Now here’s a thing. The other day, I woke up to find that I had written a poem in my sleep, in my deepest sleep, in a half-forgotten language last used twenty years ago, and I had remembered it, entirely – all except for one word.
Like you, I can’t remember my dreams, and spend frustrated days trying to recall them, knowing that I should, because there is something important in there. But mostly they slide elusive, like rider-less bikes, half hidden, flitting behind rows of trees.
But I was so sure of this poem, I hardly bothered to write it down. And this is strange. Normally I’d rush-grab-scrap-of-paper, anything to write with, before the words get lost. This one, somehow, I knew, would stay. And also, I was embarrassed to remember and write down this poem. Not the poem, really. It was the language that bothered.
What also bothered me was that in my sleep, I had consciously inverted the usual syntax of the language, and in places reverted to archaic form, all for rhythmic purposes. All for the sake of this poem. This, in a language I was never comfortable in. Lesley, you always said that whenever I spoke this language, I sounded cruelly sarcastic. Not my native tongue. No. So why was I dreaming in it?
The poem hung around, and refused to go, as if the bicycles had parked behind the trees, and parts of them were hidden, and other parts still stubbornly, incompletely, in the frame, like that horse in the famous Magritte painting.
And so a month later, I wrote it down. It still didn’t have a title, and was still one word - one final word - missing.
This is it:
Kyk hoe lag die kakelaars, ou maat
of kannie – die selfde
Kyk mos na die kakelaars, ou pêl
Van bult tot boom
- en weg nog verder,
oor die kakhuis skerm
hul kakkel-lag en kakkel-lieg
vir ons, vir almal ons.
En jy? Jy skrik
- en pis mos op jou tone
En jy? My skrik
geen waarskuwing gee,
en skakel af jou liefde.
Kakkel-lag en kakkel-lieg,
ou maatjie, ou pêl
maak mos nie saak nie.
Kyk net na die kakelaars
hul lag, hul lieg
- hul’s weg
en die laagte lê nou leeg
in nuwe skaduwee
en dorings het skryf my [ - ? ]
The poem, like all poems, needs to be read aloud by a native speaker of the tongue for its full cadence to be felt. The language is Afrikaans, that guttural, expressive tongue of the continent’s most unloved tribe. A language in some strange, essential way integral to its environment. One that was born there. That should belong there. And one that reflects an uncompromisingly harsh genesis. But yet, a language with parts of great beauty – and a small, delicate, little-known output of exquisite poetry. And writers – rare geniuses – who will never be properly known to us.
Like N P van Wyk Louw, Totius, C J Langenhoven, Eugene Marais, Etienne leRoux, Breyten Breytenbach. Writers in a language that had given itself a bad name around the world. And so, a heritage of literature not widely wanted, therefore not often translated.
So where did my unexpected poem come from? I had visited Africa a year before. With my parents, we had driven to Swaziland, to join some friends who were staying with a son of one, who was working on a great new dam project at Siphofanene in the lower Lusuthu Valley. Getting across the border, at half an hour to go to closing time on a Friday night, when my mum had brought their old expired passports (she had kept them because the pictures of themselves were nicer, younger) was in itself an adventure. One of ubuntu, the great spirit of empathetic humanity that exists in these parts. But that’s another story…
Come Sunday, a dry winter morning, we had walked up the Lebombo Range, crossing an international boundary on a footpath, to see a friend of one of our party.
She is a literacy development person in Ingwavuma, a place of horror: the Aids capital of the world. While trying to get kids to school, to learn to read and write, she could not help but also be embroiled in all the social problems of local households, hundreds of them, with no adults left alive. One home in the district had 18 children, the oldest only twelve, living in a two-room hut. In these conditions, you’d think literacy was of a different order of priority. She perseveres.
Against her parent’s wishes, against all her friends’ advice, she had adopted an Aids baby. The little boy Muzi was six months old, but tiny, like a newborn. He might live to ten years old. She is a living saint.
We had breakfast with Bridget and her baby, a great bacon and eggs fry-up, and a long morning tea. She showed us the unusual, circular house she was building in the adjacent lot to her friends’ place, the doctors for Ingwavuma hospital. A home for her and her new son.
When we said goodbye at the top of the hill, I had recited her an older poem of mine, all about footpaths remembered. She had held on to Muzi in the wind, listening intently, alternately shielding the child from the wind, and looking down at the path. Her bakkie, a covered pick-up truck, waited for her beyond, tinking as it cooled in the dry, high, air. It was looking at the distant dunes of Lake Sibaya, a lagoon on the sub-tropical shores of the Indian Ocean.
We waved goodbye to Bridget and her baby, and headed down the path, back inland. Not just a path. Like so much in Africa, symbolism and reality mix heavy-handedly here.
The path we were on is one of those ancient lines of Africa, pre-dating, and needless, heedless of the bureaucracy and fuss that usually defines national boundaries. No fences here. No border control posts. No soldiers – now. The path had worn its fluid way up the hill, past a perennial spring, linking this lowland, that upland, for good reasons, in time immemorial. Recently, it would have been used by ANC operatives sneaking back into their own land, a South Africa struggling to be reborn as something of a democracy. This path out of Swaziland, a medieval feudal kingdom controlled by maternal lineage, where all land is officially owned by the king, and for long the most stable nation on the continent.
Now the path is used by schoolchildren – get this – walking, weekly commuters to school up in Ingwavuma, back in South Africa. And all because schooling in Swaziland is too expensive for them. We met some going up (it was Sunday afternoon) as we were sliding, gravelly, down. My old knee was hurting. By now I wasn’t feeling even remotely poetic.
On the way down the monoclinal hills, our group spread out. Near their base, I stopped, to catch my breath, and the apparent silence of the afternoon. I idly watched John (always at the front of any walk) reach the flat, and angle off the path to take a piss behind a screen of thorn trees.
A half-dozen birds exploded from the trees above him. He half-started, then followed their looping flight to the next thicket, turning as they flew, his pee making a bright arc in the sun, and one of those temporary drawings in the red dust.
The birds – bright, black, raucus. Shiny red beaks. Brilliant windows of white in their flight feathers. Their black, red and white plumage so sharp, so stark against the sere drop of the thornbush behind, they seemed like elemental colours. The only possible elemental colours in this scene.
Their names in Afrikaans, isiZulu and siSwati, all mean the same thing: the cackling of old women. The harsh song of those who outlive their offspring. In the onomatopaeic tradition of African languages, they are u-Hlekabafazi in Zulu, u-Kolukoli in Swazi, kakelaar in Afrikaans. They have other names. Phoeniculus purpureus damarensis in Linnaen. It is only in the prosaic traditions of English ornithologists that the birds have a name less redolent, less rich: Red-billed hoopoe.
They are widely distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa. “From Knysna eastwards to Ethiopia, and across to Senegal” says Roberts Birds of South Africa.
And in the overt symbolism of Africa, there’s more: there’s always more. These birds, appearing smart, clean-cut in their sharp colours, have something else. They stink. In the quaint language of Roberts again, “Specimens held in the hand smell most disagreeable”.
But now they were distant. They cackled their cackle. But I can’t say that they tore at the fabric of the air. The air is full of subliminal sound in Africa anyway. The sound of footpaths. Of insects. Of people past. Of the sigh of wind. Of the breathing of the fates. Of the process of forgetting. The bush just as quickly wove their brief, maniacal laughter into its own layered tapestry, then folded it into its own memory.
And that was where the poem came from.
But what was I to do with it? Where would a title come from? And what should that last word be? I asked around, friends, family, far and wide. I used the virtual footpath of the internet. I emailed.
A friend hit the return button, suggesting that last word. Vas.
Vas, she said, came instantly to her. I means held, tight. Held, immoveable. Held, forever. And I suppose she could be right. She is a Smuts, a great-grand-niece of the old Boer general. An old girlfriend. She is also an artist. She is held fast to Africa.
My father, a poet himself, suggested the last word should be herinneringe – the plural of memory. I like its ringing reverberation, like the jangling in your ears receding in a sudden quiet. It could also be eensaamheid, he said – three long, strong syllables, that mean loneliness. True too. So I ended up with the closing stanza repeated three times, with three ending words.
Another friend, or rather a friend of a friend, two steps away, e-mailed a title. Klaar gelag. It means ‘Finished laughing’. I like it. It seems to fit. I accept it. It’s the first time I have ever had someone else provide words and a title for a poem of mine.
And what use is a poem no-one near me will ever understand? Here on the other side of the world? Where kakelaars don’t punctuate the sound of footpaths, where trees don’t wear thorns, where birds walk, where rocks float, where the border is the endless, immutable ocean.
So, against all my instincts, I tried translating it. Even the title. But in the nature of these things, the words are never exact matches. Is this, then, a different poem? Does it work? Will it ever work? Can it ever work? I don’t know. But at least you can read it now:
Look how the black, red-billed hoopoes laugh, old friend
or, if you can’t – bugger it - it doesn’t really matter,
Just look at the birds, old china
from hilltop to headtop
from earthen rise to distant tree – and away still further,
over the longdrop screen
they cackle-laugh and cackle-lie
For us, for all of us, together.
And you? You fright – and splash your piss upon your toes
And you? You hard old continent?
You frighten me, no warnings give
And just switch off your love.
So cackle-laugh and cackle-lie
Old buddy, old pal
it really doesn’t matter much.
Just look at the bright black birds
They laugh, they lie, they fly
And your old dry thorn bush flats hold their breath;
under the pre-scratched sky
in these, the newest of our shadows.
And thorns do write my requiem.
Postscript: In the time since this was written, we’ve learned that Muzi is not HIV positive. So he should live to way past ten.