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Sending out messages via social media like “Peace and good wishes to all” may be no better than whispering to a wild daisy on a drought-stricken field. But these online connections are all we have sometimes to somehow keep in touch over such great physical distances. That word, “touch,” sounds so odd to use in this way.
Many years ago, while I was a student at a university in Manila, I lost a poetry book I had borrowed from the British Council. I’ve told the story many times (here or elsewhere), and I hope my memory doesn’t fail me that I mix up the various details.
I had to pay for the book, which the British Council officer made clear with his very stern face. On a whim I sent a letter to the publisher, hoping to get a replacement. A long time passed and I forgot all about the matter. Then out of the blue I got a letter from the author, British poet Elizabeth Bartlett. She sent me a signed copy.
She also kept writing back to me through the years, sending me new books of hers as they were published. When I moved to South Africa she kept in touch. I wasn’t as good by then keeping up the correspondence as I was a bit lost at the time – in many ways that I didn’t know. And then there was a silence. It took me a few years to find out she had passed away.
Some months ago I rediscovered a greeting card from Elizabeth. I don’t know what year she sent it. She didn’t write the date, and the date stamp that a Philippine postal worker had pounded hastily upon it with rubber and ink was not any help.
This card now brings both joy and sadness. I look at her wobbly writing and I remember not just her, but also my mother who passed away last month. Her birthday is on 30 December. For decades we were not so sure in what year she was born, for the records office where her original birth certificate was kept got burned down during the mad American bombings of Manila (even as the retreating Japanese forces had already surrendered to signal the end of Worl War 2). The new certificate she was issued much later and could not be verified.
Still, here we are. Here I am, holding the greeting card from someone I only knew through words on ink and paper, someone who had her first book of poetry published when she was already so much older than I am today.
Elizabeth, you forgot to say when you sent that Christmas greeting with a photo of swans on the lake at Stourhead. Or did you mean to leave out the date so that I can keep on wondering how it was that day you wrote my name on the envelope. Did you have doubts the card would reach me in time for Christmas, or that it would reach me at all? Did you think your letter would be counted these days as “snail mail” – something quite rare among the younger generation?
I can’t remember ever saying thank you. Perhaps by sharing it today with those who never knew you I’m somehow saying that. Your words touched me across boundaries of space and time.
Another chance to be read by a wider audience: “Birds will have Dominion When I Take Swallow Form” is a finalist at Goodreads.com
I’ve said it before somewhere, if not here. Your place of birth is not for you to choose. And then, even when you’ve found your footing, there may be reasons to leave what you’ve known as home for another land where the people may not know a thing about you, or care. You may have to learn to negotiate new social mazes, get lost in them, in search of a new home.
Political border policies add another layer of branding you a stranger.
I wrote a poem years ago about this, “Birds will have Dominion When I Take Swallow Form.” It found a home in my book Sound Before Water. Now it has another chance of being read more widely through the Goodreads.com Newsletter (January 2018) should it win the current voting cycle. Yes, it’s basically a popularity contest. They also don’t give voters a lot of time as the deadline is 19 December.
If you’re still looking for a gift, my most recent book, WINGS OF SMOKE, is available online. It would be nice to hear from readers.
Maraming salamat po.
Being an alien, as Craig Raine showed us many years ago in his book, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, gives one a different perspective on matters earthlings see everyday. Of course, though some may claim they truly know what an actual alien might feel or think of us, we can only imagine being an alien.
There are many ways one could imagine being one by choice. And then there are ways one is made to feel like one: the various boundaries set by nation, by society at large, by smaller groups of people. To a certain extent, bullies like pointing out with their little minds those they perceive as aliens who must be exterminated, or at least be shoved to the ground and ridiculed.
I’ve had my share of being forced to feel like an alien. In a creative sense, that is what one tries to be so that what is ordinary can be turned into something to be marvelled at.
I wrote a poem in 2015 in response to what was happening in my adopted country, South Africa, under the leadership of Jacob Zuma. I sent the poem to a number of journals hoping to get it published and found no luck.
Earlier this year, following the publication of WINGS OF SMOKE, my hopes were raised. I submitted to a local publisher a poetry manuscript (currently called CROCODILES IN BELFAST), which included the poem. The reader they asked to assess the manuscript singled out that same poem. I don’t know who the reader was, but I’m quoting his/her words here.
Most striking for me are some of the political poems – “Baleka, what do you know…?”, “Fire, the King Who is Called” – poems which are daring, in our present context, critical, perhaps even scandalous, but which doesn’t contain the demeaning language that some of our slogans, memes or cartoons may contain. This doesn’t make the poems less critical or less subversive of the powerful figures they address, but they show what a non-indulgent, properly poetic treatment of powerful figures may look like. The language of “King” is remarkably restrained, yet one can feel almost something akin to literary tectonic plates shifting in terms of traditions of South African political poetry. It is as if the author knows that they are playing with fire, tries to hold their hands from the flame, but cannot resist the draw of the flames. But irrespective of the subject matter, it is the control over language that makes “King” remarkable, and it is this quality that runs throughout the collection: clarity of expression (even if resolution may escape the reader – which in itself is not a bad thing), restraint in the expression and control over language, which creates tension and torsion.
Despite the high recommendation from that reader, the publisher got back to me, after they asked for a few revisions, with a final rejection. They cited “economic realities” as the reason. I cannot hide my disappointment. But I have to move on.
That poem has finally found a home online. The Johannesburg Review of Books, free for all to enjoy, features my poem “Fire, the King Who is Called,” alongside some fantastic poetry and short stories from leading SA authors. I am deeply honoured.
Although the poem has been slightly edited for South African readers, which I don’t really mind, I do need to point out something for those unfamiliar with local politics. The main word removed that some might find important was “Gedleyihlekisa” – the middle name of Jacob Zuma. That name’s definition is the poem’s epigram which I quoted from an SA history website.
It might also help non-SA readers to search online for stories that mention the following: firepool, ANC Women’s League, Khwezi, kanga, Nkandla, Zapiro versus Zuma, rape trial, The Spear painting, and The President’s Keepers.
Tomorrow, 16 December, the African National Congress (ANC), the ruling party of South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, holds its 54th national conference to elect new leaders. Some people might see it as the beginning of the end of Zuma’s reign.
This alien will be watching.