Monday, 23 November 2020

Stand up, out of the blue

Eight or nine days ago, one of my lovely nieces messaged me out of that place of mystery we intelligently call 'the blue'.

"I hope you are doing well!" she wrote, adding, "I had been possessed by a memory of you recently."

Naturally, I replied to her questions, but I was not going to let niceties get in the way of the real (true-blue) stuff. 

"I would love to know what memory it is that possessed you," I said.

She then sent me a voiceclip with two stories. The first was one I'd as good as forgotten. I thank her for granting me permission to share it on my blog.

She was in Grade 6 - that would have made her roughly 11 years old at the time. She went to a party, safe and supervised and so on. A boy approached her, spoke disrespectfully - "rudely, very rude". He was "disgusting", and also flashed her.

She hit and kicked him, kicked him.

Back home, she told her parents, everything. 

Her father was upset - with: everything. The boy, her, just everything. Her mother was worried about her impulsiveness, the risk she'd taken by her spontaneous, violent self-defence. It was an unresolved issue in the home, and in her self.

A week later, I visited with my family. We were told the story. Apparently - I remember it, now that she's re-told it all - among all the adults present, I got up and went to her in the playroom, where she was watching tv or playing a video game, and I gave her a thumbs-up.

"You did good," I told her, "you gave that boy exactly what he deserved."

I remember feeling that it was important to let her know I trusted and approved of her body's spontaneous response to the disrespect, which had injured her spirit and person.

She said that I was the only person, until that point, completely to support what she had done. Coming from her aunt, it was clear: "It was okay for me to stand up for myself as a girl."

Photo by Sam Schooler on Unsplash

The second memory is gentler. It belongs in a separate blog, which will arrive in time, out of the blue.

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Vitally important

My longest-standing friend
Her husband
My beloved

It crashed hard into the window pane, soft down feathers flew. We rose, alarmed, to see it on the tiles, breathing heavily. Its head, slightly up, laid itself down after a while.
"Not looking good," my friend said.
"But look at that heart," I pointed out.
She agreed: we both saw it pumping relentlessly, lifting the small, green torso up and down, up and down.
None of us dared go near the concussed creature, for fear of shocking him or her the more.
Time went by. Neither did the head lift nor did the heart stop beating.

Under my breath - what a vitally important place that is! - under my breath I asked whether there be guardian angels for birds as small as this, but I did not wait for an answer as I summonsed a guardian angel for this miniscule bloblet of warmth in the universe.
I pulled myself on my knees a little towards him and spoke softly and he blinked.
That gave me hope. "Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul."
No, I did not think of Emily Dickinson's poem while I was oaring myself towards the tiny being, willing it to know I meant no harm. Dickinson's poem is in my marrow and needs no conscious articulation.

I stroked it once, expecting it to take fright.
It seemed to relax. My friend's husband encouraged me to take it in my hands.
"Just don't let it fly into the house," warned my friend: the bird faced the open door into the house.
The two men stationed themselves in the door to discourage any thought of flight into the house.
I edged in from behind and lifted the bird. Its claws immediately gripped my fingers. A good sign. I stroked and spoke. It blinked, looked, turned its head. Perkily, actually.
My friend stepped outside and the bird pooped.
"That's a positive sign!" we chorused.

"He looks like he'll stay there forever," my friend's husband said.
Yes, the little soul was comfortable, albeit his eyes remained surprised at the shape his heaven seemed to be taking: full of great, featherless entities making strange sounds.

At length, I got up, rested my hands on the balcony railing near a tree and suddenly he fluttered away. Landed on a steep branch, hung on admirably.
I shook the poop off my fingers, it splashed on the tiles.
We went inside.

I was aware how we had left him to himself and to the guardian angel of his life's flame.
When we went out again, he wasn't there.
He'd asked for nothing.
In extremity, he'd given us all his trust.
"Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all."
Under your breath, in your marrow, in your hands - vitally important places!

Sunday, 8 November 2020

Nothing too heavy

It's the tension between heavy and light.

Tomorrow night, I'm zooming as feature poet for Off The Wall poetry.

Hugh Hodge, who ran the Off The Wall poetry gig in Cape Town for many years, was the first person I remember to point me out publicly to myself, as poet. It was the Cape Town Book Fair 2006. He passed by me, accompanied, as it happened, by Liesl Jobson, whom I'd also never met. He pointed his finger -

"You're a poet," he said, "come and read."

It was a few seconds in my life. A moment like that weighs, because it's so beautifully light: in passing, people who don't know each other, a gesture, a voice. A shape for the future.

My first readings I was so nervous that my body trembled to the extent that I feared people would see my dress shivering off my wobbling bum. I did not know it was possible to read while shivering so. But it is possible. It happened - even while it may be unexplained that my voice did not falter at all.

I've gone through intense soul torment, be-thinking the reading tomorrow ... that is to say: I've more than a thousand poems to choose from. Where, how to begin, how to nose the spoor that will find just the right track?

I've decided I'll read the poem about my nose, the sense of smell. And the one about the ear, which prefigures it. I'll read them chronologically, as they came to me in a simple, wide-eyed living of life.

How will it go down? How many people will tune in? The hopeful poet from Ecuador, who contacted me at the Frankfurt Book Fair - will she make it? Will she read?

I am happy. The tick of the kitchen clock steps me on to tomorrow. Beside me, at the table, Jacaranda root tortoises are being painted by my beloved, his concentrated breathing is audible on my right; the high whizz of his laptop hums on my left. It's domestic chaos: contained within an overall picture of peace - notwithstanding the so-called news across the Atlantic, which so many are busy with right now.

I've selected from 40 years of continuous work. Nothing too heavy. I'd like to leave my listeners feeling hopeful about being alive on our precious little planet.

List of titles for tomorrow night

The Snake's Song was published in New Contrast

Lines of our Days and The Loving Body were published in New Coin


Tuesday, 3 November 2020

The fragrant ground and I

If you want to live happily ever after - and whatever place or realm (on or off earth) you finally (or not so finally) end up in, presumably you do want that - it is a good idea to stop at times, turn around and take in the view presented by your life thus far.

I bet you it's an amazing landscape, which you may be glad not to have to traipse through again, but which you're justifiably really proud of having got through. I mean: look at those cliffs of conflict between yourself and others; curious wetlands, alternating with high-lying plateaux, of love, relationships and friendships; deserts and forests you survived of classes, courses, exams, jobs, all kinds of duties; rapids of ill-health; oceans of grief; lakes and waterfalls of indolence and fun; fruiting orchards of joy ...

If you keep looking, you'll be bragging before long about all your adventures and tests of endurance and how often you definitely had enough, but, somehow, here you still are. So claim your title: top topographer, flagbearer, first explorer! Which you are: since none of us have ANY competition when it comes to our own life paths. We're once-offs, forever.

Each month I create a new cover for my Facebook Page, Give Your Writing The Edge, whereby I aim to project a concern or feel for the weeks ahead. Often, I allow my choice to be intuitive, but this month, both the picture as well as the poetry were a leap into the unknown as never before. I chose two poems, separated by more than 35 years (which is currently 63% of my life) - poems, which speak mysteries to one another.

I authored it, and can recite it on the spot, but I have never understood the first poem, Dog. However, a dear old friend, who has always favoured it, reminded me of it recently. Not only did that inspire the second poem, but also a new curiosity: what on earth (on earth indeed) was the language doing with me? 

I aproach the poem like any reader, tip-toeing carefully towards possible meanings. 

The houndedness of the faceless, fallen rose connects it, of course, to the dog - who doesn't even dig, so opposed is it: it "nibbles (nibbles!) own spaces in the ground" where nothing is wanted. The scene is tragic, a picture of perfect disempowerment, an apparently necessary secreting away of natural is-ness. The treasured symbol of love is nothing but an old bone.

The second poem launches on that connection between the rose and the bone and it turns out that not only has the flower survived, but it has multiplied subterraneously over three and a half decades. 

"in the ground" becomes, in Dog 2, 'under the skin', deep inside the tissues: the identification of rose and bone has built a structure, which not only has an I, but an unopposed, fearless, fragrant (!) inner body that can speak and declare its old ("after all these years") aliveness.

Whence comes this sudden up out of the adult marrow?

Certainly the identification between the "ground" (where roses and bones are buried) and the "I" (where years and sorrow have been buried) is a powerful place to begin. And end.

Photo: Detail from a picture I took of my potted peace rose. 

Sunday, 25 October 2020


I reflected last week on the sacred nature of words, and related this to the language of the heart - that is to say, to that organ, which essentially wants as many happy feelings as can be packed into its lifetime.

Inasmuch as it is associated with consecration, the word 'sacred' is loaded with reverence, which can be risky to joy. If there is an excess of respect, barriers of fear pop up like so many mean little picket fences everywhere, and intelligently happy feelings flee forthwith. 

Of all the instruments we have at our disposal to create happy feelings, language is surely one that immediately takes pride of place. Peruse, for example, these acrobatics from one of the most beautiful clowns the English language ever had - 

"In the beginning God created heaven and earth with, it would appear, Irish labour. It took the Lord six days, and on the seventh he rested, during which time speculative builders put up Kilburn. Kilburn High Street runs three miles, that's why it looks 'shagged out'. A walk through Kilburn has left an indelible blank on my mind. The British, it is said, are made up of four races, the best of these are the Derby and the Oaks.
Kilburn was a melting pot, occasionally stirred by the National Front, an extreme political organisation whose election manifesto was 'I'll punch yer fuckin' 'ead in'. The leaders were any of them that could count up to ten without having to sit down." - from 'The Looney' by Spike Milligan

It just keeps getting hilariouser and hilariouser - so, yes: you'll have to get the book.

My point is that there is room in heaven for the Jabberwocky and all the hobbits' riddles, and even the worst limericks (okay, those might be kept under celestial shadecloth, just in case).

Whenever Christ appears to me, He does so playfully, dancingly, full of youthful sparkle, definitely bringing undiluted happy feelings. (Speaking for myself, I've had to admit that my heart simply can't cope with the crucifixion. I am one of those 'sensitive viewers' who only manage repeatedly to weep over that horror story.) 

Yes, language is sacred, but it is not nailed to a cross. It is free to dance and sing all manner of paths it finds to please human hearts in uncountable ways.

Sure, it can be misled. A writer or speaker can be enticed up all kinds of garden paths, including those in Gethsemane. But that is likely to be the subject of another blog. For now, consider yourselves ushered. Towards reading whatever gives your heart real joy.



Sunday, 18 October 2020

Sacred vessels

It's a while now that I've not been attending to this blog as regularly as would fulfil me.

When the blogsite was kindly set up for me, it was announced on my website as

a space where Silke dreams her dreams, speaks her mind, shares her journey and sometimes disappears from - a sign that she's enjoying her solitude.

A lovely disclaimer, "enjoying her solitude".

But my infrequent blogs these months have not been due either to enjoyment or solitude; they have been due to a heavy heart that will not speak.

Way back (nearly forty years ago), a fellow at my old school gave me a note, on which was written:

To understand people, you have to be able to hear what they are not saying. What, perhaps, they will never be able to say.

I did not understand why he gave me the note and I don't remember him telling me why he did. At the time I assumed he was sharing something of his own, painful silence, but now I wonder whether he sensed something about me instead?

There is much focus, in this time, on truth, exposure of lies, on revelations, clearing blockages and festering obstacles on all kinds of levels - economic, political, social, racial, spiritual and psychological.

All through this time now, my heart feels strained, broken, aching, sometimes panicky.

A heart is a place of very few, choice words.

Perhaps the only words that can be at home in a heart are 'I love you', and variations thereon.

Those words and their variations fulfil the purpose of words as cups of mystery, cups filled with the elixir of a kind of pure existence: I am, you are, we be, and how strange and lovely is that.

It may be age, it may be the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune - whatever it is, there is great, urgent, profound and uncompromising need, in the heart writing this, to retreat. To be a leaf, melting gradually into its own ungreening.

Writing these words give ease. The metaphor conveys me into the foliage my soul needs.

I am no longer strong enough for any other kind of habitat, other kinds of words.

Living in peace is possible (for me) only when words are respected for the sacred vessels they are.

Painted papyrus by Eva van Belle


Sunday, 20 September 2020

Though every face should scowl ...

Emerging from out of the shadows of my mind during the past month, Yeats' lines from A Prayer for my daughter repeatedly offered a silver lining: 

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
        The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
        Self-appeasing, self-affrighting, 
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will; 
She can, though every face should scowl 
And every windy quarter howl
        Or every bellow burst, be happy still.

The poem is worth studying in its entirety. Consider the third-last of the ten stanzas:

An intellectual hatred is the worst,
So let her think opinions are accursed.
Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty's horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind?

What are the key words here?

I would give these:

self-delighting    self-appeasing    self-affrighting    by quiet natures understood

A father's wish that his daughter be "happy still" amid human suffering and discontent, turbulence and hatred amounts, really, in the end to the wish that she be possessed of deep inner security, a zen-like composure.

Essentially it is the wish for her spirit to retain its balance despite antagonistic circumstances.

It is so very simple a wish, a simple prayer for purity and an orderly life:

    How but in custom and ceremony
    Are innocence and beauty born?
    Ceremony's a name for the rich horn,
    And custom for the spreading laurel tree.

Yeats' plea for honouring the good, which past generations have created and honoured, continues to be a plea worth sounding. For change is natural: it does not require violence.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Her focus remains with me

It was in the Kruger Park, in 2002, maybe? A while back, anyhow.
I woke earlier than the others and footed down to a fenced water-hole, fed by a river, near the camp.
Traipsing around the perimeter, I was alarmed by heavy snuffling and snorting sounds.
In the din of numerous bird calls, wild dog yaps and yodles and, who knows, hyenas? - in other words, the bright summer dawn's natural orchestra - I could not discern the origin of those very close-by, heavy breathing sounds. The water still lay completely in shadow and trees and reeds created dark, secret nooks.

Then, miraculously, as it seemed, I was spotted - targeted by an eye with raised eyebrow, as it felt.

The hippopotamus' large pupils floated peacefully on the silvery surface, keeping focus all the time on me, even as her enormous body slowly turned, now left, now right, balletically below the water.

She - it was a lone hippo and, for all I know, a he ... but I'll allow myself the luxury of projecting my own gender onto him - now that I had identified her, or she me, she breathed her morning bath's utter tranquility into my own heart.

She never disappeared.

I left, eventually, having less time to myself than she did, and she slid into the deep shadows further down the water-course.

But she has stayed with me ever since.

Anne Keating, in her book Wild Voices, gives the word contemplation as key for this animal. She writes:

Hippopotamus is Female, expressing the quality of:
Quiet Retreat 

By contrast, Credo Mutwa, in his book, Isilwane, writes:

The hippopotamus is regarded by African people as a symbol of rebellion, uncontrollability and unruliness.

Furthermore, "it is also an animal of confusion. It cannot make up its mind whether it is a rhinoceros or an elephant!"

The Zulu word for hippo, Mutwa writes, imvubu, can mean 'the mixed-up creature' or 'the creature which is unable to make up its mind what it is.' 

When I used to tune into the spirit of what for me is quite a frighteningly fearless animal, the hippo, I found that the quality of confidence surfaced more than anything else. The hippo's confidence, however, was something I knew eluded me always - at least it did in the uncool human world.

Recently, she has snuffled herself back into prominence in my consciousness. Her beautiful raised eyebrows keep gazing her sensitive intelligence towards my soul.

Mutwa's own praise poem to the hippo speaks to the privilege of my encounter. Here are some extracts:

You, whose eyes see everything
And whose ears can hear the smallest whisper of a lover hidden among the reeds 
[... ]
Your feet can dance where no Zulu can ever dance
And no Venda can ever gyrate 
You dance under the waters
You dance under the lakes
You rejoice among the reeds
You are the light that mocks me as I approach a great lake
You are the great pumpkin of Africa that walks on four legs, delighting those who see you
Oh animal of love
Oh animal of fertility
May your snorting always be heard in the great lakes and the rivers of Africa!

Photo by Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Gatherings and spillings for the future

All who loved and honoured Norman Morrissey were sad today three years ago to learn of his crossing, at 3:13 on that Sunday morning.

Today, three years ago, it happened, and I no longer have words for it. (The words are all gathered in Greater Matter A Journey of Poems to Death and Beyond)

May I honour the past, in order to let the future be.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Gratitude and your own, mad song

In what were probably some of the darkest times of my adult existence, I was obliged frequently to sojourn in the Eastern Cape frontier town, Grahamstown (privately and helpfully nicknamed Grimsberg during those years).

When in Grimsberg, I must do shopping.

I used to go to a little complex, called Peppergrove Mall. The front of the Pick 'n Pay there is roofed, and a part of the area is marked, by a railing, containing shopping trolleys. There used to be a slender, youngish man there, who wiped the handles of the trolleys for each customer, with sanitising wipes, which he nimbly reached over to pull out of a bucket with a hole in the top.

Not only did the man's helpfulness make the act of extracting a wipe, and sanitising my own trolley handle, unnecessary for me to do. He also wiped my grimy soul, by filling me each time with wonder.

For, on each occasion, without fail, when I fetched a trolley and greeted him, and asked him how he was, he would reply -

"I am alive! I am so grateful to God that I have today, and that is why I am happy!"

His fervour never waned, his line never changed.

When circumstances altered, and I no longer needed to frequent Grimsberg, I made a point of going especially to thank him for so liberally tossing his good cheer into my days. I am not sure that he recognised me, for I had not been coming to the town regularly anymore, and he looked, perhaps, a little nonplussed.

"You made a difference to my life," I told him, "it was a difficult time for me, and your thankfulness for being alive always meant so much."

I did not get the impression that my thanks made a difference to him. I don't think he needed it.

I never bothered to find out his name, or to make conversation with him - he did not exactly open himself up to conversation - and so, other feelings, which I could have had, such as pity for his station; or guilt and shame about the differences between us; or worry about his well-being - none of those feelings stood a chance with him.

Here was a king, as the German folk round sings it -

Froh zu sein bedarf es wenig                                        To be happy one needs very few things
und wer froh ist, ist ein Koenig.                                    and the one who is happy is a king.

One sees many memes, which highly recommend the trolley-handle-wiper's attitude of gratitude in practice. But you have to be wild to do it - wild enough to know your life can be snatched from you at any moment, wild enough to know that all you have is NOW; wild enough to be mad enough to sing your song as wholeheartedly and as wholesomely as you possibly can. And thus, the trolley-handle-wiper's song is humbling and no doubt an example for all to follow.

Hah, and there's the rub!
YOUR song is not the trolley-handle-wiper's song.
Your song is NOT the song of A.A. Milne or Piglet or Pooh Bear in the accompanying, famous illustration below.

Personally, I would have to exercise brute force on myself in order to do for somebody else what that lovely youngish man did for me. The sheer horror of having to tell myself (never mind somebody else) daily that I am happy to be alive is enough for instantaneous gloom to pour itself out within me and spread depression diligently through my system over the next five weeks. Why? Because I would be forcing myself to do something utterly monotonous to my spirit - the words would not spring up naturally out of my heart as they did out of his.

I surprise myself over and again by how fluid I am: how, not seldom, the cornucopia of disappointments and sorrows, which my life has generously granted, seem far too heavy for me to carry. Despite the fact that I am richly blessed with joys AND am grateful for them, I flop UNGRATEFULLY like wet clay back into default position, i.e. flat dust, which not even the wind can whip into a prettty storm, because this thing is way too waterlogged.

That is the moment when you become grateful for tears. Or just for honesty. Or for the teeth you're gritting all over again. And, at last, you really do resolve to make that appointment with the dentist. Tomorrow.

Photo acknowledgment: Saeed Al Jafar from Kuwait in the Masai Mara, Kenya. 'The end of a cheetah yawn'.

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Cruelty and sadness

Cruelty is when you banish sad and bad feelings. I would go so far as to say that cruelty requires you to numb your heart to all pain. Your heart becomes so numb, that fear, sorrow, anger, disappointment, humiliation freeze inside you - all those shadow feelings, which are the most diffficult to endure.

If you are unable to bear unpleasant feelings, you become cruel - towards yourself and/ or to other beings. Your compassion withers in the frost of unfeeling. If you have the power to do so, you order or partake in executions. Your conscience and your soul become dry.

If you have little power, cruelty can sometimes be forced on you. This old nursery rhyme describes such a situation -

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do. 
She gave them some broth without any bread; 
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

If I lived in a shoe with too many children, I would probably not even give them broth or beds. I wouldn't have the energy to whip them. I would probably scream at them all in sorrow and frustration and then I would weep - I know I would, I would sob, maybe for the rest of my life - as I chased them all away to find a better parent and better living conditions. How many babies have been found in dustbins, bedded on their mothers' desperate prayers?

If you can weep about a necessary cruelty, there is, perhaps, a chance for hope. Emotional pain - feeling for yourself and others - is your best protection against cruelty and heartfreeze.

Brian Wildsmith: 'There was an old woman who lived in a shoe', in 'Mother Goose. A Collection of Nursery Rhymes' (1964)