Easter Moon: Chris Mann

Milky Way Moon

Easter eve on a hillside in a valley, a Valley of a Thousand Hills, it’s western ridge lifting steadily, lifting with the spin of the world through ragged red streaks of cloud up into the darkening, star-specked sky.

Wrapped in a dark brown rug, twitching and grunting, a boy on the hillside dreams in the grass. The jumpy red flames of a thorn-wood fire flicker quick changes of light and shadow on his face, a soil-smudged hand, pushed out from under the rug, lies unfurled by his side.

Young native, citizen and explorer of earth, your howls of frustration and shouts of glee, your scowls and hugs are as frank and primitive as the night through which the planet sails it’s valleys and mountains, it’s animals, plants and seas. Scooping you up, I sense a kinship that stretches back, being after being, down long millennia of bush and grassland, through epochs of ice and rain, to life’s first twitch in primordial brine. You rouse such compassion in me now, you animate my faith, that love involves our beings best, and Christ resurrected is love restored.

Climbing the hill, your small-boned body’s passion for life held in my arms. I crunch across fire-blackened tufts of grass towards the dim white blur of a building on the crest. A backlit, sky-blue curtain flicks aside, a window swings open. Your mother leans across the sill and says,  I’m glad you’re back, it’s late.

I pause on the stoep and watch the valley’s eastern ridge spin slowly down, down into the dark abyss of space. Brightly serene, above the silhouettes of boulders, bush, power-lines, sheds and trees along the rim of our world, a full moon rises silently into sight, it’s rough white shape that of the rock rolled from the entrance to a tomb.

[From ‘Epiphanies’, by Chris Mann, published by The Cathedral of St Michael and St George, Grahamstown, 2017. After 15 years of poverty alleviation work in rural areas, Chris Mann moved with his family to Grahamstown, where he is convenor of Wordfest South Africa, and Professor Emeritus of Poetry at Rhodes University]


A Letter to an Unborn Child: Chris Mann

Reflection of a candle in the window on a rainy night

Tonight, your mother and I, romantic still, intend to open our star-filled window and in the light of a candle first lit at our wedding, to bring your being, waiting already within us, into fuller life.

Your mother, with forehead smudged, has laboured all day to paint a canvas reality of trees. It fills us with wonder, that we who are used to the sweat of design, the pain of composition and revision, can hope, merely in a flash of joy, to usher in new life, the spark, moist and complex, wriggling in darkness, that’s you.

Being spring, the season is right for such a seeding. May the night’s tranquillity, the glimmering light of the stars, be gifts to cherish in your bones.

And should you ever, growing older, search your origins for the moods, the protein motions that nurtured you, don’t think a share of sorrow, of nightmare, remorse and illness was never, with ecstasy, not also ours.

Our choice, to build a space in which your being, molecule by molecule could emerge, is tinged with trepidation. It rises from a reverence, inchoate yet real, for the shaping spirit that we ourselves are children of.

And when, growing older, you see our imperfections, the frail glasswork of our dreams, remember this: that the night, the stars, this blue-quilted bed were wondrous to your parents.

You were conceived in love.

[From ‘Epiphanies’, by Chris Mann, published by The Cathedral of St Michael and St George, Grahamstown, 2017. After 15 years of poverty alleviation work in rural areas, Chris Mann moved with his family to Grahamstown, where he convenor of Wordfest South Africa, and Professor Emeritus of Poetry at Rhodes University]

‘You come and go’:Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke

You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a shudder
Of all who move through the quiet houses,
you are the quietest.

We become so accustomed to you,
we no longer look up
when your shadow falls over the book we are reading
and makes it glow. For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.

Often when I imagine you
your wholeness cascades into many shapes.
You run like a herd of luminous deer
and I am dark. I am a forest.

You are a wheel at which I stand,
whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up,
revolve me nearer to the centre.
Then all the work I put my hand to
widens from turn to turn.

[From ‘The Book of Hours’ which Rilke published in April 1905. ‘These poems explore the Christian search for God and the nature of Prayer, using symbolism from Saint Francis and Rilke’s observation of Orthodox Christianity during his travels in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century’.
Recommended by Margaret Place]

Singing Bowl: Malcolm Guite

Singing bowlsSinging Bowl

Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

Malcolm Guite
(Recommended by Colleen Sturrock)

Just Because: BW Vilakazi

minersJust because I smile and smile
And happiness is my coat
And my song tuneful and strong
Though you send me down below
Into unbelievable regions
Of the blue rocks of the earth –
You think I am a gatepost
Numb to the stab of pain.

Just because of the laugh on my lips
And my eyes lowered in respect,
Pants rolled up above the knees
And my dark hair all dun-coloured
And thick with the roadside dust,
My hands swinging a pick,
And the back stripped out of my shirt –
You think I am like a stone
And don’t know what it is to die.

Because at the fall of dark
When I’ve unloosened the chains
Of my days long labour
And I fall in with my brothers
Stamping the ground in a tribal dance
And we sing songs of old times
That stir up our fighting blood
Driving away all our cares –
For you think that I’m a beast
That breeds its kind and dies.

Because I seem to you a simpleton
Knocked over by plain ignorance
and the laws beyond my understanding,
except maybe that they rob me.
And the house I built for myself
under the hang of the rock,
a hut of grass for my home,
my clothing an empty sack –
You think I am just an antheap;
and not one tear have I in me
to drip out from my own heart
and run over the pure hands
of the souls who see all.

[Translated from Zulu; I’m afraid I can’t remember by whom, and I’m not certain of the punctuation, as I copied it rather roughly into a notebook about 40 years ago. I came across Dr Benedict Wallet Vilakazi when I was about 16, and found his poetry very moving, inured as we often were to the plight of black people we pushed to the margins of society and our minds by convincing ourselves they were invited into our society as outsiders. He was born on 1 January 1906 in Groutville, Natal (previously Umvoti: a mission station near Stanger, the site of Chaka’s royal kraal). Vilakazi was appointed bantu languages assistant at the University of Witwatersrand in 1935: the 1st black lecturer appointed to a white university. He held the BA degree of the University of South Africa and was a prize winner of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, before completing his Masters at Wits. He was a distinguished Zulu poet and wrote the first book of Zulu poems to be published, some of which were traditional “praise-songs” in ‘Inkondlo kaZu’, published by Wits before his apppointment in 1935. He also wrote three novels in Zulu: ‘NomaNini’ (1935); ‘Udingiswyo kaJobe’ (1939); ‘Nje Nempela” (1943). However I am not sure if they have been translated into English. Vilakazi became the first Black person in the Union to receive the degree of doctor of literature in 1946, but tragically died on 26 October 1947 in Johannesburg at the age of just 41.

As luck would have it, packing books for our move to Johannesburg, I found another translation of this poem by Florence Louie Friedman: Wits, 1973. Vilakazi had found a friend in Daniel McKinnon Malcolm (‘Chief Inspector of Native Education’ in Natal 1920-1944, and a lecturer in Zulu in the University of Natal in his retirement) who made a rough translation of his poems, and then passed them on to Friedman, who in turn was assisted by JM Sikakana, also from Wits, in researching Vilakazi’s background and family, before she re-translated them. Partly because it was the first I encountered, I prefer the one above, but Friedman’s translation is interesting because for me it gives a completely different slant on the last 5 lines, which in the above translation had always bothered me.

You think I am just an antheap; [You think that I accept my lot]
and not one tear have I in me [And have not cause to weep.]
to drip out from my own heart [But tears secreted in the heart,]
and run over the pure hands [Flow only onto sacred hands]
of the souls who see all. [Of spirits never blind to human anguish.]

The 1st had always bothered me because it seemed to suggest a bitterness inconsistent with the little I had read of Vilakazi (without denying that he had every right to be so), with no tears left for ‘the souls who see all’, who I had therefore always taken to be white people! But the 2nd clarifies that those tears are indeed real, secreted in the heart, and are released to the spirits who are ‘never blind to human anguish’.]

Ngoba…Sewuthi (Because…)

Because you always see me smile,
You think that I must be content:
Because I sing with all my voice,
The while you drive me underground
To find the treasure hidden there –
Those diamonds tinting earth with blue:
You say that I am like a log
Insensitive to pain.

Because you see my laughing lips,
My downcast eyes,
My trousers rolled above the knee,
My matted hair like ochre
From dust of sandy roads,
My hand around a pick,
My shirt without a back:
You say I am insentient
And durable as rock.

Because, when night approaches,
You see me loosening the chains
Of daily drudgery,
And, meeting people black like me,
Dance with new-born energy
While chanting tribal songs
That rouse our stifled zest
And banish weariness:
You think me but an animal
Who, should it die, is soon replaced.

Because I am a simple dupe
Who pays the price of ignorance
And cannot understand these laws
That use, abuse me and exploit me;
Because you see me build my shack
Beneath the rocky krantz
And know my home is made of grass,
My garment but a sack –
You think that I accept my lot
And have not cause to weep.
But tears secreted in the heart,
Flow only onto sacred hands
Of spirits never blind to human anguish.

For the New Year, 1981: Denise Levertov



I have a small grain of hope—
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source—
clumsy and earth-covered—
of grace.