Mandela’s Mandala

My grandmother spoke of a great man
Whose skin colour was a secondary concern
To the taste of his ideas, his morals on her lips
Hands on hips in her folded apron, she showed me
The power of strong rhetoric, tropical thinking
My grandfather chopped wood and remained silent
Unwilling to share his politics with those so young
I watched him split logs with one swing of an ancient axe
Shirt off in the pale, English Sunday weather
I watched my grandmother from my perch on the pondokkie
Swinging my legs as she peeled the potatoes
Split her open and the rings would show no colour
But the shape of her beloved country, through each
Cell of her deep-tanned, well cared for, white skin
A difficult woman, she held her beliefs with vicious tenacity
Preferred to attack what she viewed as injustice
With a verbal barrage that would put Sergeant Majors to shame
She laid bright flowers in an eggcup on the windowsill
In the hope of his freedom and a speedy return
To the country of her birth, her much praised Africa
Whose yellow skies and long heat warmed her
Even across the forty years of chilly English countryside
The dust of an old dirt road clung to her feet
Rising with her sense of South African pride
The day they released his book, she bought ten copies in hardback
This lifelong huntress of bargains for once profligate
Spilling coins without waiting for the price to come down
She gave them to her friends, those chilly, trophy wives
Who nodded their thanks through their layers of paint
But whose plastered on smiles did not reach their powdered eyes
Her own copy was placed on the coffee table, strategically
Next to the woven bowl of blackened bananas – fully ripe
The only way my grandfather would eat them
His eyes skimmed the man’s face each time he reached for
A handful of soft, sweet, wizened fruit
She wore him down, political peace by piece
Until her discussions were moved from the kitchen to the parlour
With all the adults involved while the children lay on the rug
Completing the two Christmas jigsaws of Africa and South America
With camels and elephants slotting into place next to the date palm
Once the borders had taken shape and the cape jutted out
Before finding the pieces of cactus with its sombrero and poncho
Under the corner of the cake plate
And then, when I was still a child, Mandela was free
She showed me the pictures, sat at the kitchen counter
While fish fingers fried in the pan and the calico cat
Stalked the sizzling butter with determined paws
She turned to turn my page and a finger was out of the pan
Onto the floor with the cat jumping after it
That was the first time I did not hear her scolding
Scalded paws scurried away with their prize
As she pointed out the man I had been told would save
My grandmother’s beloved South Africa from itself

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Tabloid Catechism

Spite and polish will make her shine brighter
The author can buff with insults and see how quickly
She loses her inferior interior, slickly she grows
In favour of a sickly exterior shell that glows
With borrowed pride in her rented hide she’ll ride
Surrounded by critics and dealers to feel her, peel her
Unseat her, to beat her and shape and defeat her
In poisonous rows of inelegant prose the photos
Nipping her waist and in ever more haste
To keep blowing her nose, and her manicured toes
In uncomfortable shoes, body-conned to abuse
Shamed with glamorous phrases, ungenerous phases
More strokes of the pen to keep her, steep her,
Drowning in ten shades of newsprint, our views print
The choice of the people, the lawyers, the troops
With the focus of every new interest group
The murkier water of sister and daughter
Whose under-age pictures proclaim they fall shorter
Their innocence sold for a penny a piece
To shift Sunday supplements, pay off police
With the politics slanted to left or to right
You can broker new peace or prepare for a fight
And consistency needn’t concern you this year
Your excuse is the public reflection of fear
There’s an honesty to it, this devilish deal
An emotive hard-pressing of Biblical zeal
We wrote it, stand by it, will bribe to keep quiet
Our right to the sale of page three and her diet
What’s Mystic and listed and sicker, more twisted
What’s darker and deeper than truth that’s insisted
We’ll publish it, dressed in the finest of rags
And polish with spite all protesters and slags

Jacob’s Ladder

Poverty is hard to see
While growing up on toast and tea
I barely noticed its effect
We just got on with duties set

By those so practised to command
Unquestioning of task in hand
Until completed, so to bed
To rest our weary hearts and head

Yet catching toes on higher rung
While hearing others’ praises sung
I somehow over trod my groove
And moorings slipped, my mind did move

No longer cowed by sleight of birth
Unbending under weight and girth
I grasped this hook and pulled to see
What might be made with dignity

But not too far the ladder scaled
Before another turned and wailed
Unfairness at disparity
From what expectant they did see

As unbecoming in my stance
Though well-deserving of such chance
They wanted none with conscience there
Though they complained of life, unfair

With unchecked rage did rant and rave
Until they slipped, unseated save
For what was caught upon a nail
Until seams ripped and with a flail

Of arms and legs undignified
The other fell and so, he died
Unsettled, I, to see all eyes
So arid at this man’s surprise

I dared not breathe too long, nor loud
For fear they’d pick me from the crowd
Yet someone noted, by my air
I must have learned somehow to share

Instinctive camaraderie
Betrayed by actions that were ‘me’
Compassion at another’s fate
Too great my mercy, theirs too late

So shoved and pushed to halt my course
I stayed astride the ladder, worse
To know that I was caught, stuck fast
Between those who’d be first and last

In mind and stomach more than sick
To know such wealth might kill me quick
For feeling what they could not taste
Another’s worth and common waste

The Giving of Thanks

What profit the meek that they gain the earth
Without the wherewithal to plough
And sow the seeds of distant mirth
So jollity may bloom and grow

To render fruitful gifted sod
Takes time that none so meek may hold
Unless in changing nature’s clod
He steels himself to make so bold

And doing thusly, loses all
The bounty he had earned in deep
Humility and careful crawl
To build the empires he did seek

With these two hands undo the deeds
Upon which founder grew so tall
All loftiness and blessed greed
No longer fearful at the call

When other men have stood and shook
From head to toe to hear such voice
Proclaiming what had been forsook
By liberty and foolish choice

What meek men did, they do no more
As others shuffle in their place
And turn their cheek and fear the poor
Whose habits keep them clothed in lace

Where now is earth? What saltiness
Has dripped upon the failing crops
From little more than cowardice
The planet from mean axis, stops

No longer crouching ‘cross the sky
But stalling in such attitude
With what was learned from you and I
When treated harshly, men are rude

Mechanicals at best and worst
Who may not see their actions’ swell
But recognise their face is cursed
And know the reason all too well