Turning swords into sonnets

 Extract from launch speech of Africa Ablaze! and Horison

The poems in Africa Ablaze! are placed chronologically. They are anchored by the Frontier Wars of the Eastern Cape, the Boer War, the North African campaign of World War 2, the Angolan civil war, the Mozambican Civil War, the Rhodesian War, the Chimurenga War, Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi, South Africa’s Border War and conflicts elsewhere in Africa – Biafra, Eritrea, Uganda, Central African Republic and Sudan.

The collection allows for a graphic and emotional view into killing fields, into scorched earth policies, into the shame of child soldiery and into the betrayal of conscripted youth.

Through the various poems and prose pieces we hear the triumphant, strategic rhetoric of politicians and generals. We hear the angels of death barking and reaping. We find the nightmares and remorse of former soldiers. We see courage, self-sacrifice, compassion, and a brotherhood forged in battle as nowhere else.

Early on, we are aware of gallantry and a strange courtesy. For instance, it is well recorded that the Xhosas never deliberately harmed or killed women or children during warfare. For a warrior to kill a woman or child branded him irrevocably as a coward.

There are a number of records by missionaries and others, of Xhosa warriors slaughtering husbands and fathers right next to wives and daughters, but never harming the women.

One of the pieces in the book records how an English settler, a Mr Mahoney, farming in the Eastern Cape, was visited by his son-in-law and grandchildren. One of his servants alerted him to a Xhosa invasion and he speedily loaded everyone onto a wagon and headed for the nearest military post.

On the way, they were intercepted by a band of warriors. The warriors overturned the wagon and killed Mr Mahoney and his son in law. Meanwhile, Mrs Mahoney crept away through the bush with the grandchildren, dropping her shawl. One of the warriors saw this, picked up the shawl and followed her. He put it on her shoulders (an extraordinarily gentle gesture for someone who had just killed the woman’s menfolk) and then shooed her off.

A similar gesture is seen in Marinella Garuti’s extract from her Memoir-in-progress. At the outbreak of the war in Angola, in April 1975, in the town of Huambo, she was caught in the cross-fire between MPLA and FNLA soldiers. One of them turned to her with: “Miss, you are in the trajectory of our weapons. It is best for you to leave now or else there might be some confusion.”

Further sensitivity is shown by Bruce Moore King. His poems of the Rhodesian War illustrate brutality and ruthlessness. In one of them, he relates the destruction of a village by Rhodesian soldiers. Villagers are given a few minutes to empty their huts before these huts are torched.

The villagers bring out their meagre worldly possessions, which the narrating soldier notices. Among them are an enamel bowl; a cheap record player; tin plates; eight spoons; a Singer Sewing machine; an iron bucket.

The soldier shows no outward remorse. He does not seem sorry to be destroying these people’s lives. Yet the mere fact of seeing these pathetic belongings, of listing them, and it is a long list, shows a deeply concealed remorse.

Many of the early poems in the collection give a sense of regulation, of military orderliness. They have structure and rhyme to them.  They are not bound by literary form. But as we move toward more recent times, this falls away. Guerrilla warfare breaks the ranks. The poems loosen up into free verse – only a few have rhyme or rhythm – they defy order and lose structure. Yet they describe the horror in as much detail as do those written classically, if not more so. They are brave with their imagery. There is no pretence. Blood is not covered up. Shattered limbs lie exactly where the landmines left them. These poems expose the sexuality, the eroticism given by the power of a machine gun or bayonet. They admit to doing horrible things. These poems expose the sexuality, the eroticism given by the power of a machine gun or bayonet. They admit to doing horrible horrible things. Here I mention the poems of Kris Marais and Derek Davey which are graphic, unflinching and honest in what they portray. In the same breath I mention the poems of Chas Lotter, for their artistic sensitivity and for capturing the human face of soldiers at war.

Taken as a whole, the collection forms a dark, tableau. A dark picture of dark human endeavour.

People have asked me whether it was depressing to curate this work. No, it was not depressing. But it was amazing to see, just on this one continent and without being at all representative, this repetition, this pattern through the ages, this extraordinary precedence for conflict, as though the human heart is hard-wired for warfare, as though warfare is humanity’s hall mark.

If that is so, if warfare is our inescapable hallmark, then surely we must also be seekers of the opposite of war. And indeed, if one reads Africa Ablaze! from beginning to end, to get is chronological picture, one senses a yearning for that which is not war.

That yearning flies through the work like an exhausted bird looking to perch somewhere. Exhausted though it is, this pastiche of the clichéd peace dove flaps on. I was aware of that bird all the way through while compiling. It seemed to be made of old, bloodied military canvas, flapping, flapping, flapping but never reaching the perimetre of the battle ground, never reaching the end of the last battle.

When the collection was complete I needed to redeem it. I wanted to cut through the tableau with a shaft of light. I searched everywhere for such a shaft and found it in Stephen Watson’s poem, Psalm. His poem is not a war poem. Nor is it an anti-war poem. It is simply about light. And it brings an inner illumination to the martial landscape of Africa Ablaze! I used it to close the collection. Deep inside the anthology I placed a poem by Ian McCallum. This too is not about war, but about homecoming. It is placed as a single drop of light so that Stephens shaft is not alone.

In simultaneously launching Horison, the Afrikaans translation of Skyline, we examine the dark matter of war and its effect on ordinary people. The novel reveals that, ultimately, the true victim of all war is the child. Whether he is a child soldier, or whether orphaned by war, or whether his whole world – his village, his town, his home – has been destroyed, it is the child who carries the brunt of humankind’s warring nature.

Horison holds at its core the effects of the Mozambican civil war on one of the central characters, Bernard Sebastiao. Bernard has fled the war and arrived in Nelson Mandela’s newly democratic South Africa, having lost his wife and children in the mayhem of an attack on his village.

He and the young girl narrator form a close friendship and together uncover the pathos of Cape Town, a city that has reluctantly become home to refugees and illegal immigrants from war-torn Africa.

The girl wants to become a poet. She is haunted by all the images thrown up by the migrants in her building, by the sounds and landscape of central Cape Town. Bernard reveals his own triumph over terrible experiences and encourages her to write, to capture what she sees and turn it into verse.

But Horison is also a book about hope, and self-discovery and the power of poetry to heal the deep wounds of loss. I want to just link this to the anthology Africa Ablaze! with a suggestion that it will be poetry that may one day become our tool for peace.

Perhaps we will one day turn the proverbial sword, not into a ploughshare, but into a sonnet.

And maybe we will allow Stephen Watson’s Psalm to resonate across battle fields, so that our weary peace dove can finally land somewhere.

Africa Ablaze! Poems & prose pieces of war & civil conflict

ISBN 978-1-874915-17-1
Fiction: Novel
Afrikaans edition

Order through African Sun Press afpress@iafrica.com

The launch of these two titles was held in Cape Town on 10 December 2013.We celebrated with wine, ciabbatta, camembert, olives and honey. Thanks to the poets who contributed to the anthology. Thanks to those who could be present and who read their works.




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