A great loss

I was lucky enough to grow up in a part of the world with some  extraordinary men and women around: writers, political activists, thinkers. For decades I looked up to two women who inspired and challenged me in so many ways. They seemed indestructible and part of me believed they would go on forever. Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, women I read through  the dark long years when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on the island  we could see from signal Hill or Table Mountain, the small rocky island of Robben Island out in the bay.


When Doris Lessing died, it was not unexpected, but I couldn’t quite believe it. Then Nelson Mandela too was dead, the country and beyond us, the world,  immersed in grieving and gratitude.


And the Nobel prize-winning novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer died in Johannesburg on Sunday, aged 90. Not unexpected, but a shock all the same.



Nadine Gordimer was born in a scruffy small mining town named Springs in 1923. Her parents were Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. She would study at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1945 and marry a refugee art dealer from Nazi Germany.


And in 1948 the Afrikaner Nationalist party came into power and  established apartheid as official state policy. Black people could not own land or property, could not live or work in certain areas, could not vote. And much, much more. Gordimer began to write about  the everyday racism and  hatred underlying the peaceful sunny veneer of South Africa. She would go on writing about this until apartheid ended. And after that she would write about other forms of human injustice and intrigue.


I found a book written by Nadine Gordimer, The Lying Days, and began reading it when I was at school in Zimbabwe. I wrote a book report on it and was sent to the headmistress to be given a detention punishment and the book was confiscated. Nadine Gordimer’s books were Communist and  unChristian, I was told.Regardless,  I went on searching for more of her stories and novels, not from teenage defiance but because I found a truthfulness there that meant a great deal to me.  Like Doris Lessing, the works of  Nadine Gordimer were banned for many years and I read illicit copies hidden at the back of the bookcase, ordered books from overseas because they were not sold locally.  What does it do to a writer when book after book is banned and  ignored? Gordimer, indomitable, courageous, obstinate,  just kept on writing. In a time when so many authors talk so much about sales and self-promotion, when certain groups talk so lightly of banning books,  it is humbling to remember that  courage and persistence.


From this morning’s New York Times


Three of Ms. Gordimer’s books were banned in her own country at some point during the apartheid era — 1948 to 1994 — starting with her second novel, “A World of Strangers,” published in 1958. It concerns a young British man, newly arrived in South Africa, who discovers two distinct social planes that he cannot bridge: one in the black townships, to which one group of friends is relegated; the other in the white world of privilege, enjoyed by a handful of others he knows.

“A World of Strangers” was banned for 12 years and another novel, “The Late Bourgeois World” (1966), for 10: long enough to be fatal to most books, Ms. Gordimer noted. “The Late Bourgeois World” deals with a woman who faces a difficult choice when her ex-husband, a traitor to the anti-apartheid resistance, commits suicide.

The third banned novel was one of her best known, “Burger’s Daughter,” the story of the child of a family of revolutionaries who seeks her own way after her father becomes a martyr to the cause. It was unavailable in South Africa for only months rather than years after it was published in 1979, in part because by then its author was internationally known.


Gordimer: ‘Truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is’


Nadine Gordimer

the soft look / Your eyes had once

Awed by the heavy (lusciously gravid) yellow moon hanging as if hooked into branches of an old camphor tree.


This weekend I made my annual borscht, a crazy purple and lurid pink triumph, with sour cream, dill and smoked paprika for added flavour. Beetroot from a local community garden and  the leafy tops were so squeaky fresh I used them too.


Got up at 5am yesterday morning, looked at the full moon, gave the dogs his breakfast and wrote a sonnet. Not a good sonnet as sonnets go, but if you had told me a week ago I would sit and count syllables on my fingers and  write 14 lines in a sort-of iambic pentametre with trochees and  anapests, I would have laughed at the notion. But my fellow poets and I are trying everything. And, you know, there are really only two beats that matter. The duple heartbeat (Lub dub Lub dub Lub dub or lub Dub lub Dub lab Dub) and the triple hoofbeat (didi dum didi dum didi dum). Listen to your heart, listen to a horse clopping down the road at a canter or gallop.


I’m writing poetry in the hope of becoming a better reader of poetry. It always delights me there is no money in poetry, nobody writes a villanelle and expects to  sell billions of it and make  lots of money. Poetry is a vocation, not a career or even profession.


This is a wonderful sonnet from W B Yeats. Listen to the heartbeat, the hoofbeat, the heart.


When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Small archetypes

Wishing I understood why I suffer so about and through certain work projects.


I can only do what I do, and  then accept my failings and imperfections and try harder next time. I love the work, I learn from it. I research and write and rewrite and edit. It’s what I do, a life shaped by  morning meditations, writing, shared intimacy, conversation, daily tasks around the house, dogs and doggy games, dreams when I sleep, then  more meditation, prayer and writing.Work is a necessity, a joy, a habit.

But when I’m not working, I’m crushed  by fears and imperfections, doubts, hatred of the tedium, resentful of the time spent, certain I am not meant to do this. Then I sit down, give a  wide-open sigh and begin working again and it is fine.


Talked to someone yesterday about archetypes. He says he is an alchemist. The housemate says she is a healer. (All lower case.) My friend D says she is a hunter, an Artemis. I  think  I have many cross-cutting, cross-dressing, cross -current archetypes and that I am a Hermit for now. A woman in a cave, a woman reading oracles, a woman burning on a pillar in the desert. Ascetic, solitary, inward, happiest alone, building an inner hermitage filled with birds’ nests, clouds, treetops, eaves and  chimneys. If I had a beard, you could forage in it.

The world is porous.


We interpenetrate one another’s realities, blunder into one another’s hearts.


The housemate is standing on the beach looking at a stormy black sea. She says it is so cold the sea is spitting ice.


The small dog keeps gnawing her front paws  so I bandage them, The work waiting for me feels impossible, exhausting, hopeless, undoable. In the unweeded flowerbed spears of  paper narcissi, green spears  of leaf and pointy stem,  are coming up through black earth. The sun is hot on my shoulders and head but I cannot get warm.

“And my body slopes toward yours no matter how level the ground.”

—  Rosmarie Waldrop, from “Conversation 2” in Curves to the Apple