Tatamkhulu Africa | Poems

Tatamkhulu Africa | Poems

Nothing’s Changed

Small round hard stones click
under my heels,
seeding grasses thrust
bearded seeds
into trouser cuffs, cans,
trodden on, crunch
in tall, purple-flowering,
amiable weeds.District Six.
No board says it is:
but my feet know,
and my hands,
and the skin about my bones,
and the soft labouring of my lungs,
and the hot, white, inwards turning
anger of my eyes.Brash with glass,
name flaring like a flag,
it squats
in the grass and weeds,
incipient Port Jackson trees:
new, up-market, haute cuisine,
guard at the gatepost,
whites only inn.No sign says it is:
but we know where we belong.

I press my nose
to the clear panes, know,
before I see them, there will be
crushed ice white glass,
linen falls,
the single rose.

Down the road,
working man’s cafe sells
bunny chows.
Take it with you, eat
it at a plastic table’s top,
wipe your fingers on your jeans,
spit a little on the floor:
it’s in the bone.

I back from the
boy again,
leaving small mean O
of small mean mouth.
Hands burn
for a stone, a bomb,
to shiver down the glass.
Nothing’s changed.

From: Maqabane, 1994


I am looking back a long way now:
will the circle close?
Why does the city this morning seem
so much like that other city,
its lines imposed upon its lines:
the same slow sweep of waves,
the same dust-haze,
the same crumbling buildings sinking into the salt sea,
the same sad, unstoppable malaise:
this garden I pause beside,
its dahlias sun-dried,
the nasturtiums neutered,
a solitary palm-tree bending towards Siwa,
begging its moisture
as little and as bitter as urine on the sand —

nothing dies:
all that I thought long-dead
is rising up again:
the little house where first they slapped me into life,
took off the tip of my manhood as the religion demands,
the red sand slipping into the blue Mediterranean,
the smell of incense on the khamsin wind —
so much remembered,
so many old lamps burning again —
lamps whose wicks I thought had long since charred —
and from the night beyond their light
a face is floating,
bending over mine —
its sweetness is effulgence,
its fragrance is of flowers . . .


Like gnats after rain,
sudden beetles born
of thunder and storm,
we are the creatures of our time,
its passing wind,
murder done,
blood drying in the sun.
We drone,
not with the fat,
mellow hum of bees,
but the thin
snivelling of the fly;
or we roar. Faces turned
to the never-listening sky,
cacophonous as **** or mule,
beaten till the dumb
tongue festers into sound.
We have no song?
How shall we sing?:
as they who, blind
to the blood on their shoes,
sing of lives that never come alive,
mimed and stilled as the moons
in the prisons of their nails,
thrushes in the hedges of their minds?
Does one scream
in careful cadences, stretched
upon a rack of pain,
measure meter when one tells
of the slit throat’s roar,
ripped belly’s gut spilt,
smoking, onto the cold tar,
charred body’s settling
like the timber of a shack torched
by midnight hand?
Beyond the darkness, grey
morning breaks: a bird,
or child,
uncertainly cries, our feet stir
a visible dust, we breathe
a freshening air.
The familiar is suddenly behind.
They grey men, the grey
singers of irrelevant song,
they who hid
behind the stillness of their hands,
slot into the patterns of our heels.
Maqabane – yes –
let us sound that sweet
endearment once
more before the dust
clogs our tongues –
they will have us now,
with the teeth of their laughter tear
the flesh from our bones,
crack them for the marrow they no longer hold.
It is the way.
But still,
within ourselves,
there is the secret hearth
of our love, the place
of the holding of our hands,
and if one harsh note
of our crying woke
a sleeping heart, steeled
a timid spine,
then we, too, sang,
scoring our songs in the flesh
of those that, dead, do not die.

From: Maqabane, 1994

Small Bird Singing in a Bush

Small bird in a bush:
cars in the street rush
past it like the Gadarene swine,
line upon line.

Soft feathers fluff
in a lean wind, rough
as a rasp in the leaves’ green,
brooming the earth clean.

Cognisant of none
save the strengthening sun,
the blood of its dawn
still red on the hill,

it sings and it sings,
repetitive rings
and showers of sound
seeming profound

to the shallows in me,
but, in reality,
only a bird’s things:
sex and seed, rain on the wings,

consciousness of wamth and light,
withdrawal of the night,
the wind’s suddenness,
or its silences.

All this I know,
and no less know
its innocence, my prescience,
and which the better sense,

and which the finer face,
and which the saving grace:
self-seeking orison
or this simple hymnal to the sun?


From: The Lemon Tree, 1995


The Knifing

Black workers pass
me carrying their tools.
I call to them for help:
the stone
masks of their faces turn
do not look my way again.
He flails the blade
across the top of my skull
(does he see it as a fruit,
splittable, spewing seed?),
slashes, then,
the tender guardians of my wrists,
drives the knife-point in
below my left side’s bottom rib,
and runs.
I leave a spoor
like a wounded beast’s,
make it to the little Indian shop
that sells boiled eggs with mayonnaise,
falling about in my own blood,
eyes shouting “Help!”
They carry me to the ambulance.
The clouds sweep
me with their sad sides:
yet I hear someone speak
of the bright day
and what a shame it is that this should be done
to anyone on such a day.
A face stares
at me through the wire-mesh
of a police van.
It is his; he sees
my wretched body pass,
blood leaking at every seam:
blood that is also on his hands;
turns away, then with a suddenness that says
more than any tongue,
burrows his face into his hands.
What does he see?
They stitch and stitch,
let my head hang down
when the lights go round and I feel
sense slipping from me like a skin,
and I am the unadorned
genitals of my need.
She screams and screams,
like a cat on heat,
like a little girl drumming her heels.
But she is seventeen:
he beat her until she was all
broken up inside.
I stare at the fluorescent tube;
it shrinks
to a filament of fire in my brain.
Blood still sees
from the black Khayelitsha youth’s
black bruises prowl
over the old man opposite’s
Only I do not sleep.
Time is a pendulum that swings
unlinked to any clock:
only the black window’s scowling back
tell of night; pain writhes
through me like an eel.
I watch the glucose drip,
drop by dizzying drop,
into my veins, wake
to sunlight on the walls,
starlings flirting past the glass,
Khayelitsha mopping blood from his neck,
grinning, saying
I can borrow his pee-bottle if I want.
I sag on the bed,
glucose mellow-honey in my veins,
small pulse of reluctant life
kick-starting way back.
Khayelitsha takes my hand,
hopes I’ll soon be well;
goes out then,
moving slowly amongst the slow-
moving coterie of his friends.
Desultory Xhosa clicks
snap like trodden sticks,
fade down
an inner tribal trial.
I face him then:
his neck nuzzling my palm.
His face still hidden in his hands.
What does he see?
I think to set him free.
How shall he be free?
Or I?
Testicle to testicle, we are trussed
by the winding round
us, rambling plastic coils.
Roaring down each other’s throats,
bellowing of our need,
we are skewered on the sharp
white lightning of his blade.


From: Turning Points, 1996




The leopard lay,
long and dappled, under the leaves.
He saw me when
I still saw only the leaves.
His eyes, alerted, flamed
with more of wonderment than rage.
He had sheathed his claws and, once,
he swiped a paw across his nose.

‘I know you’, he said,
looking at me through the mask of shadows round his eyes.
I saw him wholly, then
his languid grace and power, yet
was not afraid, his voice being mild
as any mewing kitten’s, which meant
that I could love him if not yet trust,
and I dared to tremblingly scratch an ear.

He closed his eyes and roaringly purred,
frightening my hand, then grinned
a little, baring the black
slobber of his gums, the fangs
whiter than the white bones of the hill,
then again looked at me, a daze
of pleasure drawing back from his eyes, and thanked
me with a leathern tonguing of my skin.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘it was a long time ago.
This hill was then a living thing.
You, shaman, danced on it till you dropped
as one dead and a leopard leapt
from your ruin and ran,
slavering, under the holy moon.
What has become of you, brother man?
Does the magic herb no longer grow among these stones?’

I wept, then, huddled on
the rigid hinges of my knees,
hearing only silence thrum
through the shattered pipelines of my bones.
Below the alien city threshed
and howled and he looked
at me as at a wounded beast and slid
out the filial pity of his claws.

‘No!’ I shouted. ‘No!’
stammering like a frightened child.
‘You exceed your station; it is I
that flow and flower under a moon.’
He looked at me with sorrowing eyes.
‘But it is leopards that die
as shamans should,’ he said and crashed
out of the leaves as out of an ice of time.


From: The Angel and Other Poems, 1999



Start typing and press Enter to search