The poet, Silke Heiss, reminded me a couple of weeks ago, of the time she and I were doing our Masters degrees in Creative Writing at UCT (many years ago), and I was pregnant – arriving at seminars in ugly maternity tops and the most god-awful acrylic pants my mom bought me that could stretch around the suburb of Muizenberg I was that big. I schlepped my boy around in my belly, his elbows prodding and poking (clearly wanting to join in the conversation even then); and then Al was born!
A week after he arrived I was back attending seminars – I did not want to miss a damn thing – with my lil’ one in a car seat, lugging him from class to the Leslie coffee shop, and back to class again, lugging that baby all over the place, like a handbag. I was the epitome of ‘crazy’ new mom, wanting to get on with ‘normal’, running around in milk-soaked blouse, the smell of sour cabbage trailing me wherever I went. Al slept a lot, I was lucky I didn’t have a baby with colic. But when his kitten-mewl started, his head turning from side to side, his mouth open, little pink tongue searching for taste… if I didn’t give him what he wanted he’d wail like a police siren chasing down baddies in Prince George’s Drive.
In one seminar, I was certain that Christopher Hope was about to tell us that elusive ‘secret to writing’ not even J.M. Coetzee had been able to reveal… when Al started his mewl, I could not leave… I could not miss one word… I pulled my little boy from his car seat. Propped him on my arm. I unbuttoned my blouse, unhooked my maternity over-shoulder-boulder-holder, pulled out a limp, cooked cabbage leaf (those leaves drew the heat from my burning breasts so full of milk) and whipped out a ‘jug’, squeezed my nipple, a streak of milk arcing and landing in droplets on the book on the table in front of me, but nevermind, I popped Al on my breast where he latched on.
Christopher Hope stopped talking… he blanched, went whiter than he already was with his English skin; he may have been in shock… my breast was bigger than the baby’s head, my exposed milk-white skin marked by estuaries of blue veins so close to the surface, as if one of my little girls at home had scribbled with a kokie pen on my boobs…
Al slurped and grunted, a steadily satiated piglet. The wise man of letters started talking again. I have no idea what he said. I felt a sense of triumph. This is Africa! We breastfeed here! In public! I may have missed ‘The Secret’.
When I mentioned our classes with J.M. Coetzee, in a previous ‘Corona’ post, Silke asked if I’d ever received the poem she wrote about me and Al after my husband had died. For some reason I never had. Silke responded: ‘Found it!’ she wrote. ‘Mailing it right away. BUT: I have also just seen that on 17th March 2014 at 17:07 I sent you the following message along with the poem.’
‘Dear Joanne, … I heard of Rob’s sudden leap out of this earthly life. I’ve been thinking of you a lot ever since, imagining how fragile the shock of that experience would have left you, and getting snatches on Facebook of how bravely you have been managing yourself, your children, your life in the aftermath. You appear intelligently to be allowing yourself all the spiritual contact your soul needs with Rob, while at the same time keeping yourself just busy enough to remain connected with present time and space – a tall order if ever there was! I don’t know why, but perhaps it will give you something to read the poem I’m attaching – it was inspired by your self when Alister was a baby, although I only wrote it last year. Love from Silke’
And here is the poem (Silke’s poem) to give my story more depth, to understand the close connection I have with my son. I suppose this is one thing that I have loved about Lockdown, being with the teenager who throws his clothes on the floor, the stinky boy in the bed, also the boy who has made us bobotie for supper, hung up the washing, stroked the cat, chatted with me and kissed me on the top of my head, tells me, ‘You’re a smashing mom.’ Once he goes back to school, and turns eighteen in a few months, then I’m not going to be flavour of the day, I will have finally transitioned from mama to mommy to mother to hey you to… Bruh! (Seen on a T-shirt!)
A political poem
I’m not one of those women poets
who make much
of the constraints
of being female –
but she did bring her baby
to the seminar
in his car seat cradle;
she was not academically trained,
that is to say, she was no ace
at theorising, and she’d read
not so much the classics
as popular fiction – thrillers and stuff,
which she loved;
and the way she handled
that third (unplanned) child of hers
in the stark room
with the snooty ones
who might by choice remain barren –
the way she handled the snoot,
without anger, unintimidated,
rocking the car seat cradle –
all her handling
of discomfort, constraints, exclusion
- Silke Heiss, 7th March 2013*
I am glad I received the poem only now, thank you Silke. It means so much to me, and shows that sometimes we receive the proper gifts at the right time. (Apologies to any one I may have offended in those days, with my baby and my breasts…)
This Post Has One Comment
I totally love this story and the hard-hitting poem that caught it! I remember that fortitude in you Joanne, a remarkable quality.