Portraiture and poetry at Casa Labia

If I were asked, in my role as a curator of poetry anthologies,
“Whose company do you keep in your everyday working life”,
I’d answer that I keep the company of Poets.

A second question might be:
“What are you exposed to, in the company of Poets?”

Here I would answer that I’m exposed to certain truths that ordinarily remain concealed because there is no way to express them except through a poem.

Poets who submit work to me, tend to remove barriers and expose the raw workings of the human heart.

I am shown fears that, in everyday life, are covered with false bravado.
There is pain, despair and loss, depression, hopelessness and anger.

I am alerted, for instance, long before a wife is, that a husband has found some other attraction.
Or vice versa, that a wife has abandoned the marriage-bed for a best friend.

I might come to know of a difficult medical diagnosis before this has been shared with family.

I might learn that a person has reached the end of a working-life and found that they have no spiritual legacy of any worth to show for it.

I am taken into closed family rooms and shown the devastation caused by alcohol and the concurrent familial abuse.

I am shown how, even though we all fear death, we generally squander our lives.

All of this is given to me, in the course of my everyday working life, as it might be revealed in a Christian confessional, though there are some differences.

A first difference is that these revelations are presented, not in a closed booth, but in the beautiful structure of verse, or in free-verse, with rhyme and rhythm and onomatopoeia.
Perhaps they are delivered in an ode or a sonnet.

A second difference is that, in a confessional, what is revealed remains in the booth with priest and God.

In my situation, by contrast, the poets empower me to share their revelations – to publish them and send them out into the world as things of, perhaps, beauty and solace, but certainly as confraternal experiences.
So, in this regard, I mention generosity, creativity and truth as being the key characteristics of the people, the Poets, I work with.

The majority of poems sent in are inward-looking and concerned with the Self.
Another substantial category concerns love – either its betrayal or its celebrated longevity.
A smaller category is devoted to earth and landscape.

And then there is a rather Spartan category and there are not too many submissions of these.
These are views outside of the Self – portraits.
The portraits may be of perfect strangers encountered in the street, in a bar, a café and even the supermarket.
Or they may be portraits of family members.
These portraits are painted not in pigments, but in words.
They are the start of compassion, mercy and understanding.
They pose questions.
They see the injury, trauma or simple beauty in another person, rather than in the Self.
They make us, ‘the viewers’, curious, concerned, vulnerable, appreciative.
They stare back at us. Some make us shiver. Some make us gasp.

Such portraits were the focus of my readings at Casa Labia in Muizenberg this morning.
I share a few with you here and also list all those that were on the programme.

Cape Town 27 April 2019

The woman at the till
Tatamkhulu Afrika

She had a plain, hard face,
a head thrust forward like a hawk’s.
Impossible brass triangles
dangled from pierced ears,
improbable steel manacles
cluttered her thin arms.
Clearly, she had little love for the world:
She had learned, though,
that she would not win,
so she did not throw your change at you,
nor did she press it in your palm,
but placed it, sullenly,
on the counter in between.
She would wrap your purchase languidly,
yet fast enough to cut off a complaint,
and when she had her punch-up with the till,
it was an exercise in ferocity,
delicately restrained.
She was what we call ‘maboer’,
a low white trash,
AWB most probably,
slouching barefoot in Boksburg or Mayfair West.
I did not feel any particular hate for her,
perhaps because I was what
she would call a low black trash,
which made us quits.
And then I noticed that
she did not look at or thank
anyone, black or white,
and such an undiscriminating unsociability
won for her my respect!
But then one day a brazen clash
of colours drew my eyes
from their customary casting down,
the ritual bartering of cash for cloth,
the careful I-do-not-see-you stale pretence –
She had bought herself a brand-new blouse,
a rioting of palms and psychedelic birds,
a raw, extravagant, revolutionary thing,
as African as I.
I exclaimed in a wonderment I could not hold in –
‘What?’ she barked,
looking at my hands.
‘I said your blouse is beautiful.’
For the first time ever she looked into
my eyes, and time stood still:
her universe turned on an axis thin as a pin.
Then a strange and lovely tenderness touched her mouth,
a faint blush tinged her dead-white skin;
‘Thank you,’ she said, and smiled.

Self-portrait from the dementia ward
Finuala Dowling

After a few mouthfuls of supper
she lies back on her pillows
struggling against the bedsore to be comfortable.

Words elude her: ‘Everything is so …’
and she moves her elegant fingers
in a way to suggest a Jackson Pollock painting.

I think about prompting her
but I want to hear the substitute –
the synonym that her shattered genius will provide.

Even so I am surprised:
‘… modernistic,’ she says eventually
and closes her eyes,
exhausted by the last stand,
the self-portrait.

School girl in a taxi
Takawira Dururu

The taxi is full.
She squeezes in and sits on the hump behind the driver’s seat,
Resplendent in her maroon school uniform,
Still – like a monk in meditation,
With bag clutched in one hand and
Chin resting on the other,
Her innocent childish face shining brightly in the early sun rays,
Brown eyes staring naively aside,
Face-powder lightening the dark skin,
Colourful lip-glow painting the silent lips.
Nothing betrays the hidden thoughts.
Hauntingly, the head resembles an upturned African clay pot.
Hidden under a fine coating of neatly combed short black hair,
Resting delicately on a thin neck,
Far from the eye’s range the heart can see
A line or two from Macbeth, maybe.
The Pythagoras theorem cannot give a face that glimmer –
Only the thoughts of a secret boyfriend can.

Found poem: Run Away 2
Cape Town Gazette Supplement
4 November 1809

A slave boy named Louis.
About twenty-two years of age.
Native of the Isle of France.*
He is like a Bastard Hottentot in the face.
Wears a small red handkerchief tied rather tight.
He is about five feet seven inches high.
Slender made.
Had on a blue jacket with steel buttons.
Dark trousers.
Speaks English Dutch French and Malays.
Whoever will apprehend him
And cause him to be brought to the Tronk
Shall receive twenty Rix dollars reward
Over and above the expenses.



Blue-eyed boy
Pam Newham

He walked the world as if he owned it.
Cigarette between thumb and forefinger,
its red glow stabbed you like a laser.
He wore a scuffed bomber jacket
he said belonged to his grandfather.
Hunched over his computer he bashed the keys
as if it were an old typewriter and wrote
about scoring girls and coke in other places.
Once he took Miriam Makeba to lunch
and they got so drunk he forgot to take notes.
He boasted about his damaged soul.
When he spoke men laughed at his jokes
and women could not look away.

Source of poems
From Africa! My Africa – An Anthology of Poems
ISBN 978-1-874915-20-1
The woman at the till by Tatamkhulu Afrika
Travelling by Robert Berold
Self-portrait from the dementia ward by Finuala Dowling
Found poem: Run Away 2
My grandmother by Antony Osler
Breakfast poem by Guy Willoughby

From Heart of Africa! Poems of love. Loss & longing
ISBN 978-0-620-60850-3
This woman by Mike Alfred
School girl in a taxi by Takawira Dururu
The stepfather by Tatamkhulu Afrika
Blue-eyed boy by Pam Newham
In the bathhouse by Antony Osler
Found truth: Mince
Found truth: The devil in the detail
Found poem: I loved her then

From Absolute Africa! – An Anthology of Poems
ISBN 978-0-620-73537-7
My father danced on his edge by Kris Marais
Ouma by Shirley Marais

From Stanzas Number 1, September 2015
ISSN 2412-6985-01
Old boys by Pamela Newham

From Stanzas Number 5, March 2017
ISSN 2412-6985-05
Sangoma by Rethabile Masilo

From The Unknown Child – Poems of war, love and longing
ISBN 978-1-874915-15-7
A selection of the Madonna poems

The Africa! anthologies and Stanzas are published by African Sun Press, Cape Town: www.afsun.co.za
Copyright selection © Patricia Schonstein 2019
Copyright the poems © the named poets


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