Poems for the Martyrs

Against the Current, No. 3, May/June 1986

Dennis Brutus

For a Dead African: may be the earliest poem by one of the S0’s generation (1956) to recognize that there would have to be a military element and armed action (“the warriors”) to achieve the final victory.

For a Dead African

We have no heroes and no wars
only victims of a sickly state
succumbing to the variegated sores
that flower under lashing rains of hate.

We have no battles and no fights
for history to record with trite remark
only captives killed on eyeless nights
and accidental dyings in the dark.

Yet when the roll of those who died
to free our land is called, without surprise
these nameless unarmed ones will stand beside
the warriors who secured the final prize.

(John Nagoza Jebe: shot by the police in a
Good Friday procession in Port Elizabeth 1958.)

–A Simple Lust

Nightsong: City: (Dec. 1961), on the eve of the first
actions (sabotage) after the decision by the Resistance
to no longer limit itself to non-violent struggle, it is a
statement of reluctant acceptance of the necessity for
armed struggle.

Nightsong: City

Sleep well, my love, sleep well:
the harbour lights glaze over restless docks,
police cars cockroach through the tunnel streets;

from the shanties creaking iron-sheets
violence like a bug-infested rag is tossed
and fear is immanent as sound in the wind-swung bell;

the long day’s anger pants from sand and rocks;
but for this breathing night at least,
my land, my love, sleep well.
–A Simple Lust

This sun on this rubble: (1962?) There is the assumption
of action generated by the massacre at Sharpeville
when over 200 suffered bullet wounds.

This sun on this rubble after rain.

Bruised though we must be
some easement we require
unarguably, though we argue against desire.

Under jackboots our bones and spirits crunch
forced into sweat-tear-sodden slush
–now glow-lipped by this sudden touch:

–sun-stripped perhaps, our bones may later sing
or spell out some malignant nemesis
Sharpevilled to spearpoints for revenging

but now our pride-dumbed mouths are wide
in wordless supplication
–are grateful for the least relief from pain

like this sun on this debris after rain.
–A Simple Lust

The Guerillas: he clearest stand on the side of the
armed struggle.

Hamba Kahle Solomon Mahlangu

I. Singing
he went to war

and singing
he went to his death

II. There was sunlit
Goch Street
and the clear
pale blue sunlight
of the Highveld

and the sunlit bustle
of Edgar’s Store
and the goodly things
money might buy
for the rich and white

and the overalled workers
delivery “boys”
messenger “boys”
sitting on curbs
with nowhere to rest

and the sharp crack
of gunfire
and screams of pain
and barked commands
the thud of falling bodies

there was the long grey corridor
the rattling salute on metal bars
the stark shape of the gallows
the defiant shouts of “Amandla”

Singing he went to war
and singing he went to his death

III. One simply poses
one’s life
against another’s
one’s death
against another’s death:

but the sides are different
ours is life
joyous life
a free life, for the free
and theirs
is the monstrous life of a monstrous thing
who lives on the death of others
on our deaths

IV. The body buried secretly
and friends excluded;
thousands of mourners barred

At the cemetery,
in Mamelodi
Mahlangu’s mother
and thousands of friends

The thousands waiting
weeping, angry
are told to disperse

The police announce
“The corpse you are waiting
for will not be delivered.”

In the center of Mamelodi
the police
swinging heavy rubber clubs
disperse 200 students
gathered to protest

Mahlangu knew
he might have to die:
he gave his life
for liberty.

V. (Esche! Rhoodie’s father
was a hangman

the South African Secret Police
prowl the U.S. Campuses

their agents
function as academics

they hire mercenaries
as their hitmen

–Mr. and Mrs. Smit lie bullet-riddled
beside their family hearth–

their ruthless desperation
has no limit of criminality

and their corporate bosses.)

VI. In the dimly-lit
mostly empty auditorium

the curious nervous
attentive crows

the careful welcomes
focus mainly on me

there are complaints
of college harassment

the Dean of Spies
is falsely cordial

I pour scorn on stooge Mobutu
challeng Uncle Tom Sullivan

I evoke Mandela, Biko
Sharpeville and Soweto

a shooting in Johannesburg
stone-breaking on Robben Island


His gallant life
his gallant death

VII. On the road
to the airport
I search the news
till I find the dread item:
He was hanged at dawn

VIII. All night
his name
his face
his body
his fate
the cell
the gallows
pressed on my awareness
like a nail
hammered in my brain


till dawn
this the time
till the news
the newspaper report

he has been hanged

then the nail
was pulled from my brain
and the drip
of tears inside my skull

IX. Singing
he went to war

and singing
he went
to his death.
–Salutes and Censures

For Chief: (1967) There is the recognition that the

struggle entails destruction and its aftermath–that the
outburst of anger against injustices is inevitable.

for Chief

A Tribute to Albert John Luthuli
died July, 1967

0 grave and statuesque man
stand along our paths,
overlook our ways

goad us by your calm regard
fire us with your desire,
steel us with your will.

Spirit of freedom and courage
guard us from despair
brood over us with your faith.

Fire the flagging and the faint,
spur us to fierce resolve,
drive us to fight and win.
–A Simple Lust

For the Dead South Africans:
March, 1986

Thirty years later the flat reports
continue unabated and unchanged
of corpses, deaths and dyings
in the ghettos of my homeland:
the mangled bodies heaped up
would make a huge pile
like a garbage dump–
as indeed we are:
mere rubbish and chaff
for the corporate grinders of America
–March 26, 1968

Nelson Mandela

Shaped with special aim and deliberate hands,
sand and gravel will assume a resolue peak
far above the purpose of mere sandy beach front
and mere gravelly, flat, colonial hinterland.

And surely, as houses rise out of dreams and bricks,
we will support what we ourselves struggle to create.
–A Simple Lust

May-June 1986, ATC 3

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