Arja’s first poem was written at the age of ten – and detailed the grim effects of typhoid, a subject she knew nothing about. Things have changed since then. Her first poetry collection, A Life Stripped of Illusions, won the 1994 Sanlam Award, her second collection is The Fire in which we burn, while Isis X (Botsotso) contains a mini collection. Her short fiction is collected in her debut collection The Thin Line (Modjaji Books, 2010). She’s currently working on a new collection of poetry, which includes printing poems on different coloured paper while trying to decide on the tone and theme. Visit Arja’s blog.
The statue of starving, granite figures
grasp against the Bavarian blue sky.
I stop there, pause,
can’t go on any longer,
Germany slides past me.
Tall, long-storied houses
line the banks of the Danube.
We drift, at night,
I imagine I live long ago,
and that I row a boat with my goods
past houses shuttered to me.
I can’t look anymore.
Download, then hit delete,
usually I check, look one more time,
but not this time.
Days later, and I can’t look.
I thought it had not affected me.
Walking around, taking notes for a story,
taking photos of a place that is not beautiful,
listening to a guide tell us of the horrors.
Only once, alone in the cement corridor
of the VIP prison unit did I feel it,
what went on here.
And I almost ran towards the light
coming from the door ajar at the end of the corridor.
Even at night, alone in a hotel room
with the TV in German for comfort
and an empty bowl of tomato soup,
I did not feel it.
Then suddenly, aboard a luxury river liner,
with too much food served and prepared,
I can’t look.
Months later, the words still won’t come.
The article is unwritten,
there are too many words to express it.
By day you feel the long forgotten brown buildings,
long torn down,
at night, one can only imagine what you’d feel.
Churches, a synagogue line the end of it,
prayers for peace, prayers to cleanse the ground.
There’s a statue, yet another, of a prisoner,
skinny in his garb of oversized coat:
‘Den toten zur ehr
Den lebenden zur mahnung’
A homage to the dead,
a warning to the living.
Hit delete, once, over and over again.
The brown buildings exist.
The houses glide past.
I imagine I’m a man in another life.
Previously published in Big Bridge.
The English Cemetery
Catherine Charlotte Anne Eliza,
and Henrietta Augusta,
dead, within months of each other.
Dead at two and four and nine years old,
within the dreadful year of 1851 going into 1852.
Beloved children of Patrick and Mary,
the words are still firmly chiselled, so clear and so
legible more than 150 years later
as I wonder through.
Dead and buried in the cemetery for
the non-Catholics of long ago.
In times past they would have been
buried upright on the beach,
washed to sea at night, pecked by gulls,
Kicking through the hot Málaga morning,
trying to make sense of yet another season
in the city of my birth, I step into the
English cemetery. A quiet in the heart of this now
roaring place where they’re now digging up the earth
to make an Underground.
I feel almost peaceful.
I find the graves of the writer Gerald Brenan,
amigo de España reads the gravestone.
Friend to Spain, the words are touching,
as though Spain were reaching out,
vulnerable, wanting to be liked.
His wife, dead in 1968,
‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’,
born in Malta, Gerald Brenan dies in Málaga,
described forever more as an escritor inglés, the
English writer. Does language always define your nationality?
I wonder too, wandering. Kicking pebbles,
the ground is hard, tough, briny, the sun and
soil do not produce a natural green lawn
in this part of the world.
An urn lies empty beside Brenan’s grave.
Joseph Bertram Griffin dies at the age of forty-eight
in Torremolinos in 1968.
It’s not just in past centuries that people die young.
This time though, instead of a deadly childhood disease,
might it have been cancer?
The grammar is odd: ‘The love of your little Zizi,
the husband you was’.
A plaque for John Bevan who dies in 1816,
too early, before the formation of this cemetery.
Geoffrey Herbert Bruno is buried here in 2000,
even now the grounds are being used.
I look at the apartment blocks,
awnings pulled down against the heat,
and the familiar washing flutters from the lines.
Do they even notice the cemetery now, a fixture,
do they subconsciously avoid it at night,
because, after all, you never know?
What will it take to become Spanish?
In the shop I use my own language again,
it spurts out like vomit.
Effortlessly and without having to think.
The woman who answers me is herself a hybrid:
an Italian American who lives in and loves Spain.
Any donations welcome.
I am the only visitor today.
I don’t want to buy expensive soaps I can’t afford.
The woman runs the American club,
and the shop in this cemetery.
Her husband was a journalist too.
He died last year.
I scurry on, join a group of Spanish women
excitedly exploring the bullring.
I look at them, a tourist to their joy.
Home? A hankering for the crisp, clipped
vowels of the language I speak.
How long does it take before you stop
rushing off to English cemeteries
trying to catch something intangible?
Before you can stop plucking at a little heart of England
in this bustling little city?
Previously published in African Writing Online.
Woman in pink bikini
On a Saturday afternoon in June
I walk the streets of Málaga.
I stop to take photographs; the humid heat
has barely begun, and already I feel slowed
by these beginnings of summer.
The walk takes time. I pass a ship in
harbour; take relief under the broad avenue of trees
along Paseo del Parque.
I phone South Africa, wanting to go home early.
I shout against the noise of the city’s buses.
I walk, hot, backpack heavy with
camera, snapping desultory photos.
The sun is white and harsh. I’m not capturing what I see.
Along a promenade by the beach the
palm trees pattern the walkway.
It’s lunch time. The beach restaurant is packed
with people as I pass, there are oily cooked fish smells.
The beach is full of clusters of people, friends, or
family in this tight-knit society.
Beneath the cold beach shower, a woman stands,
her voluptuous body wears a pink fluorescent bikini.
She could be me. I watch.
Her boyfriend takes her in his arms,
encircles her waist,
they’re both smiling, laughing.
Loved, in love, his embrace is gentle,
full, all encompassing.
I watch like the voyeur I am now, here.
It goes on. Water, beach, the shower spills, they
laugh and move away.
My photos show the blurred, pixelated images
of two people in love, embracing.
But they were taken too far away, or I used the wrong lens:
you can barely make out the couple on this beach in June, lost
among the family groups.
I’m anonymous in black jeans,
did anyone see me looking?
I doubt it.
They didn’t see me with camera,
mouth pursed tight.
Previously published on Southern Rain Poetry.
Wear Red, Play Dead
The invite said: Wear red, play dead,
Put your head in a gilded cage.
Come as your favourite rock star.
Wear black, change your name,
Buy a dress made of safety pins.
Come as your favourite Disney character.
Come, even, as yourself.
She stared into the mirror, smoothing her face,
Angling her cheekbones in shades of naked dusk
Her hair curled out of its chignon, along her neck.
Would he be there?
Now, this time, after so long?
Would he recognise her?
Her lace-gloved hands fondled the glass stem of the wine glass.
Gently, she lifted it to her mouth.
The combination of lace, leather, thigh and bottle.
On six-inch heels she grew tall and bold.
As she stepped out of the car, her dress rode up her thighs.
Transformation was complete.
There was the taste of salt and sugar, crisps and wine.
Corks popped, gold foil curled among the trays of party food.
How have you been?
Where have you been?
Had it really been so long?
She drank, she danced, she answered questions and flirted.
The night ticked on. The new year was approaching,
And now she was spinning, flying …
He found her there – on the soft white carpet, shoes kicked off,
Head under the table. A Mickey Mouse mask grinned
next to a shoe.
Streamers draped across the table,
balloons lay plump and purple.
Where have you been?
Where, and not why.
It’s been such a long time.
I’ve missed you.
You’re so beautiful.
What was Nepal like?
Did you find yourself?
He’d found her instead in a suburban house
with an A-frame pitch.
His hand curled around her thigh,
the leather dress crinkled.
They leaned into each other,
she arched her neck against his face, the beard prickling through.
He wrapped his hand against her smooth, flat abdomen.
Again he said: I’ve missed you.
They heard the countdown in the distance
a faint sparkle of hope entered the room they stood in.
She leaned into him, whispering now as cheers filled the night air.
Previously published in Capeetc and on LitNet.
For Don and Sue
There’s a perfection in the sharp knife,
handle thick and satifying to hold.
It eases through the meat, parting it
like the Red Sea.
A thin trail of red juice eases out,
I spear the soft buttery steak
with a mushroom, add a half-moon of avocado,
a quartered tomato.
The food shatters in my mouth.
There’s something about summer nights,
the kind of nights that follow days
in a city that reeks of boiled bodies
crisping under the sun’s glare.
There’s something: the lack of breeze,
the water in the pool gleaming bluely,
the soft murmur of traffic.
It’s an island, an oasis, the lawn jewelled green.
Candles illuminate our faces
the silver, the sparkling cutlery,
the sheer perfection of knife, fork, crystal glass,
steak, salad, speared food, shattered tastes.
At the bottom of a garden,
in the heart of Johannesburg.
Previously published in New Coin.
(Winner of 2010 Dalro Award for Poetry)
Inside and Outside
Sitting inside I type,
I learn about the secret Muslim marriage
called a sigheh, recalling seventeenth century Persia.
There’s a psychiatrist detective hero with Parkinson’s,
a Swedish writer who died too young,
an ex-memoirist who’s astounded his critics
with his breathless first novel.
I conjure up other people’s fictional worlds,
I tell people whether to spend their money
on eight new novels.
Outside a grey bird, wrapped in a brightly-coloured bathmat,
wing broken. My cat, tired from the chase and capture,
eats his supper of mincemeat.
Outside his prey lays his head in his
wing, and quietly gives up the fight.
Previously published in Green Dragon and on LitNet.