Our Wail Starts Up

Rita Dove

Political 

(for Breyten Breytenbach )

by Rita Dove

There was a man spent seven years in hell’s circles–
no moon or starlight, shadows singing
their way to slaughter. We give him honorary status.
There’s a way to study freedom but few have found
it; you must talk yourself to death and then beyond,
destroy time, then refashion it. Even Demeter keeps digging
towards that darkest miracle,
the hope of finding her child unmolested.

This man did something ill advised, for good reason.
(I mean he went about it wrong.)
And paid in shit, the world is shit and shit
can make us grown. It is becoming the season
she was taken from us. Our wail starts up
of its own accord, is mistaken for song


It’s February!  And with it I generally spend a little more time seeking out African American writers in honor of Black History Month.  I wanted to start out with a bang, one of my favorite modern sonnet writers, Rita Dove.  The poem above made my curious about Breyton Breytenbach, a name and a writer I was not familar.  Breytenbach was a poet, writer, civil rights crusader in South Africa during Apartheid who spent years in prison for trumped up charges of just being correct in his opinions in defiance of the government at the time.   Breytenbach received world wide acclaim, and raised awareness of the racist government policies that still existed at the time.   Still alive, these two poems, paired together, illustrate the power of words to change people’s minds and hearts and governments, something none of us in the United States should take for granted as we vigilantly must stand up for voting rights in the face of political distortion shrinking the right to the ballot box in too many parts of this country.



Rebel Song

by Breyten Breytenbach

give me a pen
so I may sing
that life is not in vain

give me a season
an autumn a spring
to see sky with open eyes
when the peach tree vomits its white plenitude
a tyranny will be brought to earth

let mothers lament;
may breasts become dry
and wombs shrivel
when the scaffold finally weans its own

give me that love
which won’t rot between fingers,
give me a love like this love I must give you,
my dove

grant me a heart
that will pulsate its throb
more strongly than the white thrashing
heart of a terrified dove in the dark
knock louder than bitter bullets

give me a heart
small fountain of blood
to spout blossoms of bliss
for blood is never for naught

I need to die before I’m dead
when my heart is still fertile and red
before I eat the darkened soil of doubt

give me two lips
and bright ink for tongue
to write the earth
one vast love letter
swollen with the milk of mercy

sweeter day by day
spilling all bitterness
burning as summer
burns sweeter

then let it be summer
without blindfolds or ravens
allow the gallows to give the peach tree
its red fruit of satisfaction

and grant me a love song
of doves of atonement
so I may sing my life was not in vain

for as I die
to wide eyes
under sky
my red song will not lie
my red song will never die