Two Poems

Breyten Breytenbach

a footnote under the night of history

in the night when everything was black
burnt to a cross of ash
on the blind glass
and the dog’s bark a dark kite
blowing away in darkness
      to where the moon
tears like the keel of a sinking boat
I dreamt my language

the title page smeared black
with signs now undecipherable raw
        and inside the book
I saw my reflection
standing there three times

first among dead friends
with mottled grieving faces
like dogs staring directly into the blind window
while their thoughts like empty glasses
turning in the hands
          and I was there
thin neck and moustache
our poems are slaves each with a full wave
feathers proudly on the head

then in a tableau at departure
in the garden of the night
with cape of white hair
my mother an aged virgin in my embrace
            and further back
in the folds of memory
all other trusteds as torches of forgetting

were I now the prophet
sent to spy if there is life
           in this world
or the senseless exile returning to say
our language was a footnote
under the illegible page history?

a last time on a bench in the empty garden
of a madhouse of toothless ageds
as skeletons with little bitter flesh
swaddled in the blanket
and wild tuft and eyes blind marbles

bow and mutter bow and mutter
many words oh many words
but only the whispering of dead slaves
but not enough to groove or make boat
and outside of the book beyond all listening
the bark and the wind and the ash
of the moon in dark water

Words Against the Clouds

               for Yehuda Amichai

—‘shoe’            ‘desert rose’            ‘mud’—

(luck wanted
that I could today pick up a few words
for you
to be able to describe
that one doesn’t only walk and think about nothing on the ground,
but also about words in their meaning
be seen, between toilet rolls, images, fossilised fish

(don’t step on the wrong words!
‘laying the terror of mines,’ you once said
‘is in the delayed action; plant your bomb
and one day, much later, someone
who you don’t know
is blown sky high’
so the word also becomes flesh

(‘I have read your verses and fears:
like desert roses they are: anachronistic, with an outside
and an inside, they come from deep
without past or future, and yet they can withstand
the soft explosions of sand and time

(in times of war people eat mud
to survive like frogs on land and in water;
in times of peace it is a
a beauty cleanser . . .
I doesn’t matter

(the moon walks on
even if she day by day becomes more of
an empty shoe without bunions or rhythm
the moon carries her steps
across the sprawling dove grey dunes of the Kalahari
and the restless hills of Juda:
at least she doesn’t at all befoul the mud

(in a shoe full of mud I would want to plant your desert roses
to give the moon a sentence
and a little word—sum I shall write on the laces:
‘when you sleep on too long
you eventually rot’
that what is known as
death on the feet . . .

(like this I tried stopping the words in the verse
dear and sad Yehuda,
is death in the picking up or in the word?

translated from the Afrikaans by Ampie Coetzee