This Way I Salute You
by Keorapetse Kgositsile
History is the Home Address
by Mongane Serote
the stars say ‘tsau!’
by Antjie Krog
Ten Flapping Elbows, Mama
by Khulile Nxumalo
by Ike Mboneni Muila
The title of Keorapetse Kgositsile’s collection deliberately acknowledges Mongane Serote’s famous poem City Johannesburg. But the salutations this time are not ironic gestures to the oppressive city, but acknowledgements of key figures and moments in the poet’s past and the present (the poetry stretches from 1969 to seven new poems), and a tribute to those whom Kgositsile reveres: writers and musicians, many of them activists, such as Hugh Masekela, John Coltrane, Cassandra Wilson, Can Themba, Gloria Bosman and Serote. The poetry makes these figures resonate with each other so that the collection is a collocation of delight and respect, juxtaposition and accord.
This collection also demonstrates how deeply Serote’s early work was influenced by this poet who had to endure exile from South Africa from 1961.
Whereas Kgositsile was publishing mature verse in 1969, Serote’s first collection, Yakhal’inkomo, came out in 1972 ringing with tones from the elder poet’s work.
The special quality that shines through this latest collection is how open Kgositsile is to the joy of experiencing what others can do. He says, for example, of Johnny Dyani’s bass playing: “And we are moved / where we cannot even / hear ourselves gasp.”
Serote’s poem No Baby Must Weep (1975) first established the poetic voice that aspires to monumentality, that seeps with authority even in moments of doubt, and a voice that ponders aloud the big issues of being African. And being African implies a special consciousness, one that probes assertively and tenderly, always seeking and never apologetic.
And so Serote’s 10th poetry collection (indeed a single poem), continues that intense and passionate engagement with place, people and especially history: “I am an African / embedded in my home address.”
The poem, enclosed in a superb cover based on a David Koloane painting, speaks to a lover and reveals in more than 60 pages a sense of destiny and growing awareness that being African can provide. Near the end of this long poem we hear the voices of the ancestors saying to the lovers: “tsikitsikitsikitsiki / tsa!”.
The latest publication by Antjie Krog, the stars say ‘tsau!’, is a beautifully presented translation of /Xam poetry from the Bleek-Lloyd collection and is available in English and Afrikaans.
The first person to point in recent times to the literary importance of the Bushman (Krog says that “San” means vagabond) material was Christopher Heywood, who discovered how a collection of these stories had influenced DH Lawrence’s animal poetry. Then, in 1968, the notorious Penguin Book of South African Poetry contained translations into English of eight Bushman poems in its non-white section, and Stephen Watson subsequently published sensitive versions of /Xam narratives in 1995.
Krog included Afrikaans translations of a number of /Xam poems in her met woorde soos met kerse in 2002. Yet, this new publication brings the poets and poetry closer to the reader than before and invites us to join Krog in her satisfaction at making accessible these delicate and moving utterances from a language that no longer exists.
The first collection of poetry by Khulile Nxumalo is also to be welcomed. He writes in English but breaks every now and then into isiZulu, a practice that reflects the languages by which people live. This poetry also makes extensive reference to writers, musicians and acquaintances, including that ubiquitous influence, Serote.
Nxumalo has an alert, urban consciousness that translates local, continental and international experience into lively and perceptive poems: “deep in our jagged-dagger dreaming / we find a thick-cloaked skeleton / of the sunrises that were never to be / whose impatient roar/we must now explain” (The Great Discount).
Linguistically, the most interesting of the five collections here is that of Ike Mboneni Muila. He writes in tsotsitaal or isicamtho mainly from the earlier Sophiatown era and enriched by contemporary township slang and all 11 “official” languages. As a concession, Muila has translated a selection of these poems into urban English. And, as an essential and delightful extra, the publication contains a CD of Muila reading his own poems. This adds a wonderful dimension to the work, bringing in the performance element that has characterised the Botsotso Jesters, a group of poets including the late Isabella Motadinyane (to whom Muila dedicates a poem), Siphiwe ka Ngwenya and Allan Kolski Horwitz.
Muila’s work swings into life when read aloud: “gova borg zwakala nine nine / is so maar net om to se / face dae reality sonder oogklapies lapa site wasekhaya / of hoe se ek / nou die laaste madala site caution / gova is a language movement / behind a black moses bakhiwa / yours sincerely / wanga ike muila”.
“Gova” is an invitation to “come aboard” the language express and travel with the exhilaration and the fright of the full South African language experience.
These five collections reflect the energy and craft in the work of local poets. As such, these are but indicators of an extensive writing taking place in the literary realm. For example, there is the publication each year since 2001 of the Timbila poets, about 350 pages of new verse collected by Vonani wa ka Bila. Plus the two collections of six poets that have come from Timbila: Throbbing Ink and Insight. People such as these make our world increasingly rich and strange.
Michael Gardiner is a policy analyst at the Centre for Education Policy Development and is researching South African literary magazines from the 1960s and 1970s