Smiley missed his mother’s touch and her kisses, which felt like the smooth, ruffling of feathers. She worked as a domestic worker what people where he lived in the location called a kitchen girl in the house of a wealthy white family in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. When his mother was still around, they used to go and get fish and chips at a Coloured fish and chip shop called Sea Flight. There was a picture of a hake next to the words of the name of the shop. His mother told him what the name of the fish was. He liked to look at that picture of the fish. He often walked past that shop now.
He no longer had enough money with him to go inside and buy the meal that he used to with his mother.
Captain who was known as the leader of the gang Smiley joined. He called it ‘a king’s meal’. All they got when they knocked at doors in the well-to-do suburb of Gelvan Park in Port Elizabeth was peanut butter or jam sometimes on stale bread but they ate it because it took the hunger pangs in their bellies away. Some people gave them sour, bruised apples that looked like it gone through a few rounds with Mike Tyson in the ring.
He lived near the sea but all he could do was splash in the waves at the shallow end with his mother watching him pensively from nearby. He watched the surfers enviously as they went out on their boards. He wanted to surf the waves too but he knew he was too little.
When he was seven years old, he was dumped unceremoniously at his grandmother’s house. His mother said they were going for a visit. He had not seen his grandmother for a long time. His mother told him she had come to the hospital when he was born.
“Bastard. Bastard.” The other children of the neighbourhood stood around him calling him names. Dancing and singing at the top of their voices Smiley stood in the middle of all that noise bravely blinking back tears and a knot caught at the back of his throat.
When he went home, he told his mother about what had happened. She did not say anything for a long time. They were in the small makeshift kitchen with the pot cooking pap on the black ash and embers of coals.
Flames were licking on the ground. She stared into space gravely before she answered. “You are different from other children. You will always be different from other children here in our community. You are special. Always remember that and I love you. You’re my guy.”
Smiley never knew his father. He never knew what he looked like or what his name was. He didn’t even have a photograph so he could have a picture of his father in his mind to see whether or not they looked like each other.
Smiley was afraid. For the first time in his life, he was without his mother’s protection and love to shield him from the brokenness and heartache in the poverty-stricken area where they lived. These guys were different from the ones who lived near his shack in Blikkiesdorp’s shantytown. For one they didn’t call him names.
He was tired of listening to his grandmother’s warnings of the gangs in the area who were recruiting young, vulnerable children to do their bidding. There were gang lords wandering the streets night and day.
They had tattoos inked on their arms and coins jingling in their pockets. Paper money brushed against their fingertips as they counted it out to buy cool drinks and fast food for their friends.
They gambled with dice at the side of the drive thru at Nando’s bothering the people who drove up who ordered expensive meals, burgers and chips, flame-grilled children doused liberally with hot sauce. The sweet, delicious smells that came out of that place made all of the boys’ mouths water and drool.
“Hey, you. Come here.” He seemed bigger than the rest of them. He looked as if he was the leader. The others even looked smaller than he did.
Smiley walked forward slowly.
“Did you make anything today?”
“No. Not really.” Smiley answered truthfully. “I didn’t make anything.”
“What’s your name?”
“Smiley.” Smiley said.
“My name’s Bennie. We’ll do the introductions with the other guys later on.”
“This guy is wise. Check this china. He isn’t a ‘moegoe’. Join us.
We’ll protect you.”
Smiley wiped his tears and snot away with his arm. His jersey had holes in. There was a huge gaping hole where his elbow was. When it rained, he got wet and cold. There was chill that ran through his whole body.
He was used to wearing his shorts now and walking barefoot on the streets of Port Elizabeth. His new hang out with his new friends was the Kwik Spar in Beetlestone Road.
He saw the people’s stares. It was hard to walk with his chin up. He could see how different he was from other children his age.
“Here. It’s gold. Have you ever tried it?”
Smiley shook his head. Some of the other boys were game for anything but Smiley liked to take his time and think through things; new ideas that were presented to him.
“It’s glue, man. It’s magic. It can make you fly. Are you a man or a mouse?” Bennie made a fist like Rocky Balboa. Smiley remembered watching that movie one Friday night with his grandmother in her house. He remembered her kindness and how she had spoilt him with a toffee apple after church one day.
“What does Smiley mean? Is that really your name?” Michael one of the younger ones asked him.
“That’s my name. My mother used to call me that before she left.”
“My mother also took the high road. She was good for nothing. I was always hungry. There was always nothing to eat in our house. It wasn’t even a house. It was just a tin roof with four walls. The bricks and plastic black bags that the rich use for garbage, rubbish kept out the rain. We slept under the kitchen table. We had to sleep like a school of fish in a tin of Lucky Star pilchards. When I woke up in the morning I was always stiff and sore.” Bennie said quietly.
“All we ever ate was Lucky Star pilchards if we were lucky.” one of the younger boys piped up
“What was your mother like, Smiley? My mother died when I was very young. They put me in a home.” Michael was full of questions. He never left Smiley alone these days. He was always hanging around.
“Not a home bru. It was the local children’s orphanage.”
“Well, are you or aren’t you?” Bennie leaned over and grasped Smiley’s hand.
“Take a hit. It’s heaven. It’s paradise. You won’t feel angry, lost, hungry or alone. Your little belly will feel as if it’s feasted on KFC or Chicken Licken. Take my word for it.”
Bennie’s voice was thick and slow. He swallowed the smoke, beads of sweat on his forehead. His hair was long and dark, limp and damp at his neck.
“Come on junior, give here, I’ll light it for you and show you how to inhale and don’t forget to hold the smoke in your mouth or else you won’t feel the high head on.”
Bennie laughed aloud, “Hold on tight. This is mos your first time.
‘Ouens’ we’ve got a first timer here. Die ou’s a glue virgin here.
Hold thumbs for him. When I wink just let go and all the pain that you feel here will go on top here.” Bennie pointed to his heart then his head. “Like magic it will disappear. It’s more beautiful than a daydream.”
“If you’re lucky maybe you’ll see you mother and you can ask her why she left you.”
Captain was in a bad mood. Somebody nearly ran him over with his car when he was pulling out of a parking space at the Kwik Spar.
Bennie left home because his father was an alcoholic and he decided just to take off because he didn’t like the ‘vibe’ at home anymore.
His mother was always crying in front of him. He had a younger sister and an older brother who was never at home.
Michael had met up with someone that belonged to Captain’s gang at his school. Moegamat and Muneeb were brothers who both had ran away from home. Sometimes they went back and reunited with their family but they always returned to the streets. There were seven hungry mouths to feed back home; seven hungry mites.
Captain’s past was a bit dodgy. He never spoke about his parents. If he did, it was with a sneer.
Smiley took another hit. He felt as if reality was slowly slipping away from him. When the buzz came it settled his jangled nerves. The edges of his pain was becoming denser, less intense, turning into a haze of black then red connect-me dots. He began to feel crazy beautiful. He was floating high above the clouds above the ‘lost boys’
who made their home on a patch of grassy field at the side of the off-ramp where cars were coming off the freeway but he couldn’t see them anymore.
The cars streaming headlights didn’t blind him. The lights had a haunting glow at night. He was tired of begging for small change. He couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread with that money. He was tired of the irate, irritated, annoyed faces leaning back into the leather-comfort of the expensive, posh cars that drove by that ignored him when he begged from window to window. Often when they saw him coming, they would quickly turn up their windows shutting him out; that hurt. The rejection felt like he was dealing with his mother’s moods all over again.
He felt the curve of the knife’s handle in his pocket. Bennie gave it to him for protection. “You don’t have to use it. But knowing it’s there gives you an advantage over any ou that tries to cross you or harass you.” Smiley had decided to make up his mind about Bennie and give him the benefit of the doubt.
Bennie had his faults. He smoked, he swore, he pushed around the other ouens and said he was the boss, second in command when Captain wasn’t around. He did give orders sometime when Captain went off but he was okay. Smiley knew the others wouldn’t mess with him with Bennie around. He always got food. He had a nice place to sleep. It was warm and dry. He had a fleece blanket that they had got at the Catholic Church; St. Martin de Porres. They sometimes stood barefoot, their clothes threadbare in line to get a cup of soup and sandwiches on a Tuesday morning. Many different kinds of people would come. The ‘lost boys’ would hang around on the steps outside of the church.
“Maybe it’s time you move on to something else. A smoke?” Bennie said with a half-smile. “I’m taking you under my wing. You can be my protégé. That’s a pretty word, hey. I think you’re ready.”
Smiley couldn’t hold the smoke in his mouth. Bennie just laughed.
“Jislaaik, you’re still a baby.”
The ‘lost boys’ of Stanford Road, Port Elizabeth didn’t go to school.
They didn’t know what ‘special needs education’ was, ‘unconditional love’ or a mother’s touch; a father’s discipline.
The only lessons they learnt were hard ones; abandonment, rejection, hunger for love and attention, neglect, lessons of struggle where they were misrepresented and misunderstood.
He felt like a baby sucking his thumb. It was as if he had unknowingly pressed a button marked ‘let’s ride this pleasure rollercoaster’. It shot like whiplash through his veins and he shivered. He didn’t shiver from the cold but from this good, fuzzy feeling of warmth that was beginning to emanate from somewhere inside of him.
At last he had found the secret to the pursuit of happiness and all the loveliness in the world. It was in this bottle of glue. He drew circles in the dirt with his thumbnail. There was a guy in the parking lot that was waiting for someone to come out of the shop who gave him a vetkoek with mince and he hadn’t shared.
He was so hungry he just ate it up on the spot. Afterwards his hands were oily from the grease from the vetkoek. He wiped his hands off on the back of his already dirty and tattered shorts. Threads were coming out of the pocket on the left hand side. He hardly put anything in there anymore. If he did forget and put something in there it usually got lost.
He used to wear a bandana on his head on cold nights on the street before he joined up with Captain. His grandmother had given it to him and Smiley had treasured it but when Bennie had first seen him in it he had jokingly said, “Na, man that hood’s for sissies. You’re not a sissy boy are you? You’re not a mama’s boy?”
Smiley didn’t know what a sissy boy was. He didn’t dare and ask even.
He knew the other boys would probably laugh at him. The name didn’t sound very nice.
“Man that was so bad. We all wanted a piece of that vetkoek.” Bennie said later. “Captain was watching you. The thing is we all watch out for each other. But don’t worry about it, just don’t do it again.”’
Smiley thought he was being warned about something, he did not take it that seriously though but that was how life was like on the streets.
You did not just look out for yourself anymore. The ‘lost boys’ had become his family now. They had become his home away from home and they had done a lot for him.
They had accepted him. They had not thrown him away, rejected him and made fun of him. He never felt alone now. There was always someone around to shoot the breeze with, play with, gamble with, talk to when he felt sad, hungry or on the point of tears. There was always someone around who knew where to find something nice to eat. It was amazing sometimes what the rich and well to do would through away and what they regarded as old food, stale or what they wasted.
Sometimes the boys would go to the dump or the drive thru. When it rained, they all stuck together under a thick tarpaulin. They huddled together to keep warm, they cupped their hands to their mouths, breathed out warm mists of sour air. It soon felt stuffy under there but it kept away the fierce, howling wind that drove chills and shivers up and down their spines.
Living on the streets was a raw experience. It was not for the faint-hearted. You had to be brave and loyal to your gang. Lo and behold, they would seek revenge out on you if you betrayed them. You had to have your wits about you. You had to be born with street smarts. Smiley thought he was born with street smarts.
His eyes were red-rimmed and the pupils of his eyes were wet, dark, dilated; they stared at a blue nothing in the distance. At first, he felt as if he was choking but that feeling soon passed and gave way to a heady rush of warmth that bubbled to the surface like the fierce orange lava of a volcano. He sucked again, this time deeper, inhaled until it felt his lungs would burst and shivered like a fish. He closed his eyes. Colours flashed brilliantly in front of his eyes.
Reds, yellows, pale blues. They all came to him like the colours of a kaleidoscope or all the magnificent colours of a rainbow after the downpour of spitting rain.
He felt free and liberated. He did not have to explain himself to a grandmother that refused to tell him who his father was and where he came from. He usually pressed the issue further but his grandmother just rocked back and forth on her pink settee with a man’s handkerchief in her hand, dabbing at her dry eyes. She directly ignored him. He asked her repeatedly, did he have his father’s name; did he carry any of his father’s genes but her response was always the same. A grandmother that pretended his mother might come and visit him on his birthday or Christmas.
He could see the dump that was the ‘lost boys’ playground. Bennie’s face as he blew rings of smoke out of his mouth. He could see his mother’s loveliness. Her face had not aged. There were no lines or wrinkles around her eyes and her mouth.
All he could see was a tunnel vision of white light ahead of him and he reached out for it until it swept him away like a dream and folded him like the tender loving care of a mother’s love in its arms. He became one with the light. All fear left him. All the secrets that he kept hidden from view, sealed tight like the contents of a jam tin scattered away. He was invincible. The light bedazzled his senses before it made him fall unconscious to the ground.
Bennie cradled Smiley’s head in his hands, tears streaming down his face. “Captain, we can’t just leave him here. We must do something.
He’s not waking up.”
Captain tilted his head with a defiant smug air. “You know no one will stop even if we tell them what happened.”
Just then a beat down bakkie drove past them. A man with kind eyes looked out of his window. “What’s up chaps? What’s going on here? Need some help with your friend, Sonny?”
Captain turned his back and began to walk back to the ragged patch of field where the ‘lost boys’ made their home.
Bennie swallowed hard and tried to hold back his sobs. The man parked his bakkie on the side of the road, got out and came over to where Bennie and Smiley were.
“What happened? Is it drugs? Did something get out of control here? If you need my help I’ll take him to the hospital.”
“Will they help him there?” Bennie asked still sniffling.
“If not, they’ll have me to deal with.”
Bennie sat in silence next to the man with the kind eyes as he drove through the now deserted streets of Port Elizabeth to Livingston Hospital in Korsten. Night was falling. Smiley was still unconscious.
Any minute now, Bennie thought to himself, Smiley would wake up and go back to being his old self. He hadn’t though completely recovered from seeing Smiley slumped over like that his back leaning into a dry bush; drool at the corners of his mouth.
The man with the kind eyes carried Smiley’s almost comatose body into the hospital. Bennie followed closely behind. The night nurse on duty grimaced when she saw Bennie but the man with the kind eyes spoke to her firmly and quietly. Bennie couldn’t hear what he was saying. He just stayed close. The nurse drew them to a bed but told Bennie to stay put. He sniffed. She ignored him.
She closed the curtain around the bed. It swooshed on the ground.
Bennie was left staring at the ground at his feet. He knew his clothes were filthy. He didn’t like the bright white lights here. It reminded him of getting high. Here there were adults around who frown on that behaviour. He longed for a soft, clean towel, a hot bath, a toothbrush, scented soap. Bennie shifted his feet from side to side.
He could feel the gaze of the woman who took the incoming calls on him. He knew she was watching every move he made.
Smiley could feel his mother’s touch. He could feel her hand gently stroking his forehead, putting a pressure on it that was soft, comforting and familiar. He heard her call his name. He could sense her presence. Smiley closed his eyes. Where was the noise of cars rushing by? Homeless people, school children shouting to each other, laughing, men in blue overalls, people going to work or coming off a shift, the other ‘lost boys’ weak from hunger walking by his favourite spot where he liked to sit in the morning catching some sun, watching Bennie running through the empty spaces between the passing cars.
All he could hear now was silence. Was this what Bennie was talking about? Was this heaven? He could see things and hear things from memories from his childhood days walking with his mother in the location, watching her bend over, hand on her hip cooking pap and vegetables for them. Sometimes they had white Tastic rice but that was a luxury they could ill afford.
Images of his previous life when he still lived with his mother came to him like an offering in the collection plate on a Sunday morning in church. It seemed to him as if he was going on a long journey into his past. The pressure he had felt on his forehead soon moved to his heart. Smiley felt as if he was wearing a suit of armour; heavy and thick, the visor blinding him as well as shielding him from a life in translation, shielding him from a mother’s love in translation.
The tunnel vision of white light was blinding him now like the midday sun. He trembled, shivered, like the shake like a fish caught in the air by a fisherman before the life is snuffed out of him. His legs were skinny. Would his own mother recognise him now if she saw him in heaven or would she recognise him by his smile, his jolly, cheerful, belly laughter or the almond-shape of his golden-flecked, shining brown eyes?
There was no turning back now. It was done. Smiley heard his name again. He felt a manic panic rise up in his chest. He recognised that voice. It was one he had longed for a long time to hear again. He had hoped, wished and prayed for it. He turned around and ran into his mother’s waiting arms.
He could see that the end of the tunnel was in sight and the white light slowly faded away leaving him within a shell of darkness like a shroud, an invisible magician’s cloak that swallowed him whole. The drumming of his heart became a faint whisper.
The Language of Africa’s Girl Child In Water and Tears
My youth is finished and along with it my bright star, and tears. I stopped thinking of the future.
You know I don’t know when exactly that happened all I know is one morning I woke up and I decided you are not loved, you are not loved. You will never be loved and the universe was laughing at me. There was no navigational system set on course for a husband, there was no solid path to follow to a career, no beautiful journey with challenges and an obstacle course to raise children only images of things, imaginary things like hallucinations, psychotropic medication that soon became not so imaginary and the usual Disney-fare, unicorns, talking mice and fairies and the Cheshire cat of which I speak so often in my short stories and a damned waterfall, David Livingstone’s waterfall, no trajectory, only adrenaline pumping through my veins. Whenever taste and sickness becomes fascinating your physical body begins to smile. Your fake mirror reflection smiles back at you, obsessed with the ethereal being you’ve become. Madness is my addiction. Missing it is my crush, my babysitter, my thin if I had an eating disorder or two. I think it’s sexy. Every day I’m seduced by it. Madness is my truth, my statement, the commentary I am making about the society that I live in today, my mother who is thin, who scolds me because I am not even though I tell her it is because of the psychotropic medication I am taking that makes me stay sane, put together, keeps me grounded but it seems to me she wants me to be high even though I am now healthy. I am fixed and the chemicals in my brain have formed their own social cohesion in their closet. Dopamine has her own shoes. Serotonin has a drawer full of pharmaceutical pamphlets. They’ve learned to be roommates, get along, and give each other motherly or hell sisterly advice. All I know is that they’ve got it into their brains sometimes to talk about me and my weight.
I don’t go anywhere about the weight theory. I don’t entertain it. There’s too many conspiracies about that out there. For a long time I thought thin was good, easy, effortless but now I just think it is just a sick mentality. Women come in all shapes and sizes. They’re good mothers, lovers, career women, filmmakers, photographers and take pleasure in everything that they do but they do not experience highs and lows. They do not crumble under pressure. My sister is a photographer. I just thought I’d put that in there. Skinny-sister, kohl-rimmed, peacock-eyes who spends her weekends in galleries or at dinner parties. A life, a life, a life. One must amuse one self.
There might be a leap of faith, but you can never forget about the madness but how can I forget about drowning, falling half-asleep in warm bathwater after I have taken my sleeping pills. I want someone to tell me that they have done those kinds of things too.
I am falling, falling, falling and oh it is so intoxicating and who is to blame for that. Even in therapy I do not talk about my promiscuity. My other-life in another life. There’s a shift that I cannot fix. The men protected me, said I had integrity but the women had eyes like slits, bits in the workplace and they all reminded me of my mother. They stripped me of everything. How daunting it was to be nineteen. To be twenty and sinking into madness, into despair, only finding hope in books and not to have found love yet, yet always the absence of it. Of course my expectations of finding love never grew. I had known what to expect from an early age. I grew up with it. My father worshiped me and I worshiped him (it was pure, it didn’t come with drama even though perhaps in the end it was only an illusion) and I would find that out all through my life you’d get dropped fast if you did not give in to the physical love. I had convinced myself as a young child that my parents were not made for each other. Instead they were all wrong for each other and they were not soul mates fated to be together in sickness and in health till death do us part. Young, old, young-at-heart, divorced with children, single flying solo so how could I ever forget not being the daughter who was adored, who was adorable, who brought home impressive merits one after the other, success after success, the scholarship girl, the Maths genius who went to space camp and worked in New York to pay her university tuition. I have forgot how to shine unfortunately (at thirty-four can a girl still shine, no, she should be having babies, her wedding dress wrapped away delicately in tissue paper). I have forgotten how to illuminate, to blur reality, to blur the normal until it feels like snow, winter settling, filling, being driven, channelled, wedged into the sides of a lake, feeling your way into this world as the interloper, always the Outsider, the loner and not feeling that that is the weirdest part of all. I don’t dream anymore and people who have died, crossed over they visit me in my dreams and ask me after staring at me (poor brilliant girl are you still sick, what happened to all your fierce intelligence and potential when you were fourteen years old in high school) for the longest time, ‘Do you remember me?’ and I say in return. ‘Yes, yes, of course I do. You were my English teacher who died of pancreatic cancer before your time or you were diabetic, alcoholic, pill popping aunt who died before your time. You were my favourite teacher. You were my favourite aunt, my second mother and now you’ve gone dead on me.’ I wish you both were still here. Unfortunately I am still sick but nobody really seems to understand what is wrong with me when my sister seems to have the perfect life. Hatred, I will never let her go. I will never surrender her, clever girl.
What does it matter if I am a stupid girl or a clever girl? Mourning is destructive. Morning is sabotage set loose. Dreamlike, slow, metaphysical braiding the soul with the spirit, a broken self-portrait.
And what do you remember about our childhood I ask my soul and it replies nonchalantly. I want to, need to, desire to remember nothing.
The abnormal, what does that mean? Why, why do we use our heart as a weapon? My mother’s tears come to me in angelic dreams. Is this all that she had hoped for me? Misery and failure. The wolves at the door.
I am bleeding. Space. Exile. History. Nerves. Fatigue. I give it room to breathe. It is the only thing that makes me feel as if I am a woman now. Mothers and daughters must talk about these kind of things, bond over them but we never did. Insanity isn’t it?
What my mother taught me about female poets is that their words were like bows, arrows, apples wasting, falling in heaps and that a child’s eyes can see everything. Vanessa Woolf, my veil, and my apprentice. I will caution you as Achilles was cautioned. As I’m sure Virginia an incest survivor and victim of sexual violence will tell you.
I am growing old. I am growing older. Who will be my mummy then, make me tea, and see that I get out of bed, open my curtains. I believe that she thinks I have always been a threat to her. She is killing me. Her knives are sharp.
The great thing about childhood and two sisters (hating you hating me) sharing a mother, a father and a brother are that there are outgoing scars, there are wounds, that the material that they are made up of is luminous but that there is also a haunting sensation of death and there you will find an honesty open and truthful, perhaps dazed and adventures that will always lay scattered before me, before us as a family. Salvage it as a stamp, an axed scrap or splinter, an album that you page through with trembling fingers looking at dark wonder after dark wonder and one day you know it will be destroyed. Observe the comic. There is both comedy and tragedy in it. Observe the bird, its agony and often its own attempted-suicide as it falls from the nest. Sacrifice is totally unsexy.
I began to fly, see things in a different light once I reached out to books. Marvellous, wonderful things that made up for my childhood and my mother forgetting me, for her to see that I was simply non-existent in her eyes. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in my eyes became the beet king and queen to me perched on their earth-thrones. She was both a mother and an older sister to me. Don’t talk to me about dysfunctional families. Every family is dysfunctional in their own way. Don’t talk to me about cruelty to animals. All human beings are animals. They‘re barbaric. Tears are simply water. Believe me they can be wiped away. They shouldn’t define who you are, or your pain.
By this time it is winter. I hate love. Always have. Ever since I was a child. Don’t touch me. I would think. Don’t kiss me to say hello. Abuse can do that to you. Estrange you from people, your immediate family, and the common people. The only thing I love is madness. It’s Hollywood to me it really is. A bright light city. You have to be so careful letting people in to see the real you, trusting people and even as you are reading this I am hating you too. Look it just comes with the territory, the district. I cannot trust anyone. Mummy you really hurt me. Remember that. I need to know what humanity up close and personal really means. I was never taught what it was. Human rights were always hip during apartheid, post-apartheid, the African Renaissance, for our Rainbow children (I’d rather grieve than say Rainbow Nation). But what on earth were they? I knew as a child mine were always denied or was I simply living in a state of denial.
I could not have wished for better rejection letters. ‘You write with such energy, variety but we cannot publish this.’ Oh that one I remember with wit, it had tasted like spit before it had tasted like honey, milk, butter cookies but also bitterness and hurt. I took it quite personally. Reject. I felt that that word was illegal. Simply put. My mother constantly reminded me it was just a label. It was just as storm in a teacup. My sister smiled as if it had made her happy, joyful but already I had suffered an early death. I knew what the words suffering and sorrow meant. I also thought the rejection of my poetry and haiku was political. My guess the proverb of a skeleton.
‘I enjoyed reading this but unfortunately it will not be placed first.’ They liked it. They liked it. I was overcome, overwhelmed, felt jubilant. But still nothing was good enough. I learned to hate women by hating my emotional, my elegant, and my beautiful mother and I became another version of her but of course I was not vigilant of this in youth. Adolescence, how I miss it. Living in borrowed ignorance. I really am an orphan.
This soft, erotic woman with the strength of a man in her arms, and in her tennis legs, her beautiful white teeth biting into the soft yellow sunny-side up of a fried egg while I watched her and shrieked at her where was my own breakfast while she would just smile, her Mona Lisa smile. She was my Trojan horse, my little shop of horrors, my cancer years, my addiction for all of my life and so her pain became my illustrious pain, her struggles became my own, her burning winter became my project and soon I was the anonymous ghost-child who was a flower in the attic turned into a thief. My sensual-flawed-mother, exotic-smother over her only son.
My sister was happy. She thought she made the right life choices. Perfect doll-child. Perfect adult wearing the perfect shoes, undergarments made of lace, the daughter who is not part of me, the winter guest (I say this in all of my short stories to remain anonymous but there I am a rag doll like M. Night Shyamalan in all of his films) There I am in my little cute box, wooden, not flesh, not blood, not made of skin only violently curious (thinking I am a branch. I am a tree. I am a leaf. I am a stem. I obey. I am Whitman’s grass. I am the weather girl. We’re anticipating clouds today.) She wants no part of me, no portion because perhaps there is meat-to-my-bones.
I seldom worship God. I seldom wonder why that is.
The Simplicity Of Reading Matters
My father would read my journals with the savage intent of a beast. What on earth was he searching for? He read it over and over again furiously. Passion is a kind of love medicine. You never completely grow out of it. Searching for longing (I think here I was playing the same mind game my father was as he was looking through my thick black scrawl, my scribbling) you never completely grow out of that either like playing bingo or scrabble. I knew that my mother and her sisters (my mother was the youngest out of all of them) treated me differently. A child can feel the onset of the lack of mother-love like the early death of men in the faces of their fathers, their older or younger brothers. The world is always different for beautiful women. Nobody asks of them. And what of the illumination of pain? It is not as if they sit and think about the psychological analysis in the cerebral cortex of Ingrid Jonker’s black butterflies or Ingrid (still a beautiful woman) as she would have been in the autumn of her years surrounded by family, her family, her daughter, her grandchildren, manuscript after manuscript published and unpublished. Once she was a daughter who lived for a short while in exile in Europe. But what is Europe? What is the London, the Austrian, the German, the Parisian, the Scandinavian experience? Lonely cities every one although lovely but lonely especially if you have no one to share it with. The sights, the sounds, everything illuminated, images, accents, even the aroma of coffee and freshly baked bread wafting in-the-air different. Even the night glare is different in each city as different as it was for Carson McCullers as she set out to write her autobiography. Why is it that women, that it is female poets who are touched with an almost self-imposed exile in the hours leading up to before they end their life? I mean all the greats were like that. The great female poets.
They’re the source of inspiration for male writers, for their female contemporaries, for the youth, the generation that wants to live forever, for posterity, recorded in the annals of time for researchers who can be found behind the spires of university gates. Who want their poetry to be published in slim volumes and sold to their families and friends? To be criticised would be the death of them. For their poetry to be held up to the world, to a critic in jest would be the death of them. It would mean the end of that ode, or that sonnet, or that simple haiku, their handwritten beautiful cursive notes forever about the joys and the feast of autumn (here I think of Keats, the oh-so-talented and beautiful Rupert Brooke, the Romantic poets, the stunning verses of the war poets, old men, young men, the talented and the not so gifted but who find it within themselves to see the world and to write about it every day). Rolling hills through their beautiful eyes will be as soft, gentle, and voluptuous as a beautiful woman, her skin will be as rich and creamy and thick as thick slices of bread and butter, and the sea will eventually become breadcrumbs dusted off the kitchen table (useless, used over and over, described in hundreds of ways already and would have died a hundred deaths as well. I mean isn’t there only so many ways that you can describe the sea, its dream reality, its fishy airs-and-graces, fish with blinking-eyes that can only conjure up plankton, fish with bleeding gills like slits, the waves, all of their brilliant power, magnificent symmetry, imaginary and not imaginary sea-green brutality). The woman, the angelic goddess-muse well her skin is ripe, her flesh, blood and the throne of bones that her cells rest upon will become as rich as tea to him. Watch out for them, these poets for although their hearts long for solitary life they will need the laughter and screams of children around them, a woman’s conversation too.
They think (a grave error on their part) that their personal space must be filled with a great amount of sacrifice and loneliness, that to be a poet they must only think pure thoughts. Thoughts of wuthering heights, and that they must have little writing rituals even though they think they are mocked by their peers. They think they must suffer to be a poet. They must live somewhere out in the countryside and always write and think with a brilliant clarity of vision. And the best of them unfortunately think a lot about living in poverty, not having a stable income and not being able to provide for a wife and a family, finding a house. Most especially they think that they are about to fail miserably even before they attempt to write a masterpiece. A man’s poetry well their stems will be rewarded. They will grow, they will find their own journey, their own routes to follow and be nurtured and be peeled from the sky. But it is much easier for a man to find solitude, to find peace and rest, find a little piece of heaven for the roots of his poetry to take. A man will read voraciously, eat voraciously, have a quick temper if his friends do not find his ‘anticipatory nostalgia’ up to scratch and of course they, the male of the species must be free to travel to obscure places, to leave if he pleases. He must drink a little too in the spirit of things because it is in every poet’s nature, that and to fall in love too. And the best of them well they will sink into despair. They will think that everything they write is a failure. They will hide from the world, seek the company of other men because this is what all men do with notebook in hand and hands stained with ink they will want a stamp of approval. They will want someone to say there is depth there. And the best of them, the brightest star amongst them, and the cleverest will take their critics to heart and just sometimes it will crush him and his epic consciousness.
A drawing in the sand was never enough for me as a child. I was a child who wanted to be like Keats, an angel from another realm. I was an Alice-in-wonderland chasing after her white rabbit. I was a collector. Scattered-heaps-and-brushes-with-dandelions, earthen-potpourri, picked up (investigate-them-first-then-clean-them) shells on the beach, gulls feathers, pieces of driftwood, I tampered with stamps, ephemera, postcards, letters from overseas, from pen pals, school certificates (I shone with success, merits and excellence), notable stage roles (leads and supporting), photographs of family dead and alive, healing and in recovery, ribbons and barrettes for my hair just like Sylvia Plath when she was at Smith and I saw the miraculous healing power, instrument and hand of God in everything that I touched, that I stole, hid away from painted sight, that I looked at in my treasure box (an old shoebox that used to be filled with Sunday school shoes with buckles. I used to wear them with white school socks). I needed a network of dead poets around me, female poets, mother-figures (please don’t try and psychoanalyse me on that one because I think it is quite obvious). There was life. A life to live for and to die for. My mother entertained me or rather I entertained her like a circus-freak I think. Is it horrible, is it awful to think something like that, that your mother was a monster but because of the way she treated me she also educated me and I grew up very quickly in that house with no visible address marking it on the outside. It was also not listed in the telephone book. Pinkish-light-streaming-through-my-curtains-on- a-Saturday-night-the-telephone-that-never-rang-for-me-on-a-Saturday-night. I needed to talk to the dead. I must write I felt somehow what I was being taught to feel, think, and wonder about the world around me. What was I seeing?
Poverty, poverty of the mind, the cemetery of the mind, Dambudzo Marechera’s, spiritual poverty, children, smiling, laughing, screaming children living in poverty. There had to be an explanation for putting on a fur and then getting into a car, turning, twisting the key in the ignition and then inhaling the fumes of carbon monoxide. Anne Sexton. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Live or die she said, she growled, she moaned, she hissed under her breath. There had to be an explanation for a woman who lives to save the lives of her children and then sticks her head in the oven. Sylvia Plath. And then there was Ingrid Jonker who drowned herself. Beautiful women. Sad women. Women who suffered. Women like me who felt terminally like Alice-in-wonderland. How do I explain that? I was a child. And I was a strange child. I was reading D.H Lawrence in primary school. Not age-appropriate. Not that I could understand very much of it. My parents were very over-protective. My siblings and I lived a very sheltered existence. In school I was infatuated with Holden Caulfield and then when I became older even more so with the elusive Jerome David Salinger. I needed emotions. I needed to feel. I yearned for it. A lack of mother-love can do that to you. Perhaps that is why I write today. I sell my slim volumes of poetry to my father’s family and friends. I don’t think that this world knows what to make of me. Poetry to me is a wilderness. I love it there. It’s so organic. I am the creator making chain stitches, and there’s not a dead thing about them, they’re so elegant and leave me feeling satisfactory, pure and wholesome. When I write it is as if I am operating under the direction of another. The connection is permanent. Fingers weave active, endless imaginings like clouds, and nothing is wasted, even the wild has a certain sweetness rough though it is.
Thoughts are like skin, faintly in the beginning they are haunting and secretive, damning, larger than life, winter in my hands revisited again, and again ravishing me. They never touch my physical body though. Those fingers. There is no voice. Believe me it is easy for a child to think if she writes down the words on paper that roses are red that she is communicating with the dead.
Leave me alone. I’m a scorpion. I have vamp-fangs. Poison-and-oil, its twin dripping from them. But in the end I loved too much anyway. I fall hard. I fly high. People fall in love all the time so why the hell can’t I. Purity-being-dolls-forget-the-pain-is-that-what-the-terms-are?
Oh-shattered-pitiful-coming-from-pain-each-and-every-individual this can be family-life.
The adult in me wants a room. A quiet room in the sun and that receives a fair amount of light. An artist’s room. Artists need light like they need their workspace and their muse, their models, their inspiration, their entourage and of course a wife who would also function as a wonderfully efficient housekeeper. The room must only have the essentials. Of course like in Vincent van Gogh’s room there must be a bed and a desk. I have no use for an easel.
From my room I will watch the world go by and think of girls dancing in the pale moonlight arm-in-arm with their boyfriends or their husbands-to-be like my mother once was. She forced, dragged my father to go to dancing lessons. He was so terrible, always stepping on her toes.
In the end it’s the ghost of my paternal grandmother’s sea that saved me really if I have to be honest. She was a maid, a domestic worker who also did washing and ironing and raised five children and my grandfather worked as a barman. He would go down on his hands and knees, a grown man and scrub the floors of that country club. At night he would eat his leftover plate of grease of meat and potatoes. A plate of grease. Gosh he had beautiful hair. Of course he had also gone off ‘fought in the war’ in Kenya and when he returned to Port Elizabeth, to the suburb of South End (before the forced removals, the Group Areas Act, Europeans only understand, and apartheid seized the hearts and the minds of the white minority) he was given a bicycle (a bicycle you understand) and a coat. And when he died they gave his medals to my father. The black sheep of the family. You see, that I don’t understand at all. Guess what?
It is inevitable that reading matters, that life has hips and poetry too.
I gave myself up to the tenderness in the dark. I could feel them. I was always at their mercy, that they (other poets, my companions for life) needed me a little too much.
I guess the grief that they had carried throughout their own lives had not been enough for them to silence them. Even in death they thought out of the box.
The voices. I promised them everything will come out in the end for the good, for the good. I will permit it.
Within South Africa’s Borders and What They Can Teach Us
The integrity of the personality and poet is one that faces the philosophical gaze yet relevant opinion that winners in the political arena who are outspoken and authoritative women are generally feministic in their outlook and intellectual in their leanings towards the disposition of whatever firebrand, dazzling and political means. Digital empires and social media networking is neither a novel game or inasmuch gainful territory for the masses but for a sporadic few it means meaningful employment. When it comes to what is trending, forecasting or popular whether it be titular, misgivng, prophetic or revealing somewhat it seems that literature is either puritan or the writer thereof hero-worshiped in some way by not only the establishment but the masses have cause to as well.
Given that the pendulum can often swing in the opposite direction corruption marks an exit from a tribal group of broader-based affinity, rather a kind of predestined and ordered influence of sound presentiment where then each sector sought to dominate thinking and class structure, personal co-dependency, to now an individualistic format of thinking, a gap of seismic proportions that is steadily increasing. This secular arrangement is tantamount to a Roman world where glory means the innocents who live in steadfast poverty cease to exist amongst wealth and prosperity, culture, heritage, livelihoods and traditions and the brutality of the collapsing society due to the pandemic’s onset where we cannot build bridges to secure both financial and emotional security and psychological appeasement for the exhaustion that threatens our livelihood, which is Mother Earth and climate change.
Media, psychology, culture, poetry have all had their roles to play in the endowment of a cashstrapped and marginalised society. Largely the majority of a nation was overtaken by a minority which led to unsuccessful ways of dealing with the lack of training, skills and expertise to take the rest of Africa from a kind of purification plan from the minority to majority leadership.
Segregation is more than a story about the acquisition of justice, emancipation and liberation. It is about culturalism, socialism, the enslaved African mindset and attitude, standards of protocol, patriotism and process. This landscape is constantly changing. As poetry evolves, so do our poetic voices and challenges. Being that as it may we must look not to power, we must look not to our social interactions within the context of race and faith and images of force (authority and leadership, education and psychology, philosophical undertakings), we must look not to equate them with partisan truth and compartmentalised beauty but to art and artistic endeavours.
It has led to standing on platforms and talking shop on the mental strain, the underdevelopment of dealing with stressful and depressive episodes which has led to alcoholism, addiction and mental illness in families across the colour line in South Africa. The need for adequate medical information, change and impact to take place at all levels of civil society, political consent is a grave and urgent matter whereby the parties in question organise themselves into a coalition for the working classes. I think in that way both socialism in the sphere of a democracy will be recognised on the terms of policy and law makers and all stakeholders.
There are important thoughts, words, deeds and actions that generations of writers and South African poets have embraced definitively that has improved our social standing, that has necessitated equality and debate of the infinite time and space that exists in action. Whether it be political action, poetic action, economic action, mental and emotional action on the wellness of the physical body. But does the sensibility of what we are writing make sense, is it understood in a linear arrangement, can it be investigated further, the dynamism of information technology in this age of digital media, and how does poetry reach the masses if our laws cannot, what do principles and values stand for in lawless communities if you alone are a law abiding citizen.
Radicals have a passion for skating on thin ice. I think to improve the democracy we live in we have to look at what we yearn for. Not to fail, not to discriminate and to create art.
In the end, our psychological framework has become our internal adversary and the environment the external.
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The Simplicity Of Reading Matters