An Afrikaans poem of identity and the pain of exile
“What did your face look like before you were born? What did you look like before you or your father or your mother were born? Where were you then?” - from The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (Taurus, 1984) by Breyten Breytenbach
At the top of a 100 foot pole an iron cow gives birth. - Zen koan.
In 1960 a young Afrikaans poet, unable to continue to live in apartheid South Africa, left the country for a life of exile, like so many of his compatriots, for many of whom exile was not the voluntary choice it was for him.
Breyten Breytenbach, scion of a well-connected Afrikaans family, sadly chose exile and solidarity with those oppressed by the authoritarian apartheid state over his family.
Feathers and an iron cow
“...we find our world poised uneasily, like a huge iron cow on the top of a hundred foot pole.” - from The Iron Cow of Zen by Albert Low (2009).
Breytenbach has been for many years a Zen practitioner. Many of his poems and paintings show the influence of Zen.
This gives his poetry a depth belied by the seeming simplicity of the words. The words flow conversationally and easily, and in the flow they reveal, by unforced juxtapositions, tensions which bring out emotions which, while I can feel them, I somehow cannot explain – they come from some deep place, some place that I can only think must be like the places reached by Zen. The words are indeed like koans and are meant to be felt, experienced, rather than understood intellectually.
I experience this whole poem as a koan, it moves me so that I cannot read it without my eyes tearing up, and yet I cannot explain the tears – they are just part of the experience of the poem, the beauty of the words.
This is my humble attempt to translate this wonderful poem from Afrikaans to English.
A Handful of Feathers
I always thought
that when one day I came home
it would be unexpectedly at dusk
with the accumulated riches of years
on the backs of iron cows
It's still blueish
Softly, quietly I open the gate to the back yard
old Wagter* growls and barks
but then he tail-wags recognition
Frits Kreisler will play sweetly on his violin
Ma you know
like Viennese waltzes
and the surprised windows begin to listen
people I don't know
or almost know from very far
leaning out with nighties full of smiles and elbows
people whose laps I peed on as a child
ma stands inside her heart stopped
(and where are the specs?)
dad wakes, confused, with a start
but mummy is already outside
with a dressing gown and red cheeks
And there I stand large as life
on the lawn near the cement pond
where the new outside rooms have been added
slightly worn out by the long journey
a top hat
a smart suit on
with a carnation in the jacket
new Italian shoes for the occasion
my hands full of presents
a song for my ma and a little pride for my dad
But mummy knows it's me
and behind me my caravan
as befits a traveller from overseas
my wife and children bow-tied
each with three Boland words
the gun bearers
and road managers
a creditor or two
Just this side of the vineyard a meek rose grows
good grief the air is bitingly clean
there's dad coming to see what's up
like that on his empty tummy
the mountains have gone grey
and the oaks thick
I had thought I would just be there
like a Coloured choir on Christmas day
I had though how we would cry then
and drink tea
Blind Wagter it seems couldn't wait
and just died
Fritz Kreisler maybe doesn't like such a long journey …
but if he can't come
then I'll hire Paganini …
sleep well with one ear open
not like old Dog
wherever I plant a feather
a clucking hen comes up!
Die Hand vol Vere
ek het gedog
as ek een dag huis toe kom
sal dit onverwags so teen die skemerdag wees
met jare se opgegaarde rykdom
op rûe van ysterkoeie
Dis nog blouerig
ek maak sjuut en saggies die agterplaas-hek oop
ou Wagter* knor-blaf
maar stert-herken my dan
Fritz Kreisler sal soet op sy viool speel
ma weet mos
sulke Weense walse
en verbaas begin die vensters luister
mense wat ek nie ken nie
of net nog van baie ver
leun uit met nagrokke vol glimlagte en elmboë
mense op wie se skote ek gepee het kleintyd
binne staan ma se hart still
(en waar is die bril?)
pa skrik wakker verdwaas so deur die wind
maar mammie is reeds buite
met 'n kamerjas en rooi wange
En daar staan ek lewensgroot
op die lawn naby die sementdammetjie
waar die nuwe buitekamers aangebou is
effens verweeer deur die verre reis
'n keil op
'n deftige pak
angelier in die baadjie
nuwe Italiaanse skoene vir die okkasie
my hande vol presente
'n liedjie vir my ma 'n bietjie trots vir mý pa
Maar mammie weet mos dis ek
en agter my my karavaan
soos dit 'n reisiger van oorsee betaam
my vrou en kinders strikgedas
elkeen met drie Bolandwoorde in die mond
'n skuldeiser of twee
Net duskant die wingerd groei 'n mak roos
mensig maar die lug is knypskoon
daar kom kyk pa ook wat skort
so op sy nugter maag
die berge het grys geword
en die akkerbome dik
ek het gedog ek sal sommerso daar wees
soos 'n Kleurlingkoor met Kersoggend
ek het gedog hoe ons dan sal huil
en tee drink
Blinde Wagter kon glo nie wag nie
en is glo-glo dood …
Fritz Kreisler hou dalk nie van so 'n verre reis …
maar as hy nie kan kom nie
dan huur ek vir Paganini …
slaap gerus met die een oor oop:
anders as ou Dog
waar ek 'n veertjie plant
kom 'n kêk-kôk hoender op!
*Wagter- literally "guard" - is a common name for watch-dogs in South Africa.
The importance of memory
“En wat is mens tog behalwe 'n hoop herinneringe? (And so what is a person except a heap of memories?)” - from 'n Seisoen in die Paradys.
Poet, artist and author Breyten Breytenbach was born in the small Western Cape town of Bonnievale in 1936 near the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas. One brother, Cloete, is a photographer and war correspondent while another, Jan, was a leading officer in the former South African security forces.
Breyton studied fine arts at the University of Cape Town.
After leaving South Africa in 1960 Breytenbach met and married a woman of Vietnamese descent called Yolande. This made his return to his homeland a difficult issue because of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the so-called “Immorality Act”. He applied several times to the South African Government for visas for himself and Yolande, each time the applications were turned down.
Finally, in late 1972, Breytenbach and his wife were granted visas to visit the land of his birth: “Wat die oewerhede in gedagte had toe hulle ons visumaansoek toegestaan het, sal ek nie weet nie. (What exactly the authorities had in mind when they granted us our visas, I do not know).” - from 'n Seisoen in die Paradys (A Season in Paradise ), Perskor, 1976, written by Breytenbach using the pen name B.B. Lasarus.
Breytenbach describes their arrival in Cape Town most movingly, as one who has longed to see the land of his birth, and seeing it unroll under the wings of the aircraft excites memories which turn his Adam's apple into petrified tears (“Die adamsappel is versteende trane”): “Daar is nou land onder ons vlerke, wat my voete reeds betree het. Daar het ek agter 'n bos gesit. Daar het ek stukkies van my self aan 'n boom opgehang, en ander stukkies in 'n vinnige waterstroom afgespoel totdat die snyplekke wit geword het. (There is now land beneath our wings, land which my feet have already trodden. There I sat behind a bush. There I hung pieces of myself on a tree, and other pieces I rinsed off in a fast-running stream until the cut ends were white.)”
Then the plane landed and all the chaos and emotion of the arrivals hall ensued, with people cousins, parents, children, his mother with her specs full of tears, his father, and Breytenbach wrote another version of this poem to express his feelings about coming home. This time the poem is called Die Hand vol piep (a handful of pain/softness/pampering).
The handful of softness
I had thought
I would never come home again,
not on the iron cow in the evening twilight through lotus ponds and fires,
nor via embassies past gate guards with blacklists
peering over braziers of glowing coals
in the night of stop and who goes there -
I am here
out of the blue
with a rooster in the bosom and sweet wine in the veins
and there comes ma
white with age but with cheeks still peachy red
and dad stands on the other side of the tears
four-square in his pleasure
and even an extra brother with beer and beard -
at least I'm here
as large as life
in the catchment area of the airport,
ma knows – where the breath is -
somewhat rumpled from the long journey
flower and lungs just together in the jacket,
new Italian shoes for the occasion,
my head full of tongue and my heart all crust -
But mummy knows of course it's me
and behind me my bird of paradise,
almost the feather in my cap,
as becomes a refugee from overseas,
my wife and my love -
my musicians the gun-bearers and so on
will surely come with a later poem -
the mountain wears a dress shirt,
the clouds bleach and flap juice in the air
every palm tree has a fluttering jowl -
all spit-and-polished I'm here
like a klopse** troupe at New Year's and tonight we'll make a fire on the table:
I hang my heart in the wind in the front door's
and lift up my song and my being and my wife:
all those worthless rotten years
were a sad waltz that lasted too long!
* Howzit? - a contraction of “how is it?” actually meaning “How are you?” Usually used in a slightly mocking way.
**Klopse – the name used for the “clubs” that perform during the annual New Year carnival in Cape Town. Traditionally these troupes of performers in their gaily-coloured uniforms go around from house-to-house during the period from Christmas to New Year, collecting money to fund their activities during the carnival. The reference to the “Coloured Choir” in “Die Hand Vol Vere” is also to this cultural phenomenon.
Die Hand Vol Piep
ek het gedog
ek kom nooit weer huis toe nie,
nie op die ysterkoei teen die skemeruur
deur lotosvleie en vure nie,
nog via ambassades verby hekwagte met swartlyste
wat oor konkas vol kole tuur
in die nag waar halt en werda skuur -
is ek hier:
uit die bloute:
met 'n haan in die bors en soetwyn in die are,
en daar kom ma
met wit ouderdom maar die wange nog persketjies rooi
en anderkant die trane staan pa
so vierkant in sy skik
en selfs 'n oorskietbroer met bier en met baard -
ek is tog hier
so groot soos my lewe
in die vanglokaal van die lughawe,
ma weet mos – waar die asemhaling is -
effens verrinneweer deaur die verre reis,
'n huil op,
blom en longe sommer saam in die baadjie,
nuwe Italiaanse skoene vir die okkasie,
my kop vol tong en my hart die ene roof -
Maar mammie weet mos dis ek
en agter my my wondervoël,
soos dit 'n vlugteling van oorsee betaam,
my vrou en my liefde -
my musikante die geweerdraers en ensovoortse
kom sekerlik met 'n later gedig -
die berg het 'n borshemp aan,
die wolke verbleik en klap sap in die lug
elke palmboom het 'n fladderende krop -
ek is spoegspoggerig hier
soos 'n klopsetroep met Nuwejaar
en vanaand sal ons vuurmaak bo-op die tafel:
ek hang my hart in die voordeur se wind
se kleintydse wieg
en lig my lied en my hier en my vrou:
al daardie vrotvreetjare
was 'n te langasem hartseerwals!
The other return
“After all, we are all bloody brothers and sisters.” - from “A Note for Azania” written by Breytenbach in 1975.
Breytenbach's “season in paradise” in 1973 was a time of great happiness for him and Yolande as they travelled around South Africa revisiting many places that were of great meaning to Breytenbach. (Interestingly, my copy of Kouevuur, Buren-Uitgewers, 1969, from which the poem “Die Hand Vol Vere” comes, was signed by Breytenbach in Johannesburg on 2 March 1973, i.e. during this visit).
His next visit to South Africa was a disaster.
During 1974/5 he and a group of fellow white South African anti-apartheid exiles in Europe started an organisation called “Okhela” with the aim of providing “'invisible support' – materially and politically – to the Liberation Movement” (from the “Okhela Manifesto” reprinted in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Taurus, 1984).
Breytenbach came under a false name to South Africa to reconnoitre and prepare for the anti-government activities the organisation was planning. He was betrayed, possibly by the ANC, and captured by the apartheid security forces, tried and sent to prison. He was released in early December 1982, returned to France and became a French citizen.
Separation and exile
Separation and exile are themes that run through South African history, especially in the second half of the 20th Century. That Breytenbach felt the insecurity and pain of separation from his family, the ambivalence of being free in a country other than his own, comes through particularly in the lines: “met jare se opgegaarde rykdom / op rûe van ysterkoeie (with the accumulated riches of years / on the backs of iron cows)”.
These lines are contrasted starkly with the concluding lines of the second version of the poem: “al daardie vrotvreetjare / was 'n the langasem hartseerwals! (all those worthless rotten years / were a sad waltz that lasted too long!)” This feels like a very harsh judgement on a period in which the poet was very creative and did find Yolande, his “Lady One” - “I aimed for the innermost moon / and rent, moved by the syntax and the slow / of sadness and of joy, so / I love you, love you so.” (from “Today I went down” in the collection Lady One, Human and Rousseau, 2002).
Did the iron cow give birth? Or did it, disastrously, fall from the 100-foot pole?
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010
More by this Author
Two of my favourite poems by South African poet Lionel Abrahams with some of my thoughts about them.
How relevant are the English Romantic poets in today's world? They help us keep a sense of proportion and rootedness. They help us see the wonder of nature with clearer eyes
Jazz was born out of the pain of slavery and the clash between the cultures of West Africa and the Protestant ethos of the Southern states of the United States. This is a first article in a series looking at the history...