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by Breyten Breytenbach / 01.11.2013

The work of Breyten Breytenbach includes numerous volumes of poetry, novels, and essays, many of which are in Afrikaans, many translated from Afrikaans to English, and many published originally in English. In 2000, Breytenbach published Lady One: Of Love and Other Poems, a collection of poems for his wife that includes images of east Asia, southern Africa, and Morocco. The combination of the personal and the global in the poems reflects a marriage that, because it was considered taboo under South African apartheid laws, led to the poet’s original exile.

Known as the finest living poet of the Afrikaans language, Professor Breytenbach’s verse volumes include The Iron Cow Must Sweat (1964) and Footscript (1976) and they feature rich visuals, a powerful use of metaphor, and a complex blending of references from Buddhism, Afrikaans idiomatic speech, and recollections of the South African landscape. He has been honoured with numerous literary and art awards, including the APB Prize, CAN Award (five times) Allan Paton Award for Literature, Rapport Prize, Hertzog Prize, Reina Prinsen-Geerling Prize, Van der Hoogt Prize, Jan Campert Award and Jacobus van Looy Prize for Literature and Art.

This once exiled Afrikaans poetry icon lets his voice and imagery travel a hypnotic dub groove this time using an English tongue.


Right at the beginning
when we were still slim
with answers as white as teeth and supple eyes,
and you innocent,
and my desire a snake mousing for your wrinkled nut –
right then and there I wanted to write you a poem

At the time the days were unthinking
and nights long enough to dream
Time was for ever.
I scrabbled a spray of broad outlines on an envelope
as ever at the outset
the shadows of one hand’s displacements

I wanted to mark you with crosses
the way one flips a coin in the air
to conjecture the future,
play your body like a fresh instrument
unfolding under my fingers
to shudderingly sing of discovery’s joys.
Thus, more or less, were the trails of the verse

which I could not knot to stanzas of sound.
And we lived, we travelled,
we bottled the seasons, explored the slits:
I squandered the dark dimensions

My errings put to sea:
the envelope as unwritten letter
sailed from one land to the other
from hand to hand.
Sometimes with a sudden dove of thrashing
in the throat
I discovered it again in a box of old papers
in the dark windfilled loft of an evacuated house
and I tried to remember

what it was I would have liked to write
right at the beginning
when we were still lithe
with white-toothed answers and a supple eye

But the handmap had become
the pale membrane of a testament
scribbled in blotting language,
indecipherable like the snakeskin
no longer able to unknot
the deployment and pleating of desire
or to invent the whole

Now when my end is rising over the horizon
with bleached sails –
a first and last island
where only the blind dog waits in faith
I fold this writing in two, woman,
and lay it, hidden in the envelope
of a lost beginning,
like an unavailable homecoming
at your door

em>*For more on Breyten Breytenbach and other Pan-African poets please visit Badilisha Poetry website, produced by the Africa Centre.

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