Evil is a Facebrick Church in a Modernist Style.

I am no one

A thin spirit

Wandering the Land at its source

Shape-shifting to become 

The peaks and valleys 

Of the everyday

The banality of Evil

All around me

Sits, hideous

Contemplating the world from a park bench 

Evil is a face brick church built 

In a modernist style

Signalling its permanence

As a landmark on the highway, heading home

I struggle to keep pace

Wraith-child match girl

Lighting flames in the wind

The terrible book of the past

Written around, and on, and through me

Jaws of bone and stone

Open to offer a route 

Elsewhere

Standing at the gate

Pink light of dawn

Cold hands of morning

Slipping into the folds 

Of a warmer place, 

A language learnt

A past unravelled 

Commentary

I wrote this poem in response to Jane Alexander’s sculpture ‘The Butcher Boys’, currently part of the permanent collection at the South African National Gallery.  It depicts the brutal and dehumanising forces of apartheid.  It is unsettling and haunting.  It is also the subject of the tourist’s gaze.  A work to be photographed with by visitors to the gallery pulling amusing poses.  This is the way of things.  Alexander made the work in the 1980’s, a time when the violence of the state, and the response of the people was exploding in South Africa.  I remember this time as my childhood years in Johannesburg.  Sun-lit and ordinary.  Lying on hot bricks, wet from the pool.  The tanks rolling down the quiet suburban streets to quell uprisings in the neighbouring township.  The barbed wire going up around our primary school.  Bombing my bike as fast at it could go around the twisted pedestrian bridge that spanned the highway.  Horror on the outskirts of an insulated suburbia that was participating either through active collusion or a studied refusal to notice.  Being in South Africa over the last few weeks, the visceral sense of a great evil that made the present is something that I feel everywhere.  Life goes on, as it should, but this poem bubbled up in response to the insidious ways in which evil sits with us.  In my practice I think about what it means to live with the after-effects of evil.  What the balance is between knowing the evil of the past, seeing how it operates in the present, and also being sufficiently free of it to be able to respond to what is right now.  It is the tension between knowing what made us, and releasing its stranglehold without the denial and amnesia that can characterise a too-hasty release of the pain story.  Working through identifying and releasing pain stories in the West of the Wheel, I am aware that these stories are woven into the fabric of national narratives, kaleidoscopically.  Poems bubble up in dawn meditation.  The cacophony of the dawn chorus.  My tired eyes snap open.

 Briefly, I am awake.     

Image

On Rhodes Statues and A Cactus Garden

I watched my father growing a garden made out of cactus and succulents in the backyard of our house.  The sky was always very big and very blue when he worked on his creation.  He carved it out of the brick steps that led up to the pool.  Plain and predictable white suburban stairs, the ordinary life of the racial elite in 1980’s South Africa, glistening with water and the smell of braaivleis.  My father was those things, and also nut brown in his cut-off denim shorts, inserting objects and magic into the garden he grew over those stairs under the sun.  He made one for each of his three daughters.  Was mine on the end or in the middle?  I don’t remember that detail, just that in the end all three gardens merged into one.  I watched the tossing of the soil, the setting of the rocks and stones, shards of statues, icons, glass pieces and the spikes of cacti gathered on walks in the veld and koppies that still surrounded Alberton back then.  Those walks where me and my sister would trot behind him, learning how to use our feet like noses to sniff out potential traps and trips on the ground.  My father would stop and pull up plants, take cuttings.   Sometimes producing a frying pan and a fire to make bacon and eggs.  I can’t say that we were part of it so much as spectators, watching.  I did learn some things.  How to pull a piece of a cactus plant off and stick it into a new pot where it would magically keep growing, without roots.  You don’t need roots to grow. What a lesson I think now, looking back.  The garden became ever more outlandish and charged with sorcery and indifference.  I loved to watch it.  At night I would explore its perimeters, finding glow worms clinging to aloes. I have stopped collecting cacti now.  I last had them ten years ago, a small collection on the windowsill in my house in Brixton.  After that, they fell away.  Like my memories of my father’s garden, the one he made for us as an expression of his Self.  My fingers are humming with the energy of it.  Our relationship has been so problematic for so long that the garden was forgotten.  And it was something that I can say with certainty was an aspect of him that I can love and grow from.  For a very long time I have not mourned the loss of that home.  I know that this is in part because of the problematic politics that surrounded its situation within a place marked by white priviledge.  Better to let it die unmourned or acknowledged.  It leaves me with a question: can beauty ever come out of evil?  Can the essence of a pure and real love grow out of a place that could not continue to exist?  I find the answer in the cactus.  You don’t need roots to grow.  And with patience, a flower as beautiful as the dawn will blossom.  I think of the comments written by white South Africans on Facebook, barbed and mean spirited, that cling with misunderstanding  to that statue of Rhodes, as if roots of any kind are better than none.  I am the cactus that flowered.  If only they knew how easy it can be to let go.

When Rooibos Was Ordinary

There are shivers.
So I write.
When Rooibos was ordinary,
We drank out of old china cups
Yellow flowers, gold edged
I, three years old, green headscarf
Rooibos, black, lemon slice, sugar
A teaspoon to blow and sip
Later, there on the shelves
Of the Hypermarket
(bring your car, you can park it)
Beneath the mine dump
(mysterious steps reached the stars, I swear it)
Between ricoffy and five roses
The souls of gold seekers wandered the aisles
Though we did not see them
When Rooibos was ordinary.

 

Commentary

This poem was inspired by a beautiful piece I read on Stirring Conversations.  In it, Rooibos is the tea that is drunk during a conversation between the author and interviewee.   It is scented with lemongrass, and forms the backdrop to a moving and insightful conversation about the nature of friendship, regret, reflections on younger selves and the importance of being present, rather than thrusting forward to a point of resolution.  I thought about how the meaning of things changes.  How objects and products acquire layers of associations and resonance over life times that are contradictory and ambiguous, though they surround the same material reality.  Like Rooibos tea.  Growing up in South Africa, it was ubiquitous and so ordinary.  Unglamorous, yet comforting.  And also in the background as my life moved through various landscapes.   Now, living in what I suppose you would call the ‘West’ , Rooibos takes on other qualities… more elegant, refined, healthful and exotic.  As I read the interview on Stirring Conversations I shook my head because the way things transform is so compelling.  Reflected in the shifting meanings of objects, spaces, places, memories, people and the unfolding of conversations.

http://stirringconversations.com/2012/05/31/cup-2-lemongrass-rooibos-with-linda-griffiths/

 

 

I Speak, Though Voiceless

I speak, though voiceless

The boat that brought me here carried 300 Armenians, of which 287 survived.  We sell fruit and vegetables on Johannesburg streets.  Mining town grown larger by the second.  The trams rush past, the noise is sense less deafening till Armenian silence is obliterated.  Joseph Silver finds me, young girl, head strong, rebellious in this late19th Century hedonism. Unloved sex in the backrooms of his brothel, under the tutelage of a guard dog madam.  Unloved yes, but exciting to be in the action. I am born in this encounter, though this birth contains the seeds of my death.  Still, I hold rural dreams of marriage, children, land. Early 20th century recession expands our client base. I meet him, young Zulu boy miner, inexperienced but so sweet faced.  First taste of whiskey and his face is retched. It’s love, not so strangely, he being a country boy at heart with the same dreams. The excitement of the action fades so We run away, to the kraal, and certain ridicule.  Our son is born in Durban, far from bitter village tongues.  There is no space for our story in the formation of him, coloured boy to the masses, no history to speak of.  Last taste of whiskey claims husband, and I die young, victim of cholera or some other such disease of the poor.

I speak, though voiceless

My picture taken aged 12 appears, blank faced and receptive to the power around me. A century later, in a textbook. Labelled ‘Armenian Fresh Produce Sellers on Rissik St’.  My spirit lingers in the print.  So I speak, though voiceless.

Commentary

This piece came out of a response to hearing Nadine Gordimer speak at the Southbank Centre this week.  She had some very important things to communicate about the new Secrecy Bill in South Africa, and the threats to freedom of speech this represents.  I love Nadine Gordimer’s writing.  It is so evocative and succinct, and gets under the skin of the complexity of making sense of identity in South Africa.  I love that she does not separate this writing work from her work as an activist.  What I found jolting in her speech was how she defined white identiy in South Africa.  She linked white claims to an African or South African identity to an association with the Struggle; saying that whites need to earn their place in society through an active commitment to justice.  I agree with this.  Up to a point, because it seemed to me that this definition of whiteness was too narrow; too middle class and educated.  It limits an exploration of the construction and significance of whiteness in South Africa to the parameters of this experience, which is juxtaposed against one other white experience, that of the Afrikaaner.

I wanted to use this piece to explore a little more other ways in which whiteness is enveloped in the unfolding of South African identity, and how whiteness intersects with other identities, both between people and within people.  It was inspired by a photograph I saw in a history book about the Witwatersrand, and a picture of turn of the century Armenian fruit and vegetable sellers in Johannesburg.  It was an older woman and a young girl, wearing headscarves, and sat on the floor, legs stretched out, next to their produce cart.  They looked so different from the ways in which whiteness is imagined historically in South Africa.  This image did not fit with either of the paradigms of whiteness we tend to revert to in thinking about South Africa.  I was also drawn to the fact that these were Armenian women, Armenia being a space and an ethnic designation that sits on the borders of whiteness; not quite white.  Borders are the spaces in which we are able to see the ways in which more solid means of classification are constructed.  They are uneasy spaces, and threatening to the making of timeless and naturalised constructions of self.   Joseph Silver was a real figure in the history of Johannesburg, a Polish-American pimp who came via New York and London to set up a lucrative business in the sex trade in the early decades of Johannesburg’s rapid emergence as a city built on gold mining.  He was known for his brutality, and also his love of money.  The brothels that flourished in the quarter of early Joburg known as Frenchfontein were also not fussy about where their money came from, and ignored the racialised divisions that the city authorities and state attempted to enforce from a moral position based on fears of miscegenation (not to mention a united working class…….).  So when mass migration of black labour from the rural areas to feed the demand for cheap labour in the mines began (fuelled by the imposition of hut taxes and the tightening of colonial authority over so-called ‘tribal’ areas), the brothels were ready to service the new clientele.  I wondered about the ways in which these spaces contained so many untold stories, hidden from view under the blanket of salacious headlines and courtcases.  I wanted to reach out to an imaginary-real story that may have emerged there.

In doing so, I want to articulate the sadness, exploitation, hopefulness and complexity of the ways in which South Africa emerges out of these huge, catastrophic, exciting, tragic global changes of the 19thcentury, changes that set up the world as we know it today, not only in South Africa but most of the globe.  This is why the real figure of Joseph Silver is important to the story.  He epitomises the movement of capital trans-nationally, and the ways in which the desire for wealth, and more than this, power, are implicated in the pain stories and mass movement of lots of different people.  How these meta-narratives are so massive they drown out the intimacy of the human stories that bubble amongst them.  I wanted to fish a story out.  And this one has been in my head since I first saw that picture several years ago.  In the spirit of what I am doing now, writing what is inside and letting it out, even though it may not be fully formed or perfect, I allowed this story to make its way out through me.  I’m not sure what happens next with it.  Perhaps this is where it stops.  Certainly, it needs to be supported by more understanding and research on Armenian migration.  It betrays my tendency to privilege the romantic.

But here it is anyway.   The girl who has been in my head for so many years.