Acknowledgements I would like to thank the Rockefeller Foundation for granting me a residency in 1999 at the Bellagio Study and Conference Centre in Italy. The period spent there was invaluable. Thanks are also due to the University of Cape Town which awarded me four months of study and research leave in 2001 to complete the book. Acknowledgements are due to the following journals and books, in which some of these poems originally appeared: A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer; Atlanta Review; Carapace; Connect; Crossings: Three Cape Town Poets; Illuminations; New Coin; New Contrast; Sulphur; Rapport (Afrikaans translation by Antjie Krog); Lo Straniero (Italian translation by Paola Splendore). Published by KWELA, P O Box 6525, Roggebaai, 8012, South Africa in association with SNAILPRESS, 30 Firfield Road, Plumstead, 7800, South Africa © Ingrid de Kok 2002 First edition, first printing 2002 ISBN 0-7957-0146-2 Also by Ingrid de Kok Familiar Ground (Ravan Press, 1988, reprinted 1991) Transfer (Snailpress, 1997, reprinted 1998) All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher. Cover artwork ‘Harvestime’ by Jane Alexander Cover design and typesetting by User Friendly Set in 10 on 12 point Palatino Printed and bound by Mills Litho, Maitland, Cape Town, 7405
A room full of questions
Parts of speech Some stories don’t want to be told. They walk away, carrying their suitcases held together with grey string. Look at their disappearing curved spines. Hunchbacks. Harmed ones. Hold-alls. Some stories refuse to be danced or mimed, drop their scuffed canes and clattering tap-shoes, erase their traces in nursery rhymes or ancient games like blindman’s buff. And at this stained place words are scraped from resinous tongues, wrung like washing, hung on the lines of courtroom and confessional, transposed into the dialect of record. Why still believe stories can rise with wings, on currents, as silver flares, levitate unweighted by stones, begin in pain and move towards grace, aerating history with recovered breath? Why still imagine whole words, whole worlds: the flame splutter of consonants, deep sea anemone vowels, birth-cable syntax, rhymes that start in the heart, and verbs, verbs that move mountains?
The Archbishop chairs the first session The Truth and Reconciliation Commission. April 1996. East London, South Africa. On the first day after a few hours of testimony the Archbishop wept. He put his grey head on the long table of papers and protocols and he wept. The national and international cameramen filmed his weeping, his misted glasses, his sobbing shoulders, the call for a recess. It doesn’t matter what you thought of the Archbishop before or after, of the settlement, the commission, or what the anthropologists flying in from less studied crimes and sorrows said about the discourse, or how many doctorates, books and installations followed, or even if you think this poem simplifies, lionizes romanticizes, mystifies. There was a long table, starched purple vestment and after a few hours of testimony, the Archbishop, chair of the commission, laid down his head, and wept. That’s how it began.
How to mourn in a room full of questions The witness tells it steady: the breathing of a boy deep asleep the way the young, even the watchful young, sleep; the window splintering, shaking shack walls, raked breathing of the shot, same, boy. The mother and her spreading blanket. Old sorrow holds down anger like a plug. And juridical questions swab swab the brains and blood off the floor.
Tongue-tied ‘Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?’ Someone’s been hurt. But she can’t speak. They...