Sunday, 27 March 2022

Entreaty for a tempered solitude

Most human beings are not made, ultimately, for solitude.
Yet a person's self-awareness benefits from regular retreats into solitariness - which is really a state of being free of burdens and responsibilities, when you may open up like a great hollow in a weathered rock, through which the wind pipes hitherto unheard tunes.

It can be frightening or strange to be thus 'free', strung through by unrecognised moments to your self as they come and go in terrible, relentless succession.
It is often fulfilling, even saving, to attend to the needs of others, to be distracted out of our inner emptiness by their calls for our help, strength, counsel. For, who are we, when we are not serving others?

God's company (though by many names He be known) is essential if one is to enjoy one's solitude and come away refreshed. Being in nature, whether actively or passively, uplifting music and reading, inspired creative work and craft, even chores - these are, when your solitude is tempered by God's presence (more commonly called love), all infused with holiness, filling a person's alone time like rain swells a stream.

Or simply attending to (meditating on) a beautiful scene or object, opening heart, eyes, ears, nostrils and skin pores, to breathe in the moment's undemandingness, will allow that out-breath that releases excess of individuated thoughts and feelings, returning you to sweet anonymity, your very own lightness of being, in the hammock of creation.

And yet, the following sonnet by John Keats, extolling solitude in nature, ends tellingly:

"The sweet converse of an innocent mind, / Whose words are images of thoughts refined, / Is my soul's pleasure" too. It is my experience that the most blissful state of grace on earth is when you can enjoy any of the holy activities I've mentioned, in the company not only of God, but also of your Beloved.

Despite having been advised, repeatedly, to 'stand in my own power' and 'be my own woman', it is my experience that I stand best, firstly, in God's power, that is to say, in the power of love; and, secondly, that I am (mostly) my favourite own woman tempered in the vicinity of my gentle Beloved's fragrance and breath, unimposing though they may, and must, be, as we each spin our separate strands on the mystery web of life.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

The cross

It was at one of John Homewood's talks that I first encountered the figure of the cross as a living articulation between our breath and time itself. 

The timeline of our lives creates the horizontal axis of the cross, made up – if you jot down the events of your life – of the buzz and chaos, with its joys and trials, of every human’s count of days on earth. 

When I inspect my own timeline, I have to admit that it’s a pretty ragged thread of sorrows and misfortunes. Until recently, I was embarrassed by the fact that, in terms of actual incidents, my life seems to be peppered by what most of us would, I guess, call misfortune, bad luck and sorrow. I’ve lost that embarrassment as a result of chronologically listing the basic events of my circumstances, and then reflecting on what endures, as follows. 

During a materially comfortable childhood, I witnessed harsh human dissent and loss of self-control as a given.

My family moved to South Africa, where we lived literally on the edge of a military zone called Voortrekkerhoogte (now Thaba Tshwane). The State at that time promoted and defended racist practices by policy, causing my father to declare that he would be quite content if my sisters and I failed Afrikaans at school – that seemed to be the way he felt he could best contribute to the anti-Apartheid struggle. Friends and boyfriends were conscripted and suffered abuse and violence on all levels.

I left home, and experienced armed soldiers searching my room, friends being sjambokked by police, a pregnant lecturer imprisoned without trial. I taught in violent townships, and in tiny sanctuary spaces offered to township children. I lost my sanity, benefited from the balm of therapy.

Mandela was released and the New South Africa came into being.

I married and experienced the gift of motherhood. My husband and I were economically on the margins, however, to save money I did not eat properly, suffered from overwork, broke down and succumbed again to mental illness, from which, again, I managed to recover. My husband was unwilling to continue the marriage and eventually we divorced.

My second marriage gave me deep spiritual fulfilment, my husband and I published many poetry books together, but he was frail, his failing health was ever a shadow over us. Economic pressure was a constant, he carried much debt.

Then my fit, nimble mother suffered a stroke and was consigned to total physical helplessness. My sister lost her sanity, and my beloved husband died.

I published two poetry books solo.

I was required to sell my late husband's house and leave the village that had become my home. At the same time, Trump was making headlines with his tweets.

I was lucky in love and did not have to move alone. Within weeks of our move, Covid and hard lockdown razed human lives and economies. I lost work and marketing opportunities for my new book. Friends and family fell ill.

My father’s memory began to fail and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, requiring me to run my parents’ household and take responsibility for their daily needs and overall care.

War continued to ruin the beauty of the Middle East.

My sister is currently in a mental institution and I am praying constantly for her. My Beloved’s heart has urged him to leave me for crucial time to himself – whether temporarily or forever is uncertain.

Russia has invaded Ukraine and I hear alternatingly tragic and hopeful details of the victims from friends who have connections there.

So much for the horizontal axis of my personal cross in a broad sweep – living such a timeline is great training in patience, I’ll say that much. And patience – please consider this carefully – does not mean simply waiting for undesirable situations to pass. Patience is the active (gracious) carrying of an unwanted load towards its end. It’s notable that, except for love and marriage, motherhood, the recovery from my illnesses, and the activities of teaching and poetry publishing, none of the other events on my timeline were chosen by me! I couldn’t have asked for a better, or harder, school than this life to teach me a little graciousness.

I wonder, if you were to make a list of events on YOUR timeline, what the ratio of chosen to unchosen would be. How would you rate YOUR ability to carry unwanted burdens?

Now for the vertical axis – the one, which, I recall John Homewood observing, you plumb when you stop focusing on the “school”, that milling chaos called ‘the wheel of life’. I tried to outline it in poem form –

The vertical axis of my cross

is prayer, my heart –

vessel of joy,


my pen standing up

for me in spite of trouble,

noting my small noticings –


fine sword of God, ensuring anchorage

in places

of peace.


Thus, I write

of deer, of dew, of weather and birds –

they are my breath,


preserving me, wrapped

in Christ’s playful smile,

on my cross.


The loveliest insight, for me, which the above reflections yield is that my chosen, voluntary WORK – my writing (published and unpublished) and my visual art – by and large expresses not the vicissitudes of my timeline, but the spiritual anchor of my self in the vertical axis. I realise that my life’s work, mainly my artistic output, has never not been first and foremost a spiritual path and practice.

All of what I have done and continue to do is subordinate to the naked flame that has steadily been alchemising my soul beyond the edge of time. 


As for you – I’d be curious to hear where you feel the ‘vertical axis’ on your cross breathes most freely.


Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Sunbirds in your soul

This coming Monday evening's the second zoom launch of Gripscapes Newly Selected Poems by Norman Morrissey - Jim published it last year, when you were already four years gone.

As we did for the initial launch, your old friends and colleagues, Jim, John, Brian and I will read from your poems. In preparation, I've leaped and clambered through our lists anew. I say 'leaped and clambered', rather than 'read', because your rhythms, fretworked with consonants as they often are, make a terrain less for my mind (which was, after all, never cradled in English), than places for my feet and heart to keep moving, delicately, through.

When I first read your name, late in 2008, I was turning Triptych over in my hands at the local bookstore. What drew me in, to its pages, was not the poet, it was the man: You. I had to admit, in the dim light of that back corner of the shop, where the poetry books were, that I was sensing the heart of a better human being, a soul way more wise than I was. Someone capable of the most exquisite compassion, the starkest, most resonant self-reflection, carrying love not as mere wish or willed choice (though it was that, too), but as a basic instinct.

John, in his rich, fine Introduction to your book, discusses 'In Defence of a Drab Sunbird' as a poem of courage, with "much to say on behalf of human freedoms, communally and individually" - and it is from that poem I want to yank lines out of context, to serve something here, something, which you told me you valued more than anything else: a hard and simple ambition that linked us, which was to become a better human being.

"simply being who I am" you write, "affirming the holy freedom of my own sweet will" -

no cock bird performing on a public twig

- but nevertheless demonstrating, all on my own,
the independent self-sovereignty 
I protest
I want for everyone  


The lines attest a gorgeous solidarity with unostentatious femaleness; but there's also a lunge, beyond that, at an original wildness there, that part in us that links to the animal world, a flexive world beckoning humans forward to conscious awareness of our self-delighting, self-appeasing, self-affrighting souls.

To pore over the poems in Gripscapes is to do more than read poetry. It is really to witness a man setting an example, doing his best, against pretty shitty odds at times, using his mother tongue as a chisel to carve himself, finally into something not drab at all, but truly shimmering: a human.

Norman Morrissey, July 2010


Friday, 21 January 2022

Re-balancing seriously squif habits

I'm not officially back on this blog. Not at all. I am still on a self-granted Sabbatical, shielding me from feeling that I have to share or speak out in public about anything.

However, after inspecting the latest edition of  The Marginalian to sail into my inbox, there are a few thoughts that this outrageously named blogsite is whispering I tattoo upon it immediately, so here goes.

In the above newsletter, the conversation between Bill Moyers and Martha Nussbaum about human goodness leads her to tell him that being a good human being means caring, staying true to and, in fact, sticking up for, your values - to live life, as she says, "with a deep seriousness of commitment" and "to wrest from the world the good life" you desire. And this naturally sometimes leads, undeservedly, to tragedy in the good person's life.

She is firm that a detached person who no longer expects fulfilment or gratification from the world cannot be considered properly human, because of the decisive disconnect between themselves and others and the consequent immunity to tragedy, or profound hurt.

Now, during two years of pandemic and lockdown, I have witnessed a significant portion of my fellow humans forced to detach themselves socially and psychologically more than they have ever done before. This includes myself. It has led me to experience my living self, indeed, as not-quite-human; with the exception of my family and friends, as utterly irrelevant to humanity and the human world. As bewildering and unwelcome as this perception has been, it did bring with it simultaneously a certain sense of not caring - in the best sense of that word: the sense of being carefree.

Yet there's a totally illogical fundament to this. Globally, the pandemic and lockdown, the medical, economic, political and social stresses, have been hurtful, traumatic, tragic. Simultaneously, there have been unforeseen griefs in my own, as well as the personal lives of others I know. How can all this lead to more lightness?

Hmm. Tough one.

I am a person who has cared, i.e. carried, perhaps, too much for too long, and so, 'not caring', in my case, could effectively be a sensible re-balancing of a seriously squif set of habits; divesting myself from a lifetime's overload, as it were, and thus facilitating a redistribution of my dubious wealth (aka load of responsibilities).

Caring, or carrying, less (those words are actually synonymous for me) has been a shift that has caused me, paradoxically, to care enough - about being a good human being, I guess - to be here at this moment. 

So, that's the 'tattoo' my blog wanted, to start two thousand and twenty-two. A kind of decorative whirl of gentle hmms.

Now where was that Sabbatical? I'm still happily riding into both sunrises and sunsets upon it. Let's keep going, Sweetheart.

Photo by TS Sergey@ttsergey


Sunday, 27 June 2021

Light from such a house: the making of a lamp

21 years ago, an African Art collector commissioned me to create an 'African totem pole'.

As we worked to manifest her visions and dreams, it quickly became evident that the totem pole should also be a functional item, namely, a lamp.

She approved my design of an 'African ceramic standing lamp', in which the light would be an ambient one, streaming out from the open door and windows of a rondavel perched on top of a three-legged pot. The rondavel would be decorated with a mural.

This story is about the mural. When I delivered the final art work to my client, I gave her an accompanying write-up to the motivations and the research that had guided me. Here are the words that clarified the patterns on the rondavel:

To make the house beautiful is a female art. Mural art is a traditional activity for many African women.

The mural design of the lamp's rondavel is based upon the designs of an artist, Malvel Dani, living in the Free State. The authors of the book in which I discovered her designs visited her again and again. Each time, she surprised them with a fresh design on her house. They describe them as "a floral kaleidoscope of mellow earth shades" which blended completely into the landscape:

"Her home was barely perceptible in the distance and as we approached, it slowly came into focus."

Then, one day, when they visited again, she was gone, and so was her house:

"Her home had melted back into the soil."

What has happened to Malvel Dani I do not know. In accordance with your directions, however, her name is written over the door, as a tribute to her soft, earth-bound, transient art. 

The memory of this art piece, and its inspiration by a housewife artist as unburdened by status as Malvel Dani evidently was, hums now for me again, in the present moment - as a reminder of the value of being at one with what you create, at one with what you do. How could light NOT stream out from such a house?

African ceramic standing lamp by Silke Heiss

African standing lamp by Silke Heiss. Detail. Mural on rondavel based on design by Malvel Dani.



Sunday, 20 June 2021

A space for everyone

Dearest Hugh

Thank you for wanting to hear me read my poems and for introducing me to Off The Wall.
Thank you for encouraging me to write a verse novel and for publishing it - for involving me so closely with the bold experiment of serialising a contemporary verse novel. It was a superb experience!
Thank you for writing me a reference for a creative arts fellowship.

I wish I could have fulfilled your wish to publish The Griffin Elegy as a complete set.
I wish I could have fulfilled your wish to hear it more in performance.

Thank you, Hugh, for believing in my poetry.
Thank you for being a friend - a critical friend, a natural friend, a poetry friend.

Thank you for all your precious sms poems, which showed so plainly how woven into everyday life our poems are. 
For being kind to Norman, to the Eastern Cape poets, to different kinds of voices. 
For being so very supportive of Lewis - his five books would not have come about without you.
For inviting everybody to read in the language of their choice - from Sweden to Argentina and back home.
For giving a space to everyone - from pastors to bergies - at Off The Wall.

I was so happy when you and Julia found each other.
I have been sad to see you unwell and suffering. 
May you travel well, as your soul unfolds its further mysteries.

Love from
'Silkiness!' ... as you always, with a smile, called me, always, somehow, in a tone of surprise.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Navigating a self-altering future

The attractiveness of 'the law of attraction' in everyday life is that it declares that you have the potential to control your thoughts. Of all things possible to control, one's own thoughts are perhaps the most rebellious of all. It is a sweet victory to be able to claim truthfully, "I control and, indeed, lead my thoughts." Even where one manages to achieve it occasionally, my experience teaches that it remains, daily, an effort. Writing down your thoughts does help.

The elusiveness of our thoughts may be, because many thoughts are not exactly conscious; nor, frequently, are they owned by, or originate from within, the self. 

In 'Staying Connected', Rudolf Steiner went so far as to say that our thoughts are infusions from the spirits of the dead in their attempts to lead (presumaby they could also mislead) us. I have yet to get through, let alone understand, his book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path. I do not have my own copy and vaguely recall early passages in that book being concerned with discovering one's true motivations; I confess that I still belong to that class of lesser mortals for whom dwelling on true motivatons initiates a definite adventure into smoky territory.

I won't even mention the infusion or influence of thoughts from the living into our conscious- and subconsciousness - I am sure that every person reading this can attest to the confusions, convictions, delusions and intoxications caused by mental and physical continguity with the living. 

Yet everywhere, these days, is the popular slogan seen - 'Build the future YOU want'. On one level, this could be seen as an open rebellion against David's plea, 'I shall not want', in Psalm 23. (Some bright sparks have deemed fit to translate this line as 'I lack nothing', but that is too monodimensional for me.) Yet it would be fair to give the slogan the benefit of the doubt - building what you want can by all means chime with the laws of Nature, or God, or the general good, all of which are forces far more long-lived than the potent little microcosm of your self.

The climate of the times tends strongly towards encouraging the assertion of individual human will over him- or herself, in order to harness and calibrate experiences, decisions and choices, and I strongly motivate for self-control in thought and action - it's a pretty exciting thing to be investing time and energy in, mainly because it grants you the possibility of genuine friendship with the most elusive aspect of your life: your embodied self on this earth, thoughts and all.

Once you begin to be able to change ancient patterns in your behaviour, you are rearing, or re-parenting, your self. This generates new imaginative possibilities for you - possibilities beyond imagining, so to speak. It does mean no longer tolerating stuff that once used, maybe, to be 'inevitable'.

Perhaps some of these free-flowing strands are useful to you as you navigate and build.

Blue cranes in fallow fields. Photo by Sigi Heiss.




Sunday, 9 May 2021

When nature claims a brand

A while back, one of my fellow-poets invited us to generate poems for a new brand of naartjies, Clemengold. They were awarding prizes. A few of us rose to the occasion with grace and aplomb. I was not among them.

I see they make gin and all sorts with those fruits, which I have yet to taste.

Out of the blue, or the still grey, rather, this morning, the word clementgold suddenly became a need: a colour of sound. Merciful gold, orange gold, fresh gold in a lung bodying forth song. You'll understand this little yodle better if you read the poem below.

I thought that the 't' had been there all along, but then discovered that nature had added it back in - for 'sing' to have an edge, a 'sting', perhaps?

So here, at last, is my tribute not exactly to the commercial brand, but to a brand-new colour given me on Mother's Day by a bird's warm joyousness: clement gold.

Clement gold

The common Cape robin's
exceptional liltings
waken me, pull a smile
from me, easily, through
the lightening curtain folds.

Her* thoughtful trills,
flutings, flourishing frills,
spring clear, fresh from
her clement-gold breast.

- Silke Heiss, 9th May 2021

* Female robins, I read, sing as well as do the males. 

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

The charm of trust

Not long after my husband's death, I received a phone call from a charity organisation, offering me a calendar set. Swaddled in the cocoon of love, which my late husband had woven around me in his last weeks and days, I was naked as a newborn in the world. I did not know how I would be surviving, financially, emotionally and mentally.

The lady on the other end of the line was sympathetic and very real. She told me that they sent calendars to people who said yes to their offer. There would be an invoice and the client would be trusted to pay the charity.

"You send the calendars on trust?" I asked in disbelief.
"That's how we do it," she replied.
"I will take them!" I cried. "You have no idea how healing it is for me to hear that you operate on trust!"
She chuckled and took down my details.

When the calendars arrived, I saw they were comprised of artworks by Lisa Halstead.
I am not generally a fan of representational art, and my rather snobbish education had taught me to dismiss such images as kitsch - but Halstead's images showed skill and love for her subject matter, which, that year, was wildlife. Each calendar image was with me for a month, during which I learned to appreciate the specific intentions behind the artist's hand - her devotion to the animals, as well as to her craft.

For three years running, the charity trusted me and Lisa Halstead's art became a kind of emblem of something subtly and deeply strengthening in my life. I should add that the calendars were very competitively priced and always affordable.

As 2020 came to an end, however, I noticed that the charity had not called. I began to feel sad about the prospect of having to go through 2021 without the comfort of Halstead's work, which had also included birds and flowers.   

I searched online and saw that the charity only had year planners: lockdown had stopped their usual business. I went so far as to call them and they confirmed that they had not been able to commission the artist to produce more work, let alone print new calendars.

Early this year, I received a few phone calls from the charity. I was on the road each time and was forced to request they call back. They did not give up on me and eventually one of their volunteers caught me in a good moment.

I was disappointed that they did not have calendars. Instead, I was offered a coffee table book, entitled In My Nature, containing a wide-ranging collection of the artist's work. I accepted and then the moment of truth came: the charity did not have the funds to cover postage of ordered items. They needed me to pay upfront, whereupon they'd dispatch the book. They had trusted me for three years. Now it was my turn.

The book is a bit imperfect - some of the pages were still joined and I had to separate them with a sharp knife. Some of the images are cut off at the top, which is a pity.

However, even so, against my own expectations, I find In my Nature quite splendid - not least because of the way it challenges my education and everything I have learned about art. I have absorbed myself in images I would otherwise never have studied. If I have a pet hate, it is representational art featuring pets. It turns out that this range was in aid of the Animal Anti-Cruelty League and the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation. My heart and mind have expanded by contemplating the drawings. Truth be told, I have wondered whether I had previously dismissed such art as "sentimental" perhaps more as a result of clinging to a narrow, 'high-brow' identity than real understanding?

I was particularly struck by one of the artist's own favourite images, featuring two Afghan hounds. The differences in personality and character capture two souls. If I give myself over to the drawing, their windblown hair only enhances the spirit breathing the creation.

I have been charmed in ways I could not have imagined. Even if I might not choose to frame any of Halstead's images on my walls, my narrow-minded judgments have disappeared. I simply have no more need for them.

All because of trust.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Praise song to what we have not lost

I did not know him well by any means. But I did meet Bernard Levinson a few times, and found him jovial and wise. I remember him doing Tai Chi at Fish Hoek Beach near the lifesavers' block, decisively oblivious of all the people staring at him.

At the McGregor Poetry Festival in 2017 I heard him read from Weskoppies Asleep. Poems from the Dark Side of the Moon - an informally bound poetry collection he dedicated to Anne Sexton. It contains what I would consider to be deeply important, poignant poems and scissor collages by him. The poems brim with compassion and human understanding for the suffering, which the mentally ill went through in those days, ca. 1950s (I think), when treatment of mental illness was still in its infancy. 

He had been on my mind, and when, shortly after Easter, I happened, in a second-hand store, upon Mike Lipkin's book, Lost and Found, on Depression, I impulsively bought it, for Bernard's Foreword, in which he describes his failure as a psychiatrist to help a suicidal person, who falls in front of a train moments after seeing Dr. Levinson -

"Under the arc lamps and amid the frantic hubbub of the police and the ambulance men, I had a moment to reflect on the sad, inept magic of my prescription. I had not really heard him. He was talking a language I had never been taught to understand. Even more basic, I had not been taught to listen. We had missed each other completely. He was calling for help, and I was obsessed with pills."

These self-reflective words, and the poems in Weskoppies Asleep, which I am privileged to have in my possession, provide an in to what we have not lost, even though, sadly, the man himself is no longer among us: he died a few days ago at the age of 94, I believe.

Bernard was one of the first to grab the opportunity to buy a copy of Gripscapes, the recently launched book by Norman Morrissey, with its fabulous Introduction to his oeuvre, by John van Wyngaard. I would wish that Bernard still had time to savour at least a few of the poems in that book. 

For his review of Norman's Selected Works, Strandloop, please click Bernard Levinson's review of Strandloop

If you would like to know more about the man and his professional work, as reported in an obituary in the Sunday Times Live, please click Bernard Levinson obituary

The poems and images below give you a glimpse of his compassionate and also creative heart.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Towards breakfast, a flower

Oh, my dear God,
sweet Christ: who would believe
this estuary of us -
who is the river and who
the sound
the sea?

Longer than the count of years,
my life has been, and now
you lead me to this threshold -

saturated by peace, and crabs,
kingfishers, and fish,
and fishermen, and other birds.

Keep me here, my darling Lord,
thank you for bringing me through,
to talk with you, at this kind hour.

Before me now: two fishermen,
oaring musically
their small boat, stacked with rods,
towards breakfast.

Ah, this Flower,
on the water!

- Silke Heiss