What we need most in our world today is compassion. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our need to love, empathize, to love our neighbor. The many needless wars, the places of detention, the torture chambers, the abuse of the earth that sustain us, the use of forced child labor: These and many other atrocities of our modern day societies would be reduced dramatically if we reclaimed and recovered our compassion: To love our neighbor: To permit our neighbor to love us. Love is not weakness. Love is strength.
Poetry is a powerful vehicle to rekindle the waning flame of our love of our brothers and our sisters. Poetry moves language from speech that appeals solely or largely to the intellect, towards song. In the process, it reignites our consciences to repossess compassion. The flame burns anew.
When workers inject poetry into their labor, they soon develop a rhythm, and the work gets lighter and sometimes indeed enjoyable. Thus we survive.
When we are oppressed, as under apartheid in South Africa, and we confront our oppressor, poetry helps us to keep our spirits up and our hope strong. Thus we survive.
When we bury our dead fighters in our struggle for liberation, poetry helps to revive our strength and our conviction in the rightness of the cause we are dying for. The burial becomes a place of rededication to the cause through poetry and song. Thus we survive.
When we raise our voices in poetry and song against the barbarism of lynching, we seek to rekindle the conscience and humanity of the lyncher to a state of compassion and love, and in the process hopefully save the lives of other potential victims of this practice.
Today, when leaders of nations declare unnecessary wars, train our young people to kill other human beings, men, women, children; when they create such cold phrases as “collateral damage;” when they distort language in order to support their claim that subjecting another human being to acts of barbarism such as water boarding is not “torture”, then we know that compassion is itself being water boarded.
It is our duty as poets to raise our voices and let compassion live. Thus we shall survive.
AFTER THE DARKEST HOUR
After the darkest hour
That grew stubbornly darker
As its death-knell was tolled
Impatient dawn splashed bright red paint
On the eastern sky
And the newly-born sun
Rose out of the blood
Opened its eyes
Saw the scattered bones
Of the freedom-seekers
Smelled the stench of their decomposed bodies
A sacrifice to apartheid’s cannibal-god
AS THE DAWN APPROACHES
Silhouettes on gold sky
Beads of sweat
Tears of pain and joy
Mother Earth writhes and squirms
For the darkest hour is passing
Yet the gold has yielded to red
Blood of deliverance
Blood to buy blood
Red has become the color of dawn
And the head of the Sun-Child
Will soon emerge
But first the Earth must split
To open the passage for the Awaited Sun-Child
I, Benzini, sat upon a man with one buttock
And there was a smell of benzine
I sat upon him with the other and he fainted
If I had sat on him with both
We would all have been mired in muck
Dung oozing through our fingers
Its smell pervasive
Being born Benzini I grew more in my behind
In my head my little brain a rock
In my chest my heart a grindstone
My ears plugged with flintstones
When this child of a woman said
Bezini get off me I’m dying
I said you’re not dying you’re just pretending
Archbishop Tutu even closed his eyes
Directed his prayers
to the ancestral gods
to the heavens
His tears flowed down to water the earth
He prayed for the perpetrator he prayed for the victim
Said Benzini too must have access to heaven’s gates
For the sinner must be forgiven his sins
His accusers’ hands dipped in the waters of forgiveness
I’ insignificant hidden eye
I saw, I observed
That Benzini’s eyes –poor fellow- were wells of tears
I prayed they should not overflow these retaining walls
For they would resemble a raging flood from a witch’s wand
A veritable cloudburst
And the lakes would rise
And the rivers break their banks
Well, Benzini has been forgiven
It was said that a killer is not to be killed in revenge
Rather he is given a moment to reflect
And to straighten his crooked feet.
Sesotho is the language in which this poem was originally written. It is spoken in Lesotho and South Africa, and is my mother-tongue.
Jeffrey Benzien, former member of the Security Branch of the South African Police who forced “confessions” through torture, giving evidence before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, said, inter alia, as he described his method of suffocation: “…it would be a cloth bag that would be submerged in water to get it completely wet… I get the person to lie down on the ground of his stomach… with that person’s hands handcuffed behind his back. Then I would take up a position in the small of the person’s back, put my feet through between his arms to maintain my balance and then pull the bag over the person’s head and twist it closed around the neck in that way, cutting off the air supply to the person…” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report, Volume Two, 1999, p. 192.
Benzini, Sothoized form of Benzien and benzine. Benzine, “an inflammable, petroleum ether, prepared from natural petroleum, and used as a solvent.”
Benzeni? is a question in the isiZulu and isiXhosa languages of South Africa, meaning “What have they done?”
VIEW FROM GORÉ ISLAND
Beyond this narrow portal
A few steps down
Insatiable ships wait
For men, women, children
In dark dank damp dugouts
Beyond this narrow portal
The wide waters wait
To carry shiploads of souls
To hazy far away horizons
Where futureless futures await them
Beyond this narrow portal
The ships’ impatient horns
Blare and below loud mingling with
Impatient bells of churches
On the island calling to worship
Those who trade in human flesh
The ships sail to their auctions places
Where the sons and daughters of Africa
Are sold as chattel
Re-baptized and called slaves
The traders are unaware of the Kunta Kintes
Who will rebel against the horrible transformations
And be the harbingers of future rebellions
Of the Underground Railroads
Of new Prophets and heroes
Of dreams never before dreamed
Of Martin Luther King
And Barack Obama
you are a skelm
you lean heavily on a stick
your voice is hoarse
you are grey like ash
you are white like a dead goat
you smell like a dead goat
you are pale like a sheet
you are cold like ice
But you skelm of a skeleton
You’re just pretending
The entire world is your harem
The Earth your Super Woman
With whom you curl up under a blanket of snow
And no sooner is the blanket lifted as you leave her bed
Than she goes into labour
And buds explode
And blooms burst in colourful splendour
And there’s chirping and croaking and bleating
And sounds of gurgling springs
All these joyous sounds of birth-
You are the father
FIRE AND ROCKI know the road that leads back
from the nowhereness of the wilderness
I can see the pebbles, road markers
I dropped along the way
to lead me back to the foundation rock
in the corner of my home
I follow the pebbles, half-buried
in the unrelenting histories of our existence
to the foundation rock
in the corner of my home
I rake off the weeds and dirt
to uncover the sounds, the syllables, the morphemes
the words, the phrases and the stories
strung out and scattered to the listening stars
in the sweet music of my tongue
touched by the goddess of song
with the tip of her burning spear
Thus through the mystery of language
dreams and prophecies
When, after thirty years in exile in America, I successfully wrote an analysis of Sesotho poetry in Sesotho, as requested by the Oxford University Press, it was like a miracle. It proved that I still knew enough Sesotho, my mother tongue, to accomplish that task, and was resourceful enough to create the necessary terminology. I had returned to the place of my birth, Edenville, South Africa, and become reunited with the rock at the corner of my home, which had been there since my childhood.
We have returned with sheaves of grain
We have returned with bundles of wood
We have returned with the kill from the hunt
We have returned from the Feasting Day.
Let us build a fire in the open hearth beneath the sky
Let us sit and tell stories around its warmth
Let us roast and cook and feast
As we tell tales of yore:
The barren Queen banished from the kingdom of Marumo
God’s flight from the Earth into the Sky pursued by humans
The capricious Master of Creation who offers everlasting Life then changes His mind
His message and His messenger and Death comes to live among the people
And then tales and yarns of the hunt and the gatherings
Fly from mouth to mouth: the bigger the one that got away the better
Or the huge Ogre that chased the maidens in the woods
The sweeter the teller’s tongue the taller the tale
And so the yarns spin around and around
Ah-h-h! Now we are full and satisfied
Now we are warm, our limbs limber
Now, let us get up and dance the dance of jubilation
around this fire
In the moon’s soft light
To celebrate our victories.
For we have come back
With the meat and the grains and the wood and the water
And we look to new futures and challenges
As we kneel before our Elders
To be crowned with garlands of victory.
TREK ON THE JASPER TRAIL
In the first mile of the Jasper trail
the texas sun shines uncommonly bright
does not once blink
while the truck rattles on
in the cabin
“do you still
go out with annie mcguire?”
“o ya! nice lass
In the second mile of the Jasper trail
the sun listens
a cow bellows
a rancher cracks his whip
behind the truck
HE sees sparks and a million shooting stars
lightning up the endless firmament
MY GOD! MY GOD! WHY DO YOU FORSAKE ME?
inside the cabin
annie mcguire has come alive
and a young man besmears his pants
at the mere thought of annie mcguire
In the third mile of the Jasper trail
the shooting stars have died into their ashes
and the shadows around the sun
have crowded together to cover its face
from the shame
inside the cabin:
“i wonder how the nigger is doing back there”
A crow caws
and instantly the air is choked with cawing crows
that have suddenly filled the sky
for midnight has descended on the Jasper trail
yet the young men in the truck fail to see
they come out
“I feel sick Bob!”
“don’t be a squeam Ricky
aren’t you a Texan?”
“what’s a squeam Bob?
I’m going to throw up Bob!”
“ah, go puke you jelly belly
I’ll go empty my bladder over him”
A spirit that escaped
in the moment of decapitation
at the last crossroad
For they know now what they do”
PEACE BROKE OUT
Peace broke out
scattered its light like sun’s rays rising
wrapped itself around the earth
in words and stories and songs and prayers
in mosques and cathedrals and caves and trees
and rocks and mountains
in an assortment of noses, lips
strands of hair
shades or skin or eye
the many that blended into one medley
when someone said why aren’t they like us?
and rancor rose in tantrums
rolled and spun and twisted the world
rocked it back and forth
Till Mother Peace called out loud and strong
why do you tear me apart, my children?
I, an anthem assembled from countless single notes?
I will remind you one more time
that I, Peace, am not an accident
But a unity of accidental pieces
Our nation is under construction
Look at the detours
We seem to be going round and round
But, stay focused: There’s no going back
Detours help us avoid dead ends
We dare not miss the signs
Slow to standstill to slow we go
As barriers close lanes
Watch the drums that angle us
Let’s roll down our windows
And holler a neighborly chat
We’re in all this together
And the signs are so clear!
THE MUSIC OF THE VIOLIN
The gods favored me
In my moments of loneliness
They placed gently in my hands
And breathed into the Stradivarius and me
The knowledge to sing
I play first a pizzicato
With my nimble fingers
I pluck I pinch I twitch I tickle the strings
Then up and down the scale
A gentle brush with the bow
And I tap and pat the sounding chamber
And, sensitive to a fault, the Stradivarius murmurs
Sweet trains like human voices falling from heaven
An anthem never before heard
Now the soothing strokes from my hands
Calm it to a gentle tempo
In the final strains,
The Stradivarius speaks to me
Entrances me with a diminished chord
That hovers tantalizingly over the precipice
Slides into a dominant chord
To deliver me into a tonic statement
And the music of the violin floats away
To live forever
In the ensuing silence
THE PIT OF ALMOST-HELL
they had to believe in miracles
if Christ could turn stone into bread
and snake into fish
then surely he will turn the dry dust of Dimbaza
they had to believe in miracles
in god’s mysterious ways
since he allowed the reincarnated hitlers
to wrench them out of their homes
they, the discarded millions from the
sprawling black townships of south Africa
dumped on barren land
dust choking them
had to believe in miracles
digging rods in hand
pick and shovel
even naked hands
hoping for subterranean streams
bare backs baking in the sun
the only moisture their sweat
buy they dig
and still they dig
and relentlessly they dig
nothing at three feet
nothing at four
nothing at five
inch by inch they dig
one and two
and three and four and five and six and seven and eight and nine and ten and eleven
god, we dare not go one inch deeper
Give us water!
TRASH THE DAY!
Trash trashes our existence
One week at time
Trash comes in fragile grocery bags
They call degradable
Exits in non-degradable cans and plastics
Made for trashing days
Ah, it’s Wednesday today
Wasn’t it Wednesday yesterday
And the day before that and before that and before that and…?
Isn’t it Wednesday tomorrow
And the day after that and after that and after that and…?
Oh, trash it all!
Our days all trashed into one big Wednesday
Broken toy days
Garage sale junk dumping days
Rotten kitchen refuse days
Dead mice days
Trashed days waiting to be hauled away
And the roaring trucks roll in
Like death’s chariots they come
Relentlessly coming and going
Trashing our time
With giant shredding teeth
All our days have become Wednesdays:
Yesterday, today, tomorrow
And our lives are rolled
Into one big trash Wednesday!
Whisper nourishing words in my ear
Harsh words are not for love
They are toxic
They are what remains
when all the goodness of language
has been sucked into the soul
Breathe them out
Into the trash cans
And carry them to the sidewalk
Let them wait and wither in the cold
And soon enough
That trash chariot
Drawn by six huge black stallions
The reins held loosely in the gnarled fingers
Of a crooked-nosed black-top-hatted charioteer
And you know it’s Wednesday
And the words that poison the soul
Will be hauled into the stomach
Of the monstrous trashing trucks
And trashed forever
OH DEAR, MY TRASH
On wild windy winter Wednesdays
Hands in verkoek fingerless mittens
My hood over my head
Though not of the Klan am I
Nor a hoodlum
I cuddle you like a lover
O, my trash,
As we dance on a floor of ice
Waltzing our way to the sidewalk
But your breath, my dear!
Just as if you never heard of Listerine!
Got to put you down before I pass out
I miss my foothold and grip you tighter
As we roll on the winter snow
Compromised in this position
We’re suddenly blinded
by paparazzi flashlights!
Which art in City Hall
Please don’t sue us
When you see this winter trash
lying scattered on the side-walk
We try this ice-dance
Every blessed Wednesday
And we’re lucky to reach our destination,
The edge of the lawn called curb-side,
Without indecently rolling on the sidewalk
With our bad breathed partners
Breathing hell on us!
*Former Madison mayor Sue Baumann
NOW THAT YOU’RE GONE
I miss you my darling!
How I have begun to reconstruct you
Let me count the ways:
rotten potatoes, flabby carrots, broccoli turned yellow,
bananas that have seen better days, romaine lettuce (or any lettuce for that matter),
lemons, parsley, tomatoes begging to be put out of their misery, onions that have
begun to smell like poop;
You are ORGANIC, my love
That’s why Monsanto won’t touch you
with a ten-foot pole!
(Despite the little problem I whispered to you last time)
I, my darling, will waltz with you to the curb-side
come next Wednesday
Meanwhile, don’t mind Monsanto
He’s just jealous.
WHY SHOULD IT MATTER?
Why should it matter
whether the young one
seeking to piece the world together
is pink or brown or yellow or red?
Whether it is my child or yours?
Seek we not to guide the hand,
to watch it trying this piece,
then that one,
and then the next
assembling the world as if anew?
Why should it ruin my sleep
whether these defiant castle-builders
who keep casting their eyes to the sky
waiting for their castles to float down to earth
have sharp noses or flat?
or long hair or short?
I should worry only when the dream is killed
when Zim’s shadow darkens the door of life
crashes into a school
breathes foul-smelling smoke
into the clean and pure air
that nourishes the brain
and opens the path that leads to the soul
I should rise up in anger
when Zim’s foot
shatters the castle
while drinking a cocktail of blood
on a Sunday afternoon.
For then I see the killing of life itself
a child’s eyes glazing over
the luster now dying
that shone upon a star far away.
This shall always matter
a child dream
pregnant with promise
not to miscarry
at Zim’s behest
but to prosper into a sunrise.
This I shall always care about
Whether the child be mine or yours
Or pink or brown or yellow or red
For, without different colours
There would be no rainbow.
“The child was twelve years old, if that. She was wearing her school uniform. In the eyes of the South African police, she was not a child. She was one of a mass of anonymous, faceless blacks rioting and looting. A policeman’s finger pulled the trigger, and she lay in the street, dying.”
Where am I? Why am I lying here in the dust?
O, child of a woman, how can I speak the unspeakable to a mere twelve-year-old? Isn’t that the problem?
Who are you? Where are you? Speak to me. Hold me tight. My mother does not know I’m lying here in the dusty street.
O, child of a woman, I am and I am not, for I come after the final darkness has closed in.
Darkness? What are you saying?
Quiet. Just rest a while, child of a man and a woman, seed of the sacred union. Do not worry, little girl.
Seed of the sacred union?
You cannot understand.
She cannot hear you, O child. You do not know what is becoming of you.
She will come, my mother. She will hear me. She will come.
I have no comfort for you, O unfortunate child, barely twelve years old. I am now your only companion.
Touch me, I’m hot.
My head is swirling. Hold me.
Please, you thing.
Yes, I am thing and I am no-thing. I must stay away from you as long as possible.
Can you go to my mother and tell her . . .?
Oh, I’m tired. I’m drowsy.
Sleep. That dust now is hallowed ground, where you lie.
It comes back now. I was walking. Yes. From school. My books, where are they? What happened to me? Why am I here? Oh, mother.
Do not linger long, child. Be released. Let me embrace you.
This dryness in my mouth. I’m thirsty. Mother, bring me some water.
(I am merciful.)
Then bring me water.
O, you heard me. That was not for you, child. How merciful I am you will, mercifully, never know.
There were many people. Policemen. Guns . . . They shot me! Oh mother they shot me! Shot . . . me. Why?
Because they feared you.
Feared me? Me, a child? Those big, big men with guns and clubs and bayonets? Feared me?
In you, a child, more strength. You to them a greater threat in the young tomorrows waiting to be born. They fear your tomorrow, that’s why they try to kill your today. You understand?
Blood! I’m bleeding! They shot me!
Out of fear, child. But your tomorrow will never die. For, when I embrace you, you will live in the endlessness of time, in all the yesterdays,
the todays and the tomorrows which will become one thing.
My mother kissed me this morning. She left for the white people’s house to go and cook for them and wash their clothes and care for their children. She said she’d see me in the evening. I ate. I left. I loved the arithmetic. Good subject. The teacher, he is good. English. Hygiene — wash every day, brush your teeth, comb your hair, cut your nails short. Civics — who is your Bantu Affairs Commissioner? Who is the superintendent of your location? In what ways is the pass good for you? That piece of paper which the policemen are always demanding from you, without which they throw you in jail! Oh, how our people suffer!
Don’t tire yourself, little one. So young. So beautiful! So tender! Just lie there and rest and wait. Your tommorow will never die.
Afrikaans! Why in hell? Why-y-y? Comrades, they shot me. Yes, the cowards! They shot me. But I hear your running feet, I hear your calls to arms. I see victory! See how I pull myself up from the dust! See how I clench my fist! See how I make the final salute! I hear the shout ‘TO HELL’ echoing in the four corners of the earth! Yes, to hell with them! To hell with them! . . .
Oh, mother, will you know when you see my happy face that my heart remains here with my comrades? With you? Tomorrow is so beautiful!
Tomorrow shall be born, for today is indestructible. No sun sets forever. You, child, are like a seed that must seem to die in order to produce a young shoot seven days hence.
Tomorrow is ours!
Brave child! You’re like a meteor that blazes and lights the earth ere it is extinguished. The straying traveller sees the way and is saved.
Then, child, let meteor trail off to silence, deep silence, well-earned silence, peace.
Tomorrow lives! Soweto! Soweto! So . . .we . . .to . . . So . . . we . . .
Now you’re ready for my embrace. Come, little one. It is finished.
from A Seed Must Seem to Die
Daniel Kunene Professor Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, B.A. (University of South Africa, 1949), M.A. and Ph.D. (University of Cape Town, 1951 and 1961 respectively), Awarded D.Litt. et Phil. (honoris causa) (University of South Africa, 1999), Author of: Heroic Poetry of the Basotho (OUP, 1971; UNISA, 1983); Thomas Mofolo and the Emrgence of Written Sesotho Prose (Ravan Press, 1989); Dithoko, Dithothokiso le Dithoholetso tsa Sesotho (OUP, 1996); A Seed Must Seem To Die (Ravan Press, 1981); From the Pit of Hell to the Spring of Life (short stories: Ravan Press, 1986); The Zulu Novels of C.L.S. Nyembezi: A Critical Appraisal (The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007); Numerous poetry readings and speeches against apartheid in South Africa; Poem, "Soweto," a dying 12-year-old school girl shot by the police, holds dialogue with deaths mysterious voice. The poem was set to music for choir and orchestra by the Dutch composer Bernard van Beurden, and first performed in Groningen, Netherlands, in 1990. In 1991 "Soweto" was performed at The University of Northern Iowa by the UNI Singers under direction of Sharon Hansen; and in 1998 at The University of Wisconsin under direction of Beverly Taylor.