Kept walking, and wrote …


Imagine you’re in your early thirties. You want to live – I repeat, want to live – in at least the same province as your family so you can see them once or twice a month, and you want to live in the same city as at least half a dozen old friends with whom you can hang out regularly. Imagine yourself wanting to be in a serious relationship, with perhaps a child or two. You want to be established in your work, with a satisfying social life.

Now imagine you actually find yourself in a foreign country on the other side of the globe. You see your family maybe once every two years. You have a few friends, but don’t see them often. You’re single, with no relationship in the pipeline. Your work is not fulfilling, and you often remind yourself, or are reminded, that time is running out to establish yourself in a profession.

To complicate things, you are not stuck in a situation where you can just resign and book a plane ticket back home. You have an apartment full of books and furniture and wall hangings and ornaments with sentimental value. Your income is sufficient to eat well and sleep comfortably, but you don’t have enough savings to survive for more than a few months if you go back to your own country.

Of course, you can leave all the furniture, the wall hangings, and a few ornaments behind and go back home, and hope everything works out. Problem is, you did exactly that a few years before when you were in a similar situation in another country, and let’s just say, it didn’t work out.

What do you do?

You can’t go home because you’re already at home?

Just accept it, and push ahead?

What did I end up doing?

I had no desire for packing up and trying my luck again in South Africa. So, I straightened my shoulders and kept walking.

And kept writing:


everybody runs away, the rats are fleeing
he is … like his ship, sinking

with solemn respect comes the salutation
middle finger held up high
pulls a recorder from his pocket
plays a death hymn, stops
with his forehead the smashing waves

calm flushes the depths
lives the fountain of abundance
manna, quail, island silence
in wisdom he bites, with razor-sharp teeth
into the sweet flesh of second life

so come on traitors!
creep closer mocker crowd!
one by one you’ll have to face reality
and if your eyes can’t see, and your ears can’t hear
then let me shout it out to sink it in:


even for the single survivor.

* * * * * * * * * * *


storms urge me on
my grotesque frame too large
for a nice tight keyhole fit
a closet too small and cramped
a golden cage too fine and much too cold
I rush forward at furious pace
with walking stick and day-old beard

* * * * * * * * * * *


shuffling wordless in dusty spaces
filling ashtrays one upon the other
full and empty again; cups full of coffee
fresh bottles of tea from the all-night cafe

old chairs give way
the weight of evening air sours
in the face of absent light
I rock back and forth, back and forth

it seems you have sometimes
to pull your claws from the mud of time
be more philosophical
about waiting for things to turn on their heel

so, if it can’t be avoided
I’d have to calculate yet again:

one thousand seven hundred and eighty
five one thousand seven hundred
eighty-four, one thousand seven hundred
eighty-three, one thousand …

nights without you

* * * * * * * * * * *


new housing draws
lines across my plans
my eyes narrowing, looking
through other windows at neighbours’ walls

suppose I know about more
than just life and death and pipes full of mice
if I had memorised the sermons of old
I’d have learned too much about retirement homes

sometimes I look too deep into the bottle of time
write notes on floors with pencil and chalk
sometimes I bite a little too much
off rules brittle and yellow from age

sometimes one must move to new housing
the work of a man like a woman ever not done
but I keep writing my lines and shutting my mouth
my eyes peeled until tomorrow, or next month, or next year

(Sunday, 14 September 2003)

* * * * * * * * * * *


I feel myself
irresponsibly close to you
less than your presence
unconditionally close to me
I feel, what’s more
myself untouched
while I live within you

* * *

forty tons of events stay mum
numb my love as it were
shall I ever, as long as I live, discover the axe
that’s been chasing me for so many years?

* * * * * * * * * * *


on your way to a 7-Eleven, you see it again:
a desert, in the middle of the sea
you want to sneak closer, crawl, aim for the other side
but time and place are shoes that squeeze

you think about coffee, then you buy tea
talk about holding out, holding on, then you give in
want to say “No” in confusion, then nodding “Yes”
wink apparently cool, then fleeing again in a daze

sometimes I say you give in too easily
too few see courage and daring as talent
vagabonds like to pitch a tent at night
clapping whips against trees on the break of dawn

say you want to go together, say you want to sleep
say you’ve had enough, please for once say “Yes”
suspect a little, believe, weigh things up again
because this time and place squeeze far too much

* * * * * * * * * * *

(another) night poem

I’m working my ass off, but
the night remains a bottomless pit
like a miner of a cleaner nature
I dig for words, light, figures, and signs

apt metaphors spoiled by pretence
stand like saints over my open grave
while I’m earnestly looking for dawn
the pick breaks, then the spade, then the lift to the light

and I remain
caught up
in yet another night poem

* * * * * * * * * * *



tumultuously burns the form
leaves the contents fresh, untouched
clothes from another century
hang upside down in my crumbling closet

look carefully at the streets, the markets
poke around in towns and cities
sneak barefoot through half-lit alleyways
wrap yourself in a transient’s blanket

too many preach about proverbs long forgotten
sing false psalms about damned old ideas
reconcile dogma with new science
steal slyly overnight, words from a dungeon library


dozens of descendants, ancestors in front
portraits against faded walls, half-heartedly shining on
books full of museums and ancient buildings
sketches in a thousand corridors full of thoughts

remind only, sing melodiously without stop

priests dance with animal hides draped
over shoulders hanging under the weight
fifty thousand years of searching for a truth
continue to dictate in mumbling chant:

that place and knowing
not only are where you belong
but in truth
is where the soul ultimately ought to be


Army of one


I am an army of one.

Then again, if I think about it, I am part of an army of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions. The only thing is, we all hide in our houses or apartments, or in backrooms, guest rooms, spare rooms, caravans, or homes for the mentally unstable. Some of us keep watch at night, and only go to bed when other people wake up. Some of us keep more regular hours. Sometimes we recognise each other on the street, sometimes not. Some of us have beards; some of us just have a head full of unkempt hair. We are men, and we are women. Some of us are rich; some of us will always be poor. Some own houses, and some only own the shirts on their backs. Some are known to millions; some don’t even always remember their own names.

We – are the Army of One.


The end of an address/Transformation


I’m sitting in a denuded apartment waiting for the moving truck to move me and my junk to a new habitat. Some thoughts have to be jotted down immediately.

First, as I have mentioned many times, my sense of where I belong is highly unstable at the best of times. This raises the question of whether I will ever feel at home somewhere. I mean, some people never fit anywhere, right? Is that not the meaning of the labels “drifter” and “loner”?

Contrary to the first point, I recently experienced a more developed sense of where I belong. I’m also sceptical of fitting in too well. Is it because you have to conform to sets of rules – which are usually never spelled out – to fit in? Such rules include what and how you should dress, how you should behave towards different people, what you should say and what not, what you should believe, which ideals are acceptable and which not, and what ambitions you should have. But what good does it do to be honest – to not conform to the detriment of who you believe you truly are – if you end up alone? What is the value of remaining true to yourself if that means you always walk alone?

The other related thing I want to mention is that I could consider transforming myself into a creature that fits in more easily. It can’t be that difficult – I do after all have friends! (Family doesn’t really count in this case. They have a moral obligation to accept you in their midst … that is to say if your clothing style, your behaviour, what you say, what you believe, and your goals do not offend your family to such an extent that they reach the point where they feel it would be better for everyone if you don’t insist that they satisfy your need to be part of their intimate circle. Fortunately, my clothing style, my behaviour, and even my ambitions are of such a nature that they don’t offend my parents’ or my two sisters’ dignity too much. It is naturally to my advantage to believe this to be true.)

So, with the moving truck drawing closer, what are the chances that I can transform myself to such an extent that I could more easily make an entry into groups and communities?

* * *

At 14:55 it was all over. I wanted to end the last part with the words, “So, as the villains in their blue truck draw closer …” but I thought I’d give them the benefit of the doubt. Rogues they were, all right, but friendly enough after they managed to extract twice as much money from me as I had hoped the whole operation would cost me. I wanted to argue, but they gathered together, with one of them lifting his T-shirt up ever so slightly to show his underworld tattoo. At that moment I remembered yet another one of the Important Principles of Survival: Restrain yourself from physical conflict with more than one villain at a time when you’re alone. This principle is of course even more applicable if the villains are of the type who carry sofas and washing machines on their backs up three flights of stairs, and even more so if you are, let’s just say, the scholastic type. (Is it necessary to add that it’s not a good idea to want to pull sheets of papers with notes on them from said sofa while the aforementioned villain is carrying the sofa up a flight of stairs?)

All in all, the process went by without much incident. Right now, I’m sitting outside my favourite coffee shop, quietly sucking on a cup of creamy Viennese coffee while I breathe in the sulphur-polluted air of this part of town.

In the hours that passed between the move and the coffee, I had to teach a class at the school where I’ve been working for almost five years. Here I was in the fortunate position to spot a Taiwanese colleague – who works in the office – out of the corner of my eye. Needless to say, her sensual beauty inspires me to make as many photocopies as possible, and to even enter into conversations with her in my distinctive Chinese dialect.

I heard her mentioning something about being single to one of the students. That forced me once again to contemplate my own reputation as a wandering wolf on the road between my house and … well, the 7-Eleven. A quick mental computation of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs reminded me how I have a problem with my place in the world.

This brings us back to my pre-confrontation with the tattooed movers question: Is it possible that I can transform myself into an individual who will have the ability to fit in more easily?


(Initially about) The fauna and flora of Taiwan


Taiwan has many beautiful flowers, and bees too. There are also trees, and every now and then one sees mountains. The air is quite dirty, though. There are also many dogs roaming the streets that bark at people with long noses. Some of the dogs are green.

What really bothers me about this story is … why am I so desperate for answers? Why do I have so many questions? Is it because of my education – religious environment where one was regularly preached to by those who were supposed to know? And if you didn’t know, you could go to hell! I mean, no one could ever use it as an excuse that they didn’t know! You were either one of the lucky ones who knew, and therefore could go to heaven, or you didn’t know, and was therefore temporarily condemned to eternal torment in Satan’s hell. I say “temporarily condemned” because there was always the possibility that you could acquire the necessary knowledge before you breathed your last, and as one of those who then knew, you could enter eternal utopia – not because you were a good person, or because you died while saving your neighbour from drowning, but because you knew!

(I promise I’ll come back to the fauna and flora.)

Round about ten years ago I wasn’t sure of what I knew anymore. I panicked for understandable reasons. I had to start from the beginning to sort out what I knew, because even though I was no longer sure about heaven or hell, I still thought you were in quite a predicament if you didn’t know certain things.

This resulted in me not following the conventional priorities over the past ten years of someone with my socio-cultural background and tertiary education. I decided that I couldn’t give immediate attention to such mundane things as financial wealth, position and status in the community, and whether or not I might end up in the madhouse one day. All I knew was that I didn’t know.

I met many others who apparently knew, or just pretended they knew, or for reasons I’ve never been able to figure out, did not care whether or not they knew. I, on the other hand, was in a position where everything I had known had lost credibility. I therefore had to postpone all conventional priorities until the day of liberation when I could finally announce that, after years of uncertainty, I finally knew again.

Very soon I was confronted with a harsh reality. Banks that are so kind to lend money to ignorant young students, grocery stores, and the owners of rooms and apartments simply refuse to wait for payment until you know or understand what you believe is necessary to know or understand. Everyone wants money now, whether you know what you need to know, or not.

That’s how I ended up in Northeast Asia. Here I am able to earn money without pretending I have the type of “knowledge” I previously possessed. Here it is good enough that you look different, that you come from another part of the planet, and of course that you can speak English. What a paradise! I’ve been wandering around for years in this part of the world in my apparently endless quest for answers.

To not acknowledge that there are advantages to ignorance would make me a liar, though. One advantage is that one can reflect your ignorance in your appearance. Indulge yourself a bit by standing on a sidewalk in the town centre and staring at passers-by. I surmise that the well-dressed pedestrians with clean-shaven legs and faces can explain in well-articulated sentences what they know. The other part of the crowd, those with furry legs and cheeks and dressed in old jeans and dirty T-shirts, will probably fail to explain what they don’t know in long boring monologues.

Now, here’s where ignorance comes in handy: If you find yourself in this second group, and people look at you and think you look like a homeless person, you can simply drop your shoulders and tell them you know how you look, but it’s because you don’t know! In some cases, they’ll understand, and they will sympathise. Other people – who one can only conclude have always known – will not understand and will probably never have any sympathy.

There is a third group: Characters who don the fashionable uniforms of people who have answers to key questions and who therefore know, but who stare uncomfortably at the ceiling when they are required to make a definite statement in this direction or the other.

By the way, the factor of financial resources, which allow people to buy a pre-assembled and pre-packaged uniform that would give them the appearance that they possess all the important pieces of information can never be underestimated. The same is true for community. If everyone in your group wears the same uniforms and recites the same rhymes, the likelihood is slim that anyone in the room will ask awkward questions – except of course if one with a dirty beard and a T-shirt that advertises shoe polish stumbles into the coffee shop, and accidentally plonks down at the wrong table.

* * *

A more liberal attitude towards your appearance, and other advantages of living in the Far East such as eating Chinese takeaways every day, cannot be overlooked. I nevertheless look forward to the day when I had gathered enough knowledge to again be able to proclaim: “I know.”

There are always alternatives. I can say that I give up or try to convince myself that I don’t care anymore. This could just make it possible to use my time and energy to pursue wealth and material comfort, although it would surely require a transformation of incredible dimensions. The odds are always that I would be confronted later in my life with the fact that, despite appearances, I still don’t know. For me this is a great dilemma.

As I already mentioned, the grocery store, the bank and the landlord don’t really care whether I know or not. As long as I continue to stuff cash in their hands, they remain polite. This is not a desirable situation for the long term. I must either quickly get to the point where I can declare convincingly enough that I possess the most important knowledge (and that I therefore know), or I need to get my hands on more money I can legally call my own. In the latter case, I would be able to buy more time in order to formulate questions better, and to find an appropriate set of answers.

The ideal result is that, without blinking an eye or staring at the clouds, I can declare that indeed, after years of ignorance, I know again – though it would not necessarily be the same as what others think they know. I would again be able to grow my beard, and I wouldn’t feel compelled to dress in a more or less fashionable way, even if I could afford it. Why? If people then comment on my appearance, and speculate about my ignorance, I would be able to straighten my shoulders with a renewed sense of pride, and politely inform them that I might look like a homeless person, but I know.

Now, about those green dogs …


Word games


[The Irene Craft Market, forty kilometres north of Johannesburg, is a bustling epitome of creativity. Every second Saturday of the month people from everywhere in Gauteng (and beyond) set up stalls to hawk their paintings, handmade jewellery, homemade clothes, sausage rolls, pancakes, and homemade lemonade. My parents also make use of this opportunity to promote and sell their unique pottery collection, and to hopefully earn enough cash to fill up the tank and make it back home (about 160 kilometres away).

On this particular Saturday I also made my annual appearance, to appraise all types of homemade items, test as many sausage rolls for quality as I possibly can, drink coffee at R5 per cup, and stuff pretty much anything in my mouth that looks more or less edible and which I know I won’t get in Taiwan.

In between all the hard work I also took pictures of camels and recorded the following piece of scientific truth in my notebook:]



Struggle precedes creation. Belonging is the end result of commitment. But you also struggle whilst you create, and create whilst you belong. The one feeds the other. But struggle must lead to creation, as commitment should lead to belonging.