Poetry

(Academic publications are over here)

Contents

  • October. Neighbourhood(Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, 30 January 2019)
  • Pre’face (Dispatches, 30 January 2019) 
    • Figures of Speech. Wit’ness. Resonance. Practice with Doxa (Dispatches, 24 September 2018)
  • Holding water (Aerodrome, 17 September 2018)
  • Compassion  (Stanzas 12, June 2018)
  • The Housekeeper’s Tale (Type/Cast 4, December 2017)
  • I find myself sometimes (Stanzas 9, September 2017)
  • from Safehousekeeping (New Coin 52:2, 2016)

October. Neighbourhood

(Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, 30 January 2019)

October

Grief knows reality, can’t help but.
Dull-eyed, watching the others chase
wild geese shadows their own tails.

Everything self-centred is anathema.

Grief leaves one alone
leaves one cold intermezzo
cloaked in fog
the shape of a catkin

gone to ground    lies
dead and buried
having lost everything
and everything lost and

no sense of any elsewhere
any future where
something might happen
differently

Neighborhood

There seems to be something going on nearby. In the neighborhood. My senses are all a-tingle, even on my scalp (the skin under the hair on my head) and in the palm of my right hand. Unfortunately, I am unable to see. I am unable to move. I sit here in the dark, in – I suppose – a plain room. What goes on nearby, is that my business? Is there a thing I can do about it?

The other day, or perhaps night – day, I think (remembering birds). It is as if I am lifted up by my ears. Metaphorically. The world comes to me by sound mostly. Atmospheric, weathered. For a moment I thought someone might come to the door. There were sirens outside, I think, I believe. It is, as ever, hard to believe. Hard to know what to believe. Or so I thought. That there might be someone at the door.

I don’t expect anything. But neither do I not. But something could happen, could come to pass. I would like that. Please come. Or perhaps of course you are already here but ignoring – no, missing me entirely. Why do you torment me so? Why? Perhaps this sense I have is like a tide or a season turning. Perhaps something is in motion. Perhaps we can put aside this – whatever this is or has been for you. It’s all fine really. I can wait for you forever. You should think about that.

Pre’face

(Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, 30 January 2019)

To say what must be said in advance
before beginning
this is what I am trying to tell you
because there is no time
because the beginning is always beginning
is always underway.

Several years ago now, I watched David Harvey explain the crises of capitalism on YouTube (1).  At the very end, in what could be a postface – words spoken after everything has been said – he remarks, “We have a duty, it seems to me, those of us who are academics and seriously involved in the world, to actually change our mode of thinking.” I agree, although I think it extends beyond academics.

As a philosopher (at large), I am aware that we inherit the legacy of a particular mode of thinking that stretches from the Greeks through Christianity and the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism and all that that has brought to our world. A mode of thinking that has been tremendously productive but also serves to rationalise and justify unreasonable and unjustifiable violence. A mode of thinking in which violence and war seem to be inescapable. As a communist (ditto), I don’t believe that way of thinking is necessary and I don’t believe it’s true, and so I set out to do my duty and change my mode of thinking. A duty that did indeed seem both necessary and true.

To change one’s mode of thinking – which means the ways of thinking rather than what one thinks – is not easy. The result, if you get there, will change everything. So you have to go into it believing that everything should be changed, and can be, and helpfully so, or you won’t make it. And you need some clues, some sense of direction to lead you on. To home in on. It turns out this adventure goes all the way down to what we think it means to be human, to be a person, some’one who says I.

I found two ladders to climb down.

The first is phenomenology, the branch of philosophy which takes experience as the source of signification and meaning-making, and particularly the work of Emmanuel Levinas, who gets to the heart of the matter of the West. Western philosophy has been overwhelmingly concerned with ontology, with being and matter and the being of beings. That’s how it could conceive of humans primarily as individuated self-interested units. For Levinas, the quality of our humanness instead corresponds to our interrelatedness and the infinite inescapable responsibility one has for others. At first encounter, his exquisite hyperbolic writing is impossible to make sense of. Why? Because locating ethics prior to being is like switching from an earth-centred cosmos to one that circles the sun. The stars at night move as they always have, but we have to learn to read them otherwise. To make sense otherwise. Nothing is different, everything has changed.

My second guide is language. On one hand, words and grammar and etymology, which trace the “wheel ruts” (2) of Western language to reveal relations of expression and personhood and community, where our word is our bond, and language is first of all speech, the worlds spoken between us. On the other hand, writing: to bring these relations back into play, to bring us (first persons singular) back to each other. And so I gave up philosophical argument and moved towards poetry as a generative practice in the world, taking place between us.
Which goes to introduce these poems (3), the first of which bears an epigraph that has become a kind of motto for this work, a phrase from Lars Iyer: “keeping memory of the instant in which language is pledged in speech”(4).

Notes
1 https://href.li/?https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOP2V_np2c0
2 http://www.etymonline.com
3 http://www.dispatchespoetrywars.com/poetry/4-poems-by-helen-douglas/
4 The Movement of Testimony: Suffering and Speech in Blanchot and Antelme, https://href.li/?http://www.yorku.ca/jspot/5/liyer.htm

4 poems

(Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, 24 September 2018)

Figures of Speech

Keeping memory of the instant in which language is pledged in speech – Lars Iyer

Just as a speck of air condenses, becomes cloud,
right before your very eyes, just so
I appear before you
dislocated, disrupted, exposed
in this very moment
this open, this close.

Just as breath condenses to a vowel,
in this very moment, between us,
in the nick of time, in good time,
call and response, one beat.

In the beginning is the seed of the Word
and the ground of the Word
and the howling absence of the Word
that hurtles towards us, to hold and preserve us
creatures who would speak.

Always almost too late, as if an afterthought
of some thought yet to be conceived
yet to be gotten by the Word on the World
World that opens to the Word that opens.

O prophesied proffered profligate Word!
Come. This Garden, this pair of dice.

The instant in which language is pledged
before anything could be said,
in order to say, in order to take place
all at once and once and for all, just so

I need to have a word with you
I who am (this) greeting you
from across this (this)
here(t)here now

this great heaving current
now, between us,
unspeakable (yet)
undeniable.

The instant we speak
we are thrown so far
so fast so hard
so longing for home

The instant we speak
the lights come up
as if for the first time
we see each other
each one and only.

This instant
the world
is true.

Wit’ness

Words spoken in English
echo back ten thousand years
testify in the dark
to the error of our ways.

We who have taken the world
as given, as worldly,
mistake after mistake,
misgiving after misgiving.

And yet this
perseveration
could yet break us
bring us to our knees
in grief and veneration.

Listen. It’s all devotion.
To think is to thank.
Believed is beloved.
Truth is troth.

Resonance

How our stories should be told. Perpetually, continually. So as to make their mark in the way of things, in the order of the heart. Tolled as invitation and intimation, as the enactment and the harbinger of peace.

Practice with doxa

At the torsion point
(yield) give way
(follow) follow blind
(stick) hold fast
(root) hold dear
(grapple) embrace
lead the other into emptiness.

Holding Water

(Aerodrome, 17 Sept 2018)

A small girl sitting on the ground with hands cupped. Holding water. Little Sisyphus in a cotton dress sits on the ground. Water makes its way through her cracked cup and falls to the ground.

She pulls in her ankles to hold the water that falls to the ground. Rich thick mud spreads a widening ring around her. Between her knees the water pools and sinks into the earth.

The sky across the flat earth goes clear to the horizon. The clear water precious in her hands. The water she holds in her cupped hands. She holds it and it falls. She is holding it. It falls.

Her legs the shores of a pond, the walls of a well that bears the water to the ground. It seeps into the earth. It seeps into the earth, the earth knows it and the ground becomes mud. Clear the water that muddies the ground.

She holds clear water in her hands, it pools between her legs, sinks beneath her and is received by the earth and the soil spools rich and thick around her. Thick wet earth. The still air. The clear sky. Small birdcall. Concentration, diffusion. She holds the water in her hands. She is learning her craft.

Compassion

(Stanzas 12, June 2018)

Your compassion should be like an armless mother

whose child is being carried away in a flood. – Mikyo Dorje

Violence cuts loose

inundates isolates separates.

The image is a river in torrent,

spring melt, raging flags of ice

and a child swept away

There is no return.

And compassion for no return.

To be taken in violence,

to come to oneself as

the object of rage

is (to be) unbearable.

To be given like a coin

as barter or spoil to be

spent traded stolen lost

is (to be) unforgiveable.

When all one is is for the taking,

one freedom remains

to make of oneself

an offering, a gift.

There is no return.

And compassion for no return.

The image is a weather map

with vectors and legends

you can’t yet begin to read.

The Housekeeper’s Tale

(Type/Cast 4, December 2017)

Need I remind anyone, again,
that armed struggle is an act of love?

 ~ Keorapetse Kgositsile

Underground

The underground will not be betrayed, will not be brought to light. Underground refracts. Nonplace of slippage and ambiguity, it is the stuff of legends, of crooked roots and shy sly creatures. It has a precise clarity, another kind of glory. Another form of life, of passage, of resistance, of devotion. The underground is not a location. It’s a trick of the light.

The housekeeper is the door but not the key, is the lock that allows the key to work. For the others, safehouse means refuge, a cave to hole up in, a place to plan and prepare, to set out from and hope to return to. But the one who keeps the safehouse decomposes over time, like a scarecrow in a forest, into the underground she serves. Passive among the activists, her task is merely to take place. Both gatekeeper and gate, she is the x that marks the hidden treasure, the mantel upon which the purloined letter safely rests. Those who know pass through and she closes behind them; those who don’t, pass her by. Oblivious. They know the underground is somewhere out there, but it’s not here. Not here.

In the light of day, the housekeeper is incapable of telling the truth. It’s like a curse, this situation of telling, the impossibility of confession without betrayal. In the dark, and of the dark, however, she speaks with perfect authority. It’s as if the walls begin to speak. 

Three Questions from the School of Underground

The first question

What does it mean, to go to war?

To be summoned, and to answer the call. To be prepared to die, if needs be. To surrender yourself into the hands of others. To offer up the only life you’ve ever known the very moment you say, Yes, I will go. To be prepared to die is not to die, not yet, but to unseat the power of the fear of death. At that moment, to the self you were, you become unknown, unfamiliar, unrecognisable, unmoored. And yet true.

To join the liberation struggle is already an act of liberation. And, insofar as your participation is neither coerced nor mistaken, and you love the life you give; insofar as the struggle is just and its goal is peace; insofar as there is no guarantee of return, no guarantee at all, it may also be emancipatory. Nations and peoples are liberated, as from a foreign power. Emancipation is a personal event, very small, very expansive, as the birth of a universe.

The second question

Jesus says, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Nietzsche replies, Those who fight monsters must be careful not to become monsters thereby. Jesus says, Love your enemies.

What does it mean, to love your enemies?

Above all, to know their humanness. Even as you know their monstrousness. Even as this puts your own in question. Even as blood cries out from the ground, from the streets, from the heart. Even as you are willing to kill, if needs be, to end this violence. To know the monstrous enemy as human, as a monster because human. To refuse to deny the humanity of those who are hateful precisely because they deny their own. To take pity.

Nietzsche continues, And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. For the harm we did to the enemy, to each other, to ourselves, for all the violence committed in the name of justice and freedom, even now we hang over the abyss, still stretching towards peace.

The sage Mengzi reminds us, again, The ways are but two: love and want of love. That’s all.

The third question

What does it mean, violence?

Genesis. In the beginning, a scene of two. One rises up and strikes the other down. The one struck down cries out, How can you do this to me? Cries out again. What am I that this could be done? The murderer does not reply. Only when challenged says, I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper? Says, I am not glad and I am not sorry. It leaves me cold. (What does it mean, to keep? What does it mean, to be left cold?)

But wait, who makes the challenge? Who has arrived so late on the scene? It could be you, or me. A third party, neither one nor the other, brought to bear in response to the call of the fallen one. As if we have been cast or conjured up play the witness, the accuser, the judge. Called to take account and to make amends. All of a sudden, it’s a matter of justice.

And so we find ourselves, at the scene of a crime. Rising up, turning towards or against each other, ussing and themming, taking a stand or stumbling, striking out and being struck down. Turning away, leaving cold.

We are called in turn to confess or deny, to explain and justify. We bear witness. We frame our testimony as history, politics, destiny, human nature. We see how fear and desire beget violence, how difference begets violence, how violence begets violence. And so, in the name of justice and peace, we strive to contain and control our violence. We create institutions, ideologies and technologies, all promising a better world to come. Promise the world… but not yet. We hate war, we do, but it seems as though it is violence all the way down with us. As far as we know. As far as we can tell.

#

But maybe another story lies hidden within, or beneath, that primal scene of fratricide.

If we are truly born to sin, violent by nature and all the way down, then why that cry, that astonishment, that devastation? How can you do this? What am I, that this can be done? Even as, in this very moment, you and I can find ourselves cast up and implicated, already answering for justice. We who are not one or the other, who are different but not indifferent. This immediate unmediated repudiation of murder: what could it mean?

Think about it. What was there already for violence to violate? What was there already to be broken? It was not a right that was violated, and not a law that was broken. It was a heart, that’s all. A person. Sacred foundation of the world.

And what arises with us and between us? Another world, already here. Because if difference is the condition for hatred, it is also the condition for love.

We will not restore the peace of innocence, of the Garden before the disaster. I believe this is so. But also this: that every act of war still bears a trace of that primordial cry. And every movement for peace returns to it. The ways are but two. That’s all.

But there is always two.

Keepsake

I watched you. How you were with each other, how you were with us, how you were when you thought no one was watching. I saw your exhaustion, impatience, recklessness. Your discipline, your humour, your intelligence and confidence. Your camaraderie. But there was one moment. In the house in Parktown North. I was carrying a pile of laundry and glanced into the lounge. I saw the three of you standing around the couch, talking over some papers spread out on the back of it. It was a Saturday, early afternoon. A shaft of highveld light shone through the crack of the curtains.

And I saw you. You and all your circumstances. The worlds you were born into, the worlds you chose, the twists of fate. Black or white or brown, man or woman, from here or there. Happenstances. All those what-whats, quiddities and qualities, were not you, only the cards you were dealt, what you brought to the table, what you kept up your sleeves. You were you, right there, present and clear, absorbed in each other and the work. Unmistakeable. Alive in the game, with everything at stake. It was just a moment, but I saw you. And in that precarious light of – yes – liberty, equality and fraternity, I saw a future. It was present and it was true.

Vul’indlela. May we find our way. May the way be open.


I find myself sometimes

(Stanzas 9, September 2017)

I find myself sometimes

Calling your name

Addressing myself to you

An appeal for intercession

When all else fails

I call your name

In your absence

Everywhere I call you

I am calling you

To take your place here, you

In the place of your name

I find my self sometimes.

As you are for me, I am for myself

As I am for you, and you for yourself

As we are for each other, just so

The thousand names of love arise.


from Safehousekeeping

(New Coin: South African Poetry 52:2, December 2016)

harrow

An old woman walking a road as endless and lonesome as the Great Wall. A long shot.

There is a fine line that runs through everything. The line between this and that, one and the other. Neither here nor there. Not, and yet. It’s what exhausts her, that there are always two. Always one eludes her.

The world is not as seamless as it seems; it is everywhere joined up. It comes undone. It goes unspoken. The world undone is the disaster. Falling through shattered ground. This is what makes us afraid to love. Everything is so crazed. Someone has to hold the line.

 

the underground that is spoken

Nobody writes about the underground. There are adventure stories, but the underground itself will not be betrayed. Will not be brought to light. Underground refracts. Nonplace of slippage and ambiguity, it is the stuff of legends, of crooked roots and shy sly creatures. Another form of life, of passage, of resistance, of devotion. It has a precise clarity, another kind of glory.

 

cogito incognito

Everything comes too late. Even philosophy is barely on time.

Learning to travel on broken ground (groundless ground, underground) is the condition of both subjectivity and philosophy. And yet. As if. And yet, as if, that which cannot be spoken of may be spoken from.

 

a relationship

Many years later, a stranger at a cocktail party will say, “Someone once said to me that the underground is not a location, but a relationship with knowing.”

“Yes,” you will agree. Silently adding, and with trust. And with identity.

 

one enchanted evening

Ilav is the comrade who shows up in the night, grinning at the door with fresh supplies in his pack. He comes in from the rain. She sets out glasses and plates. They’ll be up half the night by the fire telling stories. The childish thrill of being awake while the others sleep. Her patchwork skin, almost whole, almost glows. So long as the night lasts, the rules are suspended. It will all come back to her in the morning: the work, the war, the fear. Her legendary habits of endurance. (Nothing will come back to her in the morning.)

It is his real name. But she will never use it or say it aloud. What is real must be put away for safekeeping, which is her job. Put away, like a criminal or a heart, something with conviction. Her love for him disarms her completely. He for whom she would die without thought or hesitation.

 

tradecraft

Don’t try to guess his identity. It’s need-to-know only. You will know him when you meet, despite some confusion at the beginning. He will be in disguise. He is never what you expect. Of course he might be a woman. It goes without saying.

But you need to need to know. It’s no good guessing with your eyes shut like you were trying to pin a tail on some donkey.

If you are trying to guess, you are not the one I’m talking to. You should put this down and stop reading what isn’t yet meant for you.

I am the target text.

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