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August Debut

Issue 2; October/November


Chris Mann

Chris Mann

Chris Mann is a fourth generation South African of English and Irish descent (McMahon). His writing is informed by the daily use of different South African languages and his varied experience of people and life in that country. His nickname ‘Zithulele’ (Xhosa/Zulu) means a taciturn person. He and the artist Julia Skeen were married in 1981. They have two children and live in Grahamstown. His poems have appeared in books, newspapers, magazines, journals, textbooks and in various anthologies in South Africa and abroad. His many publications include the 2006 volume, Lifelines (with Skeen, Julia and Craig, Adrian)

Image Credit: literature.kzn.org.za

 Three Poems
  Mandela’s Cell

I stood among a crowd
of tourists from abroad
and stared into his past:

a cage of bricks and bars
as gloomy and as cramped
as racial bias in the mind.

And in that ancient tomb
a bench, a gleam of bowl,
a stone-cold strip of floor.
I could not hear the clang
shook from a gate of steel
that bigotry kept locked,

nor see a gaunt-faced man
fold up each dawn for years
the mat on which he’d dreamed.

Instead, far off, I heard
the cheering of the world
when he the era’s Lazarus

walked out into the sun.

Around that unlocked gate,
that legacy’s stark shrine
the cameras flashed applause.




The Clan Bard of the Drakensberg

in memoriam Msebenzi Hlongwane
imbongi of the AmaNgwane

Behind that weathered face of yours,
a face that held a Grecian statue’s look
of gaunt contempt at all things mean,

what memories of glossy cattle herds,
of honey-coloured domes of grass
and iron-bright spear-blades seethed?

You came to me again, grey bard,
blind as a Homer of the Drakensberg
as I sat hot and fretful in my car,

clamped in a Midrand traffic crawl,
bleeping off signals from my phone
to meetings streets and streets away.

Why had you come to haunt me there?
Knobbed stick, short spear in hand,
you flickered in my trafficked mind.

I wondered what you’d make of us,
you who’d strolled the hills barefoot,
breath-close to kin, to dung and dust.

How would you view the billboard ads,
the maze of streets, the rush, rush, rush
of symbiotic strangers round a town?

I turned a talk-show’s chatter down
and saw you whole, a frail old man
dressed in a ragged shirt and coat

shuffling over the dawn-brimmed dew
towards a cattle byre below the crags
where I had come to drink your springs.

On goat-scoured hills - your pastoral epic
of thick-packed shacks, a shop, a school
and kin whose children wake in towns.

Is this what cities do to clans?
you made me ask as you trudged past
a rib-rack whippet suckling pups.

A pregnant girl yawned in a door,
a radio throbbed with gospel choirs
as you put out a hand and touched

a fence that kraaled a few thin cows,
turned to the sun, raised up a spear
and chanted out an orison of praise.

Still tense, at being so late, so stuck
in lanes of town-bound trucks and cars,
I only heard faint remnants of your poem.

That phrase where one king’s called

Those references to pumpkin-plants,
to fords and feuds now as obscure
as pot-chips dug from cave-bed soil.

That warrior boast, dying in the air,
that Matiwane your Hercules slew
and slew until his eyes turned red.

Aaah Tshani! Grain-pit-of-memories!

You looked so small, yet so defiant

below that huge amphitheatre of rock.
How I admired and loved you then.
You prompt me still, my bardic shade,

to lift my voice, to praise the dawn
when I sit still and start to write
within the amphitheatre of a screen




The Golden Rhino of Mapungubwe

A gully of thorn-bush, smitten by the heat.
Ant-heap pinnacles, like Gaudi’s cathedral.
And sightings, in cycads, of pale grey hide.
Ear-scallops. The dusty boulder of a rump.

You were a saga upwind of me. Had been,
for millions of years. A Pliocene mammal
getting on with it. That maw of a mouth
lipping, ripping, grinding scrub to a mash.

I sat in a jeep, my camera aimed like a rifle,
and zoomed in. On a snuffling, slobbering,
pig-eyed cranium. A calloused flange of lip.
Click. I bagged in pixels a kill of your being.

What art, I thought, could begin to semaphore
the instincts delicately latticed in your genes,
the shoals of blood-sacs bred in your marrow
and your whole horned hunger to live, live, live?

A month or so later, back home at my desk,
tracking your spoor through the internet bush,
I marvelled at what the artists had made of you
centuries back in Mapungubwe’s hill-top smithy.

You were a small, austere replica of your self,
a talisman crafted by the sculptors of the village,
a totem whittled from wood and skinned in gold
to strengthen and beautify the life of the clan.

I gazed and gazed, at the stump-strong legs,
the hippo-squat bulk, a head dropped to charge,
loving your lustre, your bony snort of a tail.
And then you charged, right out of the screen

into the word-carved talisman of this poem.

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