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A Few Good Citizens
Youth. Nothing about youth diminishes, about dying and culture. It is still a shock to the system when it arrives on the scenario, the scene of the volume of sky and a child caught in the drift of time, of a storm is raging inside my head, deep inside me I am a still life, a figure whose reflection’s glitters. The dead do not speak of trivia. They no longer can bask in the orange disc of the sun with their infirmities and stiff upper lips, shielding their malnourished children who suck their gums in hunger, in thirst, waiting in a line that does not move, they wrap their arms around their mother’s graceful neck, as graceful as a swan’s. What does a poet see in this, what is revealed in this time and place, psychology and consciousness, how do certain words, the poet’s imagination perform. There is still hope for this ravaged continent that is hurting so, it hurts to breathe, to think, to stare at this poverty, this nation in the face, are they too hungry to even think of revolution, their eyes can melt the hearts of stone in any scenery and anything that flows into and around their world, through their mouths, into their bodies is an elixir-even the spacious expanse of the sky above their heads. As they sit day in, day out they wait to live through their fate; do they feel hatred towards the God of this society?
Poverty. What warms their hearts, the impoverished, is it only the ancient traits of teachers and guides, things they know or poverty, that imperfect feeling of something missing that has moulded them into the earthy creatures they are today, the drumming noises of the planes in flight, how close they have come to dying instead of being. What are they most grateful for? They will never know of the wings of a poet writing about a prayer for hope for the continent of Africa, of my obsession of them, of the foreigners who descend like wolves, people trapped in a terminal, of my roots to the universe. The sun is silent over the sea, mocking me while gliding across my shoulder blades like falling water. Just as there is a miracle of life in seawater so there is in translation. Magic mother eats like a bird keeping all her secrets to herself like the surface of carrion passing triumphantly into a blue oblivion where closure is self-imposed, like the intimacy of letters in a novel language as thin as the width of a thread, all thumbs. The weight of water has lightness in it. I wished for someone to end my sentences. Could we stop the sounds of falling rain if we weren’t exposed to the song in it, if we paid more attention to it like a dream? As hard as air, poised yet fragile, you, father, mapped with fragile lines.
Adele. I’ve endured Adele’s harvest, her fairy-tale feeling, her time away from me, the fact that summers have stolen her away from me, emptied my heart of wonder, of spells, locked me instead into building a wall around me, where I wait for her in silence to release me from the voice inside my head that has carried me from our childhood years, now to our passage as grown women. She has taught me to hold onto the familiar, the passing of the heavier moments slipping into time, pools and curves of momentum and motion of the land that time simply forgets to acknowledge. She seems to perfect everything. Her being is not as wooden as mine, her manners as stiff; her words are not strange and challenging. Words do not cure her like they do me instead she fills me up with meaning, with her pure rituals that came on the brink of her womanhood. Time has marked us as a minority, liberated us from a scheming mother, a quiet and gentle father; they have faded into the background like voids in the inner space of a lucid dream.
Rivals. After Adele I have realised that there is nothing ordinary about this land of rural countryside, the wild, the wilderness, commodity, routes of heat and dust high in the blue of the sky and the slow caress of the sweep of larva, the inhabitants’ eyes like dark pits. A land of calculated bullets, sensual young women, fierce youth, stifled judges and the white fingers of galloping mist. And for those that are city-born, educated, amongst the privileged few, the only information that they have about this land is what they read about in books. What they are pulled towards and pushed against in the plane of their consciousness. In other words, the lies they were told as children. We are made in our personal capacity to hope and there will always be a haunting beauty in that like stone and iron in earth, just like the stone, iron, fire in our blood, denizens of Africa in the copious movement of struggle against colonialism, against backlash, poverty, wealth, that great divide where boundaries lay unquestioned, tolerated at best. ‘Smile,’ you, magic mother, dew blinking bright in your eyes, in your black stockings, your tender physical body so different from mine, slender, health rushing through you pure and earnest said, but it hurt to smile.
Culture. The Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg of my childhood were far away from this. The cities I experienced as an adult were meaty and ghoulish that smelled like a vagrant imposing his presence, the smell of sour mildew, the residue of stains and the air of loneliness, homelessness, tragic circumstance and of being mocked, chastised on his person. A sourness on his breath of wine or something stronger like spirits that warmed the death of frozen him up on wintry nights, when it rained, the vagrant, a bone man with a lack of education and a bleak future teetering on the brink. Port Elizabeth, more town than city, more smear of mouse than a wild, hirsute, obscene giant in its outlook than that great bustling bee hive of a hub of a city, Johannesburg. Its people with their slogans tattooed on their chest working hard to pay their bills, to escape from their failures and triumphs being eyed in the workplace. The landscape of Port Elizabeth has an orange afterglow in the late afternoon – pollution from the factories on the industrial side of town. The people glow too but it is more internal. It is as if they are lit up from the inside by a flame. They’re people who burn like a volcano, that fades into the night, marching onward, focused on their destination, complete, sated.
Time. The pear juice dribbling down my chin tastes sweet. I can imagine the look of love drifting into view for some of them, family, children and lovers, expectation meeting the rise of anticipation. It’s nice out. Muse has a new name – children playing out on sunny roads. On waking there is the thought of the onset of age, of peeling back the layers of being, of nothing from the present to the scenic. Mostly for now I sit and write about my mother and father and the tears that came and went like ice in a waterfall staring right through me as it floods my mind’s eye. There is something heroic about the day. About the people with their being and nerve fused to their vision of the day. If I were like them I would turn into a green-eyed monster,
Bluebeard. Even the flawed, the tarnished, the idiot, people who time forgot are loved. There’s a period of growth even in silence, a pause between acts, stillness when you gather your thoughts in inner space. Code starts with me first, as soon as the destination becomes important so does the secret language of women, men, children, their angel tongue comes with this volcano rushing through my head, shadows drowning out the switches from the philosophy of a child to woman.
Pearls. There is a new and almost poetic intensity to my dreams now, where water holds me and currents flow through me with a bright new energy, vibration and force.
I am not the bride, the new wife. Instead I am transfixed by the enigma of the generous, unbearable lightness and the darker strokes and dimensions of the profound world of words, glowing chronic illness. My father is not in perfect health, frail, prayers have carried him through and he thinks he has to live through his pain, that he hasn’t reached kismet. He has told us how he would like to go, he shared this with us, his children in a cemetery while placing half dead flowers on our grandparents grave and perhaps the message had come from God and as we sat in the cold all I could see were trees stitched to the ground, lifted up, head high in the most deserted of all resting places, the green of the leaves fading away into the afternoon night with the change of the seasons. As I took his arm I could feel the warmth of his blood under his jacket. The only thing that mattered in that moment was the three of us communing with the elements, clouds gathering overhead, other families paying their respects to relatives that had passed on. If people lived on the moon how they would ever begin to fathom justice for their loved ones if the universe’s tides didn’t turn.
Cut. The flowers infect thoughts of death in the cemetery bittersweet like rage, a strange, demented vocabulary as if it were the memory of ill health. My emptiness dies with the dawn and finally calm I heal old wounds. I call this progress, obstacles and challenges have ceased to exist for me because all I see when I dig is the blade of the sun, I have to endure for there is no other way out of the abyss except to jump over the black edge. Writing an anthem for the youth where would I place meaning, how would utopia fit, the missing link, the most primal of screams, the poverty of the mind, that great divide between place and time, a helpless poet transformed by ripples of a half-life of drowning in garlic, the familiar, the discovered plate, the poet frightened to death to be smitten, who instead embraces to be cured of it and having deciphered enough of it in lovely words threaded through her head realises that the world is not her home, it is only a meeting point where the courage for the broken is exposed and where it no longer mocks immortality, marriage or takes possession of physical space in an agonising waiting game-(poets) female poets see things in interiors, as instruments that can cut through the blue, the picture, details of what a house means, for them it’s a song.
Art. If the sun didn’t burn so bright in my eyes would I see angels falling from the sky wearing white robes? Head made of stone-sound the alarm for here hallucinations abound like driftwood, a gull sweeping through the sky overhead. Her skin is as dark as dry blood as she stands in her white dress, the virgin bride on the surface, is she happy standing next to her groom, her features communicate nothing to me but her groom is smiling in the picture, while the path to my heart lies in ruins, reflects my standing in society – unmarried at thirty, having born no children from a womb that spirals and whirls in a rush of air, an echo of a flurry of blood for seven days. When I speak now, it is in whispers in the company of other women who have crossed the boundary from youth into wifedom and motherhood effortlessly – I have been left behind and books, reading only gives up so much to the intellect of a woman (I have learned that this is not what other women covet) – it is a hollow and empty existence that I am engaged in, what am I living for then if not to spread myself across the flame of the dead, yielding myself to the flesh of their book histories, once their altered states of imagination now becomes mine to claim, to shut myself in when the world becomes cold.
Hands. To commit myself to hide away, (no matter how unbearable it becomes it still feels like home, a life to live even if it is always winter agents that come upon me. They are my comrades. They comfort me in my skin’s glowering pose – that, that is my sanctuary, where I lay my head to rest, to rejuvenate my senses that informs the psychology that I lead with, the canvas of the sun that breaks me like vultures and death. In the middle of the night I fly away in my dreams and one night all I could see were black dogs, as black as a river barking madly. They were swathed in night air but before they descended upon me I woke up. In another dream I was praying for the madness in my world to end (I could sense if I peeled the psychic skin back, there was a lesson of biblical proportions there). Wasteland, fog or clear skies my dreams smell like perfumed incense, feels like a feather in the palm of my hand, angelic choirs singing, open country, the playing fields of children; dreaming often feels surreal to me, is it a part of my real life or am I hallucinating or a woman in motion with pain written everywhere on my body in invisible ink, lonely is the heart of the poet, just another vision of winter, always searching for the truth inside of myself, inside my soul.
Family. What I remember about childhood is a child’s fists painted with mud pies, adults with their bleak smiles swimming out of reach. Moon people do not have to speak of the volume of their loneliness in a human traffic wonderland. This is a story about that childhood. Parts are funny, there are some grim portraits, (about the grownups); most of all there is something pure about the life experience, the gems, the hopes, the dreams and the goals that inhabit the world of a child. With its walls made of infinite space I watched myself become more detached as I grew older, surer of myself. This is also a story about the other me, ‘her’. How she left me wrung-out, washed out pale like mysticism’s shroud. From that thing, that skin of a telescope, books were my eyes and ears to the world, the adult world, and its core’s pulse. And I learned I had to keep words like, ‘Why are you sullen, something difficult?’ to myself with resignation. ‘Why do you burn like larva?’
Poets. Blistering, spirited sun dancing on the ground, how on earth did you get here? Why do you have that effect like some poet whose text is like a boomerang or pillars? It’s as if you possess magical thinking with the planets, the moon in union around you. Who or what awakened you, brought you to and altered human consciousness? When children laugh, do angels above in heaven sing like the poet sings when he has seen signs of his wisdom in what he has written; through God’s flute come prayers that we, humanity must take cognizance of. Just like there are kingdoms in manuscripts, so there are in the seasons, in the plant and animal world, the ocean-sea, so death finally begins in the poet’s life itself as his vanishing slowly begins to form and take shape, as he grows older and his body begins to grow soft, infirm, perhaps his hands are crippled with arthritis, lonely he spends his days in meditation, introspection, reading, wishing he could turn back the clock. It is the sun that reminds him of what he was like as a child, as a boy he was a scavenger, a warrior, playing at war with his boyhood friends, he is still oblivious to youth and culture shock, to the highs and lows of mania, meeting the beautiful woman who is going to be his not so perfect wife with her own depression belly up; they both had things to learn from each other, hostility, silent treatment, with only small children to set their souls at peace. What if the sun was the centre of the universe, what if my father asked himself at some point, if he had made her the sun in his?
Milestones. As the sun sets I am caught wishing I was a child again with that festive, birthday air around her, that time has not taken its toll on me, middle age was not rolling in, that language was still a strange tongue for me and that I still painted fish in Sunday school. But tonight instead I will meditate, connect to the earth and forget about the small kittens we found a year ago, striped bundles of warmth falling into air to be caught in my hands under fluorescent lighting in the garage, forget what any rogue or solitary wined man would mean by a stare. Tonight I will push past the roughness of the galaxy. Fast forward my response to all my hurt and regret that could fill the oceans of the overworked sea. This is when my thoughts turn and I remember Adele floating on air, so beautiful and elegant. Skin pale with no lines showing through yet. No cracks, not ancient, with invincible youth on her side. A rose in each cheek, scent in her rinsed hair, a winter guest in a world, a universe, on a planet in a Johannesburg all snowy almost overnight.
Imagination. When you left this world turned on me, crippled me and left my heart in a frail knot, tangled in the mirth of obsession towards possession, form, force, a waking flame and the arrows of a being of light. They were contagious as a rolling shift in tides, as I progressed towards you lost in the land, shades and country of Jane Austen. I basked in the glory of her elements, sampled incandescence and fragile quiet. If fish could only live on air like I do. Instead they breathe the juice, the veil of fire on an expedition from sea to land before they’re completely erased from sight like you have been, leaving me quite ill, inconsolable against invincible cosmic you I searched this house, turned it upside down until all my thoughts were black and impoverished. How can I banish the song in my clothed hunger, my still, patched, dark thirst? The climb has been a cold one to bear. Night has ravaged me senseless so that I’ve taken to medicine which has transitioned me from ancient death to the tree of life, made me march to the sound of cars and dogs barking in bursts, the background of the vein of rain, the symmetry of stars and the silence of a planet when the night falls. If only you were here within reach, smelling of roses, the bite of my prize poem, kind, alive, not in flight.
Halfway. Meeting in the middle is a force to be reckoned with. Where do Adele, Godwin and Isobel meet if not meant to in the aftertime of city-people? There is something heroic about the day, any day because aren’t battles fought continually, yet people emerge (there is evidence of this) more or less resilient, flexible, sometimes harder to crack or hurt. There are those whose interior is impenetrable. There is something to be said about the people with their being and nerve fused to their vision of the day.
Godwin. Blue reminds me of the ocean, a female on a suicide mission, the end and the edges of the sky, warmth sucked inside of me. I was that girl with the fake bonhomie in blue jeans and blue buttoned down shirt, melting in the heat and dust because of my long sleeves. You rode up the hill with me in your car with a tape playing in your stereo. I came to your house. I sat on your bed. I watched you carefully, watched you flow into and around your objects, your books, your pictures, your art, your shoes, all your electronic technical stuff and your ‘things’, especially when you came into contact with your mother. I didn’t want to be in your way but I was. And the rush of what I felt was invincible. Already I didn’t fit (I was a square peg in a round hole) and didn’t have a clue how to fit or how to behave amongst culture shock and a significant rival. Then you decided the manner to unravel another country.
Emptiness. There I sat a little Buddha resting, little Buddha made of stone or one of Helen Martin’s menageries; me keeping you company and what its flesh implied to me was frightening, authentic in its own way but frightening in comparison to the clouds scissoring through the drift of summertime air. I paled while you were flexing, impressing upon me the onslaught of the daily grind of challenges you faced. And for that afternoon ‘in the other room’ I was in your cave where only the invited guest ever set foot by your order and command. You thought I could help in some way, mentor you in some capacity. But kismet was sealed and I was trapped with your name already a pearl on my lips. In retrospect it was tragic the way I suited up for my list of companions, the strategic cycle of them that I planned with logic precision but it more or less it didn’t come down to the fire or how the flame burned. It came acutely with half-dreaming loosed on me.
Creation. I could imagine you walking around in your white socks, shuffling in that big house eating, talking, laughing, singing or drinking wine with your family in the evenings with a light meal. It was already crowded. It was plain to see there was no room for me.
But you are gone like the English teacher who really was English, imported from the great, wet and cold Britain, like the one who got away with his wife carrying a child in her belly, the one who worked for the BBC, the producer, the writer, the poet, the ‘spy’ who sold vitamins. All left me tangled in mist and vague observation, mental anguish and ill health. Unfortunately love never leaves you or what your senses, what you experienced in life during that time completely. It serves as a healthy lesson to reinforce something, a fact of life that you will never forget that came to you as a blessing in disguise.
Drama. But for the craft of creation, ‘it’ to be a blessing you must have been interrupted post-crisis by a spiritual plane. If I think of those ‘teachers’ who have guided me temporarily it is to distraction, a race against time and I am in that room again, the world in my eyes gone, launched in orbit in an outer space, a divine realm navigated by loss, always loss that feels like being caught in snow. For D. H. Lawrence love is good enough ‘so long as it didn’t fizzle out in talk’. The trouble with men is that they don’t remember. They’re not built that way. They’re made of portions meant to be reading the signs, gathering them up of what will follow after the situation or conflict with the female or females in their male-dominated arena. Men are spoilt by the choice they have in the women who will love them. It is the woman who will fall for the dreams in that man and the goals he has set aside for himself. It is a fable as ancient as the parables. These demigods have taught me that to eat is to live. It has taken me some time to retaliate, to feed on and off secret comfort, cast the sun out, me the brief discoverer that my ignorance was no longer bliss and that enlightenment triumphantly entitled me to regard men as the enemy. I discovered this thought in all of them. Before I could move they wanted to know what was the effort for, why that variation in my tone, why I did not speak. I was so good at the latter that it became my truth. I could wing it and fly. I had no need for speech or drama.
Self-worth. Peace is a country, an apt pupil in rain or a cement garden. It tastes like warm plums. You taught me that all life is temporary – a moment of being and the road’s ever-present and thickening blackness coming out to meet blind me only served as company, which I would be bound to it for eternity, although it would require some delicate adjustment. The cut-out act of that would fit me like a second skin. I was made to understand children even if they were not my own. This muse set in stone. A poetess conceived like a Greek goddess, more imaginary than real, head inspired the committee of nightmares, insomnia, cigarettes, the motion sickness of the scar of loneliness, the manic energy of staying up all day, all night. Being put into action until what was left of them was just the vision bleeding into the landscape of evening’s shades, the vision of units of memory rolling like a wave until it made a statement. I have always been able to see you like I have seen the alphabet, help in therapy. I have made it my cause and platform to write out of defiance, more importantly because it makes you go underground until you love yourself.
Isobel. Isobel was an exceptional learner in the shop. She had been promoted to assistant manager. Isobel’s, her outer ‘skin’, (a play at subterfuge), her clothes were an expression of her anonymity in that crowd so she wouldn’t feel alien. Johannesburg set in the modern times is now a place where being human is an experiment carried out in the ongoing black depths of the night air in the city. The man in this picture is watching the woman in the same picture as he tells her something to impress upon her his genius in the world. The curl of her lip on the rim of the glass, the way she tidies and fusses with her hair, tucking it away behind her ear is encouraging his bravado and playful. The way she does it is sensual. His lips are wet and as the evening progresses he becomes braver. She leans into him because the music is too loud, the conversations from the tables around them and then he begins to stroke her arm with his index finger. She sighs. ‘I’m so tired. We were so busy today.’ Is he listening to her, she wonders? Is he focused on the final outcome of the evening? She shivers and turns her head away. ‘Where do you work? Is it far from here? What time do you knock off? Maybe we can meet up halfway somewhere. I usually like to come here in the evenings.’
Melting. The drink is beginning to take effect on her. Does it show, she wonders and this guy is starting to play, asking her questions, personal questions and sound more and more like trouble to her? She begins to think that this was a bad idea, a very bad idea but he had genuinely seemed nice but why all these questions. She doesn’t want to go to a hotel, or his house. What she wants is to get out of this, this mess. He wants her to think that he doesn’t think the same like other men do. He respects her and somehow he must get that across in his tone of voice in his conversation with her. That must count for something in this mating game but before she is caught in his snare, she glares at him (she knows what he wants and hates this ‘lie’ but it is not that late, the brightness of the day has faded (like her resolve is fading fast before this hunter) and before he buys her another drink she excuses herself to go fix her hair and makeup. She does not like to drink but men look at her differently when she does. They notice her. The same man is waiting for her response to him. Men hungry for women frequent these bars and upmarket restaurants. Their need for the attention and admiration of the woman is never satiated. But first he has to talk and listen, play this little game that he doesn’t sometimes have the energy for.
Volcano. There’s nothing cute about it. They get easily bored, enraged even when their feelings are not reciprocated. Their line is, ‘I have spent money on you. You owe me something.’ Their eyes seem to say, glowing with their pent up exertions of the evening. The woman, hurt holds onto the disaster, flirts with it, (it is too late for her to make up some excuse to leave), nursing a comeback with the alcohol generating warmth. And when it comes it is usually these words with luminous effect. ‘You don’t own me. Leave me alone.’ An ugliness or near-hysteria coded in her voice.
Lament. I have met all the Isobels and Adeles and Godwins of the world that I want to meet in my lifetime. I have had to fathom them all out like the dark – their soul-pieces and say, leave me to it.
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