Some years ago, I visited Tatamkhulu Afrika, seeking permission to include his poem Shaman in the anthology Africa! My Africa!
Although I had corresponded briefly with him, I’d not met him before.
He was living frugally in a small Wendy house in someone’s yard in the Bo- Kaap.
I took him a loaf of fruited bread, similar to the loaves that appear in my novel, A Time of Angels. He was welcoming but cross that I’d brought the bread. He refused to accept it, instructing me to take it back home for my children.
I got a sense of him being a ‘furious’ poet. It seemed that words descended upon him, or stormed up from within him, demanding that he give them form; draining him, perhaps leaving him spent and sore after each poem was completed. I got a sense too of the powerful images that confronted him and the challenges these brought to him and his typewriter, old man that he was, with the end of his days not far off the horizon.
Some weeks after my visit, I received a hand written letter thanking me for the bread that I’d managed to leave behind, and which he’d enjoyed very much.
His letter included a typed copy of Shaman.
The leopard lay,
long and dappled, under the leaves.
He saw me when
I still saw only the leaves.
His eyes, alerted, flamed
with more of wonderment than rage.
He had sheathed his claws and, once,
he swiped a paw across his nose.
‘I know you’, he said,
looking at me through the mask of shadows round his eyes.
I saw him wholly, then,
his languid grace and power, yet
was not afraid, his voice being mild
as any mewing kitten’s, which meant
that I could love him if not yet trust,
and I dared to tremblingly scratch an ear.
He closed his eyes and roaringly purred,
frightening my hand, then grinned
a little, baring the black
slobber of his gums, the fangs
whiter than the white bones of the hill,
then again looked at me, a daze
of pleasure drawing back from his eyes, and thanked
me with a leathern tonguing of my skin.
‘Yes’, he said, ‘it was a long time ago.
This hill was then a living thing.
You, shaman, danced on it till you dropped
as one dead and a leopard leapt
from your ruin and ran,
slavering, under the holy moon.
What has become of you, brother man?
Does the magic herb no longer grow among these stones?’
I wept, then, huddled on
the rigid hinges of my knees,
hearing only silence thrum
through the shattered pipelines of my bones.
Below, the alien city threshed
and howled and he looked
at me as at a wounded beast and slid
out the filial pity of his claws.
‘No!’ I shouted. ‘No!’
stammering like a frightened child.
‘You exceed your station; it is I
that flow and flower under a moon.’
He looked at me with sorrowing eyes.
‘But it is leopards that die
as shamans should,’ he said and crashed
out of the leaves as out of an ice of time.
Tatamkhulu Africa (1920-2002) was a novelist and prize-winning poet. Born in Egypt, he came to South Africa as a young child. He was a veteran of World War 2 and an Mkonto weSizwe activist in the struggle against apartheid.
Shaman first published in The angel and other poems, Carapace Poets 1999. ISBN 1-874923-46-9.