Art and Literature for Africa and the World

Two Poems

Two Poems

We Danced with Strangers

Laughter and the touch of strangers
are what I remember most that night,
moments before the old year gave way
to the new. We danced in circles intoxicated
not with alcohol, but with something that had
nothing to do with the past.

My brown arms grew sweaty as they rubbed
against someone else’s, someone I had just met
by chance. Our eyes reflected the flash
of colours in that dim tavern.

Rage Against the Machine
took turns with Lionel Richie
and Earth Wind and Fire.

It was the year Mandela never saw coming
while he was in prison, though he must have dreamed it
countless times when the lights went out,
or as he struck a rhythm from a boulder
with a state-issued hammer.

 

Dancing with a Phantom Limb

You laughed when you saw your hand try to scratch
the back of a knee that was no longer there.
My smile was a late and uncomfortable response.

The rest of your body swerved as if to deliver a kick
to a soccer ball that strayed toward us. We watched it
continue rolling past where your foot should have been.

Once you shuddered without warning, as if an exposed
electric cable had touched your leg, the one they had to sever
in an attempt to stop the cancer.

That beast, detected by instruments that traced
only what gets ravaged, played random games with your flesh,
drained the glimmer in your eyes at unexpected moments.

If I had known then how much you loved to dance,
I would have asked you to show me your best moves,
perhaps use my shoulder for balance.

A pair with three legs, laughing away
the awkwardness and the pain, as if we had known
each other since childhood and the day wouldn’t end.

 

 

 

Jim Pascual Agustin was born in the Philippines and has lived in Cape Town, South Africa since 1994. He writes and translates in Filipino and English. His most recent books are published by San Anselmo Publications in Manila: How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems and Crocodiles in Belfast & other poems.

Shelley Reeves obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from Rhodes University, Grahamstown, in 1994, where her final fourth year examination painting was purchased by the University’s Painting Department. She completed thirteen years’ High School Visual Arts teaching in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. Her first solo exhibition was held in Durbanville, Cape Town in 2017. Working primarily in oils and oil pastels, the Biblical messages of new life, hope and love are faithfully portrayed within the realistic realm of vibrant, figurative designs.

Stranglehold

Stranglehold

We build a pyre, my lover
and I, and start
to make a pact off the flames
here, in the middle of the world
here, which doubles as the focal point
of nowhere,
we trace the twinkling locomotion
of glow worms,
count moments between each illumination
and the next.
These nights are theirs,
you tell me,
and so is the world.
We’re only nocturnal guests
of these species.
And, at once, a secret kept in time
as a wellspring is revealed.
And in knowing, I say:
These are the lucky ones.
For, to shed all the little lights
of the world, and
not yourself be so bereft
of light in the end
as to need daily medication,
is, in itself, a gift.

It’s hard to take this confession
as mine;
harder still, to believe
that I could ever say so.

 

 

 

Chisom Okafor, Nigerian poet and clinical nutritionist, shuttles back and forth between the diet clinic and the Nigerian Army College of Nursing, where he teaches courses on clinical nutrition and dietetics. His debut full-length manuscript was a finalist for the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.

Annette du Plessis is a South African artist who works in many different media, including embroidery. She has been awarded an FNB Craft Vita Award and a Certificate of Excellence from the Eastern Cape Department of Arts and Culture. She has been involved in several community art projects, serving some of the poorest communities in South Africa. Her work is in many private and public collections. Read more about her creations here: https://annetteduplessisembroideryart.wordpress.com/

Abecedarian for Death by Euthanasia

Abecedarian for Death by Euthanasia

After I give release, the body
becomes a decision made. No longer body, it is now
corpse. A memory to dig a hole for or to scatter in a garden. In
death there is no pain. No tails to wag or faces to lick, no
excitement, only stillness. Once breath
fades, I remove all mark that I was here. I am
giver of an ending. My instruments
have no place beside the already dead.
I cover, shroud with a blanket.
Just right so that it cradles the head,
keeps all that emptiness warm.
Love looks a lot like letting go, sometimes. I touch an arm,
my job is to make that easier, the
need to hold on, the inability to face that it is
over. That no one will wake you at 6am to go out to bark anymore. I
place them down with the gentleness of a lover. Let those left behind collapse
quiet as ashes on the ground. I am the walls they lean on, the foundation, their
rock. I am the only one still
standing in these final moments, after life has left the room.
Twisted as it may sound, the body
understands. Makes space for the leaving from the
very beginning. The last breath of relief has become my most trusted sound.
When my time comes, I hope to be held
exactly as I have held these creatures before – calm
yet gentle. Certain yet compassionate, a
zone of everything will be okay – now you can go.

 

 

 

Melissa Sussens is a queer veterinarian and poet. Her work has appeared in Kissing Dynamite, Anti-Heroin Chic and SFWP Quarterly, among others. She placed 2nd in the 2020 New Contrast National Poetry Prize and lives in Cape Town with her fiancée and their two dogs. Find her on Instagram @melissasussens.

Griet van der Meulen was born in 1956 in the province of Mpumalanga, where she has a small gallery in Graskop, mainly to serve as a platform for local artists, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to exhibit their work. She has taken part in many local and overseas exhibitions in Canada and Germany. In 1991 she was awarded the Schweikerdt Prize for excellence in painting. In 2001 the Mpumalanga Government and German Frauen Kunstforum sponsored her for a residency in Dortmund Germany. Griet also lived in Ottawa for four years where she was part of a group of artists called The Women’s Environmental Network. She has taken part in various exhibitions, and her work is on permanent display in the Graskop Gallery.

Funambulist

Funambulist

I’ve had the same tightrope for 25 years. Mark, who was trained by the fearless Philip Petite, taught me how to walk the rope. Mark could juggle balls, bowling pins, and torches on fire while walking across. I can’t – but I can let the rope swing wildly under me and then stop it without falling off. I think of it as calming the rope down, the wild thing.

Walking the rope is controlling the beast of erratic movement, inside and out. If I’m not concentrating, there are consequences. Like when I realized, in a flash of insight, that Mark was the one calling me in the middle of the night, every night for the past two months, breathing heavily and talking dirty. I fell and that was my last time across the rope for a long time. Having my teacher stare up between my legs was an image in my brain I had difficulty erasing. Talk about a beast.

In the late 60s there was no Manhattan, just New York. It was the only place to be if you were to have a life in theatre, which I was determined to have. My first apartment was in Queens at the end of the line of the RR subway at Ditmars Boulevard, a forlorn neighborhood of dismal grime. The studio apartment was cheap but tiny for two girls just graduated from high school. I didn’t really know Judy, just that, like me, she didn’t want to go to college and wanted to start right in with a career. I’m not sure what her aspirations were because she only worked temp jobs and then left New York after one month, taking all my clothes with her. She also had sex with my high school sweetheart, Bobby, on the connecting daybed next to mine when I still refused to go all the way with him, our three heads nearly touching as they writhed and moaned their way to climax. There was also my landlord that waited for me in the narrow hallway when I got home from work late at night. He’d stand in the narrow hallway to my apartment so his body could brush up against mine. He never did anything other than press his lumbering body into mine, but I developed an ulcer nevertheless. I found a doctor in the Yellow Pages who also lived in Queens. At first, the doctor said he had to examine everything and started right in rummaging around in my vagina with his white plastic glove. I started to yell and didn’t stop until the secretary came in.  I pulled up my underpants and stalked out, making my way to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, which I’d also found in the yellow pages. There I had to wait three hours only to be told by the emergency doctor that I should drink lots of milk and get more sleep.

In those days no one talked about being taken advantage of or inappropriate fondling, let alone sexual harassment because the phrase didn’t exist back then. I was 18 and in New York to study acting with the top theatre schools in the country. The pressure to find a decent place to live, make a living, and start acting school was enough to think about. I also had pressure from home. I’d just graduated from high school and my father wanted me to go to college, but I didn’t want to go to college; I wanted to be an artist. So I struck a deal with him. After my first month in New York, I would have a paying job, an acting gig, and be enrolled in an acting school. And if I managed these three vital things, he would send me one hundred dollars a month.

At the end of the first month, I scored a waitress job, was in the chorus of an Off-Off Broadway production of Pal Joey (with no pay) and was an eager student at the Irene Dailey School of Acting. Irene was on Broadway then in the play, You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running. She was legit. Every morning I rode the RR subway to 42nd street at 4 in the morning to serve 25 cent coffees till 9, with a breakfast of all the chocolate milk I wanted. At 10, I was in class on 14th street studying voice, movement, and improvisation with Irene and another teacher who had me crawling around on my hands and knees to experience what it was like to be poverty stricken. Rehearsals for Pal Joey were at night and then I’d ride the subway back to Queens to face my leechy landlord and my sex-crazed roommate. At least I had a hundred dollars more a month.

My grim determination to study acting blanketed a deep insecurity that I really didn’t know what I was doing. I’d acted in plays in a local college during high school and was in my first professional show in summer stock at 16. But these experiences didn’t prepare me for hard-core, fast paced New Yorkers who, I thought, had no time for a neophyte like me. I only realized later that playing other people was probably not the best way to gain self-confidence.

Men stepped in to lead the way. Ironic that I wouldn’t let my dad tell me what to do but when it came to men in New York, I assumed they knew better what was good for me. And because I was young and pretty and passionate about my path in life, a lot of men thought that was just adorable. Luckily, I had enough sense to let them know straight off that I would never sleep with them, which I never would have anyway because they were all considerably older by a good 30 years. Unfortunately, these men had power and that was something I severely lacked. They were the teachers, the producers and directors, the landlords and the bosses.

For my first film audition I had to fill out a form. I’d never had to do that before in an audition, but all the other hopefuls were scribbling away so what did I know? On the form, when I got to the line will you perform S & M? I asked the girl next to me what S & M meant. She looked at me and said, “Are you kidding me?” and turned away. I left it blank (there was no internet in those days and no cell phones. My education consisted of books and the woods back home. S & M could have meant Susie and Mark for all I knew).

After a bunch of girls came and went, I was called into a plush office where a middle-aged, puffy-faced man sat in a large swivel chair with his feet up on the desk. I handed him my mostly filled-out form, my headshot and résumé. When I went to sit down in the chair opposite, he told me to walk around the room first, turn around, then walk some more. “Nice,” he said. “Very nice.” He proceeded to tell me what my part would be in the film. I was inwardly thrilled. He was considering me already for the lead! “You’ll play the nanny. Working for a rich family. The father lusts after you. There’ll be a golden shower scene with you and him. A few friends over.” I interrupted and asked what a golden shower was. He laughed and said I was so cute. “It’s where they pee all over you.” Jumping out of the chair, I said, “Is this a B movie?” (that’s what porn films were called). He laughed again and said of course it is, “What did you think?” I shot back and told him I’d never be caught dead in a B movie; “This is disgusting.” He jumped up, threw my résumé and photo of my face in my face and said, “You come in here with your fat résumé and dare to insult me? Get out!”

Afterwards I sat in Howard Johnson’s on Times Square having a hot dog and coke and thought it through. I’d promised my dad I’d never take off my clothes for any job and I never would. But the fat résumé part? I’d had some experience but certainly not like the creepy director inferred. I’d just chalked up another confusing, humiliating audition to add to my big fat career.

I got my first real paying job with Kelly Girls, a temp agency. Waitressing didn’t count because number one it was exhausting, and number two, I had to wear a white uniform that spotlighted every one of those ten pounds I’d gained on the creamy chocolate milk. Even my boss at the restaurant said, while patting my butt, I should lay off the chocolate milk. Luckily Kelly Girls sent me to Wall Street to an ad agency job. I wore a shiny purple blouse with a matching mini skirt. To be alluring was the only power I had, and I needed to get out of the 5 AM, poundage-making waitress job. The ad agency had only two men and one of them needed a secretary. The other guy had a secretary, a doughy matron that hated me from the get-go. I told them I could type 120 words a minute, which at best I could eke out 60 and she knew it. When the guy asked me to take dictation, I wrote down a bunch of symbols and abbreviations which worked well enough to get the job. I was good at memorizing.

I lasted at the agency for three weeks until my boss invited me for dinner at his apartment on 5th Avenue opposite the Met. When I went to the bathroom after dinner to pee, I came out and discovered that he’d gotten into his big fluffy bed naked and was waiting for me. When I saw him, I burst out laughing and said, “Are you kidding me?” Of course, it was a stupid thing to say to my boss, but I went into work the next day anyway. He didn’t show up for a week. I thought he was really sick because when he came back, he looked peeked and distraught. He leaned over my desk (I had my very own) and whispered, “You best leave.” I felt guilty, but I reasoned myself out of not feeling responsible because I’d told him I would never sleep with him right from the very beginning. Men weren’t good listeners.

After months of pounding the relentless concrete, urine-soaked subways, and the shaming auditions (exhaustion and insecurity are a lethal mix for nailing an audition), I finally found a secure place to live. The Katherine House for Girls, on 8th Street between 4th and 5th Avenue, was a residential hotel for girls. The idea was for the “girls” to have a safe place to stay until our careers got going and we’d found our own apartments.

At the Katherine House, I lived in a tiny pea-green room with a tiny sink, tiny bed, tiny desk, and a tiny chair where I sat and wrote volumes of poetry every morning on my cheap baby blue typewriter. Most of the poems were about the thrill of walking the slack rope and the dread of being followed. I wrote a poem that even got published called “It’s not that I would like to be a man” about wishing I had the freedom of men, walking the streets without the unending catcalls and whistles.

Then I met Frank, the photo retoucher for Richard Avedon. He took me under his wing and retouched me, to put it mildly ‒ taught me how to dress, do my makeup (which till then I’d never worn), and how to act around men. Be bold, don’t suck up, and slap them if necessary, which I never did. I’m not sure I even considered doing that till after-the-fact, which of course is too late. Frank also took me out to fancy dinners and drove me across the Brooklyn Bridge at night in his BMW convertible with the top down. I told him the first time, like every older man I dated (I never seemed to meet any boys my age in New York) that I would never, ever, no matter what, sleep with him and I never did. I met Frank because I answered an ad in the Backstage newspaper for an artist’s model. He paid twenty dollars an hour which at the time was a fortune. I only had to lie there on a love seat in his fancy Eastside apartment and he’d paint me. While he painted, he told me he’d always wanted to be an artist but there was no money in it, just like in acting, so he understood my predicament. He let me watch him when he retouched photographs of famous models, erasing all the lines and excess skin and anything else that didn’t make them appear perfect. That was the best training I could have had, learning that these famous people were as flawed as I was, at least physically. Unfortunately, Frank fell in love with me and became obsessed like all the others. I’d thought by telling men that I would not, under any circumstances, have sex with them that that would solve any further issues that might arise. Apparently, I was wrong. This made my life more confusing than it already was.

I was beginning to learn that men would never be the way to solve my stomach problems, my crazy roommate and landlord, a succession of audition rejections, overcrowded and elitist acting schools, temporary jobs that lasted one week or three if I was lucky, and a cockroach infested apartment if I could afford one. After months of demeaning auditions and a few measly Off-Off Broadway acting jobs with no pay, I figured I had no talent and decided to quit. My theatre career was over. Finished. New York was the last stop. If I couldn’t make it there, I was nothing.

There are all kinds of tightrope walking situations. Some are on a taut wire, like moving to the city at 18, and some are on a slack rope, like waiting six weeks to act in a five-minute scene in Lee Strasberg’s acting class, hoping for a morsel of feedback. Either way, there’s always the potential of falling. Just keep on pretending. After all, that’s what acting is all about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in The Rupture, Critical Read, Epiphany, Memoir Monday, Westerly, Channel, Capsule, Tiny Molecules, Sky Island Journal, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.

 

Stephanie Liebetrau lives and works in Port Elizabeth/ Gqeberha. She completed a Diploma in Graphic Design at Cape Technikon. Her evocative oil paintings & collages fuse South African women with natural elements to create hybrids that diffuse the boundary between the real and recreated. She explores themes such as Eco-Feminism and remains fascinated by the “fragile hieroglyphics” in nature’s design. Her work is often ekphrastic, inspired by poetry, scripture and sacred texts.

 

Left Hand

Left Hand

As sung by those who have experienced miracles.

Legend is told
of one Saint
Francis of Assisi
at the mount
of La Verna
his left hand
blocking the rays
of scorching sun

as he was
approached by an
angelic figure
with visible scars
as if inflicted
by bronze nails
of Jerusalem’s fingers

& there is but
ONE
thing to be
deadly afraid of
the fact that
if even Saints
have transcendent apparitions
appear before them
then what of
humankind in fear
for their lives

 

 

 

Sihle Ntuli is a South African poet based in Durban. Sihle’s work has appeared in a few notable places, including Lolwe, The Rumpus and Johannesburg Review of Books. Sihle also published a chapbook in 2020 called Rumblin’.

Griet van der Meulen was born in 1956 in the province of Mpumalanga, where she has a small gallery in Graskop, mainly to serve as a platform for local artists, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to exhibit their work. She has taken part in many local and overseas exhibitions in Canada and Germany. In 1991 she was awarded the Schweikerdt Prize for excellence in painting. In 2001 the Mpumalanga Government and German Frauen Kunstforum sponsored her for a residency in Dortmund Germany. Griet also lived in Ottawa for four years where she was part of a group of artists called The Women’s Environmental Network. She has taken part in various exhibitions, and her work is on permanent display in the Graskop Gallery.

Electronic City

Electronic City

The new suburbs create

Confession booths out of lofty balconies.

We kneel in front of the remaining trees.

The new offshoots in concrete

Written off as weed—

The soil knows only what it grows.

Born as a raita amongst leafy kindness,

You ward off tourists in the farmland

As meticulously as parasites in a crop.

Two months after the wind takes down

The watchtower at the farm, there’s enough

Tarpaulin pieces to stitch together a new roof,

Thanks to the saheb in the new society

Where you wash cars.

The ooru grows beyond

Known names and languages

Into app-driven zones that accept delivery.

Your son gasps,

Comparing the bill for a dining order

With his measly pay as a delivery boy.

Isn’t the tale of Bangalore,

The tale of food too?

 

 

 

Notes: Raita is the term for a farmer in Kannada language. Saheb is often an equivalent for Sir in India. Ooru is a village in Karnataka.

 

 

Aditya Shankar was born and raised in India. His poetry, flash fiction and translations are in journals and anthologies around the world. He has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize multiple times. His most recent book XXL (Dhauli Books, 2018) was shortlisted for the Yuva Puraskar (selected by Sahitya Akademi). Shankar’s other books are After Seeing (2006) and Party Poopers (2014). He lives in Bangalore.

 

Born 1976 in Durban, South Africa, Tanisha Bhana is an interdisciplinary artist who also practices as a financial attorney. Through her use of photographic montage, she composes a new visual narrative with layers of charged images. She has participated in numerous collaborative projects, most notably the display of works with poet and activist, Dr Rama Mani, for the performance-dialogue on “War, Women and the Human Spirit”, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Canada, in June 2014. She has been awarded several awards including the New and Multi-media and Photography Award by the Thami Mnyele Foundation in 2013. She regularly participates in group exhibitions locally and internationally.

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