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African Renaissance

Ode to my Mother

Abigail George

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Birth of Abigail (pictured Gerda George)

There is a dwelling that I exist in. This far out between heaven and hell she is, my mother is still beautiful. She was beautiful, and relevant in away that I was not. Manuscripts erode all around me but she is innocent, still beautiful. Lovely. She is earth now. I’m average. I can’t helpit. I’m so basic at everything. I’m a still life next to her grave tears pouring out of me like there’s no tomorrow. No future or anything. I name her ‘water’. I name her ‘anything that is worthy of possession’. This far out she’s salt, light, cream, if I can help it the last city, the last blue country. A fragment of paradise ripped from the seats of the Opera House of Port Elizabeth, infestation, life. She is a Sunday morning after church. I thirst for her mouth. Her beautiful hands. Hair like silk down her back. She is Peter Pan chasing stars, and what this poem is, is not a poem about a river on becoming the sea. The reflection in the mirror is as unstable as electricity.

I wonder to myself just who does she think she is.I am wary of her.Of what she is capable of doing.You are living.I am dead. You’re warm.I’m cold through.I don’t know how to keep the regime under control. You’re unfinished. Tiger, you speak to me in tongues. These are dangerous times that we’reliving in, you say. You are joy, Yes, you are.You come in that stellar version. While I’m a field covered with the fabric of stars, and starlight. I do not know how to love you back. I see you in this photograph. You have lost all your hair to the chemotherapy, you’re wearing a wig, but you still look hot, and breathless, as exotic as a French woman’s beauty. Of course, you lose the battle for your own sanity. Father, the love of your life has lost his own struggle. It snows in winter-time in Johannesburg, and every time it snows, I think of you, every recovery, every relapse, summer, I think of all the people I’ve lost. That are never coming back to me, that are priceless, and free. Pain is such a waste. And, so, I wake up, look, dress, and live my life, also free.

The magnolia of nerve, now that is exactly what I need. A novel sense of adventure. I’ll never say that I love you again, and I will never even think it. I have cut it to shreds with the kitchen scissors. My mother does not love me, neither does my father, sister, and brother. Only strangers live for me. Live to love me as sister, daughter and vulnerable orphan. Someone far away is crying in the natural, but they are praying in the supernatural. I dedicated this poem to my art, to my daughters, to my sons. I see them all in rainbows, walking alone, by the sea, in the sun, and I have found the cure for loneliness and death, I am selling both. Cut to Radiohead. Cut to the memory police, cut to the absolute vertigo of desire, cut to tenderness, and tenderly, and tender eyes. Never forget where you came from Hercules, never forget your roots Homer, and so the men walked away, danced away from the reach of my arms, and inside I felt like dying, I could feel them ignoring me, the loneliness of the situation, conflict, and ignorance, and in my pain, I turned to writing poetry instead. Poems saved me from the lonely tears, from the paradise they once promised me.You see, pain is never wasted. All the men were in the end were narcissists in bloom. I think of the roots of my grief stemming from art, and father, and this is how I will get over all of you. I will write, I will fall in love again, I will teach, I will workshop poems,I’ll listen to Radiohead. Cut to the Bessie Head-generation, the Harlem Renaissance, the nocturnal sight of me writing my heart out, using my pen asa sword, and my sword as a pen. I’ll be valiant like wildflowers, and so this heart will be restored like flame, and the anatomy of rooms will belong to me.

Abigail George is a feminist, poet and short story writer. She is the recipient of two South African National Arts Council Writing Grants, one from the Centre for the Book and the Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council. She was born and raised in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, the Eastern Cape of South Africa, educated there and in Swaziland and Johannesburg. She has written a novella, books of poetry, and collections of short stories. She is busy with her brother putting the final additions to a biography on her father’s life. Her work has recently been anthologised in the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Anthology IV. Her work was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film.

African Renaissance

Alcoholism: Cloud Briefly Visible For A Moment Above Zelda Fitzgerald’s Head

Abigail George

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I think of total exhaustion and being. How it takes me from winter to summer. Then I think of you and the space, the gap you in-habit for me.

The thing is I don’t distrust you, or pain. I think of you unburdened.

I think of you but you’re light years away from me now. Once I called you home. Once you called me sanctuary. Your hands were like a hat full of leaves, a porcelain teacup full of blue sky. Now all I know is betrayal, ghost protocol, the estrangement of the heart, the page, the frozen sea. I am the surgeon. You are the vibes in my fingers at the operating table. You are the phases of a Saturday morning, the leveling out of daylight. There’s nothing common about you. About your system of arrows, your symphony of sorrows. You’re light, I’m a bird found with an olive branch in it’s mouth. The notes found here in this world’s paradise are tentative. I’m thinking of you again. Now what is so wrong about that. You were romance, and I was homelessness. Now all that I know of love is extinct for me.

Zelda is waiting for the light. We’re all waiting on the museum. She’s waiting for the light. I’m waiting for the light. The world is full of stories for us to sup on. Even you must have one. The text sparkles.

It stretches out into the widening silence. Zelda is fathoming. The old girl has hit her head. She is bleeding from the wound. Her heart over the years has been faithful. Zelda is young and smart and no-nonsense. The priest must come over the vastness of desert and city jungle. The priest must come to pray for me. Zelda is not holy like the tubers and fossils found underground are. I’m left to clutch at the bird in my hand.

Zelda is eating sunflower seeds and honey. The old girl pours milk into her tea. I’m falling in love with Tarzan. Me Jane. Let’s give thanks. Let’s celebrate the galaxies. New and old.

I fear photographs and the cold sea’s philosophy. Now we all grow like wildflowers. Anywhere that we please. Like the seed of a mustard tree.

There’s nothing as beautiful as the newspaper man eating fresh plums.

The woods, mushrooms, potatoes. The vibrations of foliage. Daylight.

Glory. A tender swarm. The triumph of an athlete. The redemption of a sinner. Spring found in the desert. A Saturday morning. Leaf! Oh, sacred leaf! Universal winter. Cat. The action of rope found in blood.

The shadow of a woman found in the venerable wild. There’s nothing as beautiful as deep-blue love. The echo of a bird. An icy wind that freezes everything green but the gap of time. A page in a book. Golden people. Fire. Bright places. Novel places. Iron faces. The out-lines of a lonely season and hills. There’s nothing as beautiful as the woman in the photograph. The bride of high summer days. The confession of a sinner. The perfumed juice of a pear. Bird. Field.

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African Renaissance

The Renal Unit: Paper Towns Of A Borderless Woman

Abigail George

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The hospital is a lovesick climate. The blessing of an emerald day.

Kite-flying. The fabric of a stream. The hidden wings of a child. The swell of a rosebud’s mute-bloom.

Thread of an owl through the air. The lengthened passage north.

Sinking-gathering-maturing cells of sunburnt flesh and bone. The Mediterranean-blue sky. The tarnished transaction of vital star meeting black hole. No, there’s nothing as beautiful. I come to life in my sister’s Cape Town flat. It is raining men and women and when the radiant sun comes out it rains golden. I think of people that only say things to be polite or diplomatic. I think of how before I do things now, I have to wait for the tiredness to lift. I think of my flesh and blood. And how everything around me is fragile and connected to God. Sometime I think of the hospital room I found myself in when I was barely 20-years old at Tara, then at Golden City Clinic, then at Hunterscraig Private Clinic. That was before the renal unit at the hospital where I was born. Now, I eat for three and four and five. I have to find my own way to be cheerful, and it feels like the day after Christmas in my hands.

The sun was unusually strong today. The waves seemed as angry as I was, and fury was like ice warmed up. He has a bear of a man for a step-father. I think of his sticky fingers on the counter-top. I think of the shape of autumn near my fingertips. The weather changing. Is it more climate than God? Whenever I wear a dress I think of Paris. I think of wearing Parisian-made dresses. I think of the love of my life and his daughter now. Of how he never saved me. I think of eating and drinking. I think of grief. I think of loss. I think of emptiness, futility, loneliness and silence. All harmless like vessels. I think of the country where I live. How heavenly it is. How metaphysical.

There’s a chill in the air as I eat alone in my room, and I think to myself that I am oceans away from the sun. I wonder if he told his wife what I said. That I was afraid of him. Making love to him. I was young. I was afraid. I thought of never going back. Never going home to the dysfunctionality I was brought up in. A sister, a daughter.

Siblings fighting. Competition and rivalry. I think of the desert. It offers freedom. I think of how vulnerable I felt in the hospital. I think of my sorrows. My so-called nuclear family. My poverty. My weaknesses. I think of freely-given bread. I am always looking for people to read my poetry and tell me what it is they think of it or rather me. As if it will add to my happiness. To my future. As if it will fix me or love me or mark me in letters ‘Return to sender’. I think of my house on fire. Pale fire. Milk in my hands washing away all my sins but it is never ever quite enough. I am never ever quite enough. I am not loved. I am unloved. I dream of digital copies of my books. The world is cold and made of gnarled oak, exoduses, and indigo children. People who are dumped on the ash heap of life. And for all of my life I have been one of them. No winter-husband. No autumn-children to rain on me. No blue river. There is no one to bring me flowers or to cook me a champagne breakfast.

Only the souls of bad men and good men.

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African Renaissance

Mystical George

Abigail George

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The sun’s disappeared again. I think of my mother waving me goodbye with a doek around her head covering her hennaed hair. I’m crushing on the scenery out the bus’s window-seat. Thinking of how every portrait in nature and urban sprawl is sensual. I’ve quickly become a hunter for snapshots that light a brief flame inside of me, longing for a different South African culture, or delicious food. I’ve learnt to cultivate a passion for the people I meet wherever the mood or holiday takes me. I go. This, this is the awareness of another world’s earth and sky is not lost on me. When I was younger I lived to explore the rough and tough terrain of the open road. I would hop on the Translux by myself and travel to Johannesburg to visit maternal family. I’d climb into a taxi and visit Swaziland.

There are several ways to enjoy travelling. You can explore with your eyes, your taste buds, listening to birdsong and music, watching foot-traffic, watching the bright lights of the big city. I have packed a dress that goes anywhere (a church dress). The dress touches my ankles. The George-family (here I mean ‘George’ the town) attend services regularly. Pleading that you’re an atheist or not a regular churchgoer because you’ve somehow been hurt by the church won’t fly with these lamb curry, golden-roast potatoes Sunday eaters. On the bus I listen to a cassette tape on my walkman. A pale girl on the bus shares jellybeans with me. The Coloured aunty next to me has a Tupperware with her filled with vetkoek and mince that makes my mouth water.

The aunty and I make small talk about family and the weather and say nothing for the rest of the journey. I feel like a seasoned traveller at 16 years of age, even though I have only been to Johannesburg on my own and Wilderness, George and the Garden Route and Grahamstown. Snapshot. I can see into the backyards on this stretch of road that we turn into. I see tiny gardens and swimming pools. Snapshot. Trees and sky and blue hills escape into the periphery of a dense forest. Snapshot. I spy monkeys on the side of the road. Snapshot. Cars pull, snake, zigzag away from the bus. Families stop at the side of the road for a bite to eat. Those people looked like they lived to travel, living out of a suitcase, putting up a tent, eating sardines and baked beans out of a can. Snapshot. The open road is never-ending. Snapshot.  I tried to read the sky. Forecast. Overcast.

Rainclouds were gathering up ahead. The weather was dismal, miserable, mocking. I was in another time and place. Snapshot. Cities and towns have personalities and characters too. I want mystical George to love all of me. The one true thing that is immortal is the journey you find yourself on. It goes on forever and forever. Snapshot. I loved discovering people. Whether it was someone who looked like a character on the bus, or a tourist with a foreign accent and backpack, people travelling on the road with their families, small children and then there was someone like me, someone who looked every inch the outsider. Snapshot. I glance at hitchhikers with their meagre possessions next to them at the side of the road, feeling sorry for them. In a split second they’re gone.

Soon the rain pours down. Gravid and swirling, spitting, then vicious rain covers everything on the way to mystical George. It is wet and cold when I arrive. My uncle is waiting for me. I am the only person who gets off here. I wave goodbye to the pale girl who is going to Cape Town. That Coloured aunty is sleeping. It’s the nineties and I’m taking the Translux to George to visit a cousin who is the same age as me. We’re both still in high school. I’m still in that awkward phase of erupting into nervous, girlish laughter when spoken to by a boy. I have skinny legs and wear glasses. I end up visiting family in George for a long weekend. This was way before the Knysna fire. It is a lovely road that we travel from PE to George. Voldi is a distant cousin who plays the piano by ear and sings opera. He strikes a romantic intellectual, brooding figure. He’s popular. He has green eyes and is devilishly handsome.

It was Voldi who taught me that you will discover all sorts of teachers on your sojourn in this life. Unforgettable teachers, who will for the most part shower you with advice and wisdom when you need it the most, treat you with kindness, a modicum of understanding and tolerance whenever the need arose. When I think back to that holiday, I think of how much we’ve changed as a generation. Of how now every millennial is interested in a digital reality, the advances in technology, social media handles. Now we’re so into discovering the mechanics of entrepreneurship, the dimensions of browsing and exploring the web. Travel is one of nature’s complexities. You either love to travel or hate it. We visit his friends.

It’s easy to fall in love with them, the clipped tones of their Afrikaans, their blonde hair bleached white by the sun. I had never been around boys like this before. They’re all Afrikaans, good-looking, earthy-farm types. I don’t fit in. There’s a sleepover at his friend’s house. We binge watch videos. I eat a fried egg while watching Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger play a husband and wife whose marriage is falling apart. I have this ability now to see where I belong, where I fit in and where I don’t. It was easy to feel their effortless confidence crowding me out from across the room, feel their physicality, their beauty transformed me, held me at arm’s length, made me feel brave enough to speak Afrikaans, find the words. They left me feeling jaded and insecure.

But this is a George I love, a mystical George, where George-rain shattered the edges of small-town life. This was a George of quiet suburban life, roast leg of lamb on Sundays, watched over by a hovering aunt making fudge on the stove top, me patiently stirring caramel goo until it changed consistency with an aunt’s educated guesswork. This was the George where my parents’ had their second honeymoon without us kids. One Sunday after the church service we visit Voldi’s Grade 11 Mathematics teacher. He has a lovely wife, a kind, interesting and sensitive face. He is English, white, I guess a liberal. He makes jokes. I’m shy.                                                                                                                                                                   

This life, Voldi’s life, his joie de vivre did not mirror my own life. He was an extrovert, a social animal, the life and soul of the party. I was introverted and preferred to shy away from people keeping them at a distance. Instead of partying and drinking champagne I preferred to read a good book that was usually something interminably long and boring. 

George still is a love letter to my soul. It wasn’t always adventure stomping ground or adventure country like Cape Town or Johannesburg but nonetheless I fell in love with the place repeatedly for many reasons. It was quiet (the people who lived there were a quiet kind of people), the town itself was unique, an undiscovered paradise and inspiration for the future-poet in me. For the rest of my life I would carry the memory of that holiday that I spent with my cousin Voldi from dream holiday to family road trips to visiting museums. I loved the quiet, simple life in George. I loved the open road that spelled freedom from my siblings and parents for two blissful weeks. As if in a dream I can see the woman, the poet, the writer I wanted to be.

I had explored the cities and towns of South Africa, never had the experience of backpacking throughout Europe. I only know this, that I cannot leave South Africa behind and explore the United Kingdom, the States, Canada and Ireland. This is how it ends. I am not yet a poet in search of identity. I am not yet a writer in search of identity, the writer always writing that novel. I’m chasing the sun while life flows around me. And the world seems to say, every road, I am your peace, your deliverer, your keeper and your caretaker, your sanctuary and home.

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