I Wish I’d Said
Edited by Johann de Lange and Mantoa Matonyane
ISBN: 978 192 842 6271
A product of the AVBOB Poetry Project
It has taken me a year to review this print anthology. For a year, I have been working my way, slowly, through this ambitious, multi-vocal compendium of South African reflections on death, loss and consolation. I am not generally a slow reader, but the themes are heavy, the material is dense, and much of it is in translation. The last time it took me this long to finish a book was when I encountered Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull (Random House, 2002). Like that book, this collection saw me taking long breaks to process the things that the poems made me see, feel, and think about the country I live in, and the relationships that the people of South Africa have with the worlds of the living and the dead.
The anthology is a product of the AVBOB Poetry Project and its online competition. AVBOB is “Africa’s largest Mutual Assurance Society providing a one-stop funeral insurance and burial service solution.” Being in the business of death puts you in a unique position to support strangers at their most vulnerable, in a moment of intense transition. As AVBOB CEO Frik Rademan notes in his introduction, one of the first things that mourners request is assistance with funeral letters, and “somehow poetry, a language that stands outside daily discourse, that condenses and focuses emotion, yielded the perfect vehicle to express that loss” (xvi). The competition attracted 20 744 entries from all over South Africa, in all 11 official languages, as well as a poem in N|uu, one of the oldest Khoisan languages. Seven celebrated poets in each of the eleven languages were commissioned to write a poem, and altogether there are 77 commissioned poems and 22 poems from the competition winners. The overwhelming response to the competition might be explained by the fact that poetry is a powerful and often preferred form of expression for many South Africans. Some of the multiple roles that a poet might occupy include that of praise singer, historian, prophet/shaman, advisor, as well as critic. The poems in this collection thus run a broad spectrum, from intimate confessional poems to elegies, to engaged poetry that comments on collective issues such as poverty and inequality.
Johann de Lange and Mantoa Motinyane guided a team of editors to produce these poems in English translation. The original poems are printed with their English translations on facing pages, which allows a reader to compare the two versions and to read them simultaneously. My reading process mostly engaged the poems in English, but as a native speaker, I preferred to read the Afrikaans originals. Where I thus quote from the poems below, I am quoting in the language in which I read, and the Afrikaans poems appear in original, while the rest are transcribed in English original or translation.
Translation is a tricky task: the translator must strike a fine balance between the aural, literal and the metaphorical, and this often requires knowledge of context, as the meaning of some vernacular expressions might not be readily known to everyone. Some translations in this collection might thus not render the kind of immersive experience through language that the original poems would have to affect the reader or listener. For example, Jolyn Phillips’s poem, “blindskrif” (16-17) is one of the commissioned Afrikaans poems. The second stanza reads
ek wag dat die slaap jou sôre vir jou teruggee
die dag kyk jou dowwerig met die een oog
pikoog met die ander aanvaar jy jou blindvlek?
The translation renders these three lines as:
i wait for sleep to give you back your soar
the dimmish day looks with one eye and pick-axe eye with the other
have you made peace with your blindblemish yet?
Phillips’s work is explicitly preoccupied with breaking or deforming language — her debut collection was entitled Radbraak (Human & Rosseau, 2016), an archaic Afrikaans word that suggests the breaking of the rules of language, resulting in a kind of nonsense. While her work is thus difficult to translate, her technique also gives the translator licence to bend the rules themselves by making connections through sound, rather than semantics. However, in this case, the words “sôre” (“sorrows”, “worries” or “woes”) and “blindvlek” (“blindspot”) in the Afrikaans are rendered as “soar” and “blindblemish” in the translation. While these translations do capture the play on sound of the original, they don’t impart the literal meaning, which I think is quite central to the effect of the original poem.
That said, as a non-speaker, I found a number of the Siswati poems in translation particularly evocative and controlled. For example, Sisana Rachel Mdluli’s “The moving boat” (240-243), describes the speaker’s memory of her mother’s funeral: “I felt the pain and regarded it / But others don’t feel it internally as I do, / Like a mentally deficient person I saw the boat / That carried my mother leaving our home” (241). The subjective, dissociated, surreal nature of the experience is rendered in a metaphorical language that emphasises the speaker’s sense of defamiliarisation as she moves toward the final insight that, while her mother taught her everything about life, she did not teach them how life will be when she is no longer with them: “But there is nothing we can do, / We shall learn as we live in this world” (243).
I was struck by the fact that many of the poems in the collection mourn the loss of a mother or grandmother in material terms, focusing on how she laboured to sustain the home and put food on the table, the emotional support she gave, and what she taught the family. This trend is established from the outset, with the first poem in the collection, “’n verlange – radeloos en sonder einde” (2-7) by Antjie Krog:
jou witkop altyd teenwoordig op die agtergrond
wanneer ons ons grootste stryde stry
ons kleinste triomfe vier ons harte op hulle dunste was
ons selftwyfels op hulle vernietegendste
uit jou oë en jou intense gesig het jou eiening
jou onvoorwaardelikheid teenoor ons gesein
die eetkamertafel was die profesie van jou genade
jou dood die einde van ’n eens oneindige landskap (4)
In this poem, the loss of the mother is the loss of the speaker’s emotional anchor, the reference point by which the family members could measure their own worth.
In contrast to this trend, poems about the loss of a male figure are often more ambivalent. For example, in the isiZulu section, Khenani L Makhoba’s poem, “To us you are everything” (114-117), sketches a complex portrait of the dead father:
Mom tried to control you, but failed,
We also tried to intimidate you, but failed,
You were attracted and crazy for a Newcomer,
You became inseparable lovers
While we became severe enemies.
We would not be what we are today
If you had not left us in the lurch,
We would not be strong with you present. (115 and 117)
Like Krog’s and Makhoba’s, many of the poems in the collection are addressed to the deceased, in the form of a eulogy. Often, these poems appeal to the dead to intercede on behalf of the living. In Kgabo Sebatjane’s poem “When you arrive” (154-155) in the Sepedi section, the speaker instructs the deceased to “call a mass meeting” when they arrive in heaven:
Gather our ancestors and ask them why,
Why are we still poor?
We don’t even have the bare necessities.
Ask them why are they idly watching all this. (155)
These poems reflect a worldview that imagines the spirit realm as an extension of the natural world, where actions in the one realm can have consequences in the other. A poem like Moses Mtileni’s Xitsonga poem “The last will” (302-303), addresses this intersection between the material and spiritual world through the ritual of the funeral. The poem is a set of instructions for the speaker’s burial. He begs not to be left to “shrivel in the vicious rays of the sun” or in the “cold mortuary” with a tag on his foot, or locked in a coffin “like canned beans” (303). Instead he wishes for a warrior’s burial:
dig a pit for me and seat me facing east the land of my forefathers
holding a sharp knife in my left hand
and a spear in my right hand
so I can fight for myself and for you in the battles ahead
then cover me with a blanket of dust (303)
The speaker is acutely aware of his duty as an ancestor to fight for the well-being of the living. He thus insists on a burial ritual that will prepare him adequately for what may lie ahead. The afterlife is imagined not as a place of peace or rest, but of physical action.
In several poems, the intersection between life and death is explored through personfication, where death is addressed directly, or described as an anthropomorphic figure. So, for example, one of the winning poems in the English section, “Puppetmaster” by Caroline F Archer (40), imagines the domesticity of a suburban home and the fleeting nature of childhood. It ends with the image of death which “does not sweep down with a scythe, / does not have a skeleton face. / She sits on the roof, humming listlessly.” Here, death is imagined as an integral part of the seemingly mundane routines of everyday life — a lonely, bored figure waiting at the edge the safe circle of the home for her moment to come, like the Groke in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books. Similarly, Johanna Nurse Malobola-Ndlovu’s commissioned isiNdebele poem “Our family is in for the high jump” (48-51) imagines death as an unwelcome visitor: “Death has silently made its way into my family, / It came and made itself comfortable in our household, / Quietly snatching all of my sisters, / Our cries and screams made no difference” (49). Like Malobola-Ndlovu’s poem, Lydia Moeng’s “Death” (212-215) in Setswana addresses death, asking for
[...] the wisdom to know that I can live with you,
I know you walk with me like my shadow,
Death is a parent to all children,
Death is a child in all families,
I salute you,
You are doing your work,
I only have to let go,
Because you are just a messenger! (215)
These examples depart from the more predictable descriptions of death as a thief or an enemy, to offer a nuanced and revealing meditation on death and its presence in life.
There were a number of poems that used the theme of death to deliver social commentary on the issues pertaining to the living. In the first half of PM Thinane’s Sesotho poem “Aids the snatcher” (184-187) the speaker addresses the disease directly, equating it with death: “You’re an amazing visitor, who arrives unexpectedly, / Your presence becomes apparent in dire situations, / [...] /You strike with your lightning and leave sorrow in your wake!” (185). Halfway through, however, Thinane’s speaker switches away from addressing the disease, and addresses the people instead:
Folks, hurting someone to retaliate doesn’t work,
Hurting someone else for retaliation plants undesired things,
The importance is to accept with two hands,
It is not the first disease and not the last
The cure is on the way and we’ve come far. (186)
The poem thus takes on a cautionary, didactic, but surprisingly hopeful and reconciliatory tone. This shift from the description of the effects of death to a more direct social commentary can be seen in several other poems. Interestingly, many of these poems occupy the point of view of the deceased.
In the poem “Please don’t cry for me” (98-101), Sihle Ndamane, one of the isiXhosa winners, imagines the embittered point of view of the deceased who comments on the hypocrisy of the guests at the funeral:
Why am I lying here?
Stop blaming the witches,
I killed myself, I was not bewitched.
Why am I lying here?
Answer me, where are those who said they loved me? (99)
Moses Shimo Seletisha also uses the device of the deceased as speaker to comment on the behaviour of the living in the Sepedi poem “Through the pane of my spirit” (156-159). In this poem, a dead husband berates his wife for taking a new lover:
Hunadi, my dear wife?
what poison has he fed your heart
for being so gullible
are you really drunkenly in love?
now that you are warm in his hands
and I’m left in the cold grave
would you please do right by me!
and bestow on me some modern token
of memory – a tombstone, please!
or are you waiting for the day of resurrection? (159)
These poems articulate a particular concern with the material world, and the poets use the speakers to comment on social behaviour. Naturally, several of the poems that employ the point of view of the deceased also speak of the ways in which death alleviates suffering. The speaker in Thandi Khensani Mkansi’s Tshivenda poem “I am gone” (272-273) revels in the death that finally allows him to go home:
I’ve finally gone home,
In my new house built with proud and loving hands.
All worldly troubles are now history to me.
I’m now well ensconced in my new palatial address
You evil ones, I am now beyond your reach.
My body shall no longer hunger for anything mortal,
Poverty will no longer know my name,
My name will never be mentioned in the same line as poverty and thirst.
Gossipmongers will be without a vocation! (273)
The burdens of poverty and the complications of social relations that continue to haunt the deceased speakers in Ndamane’s and Seletisha’s poems above are here transcended in a gleeful escape: “Death has been left with egg on its face” (273).
The last poem in the collection is the N|uu poem, “The bloodline of language” (314-315) as told by Ouma Geelmeid (aka Katriena Esau). It is an interesting poem on which to end the collection, as it deals not with the loss of life, but with the death of a language. The speaker describes her immersion in the language as an embodied experience: “I never just heard it / or learned it from someone / I drank it from my mother’s breast” (315). She contrasts this “natural” experience of language acquisition with the experience of learning to speak Afrikaans from “those farmers”: “we had a hard time of it with the white people and that language” (315). The use of the deictic words “those” and “that” single out “those farmers” and “that language” while simultaneously distancing the speaker from them. The speaker ascribes the demise of the N|uu language to the imposition of Afrikaans: “we weren’t allowed to talk N|uu / we had to speak Afrikaans / That’s why N|uu has died out” (315). The poem ends with the speaker linking the preservation of the language to the preservation of her ancestral line: “I teach it to people, / So N|uu can stay a while longer / It’s the language of my parents and great-grandparents” (315). The language and the lineage it represents are embodied within her — she becomes the vessel through which the living can learn the language that allows them to connect with their ancestors.
By ending on this poem, the collection affirms the importance of poetry as a vessel for memory, but also its importance as a language that is seen to transcend the boundaries between the living and the dead. Even if these poems might not make for easy reading, I can only urge you to read them anyway. Read them slowly, and take long breaks to process what they reveal to you.
- Annel Pieterse, University of the Western Cape