Birds in Words collects, not only poems and illustrations of South African birds but also, a good cross-section of South African poets, some of whom give slant insight into the starker aspects of life in this country and our history.
Even hadedahs cry
Snipping the sky into grief
For the child a chicknapper snatched -
"Even Hadedahs" - Moira Lovell
Now as the streets are lit,
I feel the lurking thieves
Who seek their prey like hunters.
Here there is no river
To shelter lurking frogs
And harbour waterfowl.
"Nightfall" - BW Vilakazi
The two poems from Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali were first published in 1971, during the depths of the Apartheid era and in both, the poet employs birds as means of critique of the social system and crazy laws of the time.
I was not a bird
red and tender of body
with the mark of the tribe
branded on me as a fledgeling
hatched in the Zulu grass hut.
"The moulting country bird" - Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali
Every day I see these insolent birds perched
on ‘Whites Only' benches, defying all authority.
Don't they know of the Separate Amenities Act?
Oh! Holy Ideology! Look at those two at the crest
of the jumping impala, they are making love in full
view of madams, hobos, giggling office girls.
What is the world coming to?
Where's the sacred Immorality Act*? Sies!
"Pigeons at the Oppenheimer Park" - Mbuyiseni Oswald Mtshali
But the Khoikhoi people inhabited southern Africa centuries before the European colonisations and the intimate, more comfortable, relationship between them and the natural world around them is evident in the translations of traditional songs/poems included in the collection.
Big bird that runs swinging your wings,
Belly that says chou-chou,
Man-ostrich that runs and seems to walk,
Give me a tail-feather!
"Ostrich" - from the Khoikhoi translated by Theophilus Hahn
the berries are up here upon my shoulder
rrrú are up here
the berries are up here
rrrú are up here
are up here
the berries are put away here on my shoulder
"The songs of the blue crane" - //Kabbo selected and adapted by Antjie Krog
And last, from South Africa's many-identitied, ‘Mr Chameleon', a bit of seemingly miraculous beauty in the midst of a noisy, sleepless, city night in which
dropped dustbin's lid,
squad car's hysterical scream;
the poet hears, incredibly, a
... midnight owl's
in a hidden place: a place
not meant for owls straggled down
from the star-
scored hill's tangled crest.
"Midnight Owl" - Tatamkhulu Afrika
* The Immorality Act forbade sex between people of different races.
Birds in Words: the Twitchers' Guide to South African Poetry
compiled by Gus Ferguson and Tony Morphet
(Roggebaai, South Africa: Umuzi (an imprint of Random House), 2006), 79 pages, paper.
ISBN: 978-1-4152-0024-7 ZAR220.00
Review first published in Off the Coast, Summer 2010
Resolute Bear Press, Robbinston, Maine. ISSN 1945-0559
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