Long ago, in 1989, I saw an ad on a notice board somewhere on campus at the University of the Free State: Submit two poems to be selected for a series of poetry workshops by Antjie Krog. To my astonishment, I earned a spot for that semester, and for the next one. Thinking back, I’m not sure I quite understood the privilege of sitting in that small group – no more than six or eight – for two semesters. But I do remember imagining myself being the bee’s knees.
I was 20. I was naive. I played my violin and was blind to anything outside my own little universe. I have no idea how I had succeeded in constructing this notion, but, to me, poetry consisted purely in beautiful words. This was so far removed from reality, and from anything Prof Krog stood for, that I think I comprehended little of what she might have tried to teach me. In hindsight, I was a waste in her class at the time.
I have pitifully few memories of that class. Only shreds and tatters stayed with me: one was that I should have kept a diary since the day I could write. Another was the almost sung recording of Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas. Poems by Lorca. Writing poetry in different forms: haiku was the most liberating for me. 5-7-5 in and out. I wrote (and destroyed) hundreds of them.
A moment I would never forget was a table setting she put out for us to respond to – with a black and white striped placemat, and a perfectly formed light pink rose in a clear glass vase. I remember the late afternoon light falling through the window and getting trapped in the water. I responded to this beautiful moment in poetry, only to be ripped apart by my classmates during the (thankfully anonymous) discussion of our poems. The beatification of Nazism was one of the symbolic interpretations that frisbeed around the room to all our incredulity: theirs because I could write such a thing; and mine because they could read such a thing.
Thirty-two years on, in 2021 in the midst of the Covid pandemic, Arja Salafranca introduced me to a small group of writers who gather once a month to go Wild With Words. In the first half of the session, we take turns to read aloud a poem that has touched us. In the second, we respond with a poem to a trigger given to us on the spot.
I was taken aback by the response to my scribbles, especially since the last poem I had written before then was in 1991. Granted, there were thirty years of life experiences between then and now, including five years in Poland and four in Ireland, as well as an epiphanic awakening to the realities of the country of all our skulls.
But the most important thing seems to be that the gate was unlocked again, and words flow freely through my mind: sometimes rhyming, sometimes not, sometimes new, sometimes forgot, onto a page sometimes, or a screen.
Prof Krog has been on my mind for weeks now, ever since I found the five lines of Geslote Hek (Locked Gate) on a friend’s social media timeline. I didn’t know the poem and there was no title, so I thought it was a stanza extracted from another poem. I went in search of the collection in which it was first published, and after a long roundabout, a friend delivered a hard copy of the first edition to me via another friend from a second-hand bookshop in Johannesburg.
Dogter van Jefta (Daughter of Jephthah)
This was Antjie Krog’s first collection, published in 1970 (sources disagree as to whether it was published before or after her eighteenth birthday). I devoured this collection (which I must have read while in her class), and discovered, in 2021, how the concepts of loneliness and old age were tucked away in plain sight even back then, in the full flush of a youth so different from my own.
I also found the five lines from my friend’s timeline. They are the only stanza of the poem, Geslote Hek, and although her gate is as different from mine as our two lives have been, the title brought me full circle.
The translation that follows was supposed to unlock the poem for my English readers. But as I come to the end of this journey – which feels like the beginning of a new one – it is also an offering of thanks to a teacher who stayed with me, waiting patiently somewhere in a corner of my mind for more than 30 years until I was ready to take out and examine anew what she had taught me.
With thanks and appreciation to Prof Antjie Krog. Something must have rubbed off in the end.
With thanks to my editor, Deirdre Byrne, for her encouragement and sensitivity to what was written between the lines.
Disclaimer: I do not pretend to have much knowledge about poetry. My approach is intuitive and not supported by any solid academic grounding.