s shoes are sensible,
like boy’s shoes,

cement splattered, shaped
to the work, speaking
of their place on this earth,
this work, hard lives.

We’ve had to wait for our meeting,
because cement, mixed,
waits for no one as it sets. 

- Brian Walter

Sunday, March 26, 2017

            Peace in Our Time

This bronze dome
drove ants to nest
in the moistened pot of the Peace Rose,

they have leached the roots
so there can be no flower
– the bud that tried

starved on the stem,
Peace in our time
sorely struck:

Isis gnawing at the guts of its own civilisation,
Malema preaching genocide,
a Trumpet of Jericho braying in the White House.

The rough beast
has slouched to Bethlehem
– been born.
                                    21/12/2016

 - Norman Morrissey


            Scarecrow

Wings,
a raven
wild about the hollows of my head

– croaking fears
I finally talked back
into the skies,

made my heart a scarecrow
to keep him
there.

 - Norman Morrissey

Monday, February 20, 2017

Helenvale evening

In the twilight the last children
play the pavements,

pigeons circle the waning grey
where a few kites tug
their twine,
the boys catching the last breeze:

and close to the houses
flits

night’s first bat.

 - Brian Walter

Friday, February 17, 2017

Carry on

Numb from news
– hate-speech, violence, lies,
noble essays, reasoned tries
defending values, hoping
to avert bad trouble, blues –

pained by poems
I’ve proofed
– by children and their guides
in townships under siege
by gangsters (“Satan’s servants”) –

I walk The Bluff
knowing, seeing,
but not feeling
the cliffs caressed by mist,
grey old bracken bending,
looking at their young
in bright green hoodies
coming up.

Stop.
Will I ever be
at one
with what I see
again? Grieved I stand
for loss
of me.

The mists heave lightly,
sucked by sun’s eternal thirst,
revealing slopes of trees
that never have been cursed,
the Proteas and Watsonias
hold up and shake
with flirting birds
(whose avian tongues dispel the worst)

and this
they do:
cancel me
to pull me through.

And I continued
walking.
I saw a Longcrested Eagle …
the wind flipped
through his crest
as if it were the Yellow Pages,
and there in silhouette:
he was all focused, black
and grand
and free
to look about him
there
on The Bluff;

and a little mongoose
did its delicate staccato stipple,
frittered over the path
and was gone;

and I knew
I must go on
cancelling my self
– cancel news and lands of pain –
if I want
to carry on.

                        20th November 2016

 - Silke Heiss

Sunday, February 12, 2017

between the cavities of my ribs

that is where i want to be
there where continents of sound
flow from my throat and fingers
and i give birth to a whole new earth

there where the mighty poetry
determines the rhythm of the day

i feel the interminable knocking in my throat
the never-ending pricking of my ears
i stand to attention
ready for the mighty verse
to land on my palms with full-blooded wings

i dig in the seashells in search
for the truth of the word
i scratch under the toenails of the ostrich
hungry for the metaphor that will surpass all other metaphors

the words lie like ghostly footprints
on the shadows of the night
refusing to be seen or captured

and yet, like small black poppy seeds
the relentless willpower of
the poetry
lies
between
the
cavities
of
my
ribs

when the word comes
i know how rapturously the syllables
will melt like ripe slices of avocado on my tongue

let me lie deep within the grip of the word
make me swoon, make me unconscious,
make me fly, make me laugh,
make me shiver
and
make me free

 - Lara Kirsten

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Hanging the exhibition: 1989

Artists work in the gallery,
moving things,
calling orders, pitted against
the tempest of time:

outside, a little flock
of white-eyes,
a twittering group of swees

brush the bush,
dab colour on the trees,

like autumn hands at work
with palette, brush and turpentine.

 - Brian Walter

Friday, February 10, 2017

Freedom is

The wind on your skin,
your mother’s voice,
embracing a friend,
and that tree
against the skyline
dancing
with its branches.

                       2nd November 2016

The melody of rain

The melody of rain in gutter,
the quiet glow of light,
the sated tummy after supper
when everything is right.

                        21st November 2016

 - Silke Heiss

Sunday, February 5, 2017

in die skemering van die verlies

in die skemering van 
die verlies
is my keel nog troebel
van die wil-wil trane
die dae sonder jou hang soos
sugte aan die deurkosyne

dit is asof my selle nou weet

dat ek nie aan jou kan klou nie
iets in my het laat gaan 
die hunkering na 
jou fisiese aanwesigheid 
het 
so ietwat
bedaar

in die skemering van 
die verlies
is my hart stil
vlietende beelde van jou 
beweeg in my geestesoog
soos wolke in die wind

oralste lê leegtes van 
jou nie-hier-wees
ek kyk met 'n hartseer gelukkigheid na
die reën wat op die pompombome val
die aarde juig oor die breek van die droogte
maar my hart klem met die wete
dat jy nie meer die nat-aarde-reuk 
deur jou trillende neusgate insuig nie

in die skemering van 
die verlies
staan ek mymerend in 
die diep rivier wat 
die onafwendbare verhale 
van die lewe en dood om 
my ledemate fluister

 - Lara Kirsten

Friday, February 3, 2017

Fruit

My mind is Port St Johns,
with feathered clouds on a morning sky,
sub-tropical tall tree ideas
standing still,

and above all ravens turn
dark feathered, hard birds: no shit.

Their full-throated high rasps
turn the morning
and my mind is in their distant eyes
a-watching.

Now they are down
hopping, or stiff-legged stalking
on the green, like thoughts in fruit,
never as imagined ‒

bits of bread in pincer bills,
and all the other things they eat.

 - Brian Walter

Monday, December 5, 2016

My tiny master

I set my alarm for seven,
but by three fifty
my ears
were conscious,
by four
the Chorister Robin
unlocked his breast,
unleashed his nature,
his duty
to exhort me
and eternity
to the force of morning,
stocked us with warm-blooded abundance of song,
conquered virtuoso trills in the conviction
that forever
the day
must be seized
by music
from
the beginning.

Up, up! Up! Yes, you!
And I
helplessly laughing
on my pillow
tossed the duvet aside
and obeyed
my tiny master.

                     26th November 2016

 - Silke Heiss

Monday, September 26, 2016

how?

how does one poetize from 
the thoughtless place
there where it is 
only pure spontaneous metaphor
that leaks recklessly from the throat
and in filigree syllables
drips like stalactites in ears?

nucleus

every morning my spine thaws
and truly, it is my wings that keep on stirring
right into the primordial nucleus
of sensation of the embryonic darkness
that luckily has enough throat 
to groan with the stubborn will of flight

like nails

poetry grows slowly and patiently 
like nails

and like nails poetry is there 
to scratch the itch

and even when the body dies
the nails keep on growing

word-fever

my fingers shake the sweat 
of the word-fever over
the holes of your ears
that are the subways to 
the underground of your souls
the mercury in the tube 
of your mouths
breaks free with the pressured heat
of the unmasking feverability of word

 - Lara Kirsten

Saturday, September 10, 2016

In downy mist

In downy mist
the robin sits,
repeating patterns of notes,
practising sweetly.

His end trill I know
from a robin at home –
it must be the fashion
among robins this season.

In downy mist
the robin sits
practising sweetly 
his song.

Married couple at evening

Elbows on a low leather pouffe,
bum warm before a fire
she’s stretched in catlike twist
eyes closed
ears pricked
hearing

the rain
stop,
her husband’s hand shift
on the page
where his poem is coming
into being.

Clouds

Flat-bummed clouds
sit on the air
as if it were
a pane of glass.

 -  Silke Heiss

Friday, July 29, 2016

Writing season

Storks circle
in a hundred sky-high miniatures

the bush fire rages:
summer heat, South Africa.

The swifts are in:
Palm swift, Little swift, Horus

‒ cutting air-paths.
There’s nothing I can say

any longer, I suspect:
I am a smoke voice

in the winds, signifying fire,
smoke-smell, but not the thing

itself. I am a door, opening
on a hinge to nowhere,

and no-one stands to knock.
Once, under anaesthetic,

they cut my body:
I woke up bloody, and hurt.

It took weeks of blood-smell
and pain before I felt

right. Now the wound
is in my very flesh and being:

the swifts swoop close,
the storks circle in.

- Brian Walter