I own 197 porcupine quills. These have been collected one-by-one over some forty years of travelling in Africa. They are beautiful and I have them on display in a crystal vase in my museum, treasuring them as missives from these elusive, nocturnal creatures.
Each has been found in the wild so, at Saturday’s market, I was dismayed to see a young man selling quills. He had a large quantity and I mentioned to him that it’s not ethical to kill porcupines. He shifted responsibility away from himself, indicating that the quills were a bi-catch because his farm workers hunted the animals for food.
I told him this was ‘terrible’ and when he challenged my use of the word, I walked away, not wanting to enter an argument that would go nowhere. I joined my husband and friends to sit on hay bales, looking at the sea and a whale that happened to be there.
The quill-seller sought me out and began to rationalise his position, but I would not accept it because, to my mind, there is no rationalisation. For each porcupine killed, I pointed out, there is one less alive. It is just a matter of time before what is wild will be tallied on only five fingers. Imagine the countdown to their extinction when only five porcupines remain: ‘Five– four – three – two – one – none.’ This is not speculation. Humankind is fervently exterminating wilderness.
I positioned myself as custodian and asked him to consider removing himself from the supply chain, to stop buying & selling quills. When he said he would, I asked him to promise so, which he did. Perhaps he was just humouring me, by telling me what I wanted to hear. But I took his pledge and shook his hand to seal the commitment, accepting it as coming from his heart, from his deep self, thus making it binding and irrevocable. He cannot break it, but I can never chase up on it, though somewhere, I know, a porcupine rattled its quills as witness.
The fifth volume in the Africa! series of poetry anthologies that I curate will be on environmental and ecological matters. It should perhaps be dedicated to porcupines.
The Breyten Breytenbach Boekefees must surely rank as one of the best literary festivals held so far this year.
It took place from 3 to 5 July in Montagu, which is situated in the embrace of the Langeberg and Riviersonderend mountain ranges and overlooked by the spectacular Bloupunt peak. The venue was the large-yet-intmate, high-ceilinged, generously-windowed lounge of the Montague Country Hotel. This is a veritable museum of Art Deco run by Gert Lubbe.
Our excellent and most appreciative audiences sat on deep, comfortable, plush couches and armchairs, under chandeliers, next to cabinets of Art Deco tea sets and collectables.
The Boekefees was meticulously organised and run by Darryl David and Helen Gooderson who brought together an interesting, extremely generous group of English and Afrikaans authors and poets. I felt most privileged to be among them as we celebrated literature in its various forms: Novel, memoir, poetry, gritty-informative-fascinating non-fiction plus some cookery and spectacular photography. It was altogether a banquet of creativity and everyone was happy. Each night we had a crisp view of the waning half moon. Mars and Venus were bright and close.
The highlight was undoubtedly the launch by Lindsay Johns of Alex La Guma: a Colossus Revisited. This features three of La Guma’s stories: A Walk in the Night; The Stone Country; and Time of the Butcherbird. Lindsay, who came out especially from England, gave a masterful resume of La Guma’s life and contribution to the South African literary canon. La Guma is often described as a ‘South African Charles Dickens’ yet he remains one of the country’s unsung literary heroes, whose books were once banned. He was a highly accomplished storyteller and an unwavering supporter of the poor, disenfranchised and oppressed, so his themes remain universal and timeless.
Terry and Barbara Bell kindly accompanied his widow, Mrs Blanche La Guma, from Cape Town and Lindsay presented her with the first copy ‘hot off the press’. It was a pleasure to share her joy. What a sweet, gracious lady!
The Festival concluded with a wonderful show by the Afrikaans singer and performer,Emile Minnie.
The Breyten Breytenbach Boekefees Literary Festival is one of the projects of the Rural Arts Development Foundation. Take a look at the work of this wonderful organisation: http://www.radfoundation.co.za/
Review by Terry Bell of Alex La Guma: a Colossus Revisited : http://groundup.org.za/article/novels-south-africas-dickens-given-new-life_3096
“These [The Africa! poetry anthologies] are arguably the most important anthologies of poetry to ever come out of South Africa.”
[Image: Love leading the Pilgrim by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones]
“Life as a Journey” is an often-used metaphor.
Life’s very components are metaphoric – there is a beginning and an end, both of which are heavy with the mystery of arrival and departure. And, of course, there is the road itself that must be walked.
This metaphor is at risk of becoming a cliché. We see T-shirts proclaim: Life is a journey – are you packed? Advertisers make use of it, so we are compelled to consider: ‘Are you driving your BMW? Have you got your Johnny Walker? Are you dressed in Gucci? Are you fragranced by Dior?’
How we travel our life’s journey is largely up to us. We are given a milieu in which to live, along with a set of circumstances, but we ourselves decide how to make use of those components. We can live in the shallows, if we want to. We can live without ever seeking meaning. We can live as consumers of things that have no intrinsic value.
But we can also live with depth, electing wisdom. And, if we so choose, we can make of our lives a pilgrimage – walking from arrival to departure with sacredness; with a sense of homage; with mindfulness and respect.
The pilgrim soon learns that it’s essential to discard the heavy baggage of the small ego – its bad attitude, its weaponry, its greed, its selfishness and its potential for malice. The pilgrim learns to live in the now; to absorb the beauty of creation; to listen to the music of life; to recognise the Divine within the everyday.The pilgrim chooses to walk with an attitude of benevolence toward all living things.
We live in dark times, but among us walk light-bearers. These are the people who light our way toward good fellowship. These are the people who recognise and nurture inner light; who gather up all reflected light; who serve as guides.
Some show examples; some recite sacred words; some share their profound prayer; some create books by which they share the deeply personal components of their own life and the steps of their pilgrimage thus far.
It is up to us to become aware of Light, to absorb it and then, in turn, to hold it aloft, carrying it forward for the benefit of all humankind and life itself.
From: Sacred Darkness
I couldn’t see where my body ended or began. Everything was connected without boundary. Blurred, yet lit up by the flashing discharges around me. I had arrived in a cosmic womb of dazzling illuminations. I emerged from the black water stunned and silent and stood on the shoreline, dripping drops of light, in awe at what I had experienced and learned anew; that everything is connected and that my life is but a particle in an unknowable wave of light flowing through the dark tide of time. And then, I am gone.
New day dawning
Alone away from home
he looks beyond the darkness
and sees more clearly
the pale light shining
is a ray of the
new day dawning
on a field he has found
its treasure underground
for which he will sell all
to know it at last…
From: Stoep Zen
And as long as I draw breath
May I be
A light for those who have lost their way,
A home for the forsaken
A backstage pass to the great unknown
When all the seats are taken
SOURCES OF POEMS:
Poems, prose and photographs over time
Porcupine Press, Johannesburg, 2015
A Zen Life in South Africa
Jacana Media, Johannesburg 2008
Image: Love leading the Pilgrim by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones
Tate Britain, London
One of Patricia Schonstein’s ‘Found Poems’ in the anthology Africa Ablaze! is crafted from a question posed to a former Rhodesian soldier about poetry and war.
The poem, which takes place in Bulawayo airport’s departure lounge, is formulated around two extreme responses – the poet’s and the soldier’s – as to whether poetry has the capacity to stop war.
It’s a dark, humorous, even absurd interaction around deadly serious subject matter. It reflects the poet’s absolute belief that poetry can be transformational, alongside a total denial of this notion by the soldier.
You hear the soldier’s sarcastic bark, ‘Should we have waved Tennyson under their noses?’ followed by a dismissive brush off, ‘Give me a break, Lady!’
Schonstein, an established author of award-winning novels, considers herself a poet first. In her view, it’s often a poem which speaks to us during the dark night of the soul or within an experience of epiphany.
Her belief in the transformational qualities of poetry on the collective unconscious has given birth to three anthologies of poems ‘touched by Africa’ in the start of a proposed series of six.
Each anthology comprises a wide range of voices from Nobel Laureates to anonymous pieces, in a spread from Antiquity to the present time. They cover an extensive landscape of love, loss, exile, journeys, landscape and war.
‘I think poetry is so healing and so good. It keeps you in touch with your deepest parts. I would like to see everyone with these anthologies,’ she says.
The philanthropic spin off of the anthologies is that a percentage of the profits are allocated to creating books for children. The first one, Maggie Mango and Scottie has already been produced.
Found poem: Do you think you can stop war with poetry?
Bulawayo airport departure lounge
Former soldier of the Rhodesian Light Infantry
In response to a question posed by Patricia Schonstein
Stop war with poetry?
Should we have waved Tennyson under their noses?
Said: Okay you fuckers!
Just put those AKs down a wee-moment
While I read you this, this … these few rhyming couplets.
Give me a break, Lady.
Go away for Chris’sake.
Africa! My Africa! An anthology of poems
“Reading this collection I feel that I’m there, in Africa.”
– Birgitta Wallin, Editor, Karavan, Sweden
Africa Ablaze! Poems & prose pieces of war & civil conflict
“A greatly admirable collection of wide-ranging, hard-hitting writing.”
– Jay Heale, Bookchat
Heart of Africa! Poems of love, loss & longing
“This is an impressive and amazing anthology.”
– Gorry Bowes Taylor, Fine Music Radio
Available from African Sun Press
Image: The Soldier Drinks by Marc Chagall
“Excuse me, random stranger… may I read you a love poem?”
This is how I welcomed people into the intimate Poetry Corner of Chandler House in Cape Town.
The excellent Michael Chandler was blending fine art and poetry, love and beauty, Bukharas and erotica on last night’s First Thursday in Cape Town.
“I’m not going to seduce you,” I’d say to those who looked hesitant or wary. “I mean only to share some expressions of love.”
People were enchanted, listening to me read the words of Justin Fox, Romaney Pinnock, James Ambrose Brown, Takawira Dururu, Walter Andries Oliphant, Micere Githae Mugo, Siyabonga Sibiya and numerous others, as I sat at a small antique table, surrounded by ceramics, fabrics and embroideries.
A newly married couple on honeymoon listened to “Love poem to my husband of forty-one years”, looking into each other’s eyes and their future.
A handsome French gentleman mentioned that he found the English language had a sensual lilt to it.
A German tourist was so touched by David Friedland’s “Always” that I wrote it out for her and she in turn later translated into German my poem ‘Africa’.
A young man filmed me reading the words of a former Rhodesian soldier in “Found Poem: Was that poetry?” to send to his girlfriend in London.
Two students shared how much meaning they derived from poetry, especially performance poetry. One told of how he had recently responded to a challenge and written a poem every day over a number of weeks.
A young woman closed her eyes while I read Carol Leff’s “We were” and I noted her dark, serene beauty.
The gallery was full and at times it was difficult to hear me, but people caught single words as they rose into the air: “Lips. Tender. Kissed. Held. Thigh. Privacy of flesh. Consummation. Beloved. Cinnamon. Secret.”
The word “buttery” from Kerry Hammerton’s poem “Lovers” drew people in and I was asked to re-read it a number of times.
I closed the evening with Chris Mann’s “Night Flying”. People left Chandler House taking the poem’s final lines with them:
“Love lifts and joins the embodiments of desire
and sends us both flying, flying through the night.”
Poems were read from:
Heart of Africa! Poems of love, loss and longing
Africa! My Africa! An anthology of poems
Published by African Sun Press
Church Street Cape Town
Now at this moment of ripeness
A time for culling or falling
Bruised fruit poised for ploughing and renewal
For me at seventy
It is a vow more easily honoured than in my twenties
So let diffidence end here
This is my daring confession
I will love you always
Translated from the English by Elisabeth Fenner
Wie werde ich von dir gehen?
Es wird Nacht sein
ich treibe auf den Wassern der Kanäle
nahe dem Stammsitz meiner Ahnen
in einer mit blauem Samt ausgeschlagenen Gondel
mit einem Bündel von musasa Samen
und getrockneten Blättern von mopane.
Es wird unter der Seufzerbrücke sein.
Meine Handflächen halten ocker und eidechse.
Meine Seele spiegelt deine Sterne
und die Flamme des Tages.
Dort werde ich dahintreiben
und mich nach dir sehnen.
Heart of Africa! opens with King Solomon’s Song of Songs – one of the most voluptuous love poems in the world. How it ever got into the Bible, heaven knows! But perhaps love and heaven are side by side.
It is possible to love without understanding fully. So I love … glowing splendours painted by William Turner, the sheer drama of Masada, the intricate Islamic tracery in the Alhambra in Granada, the subtle delicate flavour of Japanese cuisine, layers of scent and flavour in a great red wine. I taught a class of 10-year-olds who fell in love with Coleridge’s In Xanadu, did Kublai Khan … “Did you understand it?” “No, but it sounds wonderful!”
I have approached Patricia Schonstein’s three collections of poetry in much the same way. I don’t pretend to understand everything, but that doesn’t prevent me finding immense pleasure and fulfilment from their pages. Africa! My Africa! was about the great continent and its people, what else? Africa Ablaze! concentrated on war and conflict, full of impact, not pretty at times.
Heart of Africa! is about love – is there any topic which has been eulogised more than love?
Oh, how we all need this book! To tempt us to pause, and think, and smile, and remember love and maybe understand it a little more. In this new-old Africa, we need love more than ever. In this momentous collection, Africa is reaching out towards more tenderness, more precious memories, more joy in a single moment, more seething African hot compassion. As its title claims, it is writing from the Heart of Africa – which is the heart of mankind.
Whoever we are, this is writing that we need to consider, day after day. To reach for that understanding and so salute the sadness of love lost. Because – love hurts.
Here are just a few extracts from pieces which sing to me:
You’ll find us where the great winds have blown,
Laughing in joy upon the sun-drenched hill.
– Henry G Barnby
you gave me back
the bloom and grace
of the Karoo –
– Carel Anthonissen
shy one, elusive as the Namib cloud,
where will you run to, my love?
How will you leap to life in the long grass?
– Dorian Haarhoff
But my love for you’s not over,
And these lines will always sing.
– Mike Kantey
Here are such varied pieces as a prose love poem from a ‘Troep’ conscripted in 1982; Ingrid de Kok saluting the noble memory of William Kamanga; “Love amongst the middle-aged” by Gus Ferguson; Colleen Higgs on Divorcing; even Mandela’s touching diary entry on his first contact with his wife in twenty-one years.
In one “An exchange between an anthologist and a gentleman” Patricia herself describes how she sent out a call for love poems – and all seemed to celebrate “the female landscape” of breasts, thighs, that gentle curve of the armpit, the down-below area … Where were the male six-packs, the smooth skin, the male nipples?
As I have said before of her previous collections, she challenges us to redefine poetry. These are not all poems, though I’m sure they are all poetry. Patricia invites us to accept snatches of prose, “Found Poems” as she calls them. Here’s part of a recalled conversation on a beach:
They married as virgins, both of them
So knew only that ‘something happened’ on wedding nights
But had no idea of the pleasure.
– Pat Wilson-Pinnock
On a more prosaic note, you – the reader – will have no idea of the pleasure to be discovered (for it is a browsing book) inside Heart of Africa!
Heart of Africa! Poems of love, loss and longing
African Sun Press
Order from: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jay Heale is the editor of BOOKCHAT.
The original printed Bookchat newsletter-magazine was published quarterly and ran from 1976 to 1997, achieving 132 issues.
BOOKCHAT is now published online: http://www.bookchat.co.za /articles/article.html
Painting: The Lovers by Marc Chagall
I grew up in colonial Rhodesia.
While still very young, I noticed that African children generally walked barefoot, while I did not, and that their little feet were rough and calloused. It was through this simple indicator that I first became aware of dire poverty.
As an adult, I use this image of the unshod child as a yard-stick for measuring whether the basic needs of childhood are properly addressed.
These are not simply the needs for shoes and clothing, but also for nutrition, health and education.
“If the child is unshod
and dressed in rags
If the child is hungry
and left to scavenge
If the child is abandoned
to shelter wherever
If the child falls ill
but is uncared for
Then Government is failing
If the child’s sense of wonder
is not nurtured
If a love of earth and life
are not awakened
If story books
If the school room
is a dark hollow place
that does not inspire learning
Then Government is failing”
The South African Department of Education is proposing to do away with the national catalogue of eight books per subject per grade and to approve only one book, per subject per grade.
Perhaps, before such a restrictive “dumbing down” policy is approved, we should reflect on the “shoes” that all children need in order to walk competently through life.
These “shoes” are a diverse, broad and enriching education, one which makes children ever curious; that does not prevent the development of critical understanding; and that does not deny access to the wealth of knowledge that rightfully belongs to everyone.
If this proposed policy is put in place, then children will be failed, they will be robbed of a future. They will walk unshod.
See William Barker’s excellent: Don’t dumb down teaching. Cape Times 13 November 2014
Mail & Guardian: