Two Poems by David wa Maahlamela

Hatchets of the South

There was no summer that year;
cowhide drums turned upside down.
The moon never danced to the tsau-tsau song;
It ascended each night with a fallen head,
mourning death of humankind.

In a land from which nations imported hope,
people set aflame, seared to ashes daylight.
That thing which holds souls together
was named here on these fields,
reconciliation’s footprints;
fields turned into wellsprings of bloodshed.

A land once deemed the footstool and foothold
of the unmoved mother of all, the cradle of mankind,
hosts uncountable corpses with no record;
their sin – they were born in another place,
spoke another language.
Beacon of hope became a land at war with itself;
a brother’s keeper, a brother’s killer.

When did this land shrink?
Murderous rampages; necklacing; pyrolysis.
Scattered bones on the streets watching
children leaping their way to school;
looted items with books in their backpacks.
Pyre of unidentified corpses buried in
the minds of imminent generations.

When did we become sardines?
In this land of protest poets, no poem written.
No commission of inquiry nor reunion established.
No repatriation, no reparation, no compensation.
There was no itching pimple to stretch.
No dog or wolf that dared woof that year.
In this land of onslaughts, there are no war poets.
War poems are deemed mediocre; wordsmiths are tired
of writing about things that will or have died.

This continent has mastered sophistication of waxing
about jasmines and other easy comforts.
We call it rediscovering the ordinary,
literary watershed, renewal of literature.
We no longer chant jawbreakers,
mouth-tearing struggle songs,
poems that grasp anyone by the throat.
And you, Okigbo, gave your pen
to a war that died with you:
Biafra, a war of not belonging.

This land has become the moon that barks
at the dog, led by tails that wag the dog.
Breadwinners are life-losers.
The land rapidly losing its beauty,
insensitivity dances unclothed on bloody streets
leaving wrath-wretched horrors
the worn-out moon can no longer face.

In this fortress a tortoise is stripped of its carapace,
refugees swallow prickly pears unpeeled.
The formerly oppressed master the art
of their former master’s slaughterhouse;
this land’s soul interred in history’s cemented grave
as evil gusts, a wet pall of centuries.

Our nation of the spectrum, an over-told
panchromatic fairytale of livestock herded by wolves.
Ifekantu, we are back on the iron path of devil’s thorns –
the same beaten track you trekked.
The robbers are back in black to cave the dream
of unity into a labyrinth of insanity.
We are struggling to word these horrors
of burning tyres and flesh; to name, undeceive,
or tongue-trounce warmongers; to stretch voices
and finger those under the sod.

Poetry is a mirror and mallet that reshapes broken souls.
Which wordsmith will name wars of this nascent nation?
Which wordsmith will dare sleep in boilers and chimneys?
You wanted poetry of blood and bullets.
But a pen is a rifle without bullets.
And now that you chose a lost war,
which bard or griot will name wars
contemplating our continent?

Here, in South Africa,
those who name things are the first to kill them.
Ask ubuntu.

Hatchets of the South

The way you pillow your head on my chest
in front of the photographer,
the way my arm belts around your waist,
has nothing to do with anything.

This twilight that drips from our lips
as if we are hiding galaxies in our cavities,
speaks nothing beyond nothing.
We remain intertwined after the photographer’s left
like we’re surrounded by a circle of landmines
and the slightest move would cost us our lives.

I’ve been to many countries
and have left little coffins of bliss.
It’s easy to lie without blinking an eye.
It’s easy to flirt with death –
especially for a honey-spread body like yours.

I’m here in your country for only a week
and we are just a poet and an interpreter.
I don’t know why you are in my arms outside the hotel
at this time of the night.
I don’t know why you are weeping in this drizzle
leaving me wondering if I am wiping
your tears or the raindrops.

I don’t know why our legs are dragging us to my hotel room
and why we wake up with our consciences intact and sealed.

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