11
IDENTITY PAPERS


1. A Weary Creed

He is a poet using English,
my contemporary though younger,
of my colour, and a scholar
of  the literature I live and struggle in.
One of my errors, he suggests,
is wearily continuing or pretending
to believe in Human Nature.
                           "Human",
"more human", "human at last",
"still human, despite..." are indeed
some of my frequent resorts.
But now I must question
(without the rhetoric of
"if not human nature, what
to bind us? make us care at all?")
- must inquire what is this
ineluctable desideratum,
elusive common denominator,
everyman's grail?
Heresy to the young savant
is some ineffable dimension beyond
upright stance, opposable thumbs,
language and the memory of death -
some rumoured immemorial habitude
of hearts no manifesto can unchain.
And I concede:  the animal-with-soul,
the dying potency, the putative essence
that bleeds alike through caveman and Gautama,
Jane Austen, Makana and Al Capone,
is my conceit, resists description and proof,
obstinately remains mere rhetoric.
Yet an ichor runs in the beating vein
which grafts my rotting, solipsistic speck
alive onto the pulse of history;
and my lungs in their exclusive  cell suck in
the shared prophetic breath of speech.











2. Another Game

From where  we'd  dined we had heard
the crowd's huge yells as runs
or wickets were gained or missed
toward the climax of an important match,
and some of our company had intermittently
followed play on the TV in the next room.
We'd hastened our departure in hope
of missing the arousal of traffic
after the end of the game -
for block after block the roads
around the stadium ground were half-choked
with parked cars. But we'd mistimed:
as we neared a gate a mass on foot emerged,
hundreds, part of thousands,
closing our way, surrounding us,
heading for cars and home,
having expended a palpable passion.
Islanded in the river of this mainly happy crowd,
I wondered about the code of its joy,
that intense, shared engagement.
I thought about the meagre audiences
at poetry readings.
For a while after this immersion
in a moving river of my fellow men
I felt outcast.

























3. Flesh

Busy in my skin in my house, I receive
rumours and news. Again and again I hear
about too much death, too much pain,
too much emptiness, the culpabilities,
relentless causes and terrible ends.
Hearsay comes muffled, distorted,
diminished through the walls of my house.
Busy in  my safe place, the attention I pay
takes the form of distraction.
Busy in my safe skin, I attend
with half an ear or heart -
because my skin, from my side,
after all is no safe place.
The walls of my house contain
sufficient travail,
the floor lies ready to bruise me,
beat out my breath. Health, safety,
time for work are not vouchsafed.
I must carve them out of each slippery
hard-textured day, must grapple
with the knotted minutes for those luxuries:
my bare subsistence, a glint of meaning.
This is why, for all I have heard,
I remain, you could say, aloof;
in practical terms, you could say,
ignorant of the struggle.




4. Son

In case his mother should die,
a stroke having deadened her leg and arm,
Joseph, the responsible man
of the family he does not live with,
must request some leave and go home,
now that the hospital has done
with the stricken old widow,
and attend to whatever is required,
take her, probably, to a sangoma
- despite the futility, the wasted expense:
sangomas, I try to explain,
as psychologists possess a possible skill,
but no one can cure his mother's disease.
Yet even though Joseph seems to believe me,
this knowledge cannot free him from his tribe.
If he fails to follow the custom
his people will judge that he does not care,
that he wants his mother to die.

5. They


The young couple at the supper party
soon made it clear, speaking of their work
(relevant, engaged against injustice),
that though from, they were not of
the Boer stronghold they presently lived in
- the suburb where, as everyone knew,
a few months before, a bus
full of Afrikaans school-children
had left the road and dived into a dam,
drowning forty-two.
The girl had a tale it seemed
she needed to tell: a child
had come to her door with the key of her car
which, he explained to the "Tannie"
(a role she would never of herself assume)
he had found nearby on the pavement.
A reward was in order, but while
she was fetching a coin from her purse
she heard the boy remark to her man,
It was a good thing, Ne,  Oom?,
that he had found the key and not
a "kaffer" (the word hurt her mouth)
who would have stolen the car.
"I wanted not to reward him," she said.
"I wanted... I wished more of them
had been drowned in that bus."




6. Open Line


Chicago, ten thousand miles,
my niece - gone for decency and peace -
telephones to tell me about a dream:
her dead young sister lives, dances
enthrallingly in a concert,
speaks enthrallingly,  gives
the solution for bloody South Africa.
Why had no one seen it before?
She telephones me, my belonging here,
to tell about a mourner's dream,
possibly an exile's dream.

7. A Professional Dying


My last four stumps were drawn today
(the coup de grace with syringe
and forceps delivered by a new dentist)
and I reflect that after all
my all too mortal teeth outlived
the old man who'd ambivalently built
and demolished  their crumbling walls
during a twenty-five year siege.
He died some weeks ago,
about the time he had expected to.
I know because earlier this year,
although I had heard rumours,
I telephoned his rooms in my normal way
to make an appointment.
No receptionist but he himself answered the call:
Ah, no, he explained, he no longer practiced
because he was dying of cancer.
He was up at the rooms putting things
into order; he had a few months left.
"That's how it goes... But I can't
complain. I've had a good innings."
In all our years he'd never spoken of himself.
I knew him too straight and plain a man
to claim complacencies he had not mastered,
so pondered what such stoic calm bespoke:
the numbly unexamined life? paralysed despair?
or more philosophy than discursive men
(arguing themselves into importance,
hysteria, heroism) can muster?
Perhaps, withdrawn to empty rooms
to spare his ailing wife, his dignity,
he had already ridden out his breaking moment:
stopped amid papers and instruments
in a sudden hurricane of rage, bewilderment,
or dread at least of the enormous
little time that still remained.

                    ------------------


                    Lionel Abrahams

                    P.O. BOX 260,
                    RIVONIA,
                    2128
PASSAGES FROM EARLIER DRAFTS

I knew him too straight and plain a man
to claim complacencies he had not mastered.
Perhaps, withdrawn to empty rooms
to spare his ailing wife, his dignity,
he had already ridden out his breaking moment:
stopped amid papers and instruments
in a sudden hurricane of rage, bewilderment,
or dread at least of his remaining time.
But now he'd gained such stoic calm
I pondered what his peace bespoke:
the numbly unexamined life? paralyzed despair?
or more philosophy than discursive men
(arguing themselves into importance,
hysteria, heroism) can muster?










FROM EARLIER VERSIONS


[While to me this essence that bleeds
alike through caveman and Gautama,
Jane Austen, Makana and Al Capone,
resists description, proof, belief,
obstinately remains mere rhetoric;
yet splices in full vein
and grafts my rotting, solipsistic speck
onto the pulse of history,
the shared breath of speech.]

        [Oppression in the furniture - paper,
                      cloth, food, instruments rebel
                     - spasm, nausea, chaos in the
flesh.]

Perhaps he had already ridden out
his breaking moment:
I imagine him - withdrawn to empty rooms
to spare his ailing wife, his dignity -
amid papers and instruments stopped
in a sudden hurricane of rage,
bewilderment, dread at least
of his few months left.




HUMAN NATURE

1.
He is a poet using English, my colour,
my contemporary though younger,
and a scholar of  the literature
I live and struggle in.
One of my errors, he suggests,
is wearily continuing
or pretending to believe
in human nature.
"Human", "more human", "human at last",
"still human, despite..." are indeed
some of my frequent resorts.
But now I must question
(without the rhetoric of
"if not human nature, what?
what to bind us? make us care at all?")
what is this given (indeed
ineluctable) desideratum,
this elusive common denominator,
this everyman's grail,
the pattern of possibilities that lies
alike in cavemen and Gautama,
Jane Austen, Makana and Al Capone?
And I need not go so far:
in people at hand I encounter
faces, languages, desires
perplexingly alien...


2.
My last four stumps were drawn today
(the coup de grace with syringe
and forceps delivered by a new man)
and I reflect that after all
my all too mortal teeth outlived my dentist,
the old man who'd ambivalently built
and demolished  my crumbling dentition
during a twenty-five year siege.
He died some weeks ago,
about the time he had expected to.
I know because earlier this year,
although I had heard rumours,
I telephoned his rooms in my normal way
to make an appointment.
No receptionist but he himself answered the call:
Ah, no, he explained, he no longer practiced
because he was dying of cancer.
He was up at the rooms putting things
into order; he had a few months left.
"That's how it goes... But I can't
complain. I've had a good innings."
In all our years he'd never spoken of himself,
I knew him too straight and plain a man
to claim complacencies he had not mastered,
but wondered if, withdrawn to empty rooms
(to spare his ailing wife, his dignity),
he'd stopped amid papers and instruments
to wrestle with rage, bewilderment,
dread at least of the precious few months left.
Else what could such stoic calm bespeak:
the numbly unexamined life? or more philosophy
than discursive men (arguing themselves
into importance, hysteria, heroism)
can muster?

3.
Newly met at a supper party,
perhaps she wanted to place herself.
She lived in the suburb where,
all of us  knew, a few months before, a bus
full of Afrikaans school-children
had left the road and dived into a dam,
drowning forty-two.
In the tale she told, a child
came to her door with the lost key of her car
which, he explained to the "Tannie",
he had found nearby on the pavement.
A reward was in order
and while she was fetching
some coins from her purse
she heard the boy remark to her man
it was a good thing, Oom, not so?
that it was he who'd found the key
and not a "kaffer"instead
who would have stolen the car.
"I wanted not to reward him," she said.
"I wanted... I wished more of them
had been drowned in that bus."


4.
Chicago, ten thousand miles,
my niece - gone for decency and peace -
telephones me to tell about a dream:
her dead sister lives, dances
enthrallingly in a concert,
speaks enthrallingly,  gives
the solution for bloody South Africa.
Why had no one seen it before?
She telephones me, my belonging here,
to tell about a mourner's dream,
possibly an exile's dream.

5.
If a psychologist, the sangoma
can do nothing for a stroke.
But Joseph, the responsible man
of the family he does not live with,
must go home now that the hospital
has done with his stricken mother
and attend to whatever is  required -
take her, probably, to a sangoma,
despite the futility I  explain,
the wasted expense.
But even though he seems to believe me,
this knowledge can't free him from his tribe.
If he fails to follow the custom
his people will judge that he did not care,
that he wanted his mother to die.

6.
For block after block the roads
around the sports ground were lined
with parked cars. From where  we'd dined
we had heard the crowd's huge yells
as runs or wickets were gained or missed,
bringing on the climax
of the important inter-provincial match,
and some of our party intermittently
monitored progress  on the TV
in the next room.
We'd hastenened our departure in hope
of missing the arousal of traffic
after the end of the game,
but mistimed: as we neared a gate
a mass emerged, hundreds, part of thousands,
closing our way, surrounding us,
heading for cars and home,
having expended a palpable passion.
Islanded in the river of this mainly happy crowd,
I wondered about the code of its engagement,
its intense, shared caring.
I thought about the meagre audiences
at poetry readings.
For a while after this immersion
in a moving body of my fellow men
I felt bewilderingly outcast.



HUMAN NATURE

My last four stumps were drawn today
(the coup de grace with syringe
and forceps delivered by a new dentist)
and I reflect that after all
my all too mortal teeth outlived
the old man who'd ambivalently built
and demolished  my crumbling dentition
during some twenty-five years.
He died some weeks ago,
as he had expected.
I know because earlier this year,
although I had heard rumours,
I telephoned his rooms for an appointment.
No receptionist but he himself answered the call:
Ah, no, he explained, he no longer practiced
because he was dying of cancer.
He was up at the rooms
putting things into order;
he had a few months left.
"That's how it goes... But I can't
complain. I've had a good innings."
In all our years he'd never spoken of himself,
but more than at his new frankness
I wondered over his fortitude
(facing what those 'few months' held),
wondered if also, withdrawn to empty rooms
(to spare his ailing wife, his dignity),
he'd stopped amid papers and instruments
to wrestle with rage, bewilderment, dread,
But I knew him too straight and plain a man
to claim complacencies he had not mastered.
Does such stoic calm bespeak
the numbly unexamined life, or more philosophy
than thinking men (arguing themselves
into importance, hysteria and heroism)
can muster?

......
or are they overwhelming lights
through myriad facets to the single heart
of our identity?