Wednesday, July 11, 2012

South Africa Memoirs

for Candy
by Jeffrey Spahr-Summers
2007, 2008, 2009

the core

it hungers like a kiln
it is the heat of darkness so total
it shines bright like the sun
it is the wisdom of ages
beauty possessed
by the recklessness of youth
it fears and celebrates itself
i hunger to return

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers


I see them circling above me
Gliding around
Butt ugly birds
I would know them anywhere

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers


skin of
africa brown
and rough
and furry
grown lonely
and tough from
too many suns
too little water
and hes
green inside
and plump
and eager
and so very
they say

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

wild life

giraffes and elephants hide among the trees
just as lions hide in the tall yellow grass
crocodiles become rocks on the waters edge
as do puff adders in the dry dry heat

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers


my dream is to be an elephant let
me bellow when i run flap my ears
a rogue crashing through the trees

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

i saw a zulu woman once

kick her husbands teeth out
they fell from his mouth like
chiclets on a night like this
she snapped like a dry stick
she struck quick as lightning
a ruthless cobra stretching
the full length of her body
and he never saw it coming
but i did it didnt surprise me

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers


it was her
it was she
who convinced me
to write all those poems
about my african experience
the snapshots of love
and life
and death
and terror
and i can still feel
her samson hands
gripping my wrists the
horror of it splashed
across her face
good god...why
havent you written about it

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

two sticks

as a cadet in a beret
in the transvaal
in step
in the kiln of summer
in the front row
with a drum and two
this is worth it
ive got the snare now
baby ive got it

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

The Dying of Zulu

Means gracefulness
dancing barefoot in the sun,
proud ancient wisdom,
beaded weapons, assegais,
shields and knopkerries,
floors of dirt and disease
lack of food and water
lack of healing,
a sharing of clothing
and borrowed shoes
for generations to come.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

The Silver Coin

A remnant
of old experiment
a token of old fears
remembered in my hand
Paul Kruger
the first President
on the front
A springbok on the back
Suid Afrika it says
soli deo gloria

still smooth
and ominous

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Child of Afrika

The child doesn’t want money or
Jesus to come save his soul or
Toys or candy or clothes or
Promises even or
The child wants hope

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

total recall

Legend of the Baobab’s Sin

(a brief history of the Monkey-Bread Tree)

Legend has it
That when Arabs chanced upon you
Acting very unlike a tree,
Dancing up dust,
Blushing whimsical lust
In the huge white flowers
That rushed to embrace the moon,
You know the game was up.

And soon it came to pass.
The Arabs harassed you
And conjured up a devil
Who plucked you from the ground,
Turned you upside down
And thrust your branches in to the earth,
Leaving only the roots exposed.

I suppose this explains
Your curious ancient repose,
The rows of gourd like, woody fruit
Grown pleasantly round from acid seeds,
The vegetable leaves thrown wild
To the ground by the African breeze,
But mostly,
A trunk grossly swollen
Out of all proportion,
By a thousand years of branches
Groping about
Growing stout
Shouting from the inside out.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

From Table Mountain

(on a sunny day)

The world seems an endless array
Of silent shafts of light dismayed
And uncertain in their sense if direction.

But I am above this confusion now
And can spray the light wherever I may:

down on the old fort in Cape Town proper
or on the maze of spiked ships in Table Bay
(distant twinkles from the eastern ledge).
or from the northern edge to bright forests
leading into suburbs a vague as the vineyards,
even south where Devil’s Peak become streaked
in shadows of stray sunlight from the Atlantic,
and facing west the Twelve Apostles begin to glow
like towering citadels reflecting down on Camps Bay
my school near Strathmore Road and my house
where later I will be flayed by the light myself.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

In Search of the Stalker

A leopard was here tonight, they say
Growling iridescent eyes
Prowling around our camp,
Floating like fire-flies
Through the pitch black night.

A chilling sight, they say.

And feeling wise,
Full of adventure,
Smug from the venture of the day
We hug the chain-link fence.
Reel on the brink of suspense
And peel our eyes
To peer into the darkness,
But we see nothing.
We hear nothing.

Nothing convinces us to fear
What we cannot hear or see,
So we walk along the fence
As silent as the absence
Of the stalker.

Suddenly one fence becomes two,
And the darkness becomes
An odd hallway through which we walk
And talk of the reasons for two
When two suddenly become one again.

And now reason is beyond talking,
And no longer wasted on us.
We are outside the camp and we know it,
We show it in our hastened retreat,
Our fleet footed heat back to camp.

And we know that he’s there. We know it.
We see and hear him everywhere;
in the trees crowding to surround us,
on our tails,
in the loud wail of the wind around us,

right where the sway of the fence ends,
laying in wait behind that bush
we can’t see but know is there.

That’s where he is we know it.

Under our car, we know it;
not far behind us
as we reach for our door,
behind the door,
on the floor,
under the beds. We’re sure of it.

We’re dead for sure and we know it.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Talk About My Girl

My girl doesn’t clean the toilet,
The sink, the bath, the floors
Or this wood paneling
Like a good maid should.
She doesn’t seem to care
That dust lays about my house
Like it hasn’t been cleaned at all.
I try to be patient and explain
That thing must be very clean
But I don’t think she understands.
It’s so hard to find good help.
I hate to wonder
What her home looks like.
She’s lucky that I keep her.

My madam has a beautiful home,
Fine furniture, nice pots
And running water, more clothes
Than I have ever seen at once
(except in stores) and many
Large rooms for her small family,
Rooms with many pretty pictures
That hang on the huge walls,
Rooms larger than my entire house
And real floors, not dirt.
She tells me I must clean very well
Like a good maid should
But everything is already clean,
So I pretend to clean again.
She’s very lucky
To have such a nice home.

My girl steals porridge, meat,
Flour and sometimes fruit
From our trees in the garden.
I don’t know why she steals
When I give her extra food
From our plates after supper
To take home to her family.
I try to be patient and explain
That stealing is wrong
But I don’t think she understands.
It’s so hard to find good help.
I hate to wonder
What else she steals when I’m gone.
She’s lucky that I keep her.

My madam always has so much food.
Plenty of canned goods, flour,
Meat pies and deserts, much more
Than I think her small family
Could eat in a whole year.
Sometimes she lets me take home
The leftover food I cook for them
Or bones to make soup
But it is not enough to feed
My family and cousins,
Who cannot find work in the city
Because their passes are not in order.
Sometimes I must steal extra
To keep my family from starving.
She’s very lucky
To have so much to eat.

Sometimes my girl doesn’t show up
For two or three days in a row
And I become very upset.
I don’t like to be without help.

Sometimes my madam is upset when
I cannot work for a day or two,
But I must hide my husband and
Cousins when police raid my town.

Sometimes I think my girl
Doesn’t bath herself at all.

Sometime I think my madam
Must wash herself many times a day.

My girl is very lucky to work here.

My madam is very lucky to be White.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

giraffe dreams

Resenting the Shark

Dragging blue skin through blue water,
Chilled to teeth chattering bone,
We keep an angry eye out
For the tell tale dorsal fin
Or swiftly swimming shadows,
We squeeze through the Atlantic
Hungry for the drifting boat

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

The King's Court

Unimpressed with clever chase,
Graceful lunges and wild cat pirouettes
Blurred by the pace of the hunt,
The king of the beasts rests
(like a true leader) weary
And tense under a Knobthorn tree,
While his lionesses shop the veldt
To bring his dinner down.

He was born to these hunts
A cocky young cub electric and fluid,
Snubbed by his menacing pride
And left to his own devices
To learn the taste of his fate,
To flaunt his scars like a fighter should.

But he’s as old as the sun in his eyes now
And eager for a fitful feast,
Because he knows...
(like vultures onto scent)
There are bold young hopefuls nearby,
Hungry for the kill, for first tights,
Sharpening their virgin claws
And watching his every move.

He will need all the strength
and tricks experience can muster
From his flustered old bones
To keep his throne for another day.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers


Twirling about in dizzy flight
Claws biting flesh like switch blades,
The old king and his challenger
Back off
Parade back and forth
Adn circle,
Their tails as angry as whips.

Roars attack the untamed silence
And shudder across the veldt
Demanding attention
Like gunshots at night.
And every living thing knows
There is a new threat in town,
The wind doesn’t blow quite the same,
Something’s changed...

A strong young killer first cut
Is staking his claim
And taking the old one down.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Don't Forget Your Lesson

on Johannesburg

Don’t forget the hunger
Silently humming underground
Like a rash
Violently drumming beneath city street.

Don’t forget the young
And the old crying in mines,
Sold for white man’s gold,
Bound and determined
To die for a thread of respect
Or simply for bread.

Don’t forget the thunder
Of a thousand Zulu feet
Dancing their blood down,
Flooding downtown,
Pitch-black-brown waves crashing
Thrashing around white man’s door,
Cracking the concrete floor.

Don’t forget to wonder,
To suspect of
An error in white man’s plunder.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Las Vegas Snooker Club

Snookered in Johannesburg
AT 132 Market Street,
Beaten by the bitter-sweet heat
Or scotch whisky neat,
They’re discreet here
and I’m grateful for this
Treatment of boys at fourteen.

The place is not clean
But it’s fun! I mean it’s
Nothing like the under-age clubs
Overdone with snobbery
In Pretoria. It’s just that
They speak English here and will
Serve us whisky, wine and beer.

The leave us to cheer and holler
And drink to our clever deception.
They’ll not bother with us, because
I think they too were once boys.
But always too soon (it seems)
It’s time to leave the saloon
And weave back to the train station.

Entertaining lame excuses for
Possibly arriving home to late
To be ‘just out of school’.
As a rule, parents might find out
(sometimes they do) but we’ll
Play stupid (thinking to fool them)
Or maybe just be cool and pout.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

You Are Bantu

They give you this generic name
(the same for all the tribes)
Thinking it easier to tame you
And ironically it’s true
You are ‘the people’ of this land

They even call you so.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

the lion sleeps tonight

On the 5th of July

It’s clean up time
But dad and I don’t mind.
We find leftover firecrackers
And powder to make cannons,
Or blast coffee cans
As high as we can.

We plan to swipe a lead pipe,
Pack it with powder
And heavy duty bolts,
The shoot out the windows
Of the abandoned bus
Behind our house.

And when dad goes back to work,
I want to blow the hoods
Off the cars out back.
The ones I’ve tried
To pry open, but can’t.
I want to see
If there are engines inside.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Blame it on Africa

Whatever happened to
the deafening crack of endless nights,
Hot thundering starlight singeing my eyes?
You say the sky is too quiet here,
Blurred by pollution and too many people,
And Orion is mute.

Of what use are the skyscrapers
And pitiful zoos of America to me,
Having pressed my face to African soil
And tasted the boiling beat of deserted beaches?

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

South Western Township

I am the black iron pot
bringing hot scalding resentment
and pent up anger to a boil.

I lay sprawled and writhing,
scorched beyond reason
an open sore festering across the veld
between Johannesburg and Jan Smuts.

I hold my swarming millions
like common flies by the throat
and crush them at will.

I have no conscience.
I starve my children and burn their schools.
I incite petty quarrel and riot.

I am swart gevaar
(brawling black peril)
the stool
flushed down the great white toilet,
the sewer of Africa.

I am murder.
I rape,
I am shameless.
I hate
I am Soweto.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Ode to Cobras

Twice benign
(being curious of mind)
I resign
To find
Death by a thousand designs
Rather than face another trace of cobras.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers


The boy pretends he doesn’t notice
The hatred in your voice, the fear
Ripe in your eyes like choice fruit.
He pretends that his fate suits him.

He makes believe he’s been deceived
By your talk of friendship in the end.
He calls you ‘master’ and is relieved
That you don’t notice his disbelief.

He pretends that he likes you too,
But deep in his soul, he’s incognito
And anxious to creep away unnoticed,
To have nothing to do with you.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

In The Kiaat Tree

Vervet monkeys wail and cackle
As they fling their small furry bodies
Back and forth in the graceful tree,
Black hands clinging to rough gray bark,
Black faces laughing, eyes wide and giddy
From the perfumed pea-like yellow flowers.

But they don’t notice the patient python
Blending in with the dark gray branches
A thin beam of elastic shadow reaching,
Gingerly creeping from limb to limb,
Stretching for the favored little prey
With the tasty bright blue neon balls

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

lets say i was a baboon hypothetically speaking

The Ridge Was on Fire Tonight

It was very hot
And it’s not the first time this year
That we’ve seen such mean heat.
It lit up the sky for miles around,
gave it a bright orange and yellow glow,
And it very nearly caught
The trees in the driveway on fire,
But my father and the natives
Tired it out.
Fire fighters even came.
We feel lucky, because
It’s very dry here this time of year.
But there’s nothing to fear now,
Except the snakes
Flushed out
Bound to take the shortest way down,
Toward us
Away from the hot ground.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

What You Say Is True

an Afrikaaner’s point of view

What you say is true,
We took this land from the Bantu.
In return,
We let them live
Just beyond our thriving cities,
So that they might learn our ways.
We give them jobs,
Because we must have servants
To keep our houses
And mind our meals.
We find it a pity
That they feel deprived
and yearn to be free of us,
But it does not matter.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

For The Love of Lemons

Hot afternoons are opportune
To fondle plump lemons
the size of grapefruit,
To pierce the thick skin
grown tough
like years of sour regret,
To sink the teeth deep
suck the juice out
and believe the juice
is so very sweet
like poetry
powerfully sweet,
To swallow the seeds.

Jeffrey Saphr-Summers

Take a Separate Train

(Johannesburg to Cape Town)
for Anna

The best in the world, they say
And it’s true
The Blue Train is special,
Like a first kiss.

Picture a windowed mansion
Whisked brashly down the line
Tailing a quick ocean scent.
Sailing through the vineyards
Intent on a smooth ride.
But they’ll hide you
(we both know they will)
On another train
As if to blame black pride
For your ties to this ripe county.
So your time must be spent
Sitting up a straight 24 hour ride
Unable to lay down for sleep.
Frustrated and hunger,
Keeping track of the reasons
Why you cannot ride with us.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Mama Ruth

(in memory of Ruth First-
killed by a letter-bomb
in 1982 while in Mozambique)

Of one mind, one spirit,
They called you a traitor
An uppity bold white woman
Kind enough, but ripe for the fall.
So they stalled for time
And confined you under ‘section 6’
Behind their cold prison walls.
and they said that the halls
Must be silent in your presence
And sent agents to correct you,
To sway the error of your ways.
But your way was to deny them
Their pleasure, to fight and to die
By the tethered voice of your conscience.

Your choice was clear; no tears,
No nonsense, no fear
Just years of rough weather,
Tough jailors turning questions
Until finally
An answer to your challenge
A surprise disguised as mail,
And no chance to turn away.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

im a snot nosed lion

It Must Be Here

at Blood River
(so named after the defeat
of 16,000 Zulu impis on
Sunday, December 16, 1838)

It must be here

at the foot of Vegkop
that blood poured the reddest.
I can feel it in the sickly motion

of water flowing thick against the grain.

And it must be here
near the banks of the Ncome
that the hands of fate
lunged for the throat of a nation
proud in its African blood
and slated a war the natives couldn’t win.

It must be here
that white men finally
rushed the great tide,
crushed the Zulu pride,
thought up a disease called Apartheid
and flushed it across the countryside.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Beyond Reach

Apartheid is a slow child
By the frantic pace of life,
Dimwitted and abused
Confused by the graceful space
Between wrong and right,
Outwitted by strife.

An only child
Accused of too much,
When it pleases new friends
But reluctant
To give up toys for them.

A child
Out of touch
Out of luck,
Stuck in the mud
Like a whale
Beached beyond reach
Of the ocean’s pale love.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

All Roads Lead to Johannesburg

The scent of gold
lingers over this city
like a hot summer day
and shouts boldly about
the money to be spent.

It screams loud and clear
across the countryside,
to those far and near
we have work here.

And day and night
you can hear the idle talk
of a need for more in life,
you can hear them walking
from the homelands,
from Zululand,
the Transkei,
and Bechuanaland.

Across the land
they’re trying to survive,
they want to stay alive.

They’re going to Johannesburg.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Black Cup

And the white boy sits
By the empty black cup
Struck by the futility of it all.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Queen Nomzamo Madikezela

As a child
I dreamed of a finer Africa
Than the one I know today.
I dreamed of my people proud
Coming home to their rightful place.
I dreamed of beautiful gardens,
Jarcaranda trees and Aloes along my stoep,
Food-a-plenty and a happiness
Of the sort that is born from freedom.
I imagined friendship with all races
And an attentive, gentle husband
Who would be a powerful man and our king.
I dreamed of love.
But I never dreamed of Mandela
And the heavy legacy of his name,
Barren cells, cold cement floors
And no shoes, or whistling bullets
Biting children before my eyes.
I never dreamed my people would murder
One another for favors from the tyrants.
I never dreamed it would come to this.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Coffee Cans and Petrol

Returning home once again
Armpits burning
Thick with ticks from the veld,
I quickly find a coffee can
Fill it with petrol
and pick the swollen things slowly
So their head don’t break off
And stay buried under my skin.
Then I drop them in the petrol
Where they pop like popcorn
And sometimes
Like Tom Thumb crackers.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

On Apartheid

Thirteen years of silence
Flaws the eyes of a child
Still raw from the wild debate.
In awe of his fate
He withdraws
And waits.
And when he tries to relate
The violence,
The fear,
The cause,
He will deny
This thin pause
Between love and hate.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Seasonal Showers

in Pretoria
In November
Jacarandas grow
Powerful summer flowers
Showy blue in hue
And throughout December
Violet showers blow
Just so
Like snow
Floating to and fro
Down the flowing
Boulevards below

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Cry of The Peacock Silenced


Stinging through the night
(always at night)
Like spiders climbing my spine,
The cry bites deep
Into vulnerable sleep
And suddenly dies,
As if wary of mourning
The eerie solitude of no reply.
Snagged without warning,
Feathers sagging
You stumbled upon me,
Eyes wide
Flinging your head
From side to side,
From a crude wire trap
Slapped tight around you neck.
Out of fear (I think)
You wouldn’t let me near
And disappeared,
Dragging the morning behind you.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers

Coming of Age

 for Mark Mathabane
The beauty of your curious garden
Is forever stained
A deep furious and painful red,
Framed without answers
Like questions left unsaid.
It is said
That some white men
Are led to believe
You are better off dead
And blame
your lot in life,
your children’s innocent strife,
On father Ham, because he made your bed.
But I’m not deceived
By these centuries of useless excuses
And I grieve
For the life you’ve led,
Thread bare
Spread eagle across the bed
Of your homeland,
Snared by the dreadful touch
Of a free man’s careless thrust.
And sometimes I believe
in freedom
and justice,
But sometimes I simply grieve
For the Africa in me.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers


Vivid red, yellow and green
Like a perfect plastic toy,
I made it a place in the freezer
(thinking to tease my sisters)
But returned to find it frozen,
Color faded,
Legs brittle and broken.
In Zululand
The natives favor them fried
And lightly seasoned for flavor
They are offered to tourists as such.

Jeffrey Spahr-Summers