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All Is Not Well
What happened to me as a child? Port Elizabeth happened to me.
Older. (In seduction there is only theory and identity. Who submits and who is the one who dominates the situation.)
War has visited house by house during the riots. It tastes like a stale loaf that has been left out too long. A slice of hard, dry bread that you can crack between your fingers and leave your desire for longing for the light in my eyes. It feels as if it’s burning. Something on edge like ballet pointes. The frozen wasteland of the streets of Johannesburg. My brown nylon stockings are hung up to dry in the bathroom. The streets are a catapulted realm of new-found freedom exploding into stardom. Where and when does the external become important too and what becomes of all the rage, and all the sadness, take it all away from me, from my childhood? Is it Chatterley’s ghost – what is it that terrifies me so? Is it the cold comfort of the Scriptures? Do we live as we dream? ‘Take it all off he said. I want to watch you take it all off.’ I obeyed. The day I left you and not the other way round I put the disorder between us, the words that were said and could not be said into a box. How you dominated me, wounded me, what you made me feel with a glance, with one look, how you desired me and what you made me think when you ran your fingers up and down my spine asking me over and over, ‘Can you feel that? What does that make you feel?’ ‘It makes me feel calm, otherness.’ ‘Not happy. Don’t you feel happy child?’ ‘I feel as if there are boundaries between us.’ There are always boundaries between a man and a woman but you are too young to know that yet.’ ‘When you put your arms around me when I’m naked I feel epic.’ ‘Epic. Now that is a strange word for a child to use.’ ‘Isn’t that the word you use when you describe your books to your classes?’ ‘Yes, maybe.’ And I could feel him smile as he massaged my shoulders and kissed my neck. His arms feel like the handmaiden’s rope around my neck. There’s no place, no room for hysteria only violent phenomena in this bedroom. This is not my house. This is not my home. I don’t struggle. I just feel a release. It is sharp. He has introduced me to books and films, French films and pasta and wine, preserved figs, chai tea that I’ve become passionate about and J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer. The Childhood of Jesus. The House Gun. I am so far away from my mother’s house, the house of a monster, her primitive hatred of me that ran like an electric current into my fingertips torturing me, and my cries that nobody heard. Her obsession, her mental abuse, no wife, no kindness had she for a mentally ill daughter. She was kind of a deranged person with her own emotional damages. One person to another and another funny kind of cruel person to me. I felt a violent despair for Robert. Could he see all of this in me? But the lover was something else. He made me cheese on toast. ‘So this is all a divorced father can make.’ He smiled. I smiled. And I remembered the mad, dark sea of Port Elizabeth, the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, the green feast of Swaziland and how far I had come to eating cheese on toast. Electric hurt is the price every poet must pay. I slept with a lot of men in Johannesburg. Older, wiser, more experienced, divorced, married, some had children, some had one and some were lonely like I was. I think they all had a traumatic loneliness like I had. To sleep with someone like me I guess you had to have one.
I’ve thought of suicide. And I am sure everyone with a suicidal illness thinks of it at some point in their lives. I feel as if I have been part of the Otherness of the universe at large. They would say things to me although it would frustrate me sometimes stuff like, ‘It’s all part of Phenomena. Maintenance. You don’t have to worry about that. I will take care of you child.’
When he entered me I thought I would experience hysteria, a flood of those traumatic experiences I had in childhood and adolescence would somehow be reawakened in me. It’s not that they would buy me beautiful things, a bracelet, a pretty relic, it was the things that they would say to me. Their intellect, their fierce intelligence, how they would make me laugh and when I telephoned them I could have a few minutes of their precious time listening to their brutally articulately voices at the other end. How they would make me blush.
She is not mummy. She is mummy’s sister. She’s been away a long time. She’s gone to heaven. Reminding me that Sunday is a ghost of a day. And so is the chicken. All of my life I’ve worshiped cake with a ‘higher learning’, a ‘poetic justice’, eating bread, cinnamon rolls and pudding like it came with the light of the world. Gold is the owlish sun-god Ra.
Port Elizabeth. Home. Home has given me burning driftwood wings. Up, up, up and then down, down, down like a moth inhaling smoke evaporating in air.
The air tastes like fried fish, smells like calamari rings, frying chips in oil that’s weeks old in the café. A man is following me home. He is calling after me. I begin to pick up speed, walk faster, think it will be suicide to stop, to pause, to think. I turn around. I know this man. I sometimes give him dry bread and hot tea. Today I give him bread and hot tea again. His clothes are splattered with paint. Mummy paints the world dead leaving me a portrait of the female poet.
Johannesburg. He is touching me. Warm breath upon my cheek. Chaste kiss upon chaste kiss. ‘I thought you couldn’t see me.’ ‘Don’t talk.’ He says with my hair in his mouth. ‘What shampoo do you use? It tastes like pineapple. Smells expensive.’ ‘It’s my perfume. You bought it for me remember.’ ‘It smells like pineapple. You put it on your hair. Now that makes me feel young. You think of me when you were doing that?’ ‘Its flowers.’ ‘Don’t talk.’ He begins to unbutton my blouse one button at a time, puts his hand down the front of my blouse. ‘Are you enjoying this?’ ‘Yes. Yes.’ I say half-heartedly. He pushes the hair off my neck and his hand lingers there. And all I can think about is my aunt. My dead aunt. The beautiful, elegant alcoholic with two daughters and four grandchildren and an abusive husband. A handsome abuser who had a porn star’s hairdo who would physically hurl her across rooms and bounce her head against walls for merciless psychopathic fun. I would think of America and of how studying there seemed even farther out of my reach now. My aunt has been away a long time now. Gone to heaven leaving me a leper with a stoned heart, with a mother who is ice and glass, brutal and aggressive, an untitled poem who has ancient motives like the eighteen gangs in the warfare climate of the northern areas in Port Elizabeth. My aunt made me want to live. There is no speaking of Christianity and of mummy’s bright faith as I feel his hand on my thigh, brushing my skin, stroking my bare stomach draining bravery out of my spirit, out of me and calling it promiscuity. And even then during the sexual impulse I would be making up stories. I would be in some parallel universe, dimensions away, not feeling my heart’s pain or sacrifice or hearing the particles of music, even a symphony in a pop song. I would see the winter stranger by the lake, monsters, the feast of Robert (the man I could not have), see my letters in my red box of memories, having courage and a love song in the wilderness, the believer’s spring essence. What a feeling it is to be loved, to kiss when you’re awake in this world, when you walk upon this earth. I was always waiting for this spell, this magic but it never came. Only men. Only the men and they would take and take and take and leave me disillusioned and sad and suffering from depression. Strange people. What strange people men are? They can bruise a girl and flee and feel nothing in the end.
‘You’re a bicentennial girl, you know that.’ A man once told me.
‘You use big words. I don’t understand them.’ I replied.
‘It means ‘birthday’. Birthday girl. Every day you spend with me is going to be your birthday.’ He answered.
Of course I didn’t believe him and I didn’t see him all that much. He moved in higher circles than I did. His wife was a socialite and an artist. In Johannesburg I found myself in the New World. The land of giants, of immortals, of vampires who came to life in a twilight world; a wonderland of synchronicity, stimulation, the anatomy of maladies and melancholia. These men would share with me the philosophies they had about life, talk to me about their children and their wives and girlfriends, the houses that they were building, how much money they were making. Sometimes I would smoke cigarettes with them even though I didn’t smoke. They had their own motives for befriending younger people and I had mine for befriending older men, drinking with them to forget an absent father, a father who had made me grow up too fast, a mother who had neglected me, abandoned me, made me neurotic, emotionally unstable, who forced me to go beyond reality and to imagine things that had no psychological framework. My mother did not keep me from children who were rough. She threw me to the wolves, left me there. I was a drowning visitor for all of my life. I was the one who had to push myself out of the nest. My mother and father were so distracted by their own melancholia they hardly noticed when I left for the streets of Johannesburg searching everywhere destination anywhere for a miracle, for a return to love, for a boyfriend, a brave desert cowboy, an arrogant urban cowboy.
Promiscuity for me was so easy. An adult game. Strangers meeting strangers. I could kill like my mother could kill. Sometimes I would worry about the connection I would have with someone I would meet. He would brush my hair out of my face. We would go to a park, sit on the grass, take our shoes off, talk for hours, play chess or go to his room in Hillbrow. He would sell roses. I would do and think and act like my mother. I would brush him off the next time we would meet remembering everything about him, tell him to leave me alone. How he said, ‘You’re lovely.’ How could a girl ever forget that, when a man told her she was lovely?
Home was hell. School was hell too.
There was no motive for burning driftwood on the beach that night but the teenagers did it anyway and they sat and watched the flames burn on the night they matriculated and drank their father’s single malt whiskey, cheap wine that came in boxes, alcohol and beers and made out with each other in parked cars. This was their spot and for one night in their lives they weren’t going to be responsible. I was at home. I was at home reading a book. Milan Kundera. I was trying to find my identity. I was trying to find myself, educate myself. My mother was slowly becoming addicted to over-the-counter pain medication and alcohol. She and my brother would drink vodka and beers together and I would watch silently as this scene would unfold in front of me every night, hating it as it haunted me into sleep. Sometimes I would worry what was going to become of me. I began to write. Mostly about a man’s desires. I could not give the impulse a name yet. My father began to watch them too. His neck, a turkey neck, nude flesh. The man who had given me everything as a child and who had later began to grow more and more remote as I had begun to grown older.
I am writing. I am writing my kind-of-poetry. It is a late history of autumn poems. It reminds me of Ezra Pound’s Alba, T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, crazy people, Gatsby’s kind-of-people, those loony tunes who weren’t at first glance emotionally secure, men and women who sabotaged themselves.
The strange people. Men are strange people. How brutally articulate they are. Electric hurt, electric sacrifice is the price that every poet must pay especially poets who have a hyperactive imagination.
Sometimes I would dream of that sea, a mad, dark sea, and a warm pilgrim, who had an obsession with the violent despair of a man who could never love her. It would feel as if I was being driven through with a stake made out of chiseled wood through my heart. I often felt a primitive and traumatic loneliness in a Johannesburg filled with up and down streets, cold alleyways, homosexuals standing on street corners in skinny jeans with cigarettes in their mouths coming out of the clubs in the early hours of the morning.
‘What do you eat?’ he asked me once (the lover). ‘You’re so skinny. I can feel your lovely bones. Ribs. Spine. Shoulder blades. Neck. Chin. Your features are Germanic. What do you live on? Bread and cheese and gin. So much tension in the beating of your heart, anger in your eyes, tears on your lashes and now there’s a forced smile I’ve been waiting all evening for.’ He said and there was almost a kind-of-joy in his voice.
‘I eat. I live. I survive just like anybody else.’ I answered. ‘I never said I needed you. Never said this was romantic love. I don’t need you to tell me that I’m beautiful.’
‘Child, why must you lie to yourself? I know for a fact how much you’ve already destroyed yourself. Look at me when I’m speaking to you. I don’t say these things to hurt you. God only knows how much you’ve been hurt by people before me and what kind of hell you’ve lived in before. I, I can only imagine. Listen to me. You don’t have to lie to me.’
‘Is it written on my face? Is it written on my body for the world to see that I have sabotaged myself again, again and again? I want to smoke now.’
‘What are you going to do when you’re not young anymore?’
‘I’ll be dead long before that.’
‘Why do you talk like that?’
‘You asked me that. What did you think I was going to answer with?’ And I blew the smoke in rings out of my mouth.
He kissed me hard then and I felt the world turn. I was a dream. He was a dream. He was love but he was not mine and for now I could feel unafraid, soft in his rough hands. I felt unashamed as he took my suffering, erased my madness, my sadness, innocence, and my childhood, the memory of a mother who did not love me, a father who did not speak to me anymore as I had grown more and more like a modern version of his wife.
‘Why do you call me that?’
‘Because you are a sweet girl.’
‘But it sounds as if you still see me as a child.’
‘You’re seventeen. You’re still a child. And you shouldn’t smoke. You’re too young.’
‘I need you. Why are you leaving me so soon? You taught me how to smoke amongst other things.’ He kissed the top of my head and pulled the sheet above my naked body.
‘This is just a journey that you’re on little one. I have a house filled with women. Daughters, a wife and a housekeeper, maids. You will have many journeys. How we came to meet, you will soon forget. You will seduce and be seduced. This is the way of life my princess.’
Muse named. Muse unnamed. No promises were often made. A mother was gone, returned to the wards of hell from whence she came. With no gift of a father’s protection as I entered the world’s cruel, dark and dangerous waters some days were good and others not. Promiscuity was just a part of the Luciferian culture, the underground and urban youth culture infiltrating dreams, yielding disorder in all of the seasons. It must be so you know for each generation becomes challenged in their own separate ways. Teenagers become rebellious especially when it comes to sexuality. Your eyes have such a clarity to them Robert. What are you like privately? Do you know what it feels like to be homesick for a country to call your own? I feel homesick. A loneliness, a frustration, a compulsion, all suicidal. Who seduces you? Does Jesus seduce you? A girl who thinks about things like that. How I wished with all my heart, my internal organs and the symmetries of my tissue that he loved me on that dark road. Nothing but that big swamp of a Johannesburg ahead of mute, over-exposed, observant me. No longer a steely-eyed child, no longer ablaze with youth. It is the same me. It is the same morning but always walking down a different street and leaving confessions behind, weathering grief. Nothing to hold onto on my own. You take my head in your hands, I can’t cope, and I turned away. Later I found myself naked under moonlight, an insomniac in a strange world, in an even stranger man’s world. The cell door opens for you but not for me. Rain exists for me but not for you lover striking a nerve in-a-kind-of-gulf. Rain like silver, rain like hurt and pain (a flood of it cometh) for me but not for you.
I am in the shower, skin soaked with fragrance and soap, soaked skin from him after I removed my black skirt, white shirt and heels.
‘It is impossible to know me. You will never know me.’ He laughs and laughs and laughs.
‘You belong in Paris. You can become a writer there. You have such a wild imagination.’
‘Right now I just feel indifferent to everything you are telling me. I thought you didn’t have the time to read anything I wrote.’
‘I make the time for things that are important to me. You’re important to me. Can you lift your hysterical veil now for once and let us have an adult conversation.’
‘Am I more important to you than your wife and your dinners and your parties?’
‘For now, for this minute, these two hours, yes you are. You look breath-taking by the way.’
I have stepped out of the shower, rinsed my perfumed hair, and dressed myself in a white large hotel towel.
‘Do you want to eat something now?’
‘Always room service.’
‘I thought you preferred it that way.’
‘No I do.’
‘Why don’t you dress yourself in front of me? Everything about you is beautiful. You’re a gift, a gift from the universe to me.’
‘You know if this was still apartheid we would both be arrested.’ I took off the towel, flung it onto the floor and got into the bed naked. They all gave me such confidence and a bravado.
I cannot see the future only the perspective of the present. It is like a house on fire melting humanity’s junk, J.M. Coetzee’s ‘skin and hair’ and magic fantastical plastic. I’ve walked the sunburnt miles, forgot what my name was, what the taste of my lipstick was on his lips, what it meant to trace my limbs with his, to sleep arm in arm, fingertips caught between fingers, my what he calls ‘my hysterical veil’. I need lovers, spirited male conversation (the educated, and the ancient the better) to resolve my history. Make it plain for me to see that I’ve moved on from a religious household where spirituality included daily prayers and meditation, Holy Communion with pieces of bread and grape juice. I needed bold men in my life like I needed air.
Robert, you are that most rare thing, angelic dreamer. So you supplied me with inspiration. So you cut me in deep, imaginative and raw ways. A cut from your blade was a project. Thinking of you, staring at you, looking at you, your progress illuminated the world around me. Everything was brighter. I regained my strength. I had a childhood love for you. It was lost on the pages of my journal. Lost always lost. You laugh and say nothing and it hurts. The bright heights of it. Lying on my back I’ve been draped with a blackening world’s information. When evening comes it is even more poetic than the previous day’s evening. And when I spy the afternoon sun, that great yellow balloon, I am a woman found who dares not speak of the insanity found in her family and whose shell of pain is wet and bitter. I have lived in chosen exile. On the surface prayer is like a vision, cold is a delight, the silver lining that passes by, salt and air meeting on the wind. In poverty there is always decay, the song of a choirgirl, crystals of light, a graffiti of them. I trace them on my arm, the windows and my palms. What he, the lover does not know won’t kill him like it kills me? I am slowly destroying myself. I have nowhere to go but down, down, down and there is no one to rescue me, to pull me out from under the dark towards the light.
His roses looked like cabbages. Red cabbages, a red song for the mad girl, a flower for my bleeding heart. The boy I used to play chess with in the park, sit on the grass barefoot, walk to the library with. He doesn’t have a name. His face doesn’t exist in my memory anymore. He has become a dark line, a dark fantasy although I can still hear his voice but it is from far away. All these affairs of the heart has made me feel strangely creative. They slide through me, teach me, whisper to me in the dark. I hate the dark. I need the light to burn bright even in the middle of the night. I pull sheets over mirrors. And I imagine the lover whose dark hair smelled of rain. The rain of a child’s world. This is my sky, my grass, my rage (I view the world as an Outsider). Girls are drinking beers in fancy restaurants trying to make conversation. Crystals of light evaporate in winter rain outside my window. Sexuality is really not of the flesh although most people think it is. It is of the mind. It is of the ego. It is intellectual. When is childhood ever at an end? This planet is unstable. I am unstable. I was tangled in an obsession for being a ghostly not of the flesh sexual object. I thought that that would open doors for me to humanity for humanity’s sake. I thought I would be able to hear the chords of the earth’s harmony. It kills me to say this. Madness can be as magnificent as euphoria. If only my childhood was different.
Anne Sexton. Sylvia Plath. Robert Lowell. Confessional poetry down a brick lane. Confessional poetry for a coquettish girl. How beautiful and extraordinary those words seem to me now and forever more. When is childhood ever at an end for a writer, years of history and the educating of a young girl’s mind? I saw pictures of a formidable brick wall seeming to close in on me in those affairs of the heart and the mind. Disjointed, evaporated fragments of the spirit. And every one becoming more and more apparent to me as the long days and the longer nights went by of my late adolescence and early twenties.
Everything is disjointed, in fragments, there’s no clarity in what I have written down to me the reader. Everything is a journey. I’ve had enough of feeling this wretched way. Enough of the dead of a creamy-white hot summer season, a season of fruits challenging me to think and to escape into a voyage in the dark, a sheltered experience, the blue-eyed wonder of the sky, stars falling down, stars in my lover’s eyes pleading with me with a clean perception during the midnight hour, scrutinizing me openly with like minded possibilities like clouds gathering across the sky. Everything in life is a journey. One must walk the path of inexperience to get to modernity, influence, perception and wisdom. I think a writer, writers like Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Keats, Orson Welles, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a poet like Emily Dickinson knew this.
Two Muslim girls are standing outside my office window smoking as if their lives depended on it. I hated the taste and smell of cigarettes when I lived in my hometown before I left for Johannesburg. I don’t know where the children get the impulse to smoke from these days. At this moment I am concentrating on improving myself. Having a set routine, sleep hygiene, working on not having sleep deprivation, writing in my journal. And I wonder do they think of me, the men, as often as I think of them or do not think of them? The sexual impulse is sacred but I never saw this between a man and a woman, never grew up with it only with the realisation that the weight of sin matters. I couldn’t stand to be happy. When darkness falls upon the city I came undone under his fingertips. I didn’t know why I hated myself so. Why certain books changed my life? Why I could only surrender when a man touched me? Love comes with paradise, tears, the explanations, the words, the observations that comes with gravity, the love songs, and it will leave you wanting lying in the dark. There is no such thing as organic time or a clock. White meringue weddings are for girls, for orchids, for arum lilies, for tea light candles, delicate material like lace not for a wonder guts like me, a tough cookie.
I will not appear the same in the photograph as I do in memory. What do children communicate when they laugh, when they smile? Is their world not filled with joy? Why not mine? The faded leaves of grass under school shoes, bubble-gum stuck under a school desk, reading Athol Fugard’s A Road to Mecca, remembering all of these childhood things brings something temporary to the surface. Not tension, not indifference, a feeling of love for being young and not being in an adult world yet. A feeling of being fearless, so motivated that I got the lead role of an archaeologist (or anthropologist, I forget) in a house play. I don’t know what courage means anymore. Can you see the fragments now? How disjointed the narrative is? But is it enough? Is it enough to want desire? Sometimes I think that is enough. The sexual transaction can be far removed from being ‘a moveable feast’. Dampness seeps into the lining of my coat as I enter the hotel in Johannesburg fifteen years ago with someone else this time. He does not put his hand in the small of my back. He does not offer to buy me a drink. He falls asleep almost immediately as his head hits the pillow. The relationship is over before I know it for sure. They don’t come back to me. Am I so forlorn? Is youth and wisdom wasted upon me? As a matter of fact they can all go to hell and burn there, get a nice golden brown tan with a fiery looking cough-syrupy-texture-like cocktail in one hand or Brazil or someplace exotic like Mauritius. Maybe they’re seeking much more high maintenance girls. I just wanted someone to understand me. It wasn’t so much the educating part of it that I wanted. Dead writers have taught me that the pinnacle of creative expression is to challenge conventional wisdom always. I’ve surrounded myself, invoking their spirit, reading and rereading lines of their work, succumbing to their world of madness. The world is not the same for women as it is for men. The role that women plays is still a diminished one in the equilibrium of space and time although there have been women who have been visionaries just as much as men have been. Women have taught by example, led by example just as much as men have but what these women have known is that wisdom comes later rather than sooner.
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