Monthly Archives: January 2009

Walking to School

I browsed the Aljazeera English website today for the first time. They had a feature on the young students of Gaza as schools reopen after the Israeli bombardment.

I lingered on one photograph in the accompanying gallery. It wasn’t the one with rockets raining down UN schools, nor the one where people are running away screaming.

It was a photo of a young girl walking among the rubble of what looks like a classroom once. There is a charred metal skeleton of a desk on the right. Perhaps a blackboard once hung against the ashen wall.

Her dark, oversized jacket and pants merge with the burnt wall. Under her jacket she has a white shirt. It seems to glow in all that darkness. She must be not more than seven years of age, but looking down at her every step makes her seem much older. The fingers on her hand look like petals of a flower falling to the ground.

I sometimes look too much into things.

Here is a link to the photo.


GUD Magazine Issue 3

GUD Magazine Issue 3 published one of my poems, “Sa Bawat Digma” / “In Every War.”  Here is a link to Johann Carlisle’s review at Future Fire that mentions the poem.  The Fix reviewer Rochita Loenen-Ruiz also takes note of it.

It is a fantastic magazine – and I am not saying that because they accepted this particular poem and one other in a forthcoming issue.  GUD Magazine is a unique experiment in its print and digital formats.  You won’t regret getting hold of an issue.


TALON Robot Examines A Body

1
They are too backward, the dead.

They get in the way
of technological advances
such as this.
Imagine

The time it takes
to whir metal arms,
tank-like tracks,
gears, hydraulics

The patience it demands
to focus and refocus
hardened eyes,
in order to position

A single robot in place.
To poke and prod one body,
certify it is dead.
No longer considered

A threat by those who own
this piece of armory
worth more than a village
burnt whole.

2
Apart from special lenses,
heat and movement
sensors, other less known
devices built into these
roaming machines

There is a person
who has to monitor the scraps
of rendered facts,
someone who has to stare
at every shard of flesh.

This person remains on the verge
of conflict throughout the whole
operation, armed with clinical
precision, making certainties
of random targets.

No information gathered
in scenes like this
will reveal anything
useful to the surviving
family of the dead,

Even if there were any left.

3
This one body alone demands
to be examined in detail:
minute facts irrelevant
to strategic reports.

Who gave permission
to touch his remains
this way, with a mechanical
hand, distant?

But this body will not surrender.
It is beyond the reach
of the most powerful
tools of destruction.

When there were so many
faces of strangers emptying
the marketplace,
whose did he seek?

Of those who clothed
him as he emerged
from childhood, who did
he remember most, last?

Will anyone know how carefully
his young fingers treasured
the very first feather
in his hand?

-o-

TALON robot examines a body in Baghdad

TALON robot examines a body in Baghdad

This poem, written after a photograph from Wikileaks.com, was originally published on Marne Kilates’s Poet’s Picturebook Issue 8


The Good Neighbour

Bang!  There he goes again, repeatedly taking aim
Until he hits whatever it is he’s been missing.
Sure of eye even when he falters.
He smiles and waves as we shudder.

It has been a while since we let him
Silence our worries with his hobby.

Our neighbourhood has grown used to this
Night and day, good or bad weather.
Everyone hides a fear of the gun collector.

On days when he fancies something new
From one of us, we grow restless.

Maybe, as we whisper
Among ourselves, we are just imagining it.
No, he’s not really interested in this thing of mine,
You think?  He already has his own, from someone else.

Extra care must be taken that he doesn’t feel
Violated by our talk in our own homes.
It is undeclared but true, his claim
Lies beyond his yard.
Soon enough we’ll know who’s next.

-o-

This poem was written in September 2008.  It is an acrostic.


Going Retro 1: The Victorious Army of Gobbledygooks Penetrates the City

“Why do they hate us?  We’re setting them free!”
– a foot soldier

They were expecting
sweaty hugs and kisses
from dark veiled women
and their adoring children.

Ears cocked, they anticipated the struggle
of the local band in playing
their beloved anthem,
as if it were not foreign.

But only hollow,
sporadic shouting of men
who gathered from nowhere
welcomed the forces.

The army was laden
with a quick,
calculated victory,
craving for popular jubilation.

Instead, this caricature of a show
put on by these nowhere men.
Stick figures in the desert sun,
sure of only one thing:

Tear down the giant statue
designed originally
by a previous generation
of gobbledygooks.

This show had been triangulated
for the world to see
moment by breathless moment
on their most trusted TV.

And then what?  An awkward silence
as the statue grates to a stop,
refusing to crash down.  A monologue broken
by coughing in the background, off-camera.

Days later when the local population
finally came out with their voices raised,
the victorious gobbledygooks felt
strangely welcome, unable to decipher

Joy and ecstasy from utter hatred.
It is only now with proper translation
years later that we have
a clear understanding of gang rape.

-o-

This is largely a response to an amazing documentary called Control Room. I highly recommend everyone to watch it.

I owe a lot of my writing to this fantastic public figure.  He will be missed and his legacy will continue to haunt us for years to come.


The Longest Conversation

To write about someone who has passed away, someone you barely knew, is like putting together a thousand-piece puzzle with only three pieces in your hand. She cleaned our house once a week. She left a husband and a four year-old daughter who wears our kids’ hand-me-downs. She spoke Afrikaans so I hardly knew what she was saying even when she was addressing me.

The most interaction I had with her was in the last two weeks of her life as most of her body shrank to half its size while her lower legs grew. Her family had no way of getting around, so I offered to take her to see a doctor. She sat coughing next to me in our vehicle each time I took her and her family to various public clinics. I waited in the hallway for hours as she was told to sit on a wooden bench with a drip, among at least six other patients. She needed help getting up. She dragged her swollen feet and legs as she struggled to cover the shortest distance.

The first public hospital to finally admit her was only willing to keep her for less than 24 hours. I spoke to the attending doctor and nurses, even the secretary of the hospital director, and begged. She needed proper treatment and I thought another night might just save her. No luck. Ten beds needed to be cleared for patients worse off than her. They suspected she had TB – which is a real threat for someone who has AIDS – and decided to give her a week’s supply of TB treatment before discharging her. When I fetched her we exchanged a few disconnected sentences. The longest conversation I ever had with her, and the last.

A week later I learned she was in a different public hospital. Her husband asked me for a lift. It was around seven in the evening of the 31st of March. I drove him and their daughter to a much larger hospital. It was a massive place, quite well-known, and yet seemed mostly abandoned. There was no clear signage put up for visitors, so we only found her room after half an hour of frantic walking through empty halls and heavy doors. It felt like we were weaving through a half-lit maze. I wouldn’t want to be stuck wandering there on my own.

When we finally found her, she barely moved. She stared at nothingness most of the time and only held out a hand for her daughter to kiss after she was prompted by her husband. We were looking at someone who was fast fading.

There was only one doctor on duty that night, and about seven or so interns buzzing around him. We waited for the doctor to tell us her condition, but when he finally came around he said he wasn’t the one who dealt with her in the morning. He looked at her charts and said TB had taken over most of her internal organs. And that she was very, very ill. We must phone two other doctors in the morning, he said.

On the way out I came up to her and said goodbye. She looked at me as if through thick fog and tried to raise her left arm for a wave. I did not even touch her. I think I was scared I’d actually weep right there, though I was practically a stranger.

On the drive home her husband asked me what I thought. I said at least there she was being given some treatment. He said she did not recognize him and his daughter most of the time. She had asked about my wife and kids, but kept wandering away in her mind.

At 1:00 A.M. I got a call from the hospital. She had passed away about an hour before and her body was being taken to a funeral parlor – no doubt to follow hospital policy of getting a body out in time, but not for the relatives. She may lost the fight with the disease in the last few minutes of my birthday.

Her husband worked for the family across the way from us, so they got to stay at the nearby workers’ cottage. But the owners of the property – who never really considered us as friends – had vicious dogs that drowned out my calls to him. So I set my alarm to go off at six in the morning in order to catch him when he got up. It was cold and dark, and only an hour later did he show up. When I said “She passed away” he looked like he didn’t understand.

He had to say the words himself. “She died?”

Then he said he had to find a way to take their kid to the preschool, could I take them. His daughter put on a wide smile, thinking I was taking them to visit her mother again at the hospital.

Two days later one of my kids saw him walking by a fence, moving aimlessly, not really looking at anything that was around him, not even what was in front of him.

One of my daughters said “What is he doing?”

“Walking,” I said to her.

“But what is he doing?”

I couldn’t give her a better answer.

–o–

This was written in April 2008, soon after the events mentioned. South Africa, where I have lived since 1994, has had a long history of battling AIDS. If not for heroic efforts of the Treatment Action Campaign, matters would be much worse now. The TAC forced the South African government to wake up and deal with the terrible realities of the AIDS pandemic.


Who Told You What

I can only imagine what it’s like in Gaza today, the 21st day of systematic bombing and intensified ground assault. I wouldn’t want to be a screaming child looking for my mother who is probably one of over a thousand dead.

Where I live it is the middle of summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The strong Southeaster winds are sweeping through this land, heeding no borders. This country I now call home is where the term Apartheid was born. A term that has been used to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

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