Home Page African Writing Online Home Page [many literatures, one voice]  
HomeAbout UsNewsinterviewsSubscribeFictionPoetryThe Call to ActionArtReviews

  A. A. Waberi
  A. Garriga-Lopez
  Alex Smith
  Arja Salafranca

  Bashir A. Adan
  Belinda Otas
  Chika Unigwe
  Chinua Achebe
  Chuma Nwokolo
  Damilola Ajayi
  Diana Evans
  Don Mattera
  Farouk O. Sesay
  Laila Lalami
  Lola Shoneyin
  Maxim Uzoatu
  Memory Chirere
  Mukoma wa Ngugi
  Mwila A. Zaza
  N Brew-Hammond
  Ovo Adagha
  Peter W. Vakunta
  Rose Francis
  Sarah Manyika
  T Mushakavanhu
  Tola Ositelu
  V Ehikhamenor
  Zainabu Jallo
  Zoe Norridge

Submission Guidelines

African Writing Archives




Dennis Brutus



Dennis Brutus, 1924 - 2009. Writer, Activist and Humanist



photocredit: Matthew Bradley


 Dennis Brutus and the Orphean Troubadour  



studied at universities in Nigeria and at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York. His books include Unspeakable Protocols (2010), Tigress at Full Moon (2010), The World of Barack Obama (ed., 2010), Igbos of Northern Nigeria (1996), and Rituals of the Sun (1992). His awards include the Donatus Nwoga Prize for Literary Criticism in Poetry (2009), the Charanjit Rangi Leadership Award for Faculty Professional Excellence from the College of Arts & Sciences, Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio (2008), Golden Key International Honor Society (2008), Resolution Recognition from the Greene County Board of Commissioners, Ohio State (2007), “Applause” Award from Xenia Daily Gazette, Xenia, Ohio (2007), Phi Beta Delta Award for International Scholars (2000), and Fellow of the International School of Theory in the Humanities (1998).

Dennis Brutus represents his poetic protagonist as a latter-day troubadour, like the Hellenic Orpheus or the Judeo-Egyptian Moses, who is given a glimpse of an impossible beauty that he could not behold. In the myth of Orpheus, for instance, the poet-lover transmutes from songs of revelry to elegies of solitude. Orpheus’s quest after his wife Eurydice, who is bitten to death by a nest of snakes, takes him through a tortuous odyssey from the land of the living to the chasm of Hades and back to an inevitable destruction. Brutus’s poetic personage comes with the complete ensemble of a verdant allure, an invasive serpent, and a foreshadowing violence. His poetry is a song of love, betrayal, torment, and death.

Theodore Sheckels notes that a great deal of contemporary South African literature deals with sufferings in the mines and the prisons, particularly the latter. Significantly, whereas twentieth century speculative philosophers emphasize the prison condition of life in the abstract, many apartheid-era South African writers and scholars actually lived it. Brutus is a prominent example of such a writer-scholar whose experience of a prison term at the infamous Robben Island with Nelson Mandela likewise imprisons his poetic persona in a perpetual loneliness. The troubadour of his poetry is the most melancholic of all South African literary protagonists. His hero is forever a lover, scouring through the depths of his beloved’s contours in an insatiable quest that leaves him empty. He is always the soldier engrossed in the conquest of diverse territories that only leaves a bequest of blood and bodies, turning his glories into ashes. He is a marooned poet dutifully carving his beloved’s sonorous eulogies on the hardened barks of history, only to behold a ricochet of sullen notes of unrequited love.

But the troubadour’s beloved is also the South African land, the Earth Mother, for the muse is feminine and continuous. In South Africa, the poet himself wandered the wide expanse of his country as a child, student, lover and husband, scholar-poet, sports enthusiast, political organizer, social activist, and prisoner.1 Outside his country, he roamed as a perpetual exile through Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas, separated from wife and family back home, for the liberation of South Africa. In all cases, he could not distinguish between his love for his wife and his love for his land, which are inextricable and one. Alvarez-Pereyre rightly posits that Brutus expresses his love for his country in sexual terms. Jacqueline Rose believes that the analyst Jacques Lacan gives a good account of how the status of the “phallus in human sexuality enjoins on the woman a definition in which she is simultaneously symptom and myth.” It is in this light that Brutus’s poetry collection, A Simple Lust (1973), is a perfect choice for the present study.

“A Troubadour, I Traverse All My Land” is one of the star poems of the collection whose prominence in being widely anthologized stems not only from its haunting beauty but even more from its exploitation of the sexual dilemmas of human experience. It is a poem with a double-gaze, like a double-barrel gun. As we turn to one eye, another eye of equal power beckons on us to turn to it. This creates a double-consciousness:

A troubadour, I traverse all my land
exploring all her wide-flung parts with zest
probing in motion sweeter far than rest
her secret thickets with amorous hand

The poetic gaze could have been that of a soldier or a lover, but it is also that of a poet. The excitement aptly described does not persist, however, for the discerning mind is drawn to the sub-text of alienation and defeat. The imagination wanders from the expectation of the “zest” of the “amorous hand” to “those who banned/enquiry and movement,” “doomed by Saracened arrest,” “the captor’s hand,” a weathered strand,” and the last two lines: “- no mistress-favor has adorned my breast/only the shadow of an arrow-brand.”

Brutus’s poetry is not a celebration of love but a mourning of Eros. The beauty it chants is a deceptive glory that belongs to pre-history. The South Africa of the poet’s experience is not the new Eden that its invaders imagined, but a fragmented wasteland they sustained. The only song made possible by the apartheid regime is the dirge of ashes. The next poem shows as much:

Take out the poetry and fire
or watch it ember out of sight,
sanity reassembles its ash

But here and here remain the scalds
a sudden turn or breath may ache,
and I walk soft on cindered pasts
for thought or hope (what else?) can break.

The Orphean troubadour wanders through the reins of his past seeking signs of wonder, only to behold a foreshadowing of his own end. Gordimer observes in her novel July’s People (1981) that the miracle of the saints was dehumanizing. Miracles come from suffering and death. The conquering soldier and excited lover of Brutus’s earlier poem, becomes a demented ranter in the second poem scouring through the wreckage of his homestead. The fire is gone out of the flagrant lover. The soldier’s gun is now an empty shell.

From his defeat and hopelessness, the troubadour turns attention to counting his losses in the poem, “Nightsong: City”. Everywhere he goes an image persists – that of “violence like a bug-infested rag.” What he sees are “shanties creaking iron-sheets.” Fear pervades the space. Yet he neither abandons one nor the other of his loves: “my land, my love, sleep well.” The wasteland is a common image that runs through much of apartheid South African literature. This is demonstrated in Gordimer’s July's People where ruffians besiege the city and the citizens scatter in flight. This is also seen in Gordimer’s short story “The Lion on the Freeway” and Shirley Eskapa’s short story “Between the Sheet,” in which there is no borderline between violence and peace. In these stories men and women escape into each other’s beds and flesh, dreading both the setting and the rising of the sun.

When love succumbs to violence, hate invades human relationships. The poem “A Common Hate Enriched Our Love and Us” shows how gluttony and parasitic oppression can nourish hatred in the polity: “Rich foods knotted to revolting clots/ of guilt and anger in our queasy guts/ remembering the hungry comfortless.” Apartheid is a regime that thrives on hierarchy. Its policies are inhuman, carving out two classes of humans and animals. The animals, like the poor, are necessary for the benefit of the rich humans. What does their deprivation matter, though it engenders the “land’s disfigurement and tension,” as “hate gouged out deeper levels for our passion.” I have already called attention to the pervasive explorations of animality in the South African imagination in the essay, “Roy Campbell and the Animal Father” (2009).

“Desolate” is a poem in which Brutus’s bitter troubadour sings triumphantly over his vicious attack on his beloved. The poem rises from panegyrism to sadomasochism. It illustrates an old theme of love as a battle. Sexual intercourse becomes an act of murder in which the lover stabs the beloved with a knife. But it also evidences the lover’s willingness to commit suicide:

your face gleams up
beneath me in the dusk
a wounded dove
beneath the knife of love

The French novelist, Andre Malraux, uses the same imagery at the beginning of The Human Condition (1933), based on the Chinese Revolutions of 1927. Leon Uris also explores it differently in his novel The Haj (1984), based on the Israeli war with the Arabs. In all three cases love is depicted as a self-inflicted injury and war is an act of love in which no one wins. This is the sense that permeates John Donne’s seventeenth century metaphysical poem “The Flea.” This is the precise thrust of Brutus’s metaphor in the poem.

Like A Simple Lust, Brutus’s other classic collection Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (1968) is equally preoccupied with the rape of the South African land. In contrast, however, the voice of the inconsolable troubadour becomes plainer and much more vehement. The songs tumble out in explosive charges that aim their barbs at social upheaval. In the first poem of Letters to Martha entitled “Early Poems: I,” it is the troubadour as a soldier who charges at the head of a battalion:

Abolish laughter first, I say:
Or find its gusts reverberate
with shattering force through halls of glass
that artifice and lies have made.

As in Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold”…and the Boys (1982), the assault is on the rotten roots of apartheid founded on shallow claims of authority. As in Christopher Okigbo’s “Path of Thunder,” Brutus calls on all known registers of anger and battlement to drive home the forcefulness of his project: “multi-choired Thunder,” “jackbooks batter,” “wolfmind bards,” “earth snarls apocalyptic anger,” and “charred to dust.” In the poem “Longing”, such militaristic terms recur, as demonstrated by such words as “detonation,” “ballistic,” “blast,” “fission,” “devastating,” “explodes,” and “poison.”

The poems of the “After Exile” section of A Simple Lust are dense and thoughtful. They appear more like the philosophical ruminations of a sage. They are elegies that pull at the heartstrings of a broken exile in all his anguish. In the poem “At Last the Roses Burn,” written in London, the colors are representative of the tri-focal racial conflict of apartheid South Africa:

At last the roses burn
red flames and orange,
tea-rose pink and white
smoldering in the dark foliage
in the dark-green lustrous leaves:
the world is ripening and abundant
replete with its joyous growth
while my heart, unseasonal, grieves.

Brutus distinguishes between the war of hate and waste in his country and the beauty of the outside world in which he now lives. His grief heightens since there does not seem to be an end to the destruction at home.

A similar pattern is replayed in the poem “I Am a Tree.”. Each of the stanzas describes the different attitudes of South African three dominant ethnicities: the Afrikaners, the English, and the Africans

I am the tree
creaking in the wind
outside in the night
twisted and stubborn:

I am the sheet
of the twisted tin shack
grating in the wind
in a shrill sad protest:

I am the voice
crying in the night
that cries endlessly
and will not be consoled.

The first stanza suggests the stubborn Afrikaners who introduced the oppressive color politics of apartheid with the rise to power of D.F. Malan’s Nationalist Party in 1948. The second stanza would suggest the protesting English whose party, the United Party of General Smuts, was defeated in the 1948 general elections. The third stanza would reference the black Africans who were suppressed and exploited by both regimes. The troubadour is a complex subject whose experience is the collective consciousness of his people.

In the last poem of the collection, “A Simple Lust Is All My Woe,” the troubadour as a multi-dimensional consciousness bewails his self-destruct in an ungainly sexuality. He decries the impoverishment of his people, their suffering, and their inarticulate speech. What begins as a heroic gesture in human quest for regeneration ends in exhaustion and disaster:

A simple lust is all my woe:
the thin thread of agony
that runs through the reins
after the flesh is overspent
in over-taxing acts of love

The protagonist of Brutus’s poetry is a fetishized masculinity who feels impelled to satiate the desires of the beloved and the land with equal and simultaneous passion. The truth, however, is that his own inherent desire is much greater than that of his double-barreled beloved. His sexual overdrive needs more than one beloved to fulfill it, which then drives him from the women to the Earth-Mother and back again. The fantasy of phallic jouissance is a fraud; it neither produces satisfaction nor is it an agency for happiness. The poetic troubadour dissipates his energies in running from pillar to post, spent and wasted. It is this embarrassing tragic flaw that is responsible for the intensity of his elegiac grief and loneliness. Lacan posits that, “The result is a centrifugal tendency of the genital drive in the sexual life of the man which makes impotence much harder for him to bear, at the same time as the verdrängung inherent to desire is greater.”

The ultimate tragedy, in other words the Orphean gaze, of the South African experience is that Dennis Brutus’s passionate hero sets out to rescue an Edenic virgin of pristine purity, but ends up possessing a ravished prostitute of a desolate wasteland. That is why in the last but one poem of the collection the sights that confront the bewildered troubadour in his wanderings are “lonely men/gaunt … with hunger around the eyes,” and busy women/friendly strangers in a hundred lands.” The concept of “South African hunger” which I dealt with extensively first in 2006, is of primary concern to Brutus as he signifies in his poetic tribute to the venerable Albert John Luthuli, “For Chief”. In a poem of 1978, a decade after A Simple Lust, Brutus returns to the subject again by recognizing the Afrikaner origins of this perennial, all-consuming “hunger,” “longing,” or “yearning” as “smagting” (Poetry 276): “Here, of the things I mark/ I note a recurring hunger for the sun … At home, in prison, under house arrest/ the self-same smagting bit me.” That is what apartheid as a postcolonial phenomenon is all about: fragmentation and alienation. Not even a heroic troubadour is safe from its vicious excess.

Copyright © African Writing Ltd & respective copyright owners. Enquiries to permissions@african-writing.com.