Thursday, January 23, 2020

With the stones

This morning, in my dream, we sat
close together, near the smooth stones
you carried from Roundstone Beach
all those years ago.

I sat down there next to you as the sun rose
(though in truth you were still fast asleep
in the bed we share). And our hands moved
slowly over the stones, as if remembering
some ancient journey.

You told me once: if these
can become smooth and round and large like this,
knocking about in that cold Atlantic sea,
maybe we too could become less jagged,
less sharp-edged and brittle.

Ah, but now you are awake,
and the air around us
is suddenly crisp and urgent, and our thoughts turn
from the calm smoothness of stone
towards blood and skin. Today we give thanks
for the urgency of touch
that cannot wait; for all
our many rough edges: each scar, blemish and dent,
each sharp word that jolts us

into awareness of these late summer days,
turning already towards autumn—
and each particular leaf about to fall.

 - Jacques Coetzee



Saturday, January 18, 2020

The black sky

And the black sky,
and the little house white-washed –

the light cuts like a square green interior
the window, with a woman looking out,
and outside, our side, a child
saunters past.

What do we need?

A boy, and a dog, on the grey pavement,
the night sky black

as if it is the outside of everything,
like the frame,

an unreachable beyond
not in the picture,

of it.

 - Brian Walter

Monday, January 13, 2020

List of numbers

I still keep their numbers
in the file labelled “telephone list”
on my slow computer:

one for the man who read back my half-formed poems to me
in a monotonous voice, daring me to throw them
away, until I slowly learned
to sing more softly, urgently;

one for the man who fed me olives and whiskey
though it must have been clear by then my being straight
was not just a passing phase after all;

one for the woman who gave me a sheaf of corn
because she didn’t know how to say goodbye;

one for the woman who fed me rare plants
and asked me politely, after I’d toasted her
with the umteenth song,
if I didn’t come with a pause button for God’s sake;

one for the woman I hardly ever phoned
because I could not think of a question
that would be worthy of a mind like hers;

one for the Greek restaurant that no longer exists,
where I duelled with someone over halva and ice cream
because we had no money to buy
a second portion;

one for the man who dared me
to do the wrong thing, to live
dangerously, and then died of it;

one for the man who fathered me well,
and then asked me, just before the end,
to forgive him for his ignorance.

You can consign the body to the fire—
the bills, paid or unpaid; the outmoded ways of being
and the very bad poetry.
The names, the names are not consumed.
They refuse to be anything else
than the sum of my parts,
hovering now on an invisible screen
without ever quite adding up.

 - Jacques Coetzee

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Frames

Used to the firm metal scaffolding
manufactured in segments,
standard in South Africa,

I guess my mind constructed them
the world over: so in Kuala Lampur
those bamboo racks, neat and high,

surprised me, caught my organic eye,
and the wooden poles of Lagos,
or low slung around buildings in Juba.

With imagination swaying,
I marvel at the organic vitality,
the close-to-groundness,
the human trust in the ways of growth

in tension with the more aggressive
ways of metal and concrete,
the firm safety we seek
to scaffold our lives.

 - Brian Walter

Friday, January 3, 2020

Deep Listening

It happened again yesterday:
in the middle of a fine conversation
about sublime and lofty things
something in me switched off, and I found myself focusing

on the slight pull at the pit of my stomach
as you stepped away from me for a moment
to pour wine for an honoured guest.

I could still hear the separate music
in our four voices, but
the words, the words had gone out of range.
The only detailed information then
came from the song of my blood—
subterranean, preverbal—
calling for your touch across the table.

There are no words for such music:
not in company, not when we’re alone.
All I could say for certain then
to myself, under my breath,
was that all lofty things,
raised up in defiance of gravity—
all the immortal words, and all great music—

seemed to be reconfigured there;
rooted again in the fire
that sings and sings, unheard, in our hidden blood.

 - Jacques Coetzee

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Steam

All through the dark
insomnia and night fears
I’d hear the knock and hiss

and clack of the steam trains
as they’d shunt and chuff
between the station and North End,

or the narrow gauge down south
whistle her running steam – the Apple Express
from the Langkloof,

as through my dark of mind-hurt
there’d come clicking on the night breeze
and a sudden clatter of tracks,

syncopated with the heart beats
of child panic into the dead
of the darkness

till the bells tolled thrice
at the Dutch Reformed Church,
and my head would twist

on the pillow of necessity,
and I’d think to bash my living skull
against the wall to shut up

the sounds and the thoughts
and to shove – like steam forced
into strength – hot sleep into being.

 - Brian Walter

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Children playing

Children playing in a river –
all they don’t yet know;
all they’ll someday never know
with the same
undiluted joy and clarity.


Open plot


Happily, they’re unable to sell it:
that open plot of land
where the caterpillars and the bees
are in love with
the weeds.


Moth

Moth, in the morning sun,
you hold on
to a nodding stalk of grass –

I, too, need to find some place
where I can take
my rest.

 - Ed Burle

Friday, December 6, 2019

All night

I’ve read all night, and now dawn
rolls grey to the east, with little sound
this hour to disquieten me,

only the last whispers of rain
or eavesdroppings of artless thought.
I have renounced all hope of sleep.

She’s a strange mistress, Insomnia.
It is still, and twilit quiet, and I’m lost
in her arms, reading this restless time

away, away back to the old Egyptians,
remembering their first creation mound
and that earliest light. I am so far back

in mind, so lost in the seeps of rain,
that I almost miss the clockwork
of the awakening rhythms: the jet thrust

of the early flight, the trucks and traffic
along Buffelsfontein Road,
the mind-made worlds of profit and loss,

and the timetables they strive to keep.

 - Brian Walter

Monday, December 2, 2019

The storm approaching

The storm approaching –
and yet, where
the aloe stirs,

a familiar
winged visitor –
nimble, undeterred –

sunbird.


Sinuous

A sinuous reed, a lithe black current,
darts and coils and works and winds its way
into a tree –


boomslang.         


 - Ed Burle

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Walkway

The sudden green of the walkway
tumbles up in reaching leaves
and autumn flashes amidst the dark shades:

but splashed across the pavement
damp litter is speckled and spattered.

Old plastic Satan has fled this way
shedding scales of dirt and dollops
of body-filth, damp with bad breath,

and the soil is flecked with dead
and discarded plastic; white hues
of promised purity; and streaked
with the yellows, reds and blues
of the old wrappings of idle shoppers.
Litter sleeps filthily upon the earth,
breeding.

And schoolchildren amble by,
hands in pockets, beanies pulled   
low against the wintering sky,

walking the path between
the living green
and profane carelessness,

the long path of the shadow
of death.

 - Brian Walter 

Saturday, November 2, 2019

She Dreams

The soul comes to consciousness in a great
cavern of space; a column
at her back, knobbed and ridged, all the way up.
Horizontal ledges left and right, like scaffolding, leading up.
Above, to left and right, two dim tunnels
leading off. And below her, two more, moving downwards.

And she is sitting here, in this cool silence, and looks to see
what she is. Naked and little.
A foundling in a cave,
back up against the column, looking up, and around.

She’s agile enough to scramble everywhere-along the jointed tunnels,
in all four directions, to their very endings, even,
where her world ends. She learns
how to wriggle into even these terminal places,
where she can feel something of everything that is beyond her;
touch some of its movings, ponder its messages.

The frail light she wanders in must come from somewhere above;
so up the scaffolding. Then this vertical shaft,
this stem, into a smooth gourd, a round hollow,
gleaming like the inside of a pearl.

And with windows!
Warm stuff, full of light, flooding in, which sets her
quivering like a tuning fork-
and her world shivers into being, too.

 - John van Wyngaard

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

graça

            in memory of Norman Morrissey

your bedside lamp
made sommer with an 
empty graça-bottle  ̶
the etiquette still in tact

my eyes linger on the subtitle
casa de ouro
house of gold

yes! i shout
gold is this house
which flows with
music and poetry
tea and honey

(mumbling aside: one day i'll unscrew
the bottle-stand,
fill 'er up with
your favourite drink,
screw it fast again
and flick the switch!
the heat will suffuse your bedroom
with intoxicated light
you'll get graciously drunk
without having a single sip!)

 - Lara Kirsten

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Yet to notice

The zoologists say
they don't know
about the mating ritual
of the Olive thrush, but

it's always the male who leads,
and there are definitely no pheromones, and
if they were making the same gestures
it could well have been two males
disputing
territory.

And I ask myself
whether I stand charged
as guilty
of anthropormorphising
when I surmise

that even a lady Olive thrush
can be so uniquely motivated
as to take initiative,
to say, here, let me show you -
this is where
I'd like our nest;

her partner not put out
by her gentle feminism -

which she may well have copied
from observing the animal
I am - the one the zoologists
have yet to notice.

- Silke Heiss, 29th October 2018

Friday, November 30, 2018

Charm

Walking the old path
- from rock ledge to lookout,
through gardens past Labyrinth -
an Olive thrush stops me in my tracks.

Bows, wings held askance
from her body a skirt, or jacket,
tail fruffed,
everything a-shimmy
in the trills
of purpose.

He follows her. Or is it she
who follows him? Twinned
on their orange legs
the sun shines through

they hop and turn
as if on the most delicate of portals -
elevens of togetherness -
those legs that do not stop

their running, hopping, turning
dance duet, bowing and fruffing,
both of them lifting up Mozarts of tails
till I wonder, are there pheromones
that keep them strung
so close, so on the move
together?

It happens all the time,
each day, each year, each hour.
Common as common those two -
where's the charm?

To the human in me
it's the fact that they're doing
no harm.

- Silke Heiss, 27th October 2018 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Covenantal Selves

It was at Mike Hallier's funeral
the thought 
first struck -

the covenantal selves
configuring in us
- shaping us subtly anew -

in each encounter
with each person
we really meet.

In spokes about his coffin
spun
such a mandala

of such different folk
suddenly 
I felt

all the beings he'd been,
all the warm-flesh masks he'd worn
so fluently,

so authentically
as the moments of his days
met him

each peopled, each scripted
as situations
nuanced into idioms

never quite before acted,
never quite
to be acted again;

from that dead centre
the web of an extravagant life's
Protean patterns

iridesced out
as instants of relationship
each arced

between selves
co-created
just for that scene.

We are 
just who we are
but always so

newly-made
as each new meeting
calls out of us

the exact answers
each meeting
craves

as a covenant
between two seekings
along the paths of truth:

so evanescent,
so
strong.

- Norman Morrissey, 29/10/2012 

Monday, October 15, 2018

soos wat die water die grond dreineer

soos wat die water die grond dreineer
sypel daar 'n hoopvolheid deur my rugstring
my kop is besig om die dag te verteer tot 'n gedig
my oë verdrink in die vriendelike lig wat
deur die vensters breek
hoe so een toneel my hele wese omkeer en uitkeer
totdat ek deel van die wolklandskap word
daar is nou niks ekstern of intern nie
alles is nou een en inmekaar
niks om weg te steek of af te loer nie
skamigheid het verdwyn
geheimenisse is nou 'n blootgestelde feesviering
die dans van die atome word sigbaar
ek skud my spiere deur die gordyne
die gedig stop hier want haar arms verander
in die vlerke van 'n skoenlapper op vlug
om al die verstotenes terug te roep na die kern

 - Lara Kirsten

Thursday, November 16, 2017

House of Blues

You live for these songs you inhabit
time and time over:
In them you uncover
nerve endings of truth, distil the essence
of longing and loss –

They fit you like old shoes, a favourite jacket.
Like broken butterflies they visit
through cracks in windows
and shut doors.

You cradle a guitar, your body sways
with the melody.
In your voice the miles
of distances travelled,
the warm contours and frayed edges
of the places your heart has been.

     ***

Now and again I strike a match in the dark
and scratch the surface of longing.

     ***

To be steady in one’s work,
and patient as a sail
that waits for the wind to fill it.

     ***

Birds stitch the morning into being with their song.

“View from My Window at Dawn”

The darkness lifts, becomes something lighter.
From her window
she watches the light, now only
a shift, a paler patch of sky,
trace the beginnings of the day.

Lights go on in windows, while others stay dark.
A brushstroke light or firm –
colours and textures revealing a city
half unveiled,
suspended between sleep and waking.

She paints quickly.
A desire insistent, frustrating, to render all of it
truthfully, as it is.
A lightness, gladness in her heart –
converge
in this silence, alone at dawn.

This blue-and-grey-tinged world, she knows, will soon
disappear, give way to a harsher light;
to the traffic and noise
of the street below.
But as it is lost, begins
to fade away, she sees that some of it, at last,
is there now:

a threshold place of light and dark,
of lights in windows, of chimneys and rooftops,
and far off buildings;
and of a light which, like the sky,
seeps through by degrees
from the window, porous, wet still,
of the canvas.

     ***

Now, if only for this moment,
no other world exists
save for the one she conjures
in this lamp-lit room.

     ***

Figure in a painting –
she emerges
from the canvas,
tells the painter
of her dreams.

 - Eduard Burle

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