Charl-Pierre Naudé – translated by/vertaal deur die outeur/author
Charl-Pierre Naudé has had two volumes of Afrikaans poetry published: Die Nomadiese Oomblik (Tafelberg, 1995) and In die geheim van die dag (Protea, 2005). The first received the Ingrid Jonker Prize in 1997. The second was awarded the M-Net Prize for Afrikaans Poetry in 2005 and the Protea Prize in the same year. Naudé’s first English volume of poetry, Against the light, apeared late in 2007. In 2009 a limited bibliophile edition of some poems appeared in a Dutch/Afrikaans bilingual presentation. He works as a freelance journalist and is a regular columnist for the Afrikaans daily newspaper, Beeld.
A couple of years back I spent a weekend
on a deserted farm, in northeast Mpumalanga.
The world’s highest count of vertical lightning,
they say, occurs in this region.
The sky grows dark; silver and crimson-
and the crashing sounds begin. A tall tree
might catch fire. I was with my Berlin friend,
we were lovers at the time and far from
our little house when the storm started to gather.
She was homesick for her city, with its history of ashes…
Walking, we could feel the static loading
in our hair and in our clothes, the granite
blocks stacking up, in a world invisible.
The track wound slowly to an open plateau,
a high ground
where the angry heavens would slaughter all movement.
A rumour, of an old leopard that roams…
Our hearts were pounding, but too late to turn back.
Not so long ago there was a halfway shack.
Pods rattled; a tinny sound, of charms in the trees.
Past a little skull that grinned on a stick.
You know about the curse, I said alarmed, in a joke.
She stopped dead: “We must go back!” and stretched out an arm-
the small hairs erect, roots pulling;
tugged at me, and started to run, a leggy blonde girl,
an exotic ostrich across ancestral ground
of a vanquished African tribe burnt field of black stubble
blood ground her dress flying up like the petals of a mad flower,
flashing the chalice. Me after. Drenched.
eventually. Our candles were still burning.
But the place was a shambles: the tablecloth dragged,
glasses knocked over, plates everywhere.
A feral smell hung in the air. A wind, further in.
“Close everything!” I shouted. “Quick!” she matched.
We fastened the shutters, clunked on the door latches.
The clouds burst their seams. Hail and wind. Lashing
thunder. Safe now… Or not? We stood there dripping
with broad smiles like two river boats being launched.
Witchcraft… you run towards it, when you flee…
And thinking back, the shelter did not deliver us-we were
still on ancestors’ ground, exposed to its caprice.
Any two lovers naked are on ancestral ground.
The scavenger… was us, the human being, asking to be cared for.
And the lightning?
The flaring bolts of the afternoon-
that happened between us on arriving home
on the plateau of the heart, where no one can hide?
That was just mercy. Simple mercy.
A time of enchantment
A rosary of towns leaped aflame in the autumn:
ruined honeycombs, dripping with ash.
We drove into one. I was born here, said mom
on an epic journey, just the two of us.
“There, grandpa and grandma’s very first house.
How very small everything’s become …”
Ma stopped the car. We both got out.
I was six years old. I held her hand,
facing a path leading up to a door:
a fairytale wedding, of two different worlds.
My mother: “The footpath’s so narrow!”
But to me it was a highway broader than grace.
The giant tree that once almost killed her:
“It looks too trimmed or doesn’t get enough water!”
How strange, I thought then, though
I’d never been up that tree myself
I must’ve fallen out of it too that fateful day …
The branches waved like an admonishing Dear Lord.
Bees in the thyme bush as big as tiger fish.
And a breeze flicked through a swarm of butterflies
like fingers through patterns of summer frocks.
I looked up at my mother.
Her black hair bunched, like the grapes from Canaan.
I lived in a time of enchantment
but ma was already in the time thereafter.
“The postbox on poles was my little house by the sea.
Heavens, the house itself is no bigger than a post box …”
“How the world shrinks!,” she cried out
half-amused, then riddled with loss.
“Don’t worry, I’ll look after you,” I said.
Sometimes other voices speak through us.
And I remember how she stood there
at her old front gate,
bewildered like a child
and suddenly so small,
a little girl
in a very big world, that stretched out endlessly.
Ode to deserters
(After a visit to the battlefields of Flanders)
beloved deserters and cowards
who were shot here at the dawn hour,
were the embarrassed and wingless angels of a New Earth.
That shit gold, heroism, got its just deserts here
through your doing.
you fertilised the dazed, deserted mother mire
like blindfolded oxen from Revelations
with the half-life
of your radiating ploughshares,
pulled the dappled lie and the fake silver
by their parachute strings into the underworld,
Your quivering fear was equal
to the fearlessness of future.
The whole world was still dead
when you took a stand here.
Yours was the morning blood sweating
black like Bibles from the marching doorposts,
Stuck in birth, you were half-torn
from the pearl mother’s gaping throat shell
but from the peaks of your messenger caps dripped
the Glad Tidings of a brand new world.
Why are you so hated?
You transformed the world’s most cursed patch of grass
into a heroes’ acre.
Thanks to your guts
the whole damned condensed comet
of all the world’s wasted lead
will wipe out the dinosaurs like a hot-air balloon.
At least now there is hope.
(And don’t speak of a just war,
is someone murmuring about JUSTICE?
Surely that’s nothing but the same old skeletal scarecrow
knocking along on Gucci stilts and parading
in flapping hospital rags over the same coffin planks,
“No Answer” stitched onto her designer label?)
you deserters were the portable fire
that got carried off;
the cut crystal holy goblets that were dropped to smithereens
in the most unholy hour.
Who was it,
in this grinning scurvy earth,
where the stitches pull loose up to this day
over Mother Earth’s shame,
who received honours for bravery?
I mean, such crosses now,
was it Jesus Christ?
No, it was that ceaseless rifleman,
In a just battle, not so?
was a moustache without its Marcel Duchamp;
the mysterious old eel mouth made every urinal
look like Mona Lisa.
Ask this ditch …
sign of greater things to come …
And that praise-singing morphine needle,
John Macrae, was he any better?
He of the self-conscious, humourless,
catechising rhapsody, sliding so fingerless
over the toothless bowl of a dull-glowing,
meaningless guitar of broken strings, called patriotism?
Where were the gypsies in this spectacle?
At least they’ve got rhythm.
Shot at dawn.
gave a spanking new grammar to the world.
“Love, it’s too late now
but if there’s time at dawn,
can we set things right, please?”
“Lief, het is nu een beetje laat,
maar morgenochtend, als er tijd is,
schiet je dan mij tegen het ochtendgloren dood?”
It’s happening in all languages …
It is war that is the traitor.
It is the new morning that is the morning.
heirs of the new plots,
distinguished gardeners of the finest, yet unborn dawning Flanders,
you with your dayglo smiles deep in the ground,
you are the fifth season
that the seeds are all waiting for.
The new Persia.
You are the slumbering God
who will rise from death.
And this time, at least,
it will be the Truth.
(Tr. by the author)
of a towering rock,
steeped to its white collar frills
in the frothing green,
the fishermen can be seen.
They sit there astride,
with thighs and calves
sucked to the ridge
in a row,
bent forward slightly like hell-drivers
each with an eye squinting
on a line dotting out into the distance;
to the bone by the wind,
behind the fluttering handle bar
of a fishing rod;
capes and windbreakers
blown into humps
leaning to one side,
then to the other.
A tarpaulin wobbles –
canvass bags spin like wheels;
pipes gasp and splutter
and meters flap in the wind;
reels of darn let rip
in revolutions per minute
like tiny, whispering engines;
and they hang in there,
the weatherbeaten peels,
each with his woven odometer with the kilos stitched on;
speed kings of fabric,
cut out on motorbikes
of cloth folding
throbbing like flags,
in a Grand Prix
of the sewing machines.
(Tr. by the author)
Author’s note: “Ancestral ground” and “Time of enchantment” are from Against the light (Protea, 2007). This anthology were translations/versions of the same poems in the Afrikaans anthology In die geheim van die dag (Protea, 2004)
“Ode to deserters” and “The race” are new poems not yet collected in an anthology.
The title presentation as far as capital letters go, was not done according to the usual English rule, but according to the Afrikaans rule, i.e. not Ancestral Ground, but Ancestral ground. This is due to inhouse rules of the particular publisher, and may be changed upon reproduction according to new inhouse rules.
Other poems with the permission of Poetry International web:
has it come to this?
We’re right next to each other but so far apart;
two lovebirds transmitted by mere signal,
Into four lovebirds.
Breaking up too, like a sardine run on the make,
with no chance ever of reaching the other shore.
I’m against love, the whole multiplication thing:
the Vatican’s never-ending bakery, as well as the fish shop
I’m not fooled by your nipples pricking up, you’re just
panel-beating your armour.
The metaphors have become soldiers, the gestures are all stretchers
now and you’re a babushka-doll
of never-ending napoleons, one smaller
than the other.
Strip the peacemakers naked and throw them out the windows –
trussed, hot cross buns first, I don’t care about the middle ground!
Let’s split up. The nice thing about the atom
being divided is you can trust it,
a million times over.
And our sweet words? They’ve soured –
the poisonous petit-fours of a deserted voodoo ritual.
The only good thing about this is to see
how the counsellors in my mind’s eye
and the priests flee,
those black peacocks in their useless sandals.
I’m against love. Let the continents drift apart.
Let them shape new worlds. New discoverers.
I’m against sense. I’m against confusion too.
Just the other day they crossed a pig’s egg
with a human sperm. I’m all for it.
Thank you mister girl demons,
missus colonel flying fish,
for raining frogs on the ventriloquist,
for chaining the juggler
to the orchard of suspended oranges.
And the banshees that mounted the Trappist,
one can never trust a nightmare:
now I’m at square one again –
and you stole my Three Monkeys!
Baby Jupiter, Mother Sun,
you were my photostated Pantheon
blown to life by the wind,
but the temple is now torn and aflutter with wings.
What has become of us? Where are the memories?
We are frozen at one another’s throats
like eagles in the coat-of-arms
of an old, extinct family.
It is becoming summer on the highveld, where we both live.
They call this region the Cradle of Humanity,
where the first hominids roamed. Another year is passing.
The skeletons of primordial tigers lie packed up
in the limestone, like virtual grand pianos.
The naked savannah sings. And the lightning flashes
like my computer screen, storing this sentence.
Scurrying stockbrokers of the young republic,
flighting new markets, are crushing the primitive skulls underfoot.
But while everything starts to live again, our love has died.
The grey guinea fowl are coming out of the grass, in their graphite shawls.
These are the peacocks, the down fireworks of long, long ago,
that have dulled on the retinas of two corpses, that are ours.
Love: the hidden categories,
the painted doors on the honey catacombs,
and now this. Damn it. Fuck it. Persecution.
Time: a stone of petrified strawberries;
the picnic basket that got stolen by a baboon
near Sterkfontein Caves,
and the vanished couple.
Yes this. Damn. –
We are sleeping at the bottom of a sea.
Our faces are looking in opposite directions,
two profiles embossed on separate coins.
Our hair that would lift in the breeze of the present
is now minted on the wind of eternity.
We are a lost treasure.
The ship ran aground in foul weather.
But one day, on a clear day in the distant future
two skin divers, a boy and a girl,
two beautiful lovers in the shallow water,
will discover you and me again
with their brand new bodies
and retrieve us
from this forgotten wreck.
© Translation: 2004, Charl-Pierre Naudé
How I got my name
(or, A Concise History of Colonisation)
Giving a name to something
is to breathe life into it.
Of all the ways animals procreate,
protect and survive communally,
a single member giving a name
to another is the thing
that changes the species forever.
is the origin of humanity.
The beginning of Creation.
Why Darwin is wrong.
And the reason his cat left.
The granting of names is also why
God created Heaven and Earth with seven days.
Seven names in one family, that’s more than enough..
Giving a name to another is an act of Love.
(A ruthless act of subjugation
too, which we’ll leave unprobed for now.)
My parents gave me a name
about which I have divided feelings.
My name sports a hyphen –
divided, no less, about itself.
But one must treat one’s name with utmost care
for it doesn’t belong to you.
It is a way in which other people express their affection.
The name I have is a stem-with-leaves
plucked from the Huguenot diaspora bush
but the roots stayed behind, and the corolla too.
I was a few months old already,
a sickly captain in a waterlogged paper boat,
my feet struggling in their socks like stumpnoses in a scoop,
when pa realised that my name
had been misspelt in the national register.
There are differing accounts as to why those erstwhile refugees
from France forfeited their language so readily:
they were actually a Germanic tribe shod and bow-tied against their will
by a handyman language of the Devil that was toady to the Pope;
or else, they were so anxious to learn the birdy language of heaven
that casting off earthly mumbo-jumbo was only a pleasure.
The road’s flurry of dust angels had barely
settled in their slumber again when the old foot-sloggers
forgot how to spell their own names.
The new vineyard cannot be trusted.
Neither its goblet of Holy Communion.
But alas, my dad was an erudite man.
He would rectify the problem once and for all.
Aren’t the settlers of Africa always wrong?.
But it is never too late to set the record straight.
So he got into his Willy’s Jeep to brave the hundred
or so kilometres to the main town of remote East Griqualand
where he was a doctor, through driving snow and rain
– where people paid him with chickens and eggs –
and got lost in the creeping mist, his limbs disappearing piece
by piece as the Jeep laboured through sludge, on a mythical journey.
The windscreen would clear under the wipers and the buried scape
would blink and disappear, again and again, under flung snow.
It was a question of correctness, of knowing thyself:
his son’s name must be spelt as originally.
A wagon had crushed half of it, another part was just gone.
That wasn’t good enough. It was time for the record.
No half-baked name for his boy. Time for memory.
For love. My father was a very sweet man.
But the attempt failed.
Again the name miscarried;
more South African now, pidginised even more.
Further away from its roots, more in the future.
More itself than anyone could imagine.
The ‘es’ of the French Charles, as in Charles Baudelaire
(I’ll fancy myself )
no, more precisely Charles Pierre Baudelaire,
was as gone as ever, and never retrieved.
My name remained Charl.
Maybe the lizard got a fright and lost his tail,
which then was bottled by a sangoma.
And the hyphen of all those boring Jean-Pierres,
inserted for joining a vowel
to its follow-up consonant, ended in my name.
It must have been an earthquake that shook up
the splinters and the spaghetti alphabets
everywhere at that moment exactly when my dad
stuck his hand in the name jar.
Yep, that is what happened.
That same earth tremor also jumbled
some other very important names and events.
Look what it did to Genghis Garibaldi,
the man after whom Guy Fawkes is named.
Or poor Henry VIII, beheaded six times
by his awful wife because it didn’t work
the first time, neither the second, and so forth.
And the Indian emperor who built
that beautiful mausoleum, the Vatican, for his dead wife –
one can always trust the genitals to float
a breathtaking construction on holy water.
And don’t forget the First Lateran Council,
one of the most sombre fashion parades of evening gowns ever
and entirely negligible due to the self-denial
inherent to such business,
whereafter a lot of unhappy souls
discovered they had female bodies.
I got off lightly.
My name is misspelt
but in the right way.
You only have to compare it
to other versions to see this.
Its origin lies
not in the past but in the future,
in a dictionary still drifting in space;
according to astronomers,
its thesaurus hovering right next to it.
A John and a Jack,
two brother galaxies,
two drag queens:
girls dressed in the same design
but for a different season.
roots spreading in the air;
my name is a tree that dived into the earth.
And I sport my hyphen
like a plaster on my nose.
I walk into the kitchen again.
I am a little boy.
To where mom stands.
To where she still stands, in my memory.
She rubs on the plaster to secure it.
This is our secret.
We pretend together.
I loved it then, why
wouldn’t I now?
We smile at each other,
my mom and I.
In a while, just now,
my dad will be back.
I can’t wait.
He’ll crouch next to me,
pout his lips intently
and carefully examine the strip on my nose.
Then he will ask me what is wrong.
© Translation: 2004, Charl-Pierre Naudé
“Know the feeling,” chuckled
my friend, who had left his wife.
“But bring those midlife woods
to the Karoo plains, here where the half-desert
sports a green fold you’ll find yourself again.”
So I freewheeled down the valley into a dark village
founded on the floor of a prehistoric sea.
Past a wagon sunk in on its axle –
the car’s brights shining full on a willow,
a huge, suspended vegetable chandelier
beaming in the bend: one of the Big Five …
and the snow globe of a church, shaken up
for a second, with bats and owls.
A place of roots, where the clock hands are all stuck
on a forgotten past event.
“Strange,” I say.
My friend shrugs nonchalantly:
“Just the customary hour for folk around here
to eye the clock. Nothing is inexplicable.”
Palaeontologists have a field day here, I’m told –
one of the most fertile bedrocks of mammal fossils ever,
old as the dinosaurs. Truncated creatures
prised from the stone are held together with wire
and matchsticks keep their jaws open, in a tiny museum.
“Soon you’ll feel pieced together,” my friend assures me.
“No prying claws of a shrink for this town.”
Days passed. The roof contracts, expands, smacking
like primordial ghost rain beating in the silver.
“Heard before I came, that my grandfather was born here,” I say.
He left the valley when he was eight in an ox wagon,
rather late in life to emerge for the first time
from the seabed of Gondwanaland.
“But time,” says my friend,
“… was different then.” Anyway, not long before
or after that, the settlers fought and hunted
an age-old tribe of yellow people who’d been living here.
You only have to glance at the names on the graves
to know who dídn’t perish in the place.
“Scientists now believe that Time’s an illusion – a construct
to make the impossible bearable,” my friend says:
“That the future and the past happen simultaneously.”
“An odd thought that those vanquished Bushmen might
still be in our midst.” I lick my fingers. Lamb of the Karoo.
“Odd, indeed. They’re just invisible” (my friend says).
In the matchbox houses, on theír side of the Divide …
A town cut in half. Like my life, midway through.
And instantly I picture the timeless setting: the dust boulevards,
packed stone walls, thorn-bush meadows, under primeval water.
On higher ground my grandfather timeless now,
and the San chief, conversing. Old buddies; interest: eternity.
Me and my friend too, not a beard-prick older, catching
the first fish, necking the chief’s daughters, as in the beginning.
Lamb and lion stuff. Science, that meets the Bible.
Pure paradise. And I almost feel “pieced together”,
swigging the last vineyard balm: “See you in the morning.”
“Yes,” my friend says and gets up too; as if reading my thoughts:
“The fossil museum, a post-natal unit.” We laugh …
A comforting thought, that everyone who’d lived
in the valley in times past is still with us in the present.
I get into bed. The nights here’ve been good to me.
This could be what’s called integration of the psyche.
Except for those dreams I’ve been getting.
They can’t possibly be my own.
© Translation: 2004, Charl-Pierre Naudé
Other translations by the author
That was the day I lost everything that was mine.
Cleaned out, ransacked, completely unexpected.
By two strangers, a young woman and a little girl.
There was a warning out on this latest tactic.
They use innocents, then ambush you from behind.
I heard the soft, shy knocks at my door.
Like a Visitation, from the Other Side.
Testing, of course, if somebody is home.
I waited for the crowbars, a bread knife in my hand.
Until the laughter left, the crystal sacrament.
In a flutter, like two pigeons from a silk bag.
But I remained prepared. I still don’t understand.
I heeded the warning. I knew they would return.
But none of this saved me from the terrible deception.
I opened the door, the knife behind my back.
They’d almost given up, the woman said.
Her daughter would like a leaf from my tree, because it’s silver.
I looked right past them for the danger
lurking behind, the reason for the decoy.
They were poor, but crowned with smiles.
Ask God for a leaf, it’s His tree, I said grumpily.
A man wanted to shoot us, the child said proudly;
oblivious to the fact that then she would be dead.
I watched them walk away, cloaked in their music.
Mother and daughter. With their miracle, their little leaf.
Nobody attacked me. Nothing else happened.
They robbed me blind, those two thieves.
The man who saw Livingstone
The man who had seen Livingstone was now virtually blind.
When was it the Englishman trudged into Africa?-
The 1850s, 1860s? He and his troupe, their mosquito nets
and their trunks, the great explorer dead
(Lifetimes ago. “Difficult for his age
to be gauged”-a report in a daily, in the early sixties.)
So the old man, who as a young boy had seen Livingstone,
was revered among his people, and others too.
A national treasure, a roving museum piece.
They would push him between towns in a modified wheelbarrow,
ululating in front and behind in an endless serpentine row
along a narrow mud track cleaving through dense bush
from clearing to clearing, not without casualty.
For miles and miles and days on end, the old man bobbing
patiently in his iron cup, eyes rolled upward, legs folded in.
Or he would enter a town in a sidecar attached to a tandem
pedalled by two, thronged by his entourage blowing whistles
and pumping hooters while ecstatic villagers swept
the dust road for the approach, with palm leaves and straw brooms.
Like Livingstone himself being welcomed by the crowds
of London, slowly making his way towards Buckingham Palace.
And the curious there, from far and wide, to pay their respects.
To gawk in admiration at the only man alive (oblivious with age)
who’d seen The Discoverer with his own eyes one morning
in 1870 from behind a shrub, within earshot of the Great Water-
swapping copper and incense for directions.
What a strange sight, a translucent traveller:
made entirely of soul, a man without a body!
And they’d kiss his feet, and feel his spoon eyelids
after coughing up a fee at the doors of the community hall.
An historian came from Europe to make notes:
somewhere in the old fossil was buried
a first-hand memory, a living picture, of Livingstone.
The expert tilted the old head like a magic lantern
and peered into its eyes for the elusive image.
In the play of leaves coming through the window, yes there:
the adventurer, gesturing wildly, waving on the bearers.
A flash of shadow of the overhead fan, clear as day:
a bird sweeping past, the moment he asked about the Falls.
The old man was waning fast, a hundred and twenty years old.
All that was left of him was that image of the pioneer.
Isn’t it a pioneer,
who becomes a hundred and twenty years old?
They took him out on a stretcher, one man at the back and one
in front, and gently put him down next to his wooden trunk.
Nothing final, just a breather for the porters…
And thus, he became Livingstone even Marco Polo,
an aristocrat in his sedan chair transported
into Infinity, an explorer
of purest water.
The former SADF soldier is a mercenary
these days and thus well-equipped, so to speak,
to approach the same issue from opposite sides.
“It was the end of the rainy season in Mozambique,” he told me
on the high plateau, where he now hunts cattle thieves.
“Blank curtains of water would still drop from the sky;
the most devastating phase of the war was behind.
Soft trunks of the vanishing forest, of humans too,
were fermenting in the dank ground and marshlands…”
An undertow of rapture, maybe awe, in his voice:
“… I was with a regular patrol
on a desolate stretch
when we spotted this figure alongside the road.
He was walking very fast and determinedly,
a calabash of sorts swinging from an arm,
tossing his palms in front of his mouth very lightly
and blowing into them, every now and then.
It’s never really cold in those reaches, though-
as if stopping to throw a dice,
maybe to alleviate a long mission’s tediousness.
Tied to his back: a corrugated iron sheet; a quiver with kindling.
As we drove past he seemed to be muttering,
and oblivious of others
fell to his knees suddenly.
The war had created many forms of insanity…
moments later walking on, more concertedly,
falling to his knees in the distance again, as I looked back.
One of the guys in the armoured vehicle hastily
crossed his heart at what looked like such fervent Hail Marys:
there are not too many ways to get to a destination…
Two days later, on the way back, we passed him again
fifty kilometres north of the first time.
I wondered how far south he’d come from,
who he was talking to so incessantly and lovingly
in the picture locket of his hands.
So many loved ones had been lost in that war.
I saw him stop dead, to cradle the air in his palms, maybe
a small animal I thought, a hamster, first in his crotch
then in an armpit, against a sudden flaring of the breeze.
I went up closer, he was crouching at a crossroad,
heard him whispering ‘Almost there, almost there’
into his cupped hands. I know a bit of the lingo.
He looked scared stiff when he saw me next to him.
The locals avoid soldiers and try not to talk to them.
The others in the Unimog kept smirking at the madman.
I asked him to show me what was in his hands.
He held out his calloused palms reluctantly-they nursed
The razed village he came from had no more fire
and he was chosen to fetch it eighty kilometres on,
to brave bullets, risking his life to scoop the carbon-winged fledgling
from a fallen frieze, in a church that had just been mortared.
Nights he would rest, make a fire; next morning
set out again, the best coals in his earthenware pot,
ending each night the leg of his journey
blowing on the last embers and carefully
peeling each one, out of its shawl of ash.
This he confessed to me in a fearful tone
with slain eyes, as if I were interrogating him…
And I could picture him sleeping, half awake and curled up
with his breathing charge next to him swaddled in her own glow-
a lover, that freight of light bones in her moody nightdress.
I pressed his shoulder, wished the man good luck,
while he blew into his hands again fanning on
the small goddess,
his precious pet, Prometheus’s fire.”
[Poems from: Against the light. Charl-Pierre Naudé. Protea Boekhuis, 2007]