POEM: A House


A house shaped like a tree.
A house in the form of a stone.
A ship that’s a house.
The river-house.
House on the moon, the dark side,
its porch light on always,
attracting moths and meteors:
something to hope for
when seen from a long distance.


My house sings beside a ditch.
My house struggles with its conscience.
My house falls up a hill.
It’s where I live;
I go home because I’m not there.
Because I am.
Because I have to be somewhere
Because I have to be.


The house in my head
has eyes and legs and lips and a heart.
The mind-house is one room
inside numberless rooms;
a wooden dreamscape,
a child’s nightmare of bricks flying
and doors that won’t open.
There’s something unsayable
under the floorboards.


The portable house –
you can take in anywhere
and everywhere.
You can never leave or arrive.
It follows you to school, to work.
It’s hands-free.
It’s no bigger than your mouth.
Just deflate and fold
and you’re on your way.


In one house that I lived in
the cat was king and dog a citizen.
In one house the ghosts
took turns frightening themselves.
In another house
the furnace stayed on no matter
what we did or didn’t do.
And the mice were very intelligent –
saints to the roaches’ sinners.


The house is on fire, then underwater,
then invisible, then in outer space.
The house is black, then red, then purple.
The house is edgy, divine, sanguine, undone.
It has hair and teeth and principles.
A circle, it thinks it’s a square.
It’s lost its bearings.
Someone suggests: Let’s go there!
But we can’t go there.


The house of sod.
The house Bosch built –
doors only on the inside,
the floors up a wall,
its furnishings in people-form.
Set in its ways,
it’s the planet which is shifting.


Come in, you’re out.
This is the room God sent you.
Here is where we store the clouds.
That’s the closet that death was born in.
This is the hall we can’t get to.
The light enters here
then gets lost along the way.
The air decides for itself –
because we’re all free-thinkers here.
We all live somewhere else.


The house is abandoned now.
It seems to be (but it isn’t)
always late autumn – inside and out.
The penultimate leaf waves farewell.
A torn curtain shudders
in a last-gasp effort
to prove its existence.
The dust is barely disturbed
by the ghost-whisperers –
that handful of lonely spectres
who refuse any notice of eviction.
Like little flames, one by one
by one, they flicker out.
They can’t come to the door right now.
Try again, in the next world.
Knock louder.

POEMS by Jeannie Wallace McKeown



Dinosaurs make themselves at home
in my garden.
Strutting, preening, pecking
at the earth
as if it is theirs –
worms, seeds, old fruit.

They know that this territory
is contested;
with alarm they arise, flustered,
glide between trees, calling
urgently to one another
as the cat stalks, forgets, stops to wash.

Settling again, alert and ruffled,
they watch.
It wasn’t always this way, glinting eyes hint.
“When we had teeth,” the birds chirp, the birds coo,
“careless mammal, it was you
who was fleeing from us.”

Melamine Cowboy

The melamine cowboy plate broke.
It lasted longer
than much of the china crockery.
That cowboy lived in our kitchen
for over a decade.

Now he’s in the bin.

But that melamine cowboy
won’t biodegrade.
He’ll ride the landfill express
into all our sunsets.

Should humanity survive
to vacate, he’ll be there
to see silver craft shoot upwards,
people queuing to leave the earth behind
having covered it in plastic straws,
disposable nappies,
single use coffee pods.

With their departure,
perhaps new grass will finally
grow over him.
He’ll ride the deep earth,
substrate cowboy
with a story to tell.

REVIEW: My Life on Legs

SHIRLEY MARAIS is delighted by Hailey Gaunt’s debut poetry collection.
my life on legs
The cover of My Life on Legs — featuring a delicate etymological plate by Andrew Breitenberg, beautifully positioned on a background of palest “mint-moss green” (Morning walk) — give a sense of the poems and themes inside this collection: detailed, in-the-moment, idiosyncratic insights into Gaunt’s relationships with friends and family, and her relationship to the natural world, filtered through the stained-glass wings of her poetic mind.  

The collection takes its name from a line in Morning walk, which ends with a picture that makes you draw your breath in, quite literally:

I want to shed my clothes, shoes,
my life on legs,
throw my body back,
leave the whole shell of it behind
shoot across the wave in one wet line.

I am struck how Gaunt quite naturally and easily uses phrases and lines like ‘magical happenstance’ (The beginning), ‘effulgent runway’ (A pledge) and ‘playing at rumbunctious games’ (At the pool) without ever being pretentious or ostentatious, because she is so consistent – and so consistently and beautifully precise – in her careful stitching of these poems. Her consummate use of language serves the intricacy and detail of her narrative imagery, adding bright points of light, rather than weighing her work down.  

Her relationship with her world, and the people in it, is so intriguingly detailed and reverent, as to invite unselfconscious participation from the reader, even in her most intimate poems:

And I tell you something else —
part apology, declaration, pact:
“I’m willing to start over
as many times as we have to.”

This poet is not afraid of intimacy, but never jolts the reader, except very gently – I am thinking particularly of the line ‘rude and kind as a tongue’ (from Patronage), which speaks of her father’s habit of pushing a roll of banknotes into her hand as he says goodbye, and the last stanza of Caress:

And I’d slip between each adult embrace,
minnow my hands in a parting prayer –
it was around that time I prayed
the small, stiff buds back into my chest.

Although gentle, Gaunt’s work is neither bland nor predictable. Each carefully crafted poem holds the reader to the end and makes one want to go back later and read it again. The narratives are full of surprises and pictures that turn the everyday into the extraordinary, as in For the first time (second and third stanzas):

Turning it over,
I stare through the shell and soft wall
to a place within,
and somehow I’ve slipped
into terrifying territory – and yet,
my body softens.

I see a tiny hand
spread like a star
and all over as delicate
as the traces
of a nail’s paper rim:
it’s reaching.

Gaunt’s work is proof that being strongly rooted in ordinary ‘middle-class’ life and sound, loving relationships – so apparent from the many poems about her lover and her father (the ‘great-big fix-anything move-the-earth father’ in He can’t hear) – can also be fertile ground for beautiful poetry. 

The exchange is one of my favourite pieces in this collection. Like many of Gaunt’s poems, it is so rich in both inner and outer detail that it plays out like a densely woven art nouveau movie in miniature. Here is the final stanza of the poem:

She says nothing but her free hand
sweeps my wrist in a gesture so succinct,
barely perceptible and without a name.
I turn back to the bookstore and cover my wrist.
Now I am bursting, burning full of words –
oh, but I would give them up!

I certainly hope it will not be Gaunt’s last collection of poetry. I find myself constantly returning to the book to look again for a phrase, a word, an image, that I want to re-meet and re-explore. I hope she will continue to burn and burst with words, and give them up – to paper.

My Life on Legs is published by Aerial Publishing.

POEM: The First Day of School


Since the labour pains promptly followed
the devouring of a veggie vindaloo,
the baby was named “peppery”
in Esperanto, the lingua franca shared by
her Hungarian panjo and Turkish paĉjo,
and it’s still the only language
six-year-old Pipra can prattle in
to her gepatroj, her hundo or anyone else.
Initially home-schooled after
being bundled off as a baby
to Ameriko from Germanujo
she is now being relegated to
Pleasant Prairie Primary
to learn la anglan lingvon and make friends
since “a child is not a sunflower
and cannot bloom in isolation.”
Yet Pipra’s locked up
in linguistic quarantine
because she can’t comprehend “cloakroom”
or “closet” or even “please,”
and she’s as much of a blinking curiosity
as the toad in the classroom aquarium,
stared at by a lopsided ring of wide-eyed faces
that mock and giggle and spit out confusing strings of
strange nasal words that end with a thud in consonants
because kids are wicked
to the weak and the weird,
and the teacher is too overworked
to notice or care.

FICTION: Sufficient Reason


“I also know that we must go and work in the garden.”

Voltaire, Candide

John’s anticipation turns dull and dutiful as he pulls up to the heavy black wrought iron gate. Whitewashed pillars on either side arch down to the wall that is too high to see over, barbed wire spirals along the top. He has to hang half out of the car window to reach the intercom button, and is about to push it again when Elize answers, faint and crackly.


            “Hi, Mum, it’s me.”

            “Who is it?”

            Sticking his head out of the window, John raises his voice to make himself heard.

            “It’s John!”

            “Johnny! Why are you shouting?”

            John rolls the car down the long driveway, wheels crunching deliberately on the gravel. The symmetrical rows of topiary are shaggy, the lawn mangy with irregular bare and yellow patches. Skeletons of rose bushes are evenly spaced along the walls, and the geometrical flower beds are empty except for some wilted weeds. It is hard to reconcile this neglect with the meticulously manicured garden of his childhood – Petrus forever tending to it.

            The house has not changed; it is the same ornate gable, the same thatched roof and whitewashed walls, but it seems smaller, more remote. Only one of the green wooden window shutters is ajar, the rest are closed. The black iron bars over the windows look like they have latched onto the house.

            Elize is waiting inside the threshold, shading her eyes with one hand.

            “The prodigal son returns!”

            They smile and hug, happy to see each other.

            “It’s good to see you, Mum.”

            “Such a lovely surprise! Why don’t you stay the night?”

            It takes a while for John’s eyes to get used to the low light inside the house. He notices the faint smell of fresh paint in the hallway.

            “I wish I could. Next time.”

            The living room is newly renovated, glossy, like the pages of an interior decorating magazine: mahogany furniture with gently curved legs flaring to scrolled feet, crest rails decorated with ornate carvings of roses; the lounge chairs and couch newly upholstered with ivory velvet; wooden floors, with a plush morning blue rug to match the curtains; white pottery decorated with blue English countryside scenes on the coffee and end tables; fresh red roses in one of the vases; walls cluttered with paintings with intricately moulded golden frames. 

            John walks over to the front window and opens the shutters. The sunlight that reflects off the varnished wooden floor makes Elize squint.    

            “Not too wide, I can’t stand the heat.”

            Elize looks John up and down, a half-joking inspection.

            “Look how pale you are, it’s not healthy. When are you coming home?”

            John looks out the window with a small stiff smile.

            “The garden’s seen better days.”

            He remembers taking Petrus’s lunch out to him: thick slices of white bread with peanut butter and jam, and coffee, in Bettie’s tin plates and cups. Sometimes Petrus would tell him a story while he was eating, always the same story, about a poor man and his wife that decided to work in their garden. They dug the whole day, but during the night a bird came and whistled, undoing all of their work. At a loss to explain the uncultivated garden the next morning, all they could do was dig some more. When they found no trace of their work the next day, the man decided to hide in the garden to see what happens to their work every night. He caught the bird and was about to kill it, but the bird pleaded with the man, promising to make milk for him if he spared its life. It was good milk, so the man took the bird home and kept it in a cage; his family grew fat, while their neighbours were as thin as always. The man warned his children not to tell anyone about the bird, but one day the neighbours’ children begged them to reveal their secret. As soon as they took the bird out of the cage to show the other children, it flew away. The children tried to catch the bird, but it flew further away every time they approached. That night, when the man got home from work, he found the neighbours calling out for their children, and in his house, the cage was empty. He was sorry because he knew that he had lost his food, and his children forever.

            “What can I get you?”

            “Some water, please.”

            “Don’t you want some coffee? Tea? There’s beer. Let me get you something to eat.”

            “Just some water, thanks.”

            Elize gets up, calls down the hallway.


            Sitting down, John notices a painting on the far wall, a family portrait, recognisable as one of his mother’s paintings from the deliberate idealism. In it, his mother is seated on a chair, him as a toddler standing in front and to the left of her. He is holding on to her arm and shoulder, looking up at her sweetly, expectantly. She is looking back down at him with the serenity of unconditional love. The lighting is centred on mother and son, his father standing behind them and to the right, where it is darker. He is looking down at his wife and son, resting his cheek on his fist, with an inscrutable expression.


            Bettie’s wrinkled face is beaming. John’s delight at seeing her is easy; he gets up and they hug tightly. Standing back, Bettie holds him by the shoulders, studying his face intently.

            “My boy, it is still you.”

            “I’ve missed you, Bettie, how are you?”

            “I don’t complain.”

            “John would like some water, Bettie, and could you make me a pot of tea?”

            Her gait slowed by age, Bettie walks out into the hall without saying more.

            “I’ll go help her.”

            “She’ll manage – she hardly does anything to earn her keep these days. Are you still in that cold, dark flat?”

            “I like it there. London’s a good base for my work.”

            “I don’t know how you can do that job. It can’t be good for you, taking pictures of other people’s suffering all the time.”

            “Someone’s got to do it.”

            “But why do you have to do it? It just feels like sticking your nose in other people’s business to me. And your photos are always so depressing.”
            “It’s the news, Mum.”

            John walks back to the window and looks out to the boundary wall on the right. It had not been built yet, the day they arrived home to find Petrus standing in the neighbours’ driveway. Mr Botha, red in the face, was loudly berating him for intruding on his property. Petrus kept quiet, somehow stoic and defiant at the same time. Tabitha, the Bothas’ domestic worker, was standing on the porch, crying.

            “The garden needs some work.”

            “Seriously darling, when are you coming back?”

            Only half listening, John tries to find the connection between the house he grew up in, and this one with the shaggy garden and glossy living room. The link is flimsy, it keeps slipping out of his grasp, leaving him to feel detached, like an intruder.

            From his mother’s intonation, he recognises a question.

            “You remember Ina Meyer?”

            A pause as John registers what his mother is asking.


            “You know, Barbara Meyer’s mother, Barbara was a couple of years ahead of you at school.”

            “Don’t remember.”

            “Sure you do, you’ll know them when you see them. Ina’s brother has a game lodge near Sun City, beautiful place, five-star. Anyway, a couple of months ago all of his Land Cruisers, the ones they use for game drives, got stolen. Turns out that his workers were in on it. Most of them have worked there for years, he built houses for them and everything.”

            Shaking his head slightly and pursing his lips, John gazes out the window again. The three-tiered marble fountain in the middle of the garden is dry. There is a crack in the bottom with a clump of brown grass sticking through it. The fountain was bubbling away as always that day, but its reassuring murmur was no match for Mr Botha’s anger. With a stern voice, John’s father told him not to stare as he took his mother by the arm and firmly steered her towards the front door. Flustered, hurrying to keep up with his parents, John heard something like the crack of a whip. He looked around and saw Petrus bending down to pick up his cap. Petrus stood upright, turned around, and walked out through the gate, unhurriedly, his shoulders straight.  

            “You’ll have to do something about the garden.”

            Elize studies the man looking out the window, tries to see her son in him.

            “You really have to come home.”

            Bettie returns with the drinks, John hurries over to help.

            “That’s heavy, let me take it.”

            Bettie’s look of reproach stops him in his tracks. 

            “Let me decide what I can carry.”

            Deflated, John thanks, Bettie. She puts down the tray, turns around and walks towards the door. John wants to ask her to sit down, to have a cup of tea with them, but now he hesitates and she disappears down the hallway. He remembers the way Bettie looked at him on that day when Petrus walked down the street without looking back. Tabitha used to come over to visit Bettie most days, but she must have left on the same day as Petrus; he never saw either of them again. 

            “See what I have to put up with – you’d think it’s her house.”

            John busies himself with pouring water from the bottle of Evian into a glass. He pours a cup of Earl Grey tea, hands it to Elize.

            “Did you get good photos of the protest?”

            “Yeah, got a few shots I can use. I was hoping to get some of the cyclists going past, but the race was cancelled.”

            “I know, uncle Chris flew down from Jo’burg for it, had to pay to fly his bike down too. Don’t get me wrong, I feel sorry for those people, but getting the Argus cancelled, there has to be a better way to do these things.”

            “So you’re sympathetic as long as it doesn’t interfere with a recreational cycle race for middle-class white people wearing lycra.”

            Elize is hurt by the quick hostility in his reply. John notices, regrets his reaction, but it is too late to take it back.

            “That’s not what I mean. Don’t put words in my mouth.”

            John looks around the room, something to do in the uneasy silence, notices the family portrait again. A beautiful painting that covers over the barbed wire and the burglar bars, like all of his mother’s paintings.

            “I like the family portrait, is it new?”


            They fill the rest of the afternoon with pleasantries, placid and oppressive, until it is time for John to get ready for his flight back to London. After taking a shower, he finds Elize in the study.   

            “I’ve got something for you — found some of your old photos clearing out the house, and thought you might want to keep them.”

            The heavy maroon velvet curtains in the study are drawn, the desk lamp providing the only light. Two of the walls are fitted with bookshelves, but they are mostly empty. There are a few books on one of the shelves near the door, a Bible, and some old Bible study books: “Feminine Appeal: the Seven Virtues of a Godly Wife and Mother,” and “Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely.”  Picking up a shoebox from the mahogany desk, Elize knocks over a stack of papers. John drops to his knees to pick them up—letters, handwritten on paper yellowed by age. Thick black lines block out sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. A red stamp across the first page of each letter: OSHAKATI. He recognises his father’s handwriting, but it takes a moment for him to realise what they are. He looks up at his mother, but her face is outside the light, he can’t make out her expression. John gets up and hands the letters to his mother. He wants to say something, but Elize speaks before he can find the words.

            “Look at the time. Better get going if you want to catch your flight.”

            Out on the porch, John takes another look at the garden, this time without saying anything.

            “When are you coming home?”

            They hug goodbye

            “Well, at least don’t wait another year before you come and visit your mother.”

            “I won’t, Mum. Take care of yourself.”

            Driving through the gate, he glances up at the rear-view mirror. His mother is shielding her eyes with one arm, waving with the other. Her expression is inscrutable, her shoulders straight as she turns around and walks back into the house.

POEM: A letter to a paper in a typewriter


You must be hungry,
I have starved you for too long
Haven’t I?
You pure white paper
Without any blemish or fault,
Virgin Mary white.
You are a blank canvas
On which words are painted,
Words that could spark revolutions
Or heal scars.
I have to put an end to your purity,
Blotting this clear image.
I hope that when these keys strike you
They do not hurt,
But if you do suffer,
Know that it was to leave something forever,
Permanent and long-lasting.
Nothing valuable is born without pain



They have called my number
They have identified me
I wear a patch on my arm now
And fear is where I live
I must be watched, guarded,
Blame falls about my ears daily
Like red rain.
I am corralled, herded,
My voice has been murdered;
These innominate fingerprints,
This anonymous plight
They are confused by my existence,
Demand confession of sin
I wear a patch on my arm now,
And submission’s where I live

EXTRACT: Theo & Flora

An extract from Mark Winkler’s fourth novel.

Mark Winkler

A gust of summer-strength wind almost throws Silver to the Port Elizabeth pavement as he steps off the bus. He is feeling unwell after the train journey from Knysna and the ride from the station to Summerstrand, and in the buffeting he hears the tumult of Holst, all discord and cymbals, clamorous and atonal. He walks the short distance to the house he has rented for his family’s vacation. It is old and lacking in charm, cheaply built twenty or so years earlier, but only a block from the beach, and in the meagre garden the little tree that grows at a forty-five degree angle is relentlessly assaulted by the wind.

He finds Norman lying on a rug in the hallway, reading the comics page of The Herald. Norman pushes the paper away, rests his head on his arms, sniffs, rolls onto his back. When he sees Silver his ennui leaves him and he jumps up, moves towards his father, stops short of hugging him.

“Father!” he says.

Silver takes his son by the shoulders. The boy is tending towards fat, he thinks. Gezunt. What, and how much of it, has Sarah been feeding the child? He should raise this with her, but today is not the day. “How are you, son?”

“Very well, thank you, sir.” Norman says and sniffs again.

“I may be here for a few days.”

Norman’s face lights up. “Can we go fishing at the harbour? May we, please?”

Silver makes a show of looking through the window at the wind-whipped tree. “I think we’ll let the weather decide that, young man. Let us see what it does tomorrow.”

Their chatter has summoned Sarah, who appears in the doorway drying her hands on a tea-towel. She pulls herself erect when she sees her husband.

“Theodore.”Theo & Flora

“Hello, Sarah.”

“I didn’t expect you here.”

“Nor did I,” he says.

At the foot of a chair he places his valise, puts his folded jacket on top of it. “I shan’t be staying long, a night or two at most.”

Sarah offers to make tea.

Hoping it will help settle his stomach, Silver accepts, and she retreats into the kitchen.

“May I show you something, Father?” Norman says.

“Of course.”

Norman scampers off and Silver takes himself to the lounge. The upholstery has worn to a dark shine on seats and armrests, and a curtain is torn. On the walls, hung high against the cornices, are gloomy little prints cheaply framed, and in a corner a glass-fronted cabinet with a cracked pane stands empty. The place might do for a holiday, but nothing more. He sits on the edge of a chair and loosens his cravat.

“Look!” Norman says. The object he holds up takes his father a moment to identify. It is a kite, Silver realises, its lopsided diamond fashioned from wire coat-hangers covered in newspaper and held together with the liberal use of Sellotape. For the tail, Norman has used a nylon stocking. Silver is certain that it is Sarah’s, and his stomach turns at the sight of the intimate garment.

“That’s quite spectacular, son,” Silver says.

Norman beams, dangles the kite from a reel of fishing line, swings it from side to side. “I made it this morning, all by my own self,” he says. “Can we try it?”

“We’ll need to wait for the wind to drop a little. I’m afraid it will be torn to shreds on a day like today,” Silver says. The practicality of his suggestion does little to mitigate the boy’s disappointment, and Silver tries to think of some way to mollify him, but nothing comes. He is relieved when his sisters appear, led into the room by his wife who carries a tray, the teapot, cups and saucers rattling with each footstep.

Sarah pours. Silver asks Leah and Sally about their journey from Cape Town and they both reply at once, as if eager to break the silence. Norman sits in a chair making soft whooshing sounds as he waves the kite above his head in swooping parabolas. He stops, sneezes, continues. The adults discuss the wind, how the holidaymakers seem to be fewer in number than they were the previous year, how the austerity forced by War has made travel difficult, and why it is that groceries in Port Elizabeth are so much cheaper than in Cape Town.

The tea does little to settle Silver’s stomach, and as the pot runs dry, so does the conversation. He clears his throat and suggests to Leah and Sally that they take their nephew for a walk. Yes, it might be blustery out, but the fresh air will do Norman’s cold a world of good. The boy’s face falls, but he knows, as his mother and aunts do, that his father’s words are less a suggestion than a directive.

As the front door slams shut, Sarah starts and remarks, “Leah just can’t figure out how the wind works.” Then she turns to Silver, appraises him coolly. “I know exactly,” she says, “why you are here, Theodore.”

Theo & Flora is published by Umuzi. Read our interview with Winkler about his writing life here, and our reviews of Wasted and An Exceptionally Simple Theory (of Absolutely Everything), two of his previous novels.