Arthur Nortje | Poems

Thumbing a lift

Emaciated sand dunes and grease-black pylons
On afternoons teeming with impurities;
Brittle bitter-brown wire; the sky-blotching ravens
Must be September’s electrified existences.

I live beside sap-filled willow striplings,
Yet alien to their cause, spring-exultation
Cars pass by the thin thing of my brown thumb
Rhythmically beckoning in painful indication.

Gnats swarm from scumcamps: above the asphalt
Shimmy-shaking witchdoctors gnarled like bluegums
Drunkenly perform their corrugated dazzle,
Leering through red heat with futile venom:

I scream in sad fury for movement home.
They ignore me, mama, they and their crazy
Machines, bright machines. Past this wheedling tramp
Cars swish and whizz in dust-whirling frenzy.

To be but a sliver of velocity pillioned,
Exquisitely frozen in a foam-rubber pose;
Or dreamily sculptored in lavish freedom,
Trading vague pleasantries, parading poise…

There now, in chromium Chrysler Rambler
(Cream-leather atmosphere, cool man, relaxed)
Comes a smiling Samaritan – ah but those bulging
Ogres palm me off on an incredible next!

Trafficking with me now in truces of poison
White flags of exhaust fumes envelop my person
So I’m afterwards only O.K. when, chosen,
A cattle truck careers me towards the horizon.

South Africa, 1960-61

Soliloquy: South Africa

It seems me speaking all the lonely time,
whether of weather or death in winter,
or, as you expected and your eyes asked, love,
even to the gate where goodbye could flame it.
The last words that issue from the road
are the next day regretted because meant so much.

All one attempts is talk in the absence
of others who spoke and vanished
without so much as an echo.
I have seen men with haunting voices
turned into ghosts by a piece of white paper
as if their eloquence had ben black magic.

Because I have wanted so much, your you,
I have waited hours and tomorrows, dogged
and sometimes doggish but you often listened.
Something speaks on when something listens:
in a room a fly can be conversation,
or a moth which challenges light but suffers.

Should you break my heart open, revive the muscle
for March grows on with mounting horror:
how to be safe is our main worry.
To keep you happy I shall speak more,
though only in whispers of freedom
now that desire has become subversive.

The gulls are screaming. I speak out to sea.
Waters, reared for attack, break forward:
without a word, this violence. From the cliffs
above the warm, shark-breeding sea that drowns
the oracle of the vibrant air I walk
and hear the ropes that thrash against the flagpoles.

The wind’s voice moans among willows.
Would you say that air can move so much?
It echoes so much of ourselves. In you
lies so much speech of mine buried
that for memory to be painless I must knife it.
it seems me speaking all the lonely time.

Cape Town, 1963


Winter parades as a mannequin.
The early scene looks virgin.
We sway past in a Volkswagen.

Nothing outwardly grieves,
so luxuriant are the trees.
Leaf-rich boughs ride past with spring’s ease.

Yes, there is beauty: you make
the understandable mistake.
But the sun doesn’t shine for the sun’s sake.

Flame-sharp, it beats casual
sweat from my aching skull
and the May winds are mechanical.

A bird’s clean flight
exhibits the virtue of light.
I skulk in a backseat, darker than white.

How should I envy the luminous
sky if the cold and anonymous
men of the world strengthen my enemies?

It matters little that
this lane, this door is separate.
In the rare air have we met.

South Africa, 1965 

Dogsbody half-breed


The magnet of exotica that draws
sailors from their holds, blood from the sword,
is that which elicits a gravid sigh
(as witness Captain Cook or sullen Bligh),
is that which brought blond settlers like a hex
into the heartland, oxdrawn, ammunitioned.
Over the rocks, through drought, the laager treks
by fire out of stone, by daycloud holy,
unto a covenant against the Zulu.

Once this was Tormentoso, Cape of Storms,
midway station for the scurvied crews,
bordello for the sea-tossed Dutchman, cum
point d’appui for the growers of wine
beyond whose vineyards stretched the purlieus
of Governor van der Stel in time
before there was an overland
expansion into farm and mine.
Maternal muscle of my mixed-blood life
with child were you heavy, with discontent rife.


Some are tanned by the sun and some
sweat satined in a slum concealment:
white beach or pismire ghetto, through factotum
eyes I am aware of, having spent
at the annealing tunnel, the conveyor belt,
the last ounce of energy for the master of my salt.

Yet glittering with tears I see you pass
in armoured cars, divided from yourself
by golden fortune, natural largesse,
forgetting quite in the siren or the bell
pealing your sanctity, wailing a daily violence,
your bastardies, abortions, sins of silence,
those marooned, dragooned, those massacred or shackled
by your few chosen from the many called.


Bitter though the taste may be, it is life somehow.
Despite the dark night of long ago, in spring now
looking from Lion’s Head or Devil’s Peak,
your delicate nooks and moments noble-gentle
and I hybrid, after Mendel,
growing between the wire and the wall,
being dogsbody, being me, buffer you still.

Balsam Street, Toronto, April 1970

Shock therapy

Madness is evident when you want to
dream of nothing, laid in hard
fastnesses of amber, be the marble
gilt forever in the glass facade.

Dementia claws at he who of a sudden
rips away the cloud that filters no
manna through his veins, speech through his tongue:
stabs time, that robber baron, in the torso.

Frantic the violater of the unities:
his day and night are of no consequence;
such drama takes the shape of motion
anywhere, at anyone’s expense.

Nor does the nihilist live less dangerously
though caught in the hysteria of silence:
loathe to wake to the light he may lie
wombed in warmth, with knees up to the chin.

Spreadeagled in the blue gore on the page
or tightening the words to pearls of sweat
that the busy brain fosters from a latent life,
shock is the stilling therapy for the poet.

Toronto, April 1970

A house on Roncesvalles, Toronto 222

hesitant about whether
to fetch out pen and paper
I wonder will thought dribble
while the radiator weeps into its coils
(or will profundities escape
before I can scan the news and
the man who pays for it comes home
at 8 o’clock)

windowpane ice-cold to my survey
saving my fingertips I test with my knuckles
which is what a corpse under the first
snowfall has no earthly need to do
(I the living take account
of anatomy and function:
runnels from the nose
find a shallow grave in Kleenex: seems
the flesh which breeds it cannot cope;
in bedrooms likewise drips
honey resin from the taut torso;
tonic juices,
the groin sweats under talc
in the bathroom where
I sneeze and relish
the warm coils of the soul’s home realizations)

city leaves in late October
when the blood and gold tones of autumn
cower under crowns of white
and this itself is wonderful remembering
smokestacks belching fumes in a wasteland
of freight trains and beef factories
(how should one forget
the dew of April, swans on the pond, ambrosial sunshine
an hour in the library and winter
deferred to this tea-bag half-light,
a season of nail-end faith)

a secular poem will note
unpalatable truths:
city of judges with Kapuskasing faces
(there I’ve never been by automobile),
wine addicts in the park who bum nickels;
one scarred spatula cheekboned Indian owned
an old Ford with the dust of summer caking
the corruption of them both.

I am he who
let the ornaments fade
because of the dog days that were upon us
because of the walk in the moondust which they made
a marvel more than snow on the mute boughs.
(these are not the respecters of trees
who burdened us with plastic bags of rocks
to plant in planetariums)
under the grime and slime the heart beats non-stop
apple strong

Toronto, May 1970

All hungers pass away

All hungers pass away,
we lose track of their dates:
desires arise like births,
reign for a time like potentates.

I lie and listen to the rain
hours before full dawn brings
forward a further day and winter sun
here in a land where rhythm fails.

Wanly I shake off sleep,
stare in the mirror with dream-puffed eyes:
I drag my shrunken corpulence
among the tables of rich libraries.

Fat hardened in the mouth,
famous viands tasted like ash:
the mornings-after of a sweet escape
ended over bangers and mash.

I gave those pleasures up,
the sherry circuit, arms of a bland girl
Drakensberg lies swathed in gloom,
starvation stalks the farms of the Transvaal.

What consolation comes
drops away in bitterness.
Blithe footfalls pass my door
as I recover from the wasted years.

The rain abates. Face-down
I lie, thin arms folded, half-aware
of the skin that tightens over pelvis.
Pathetic, this, the dark posture.

Oxford, November 1970


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