POEM: About Sam


Small girl
– secret seahorse –
holds to a world
in her soft fist:
sticks of crayon
to colour her walls
painting light on ours

POEM: Elegy


I turned thirteen and knew:
no more weightlessness.
Only a child can live nine lives
in the space of a body
and a single day.

POEMS by Cornelia Rohde


Apple, Moon, Fire

Apple and moon are his new words today.
Both round, both as delicious as he is.
One he can hold. One he tries to reach,
lifting his dimpled arm to the night sky.

His eyes land on the headline photo
of a man cycling close to an inferno of flames,
a smokescreen of burning rubber
to defy bomber pilots.

What dat? What doing? he asks.
Fire, I say, to teach him another word.
He doesn’t repeat it. He only insists,
What dat? What doing? over and over again.

I carry him into the California sunshine.
His laughter lights the morning as I push him
on the tire swing his father hung
from a branch of the gnarled pepper tree.

Sirens scream as a small boy
is lifted from Aleppo’s rubble.

What dat? What doing?



Sibongile brings La Foliage’s tony menu,
takes our order for organic beetroot
with hibiscus jelly, smoked cheesecake with garnishes
of sea lettuce and nettle pesto, cauliflower on a bed
of parmesan velouté with crushed chestnut,
Springbok carpaccio with fennel chutney,
naartjie buttermilk dressing, and puffed crackling.
For dessert, fresh strawberries sprinkled with roasted hay,
pistachio, violas, and a scoop of ginger sake ice cream.

He shakes our hands with a smile as we leave.
Off work, he will eat a sheep head roasted golden brown
over hot coals, its lips shrunken into a grin.
He imagines the delicate taste of its eyes,
its chewy ears, the suck and crunch of its bones.

Inhloko isiqokweni: head-on-a-plate. Real food.

POEM: The Evil Eye


You cannot compare a place called Benoni
to one named Waterfall.

This is what I learnt when I was six,
as we left the flat, beige tablecloth
of the Rynfield hinterland –
where what the real estate agent grinned was grass
proved instead a Mica mat of woodchips,
biting at my Toughees
the way our maltese poodle Scampie often did –
for a town my waving Zias sighed was “the sticks.”

But our new house by the gorge,
gaping like a fresh cavity in a jaw,
wasn’t snapping or thin,
but green and wet like a Creme Soda float,
or dug and bursting as a zit.
Mom, clutching the cross she intended to affix
in the breakfast nook,
kept repeating that we now had a full one-acre plot.
I did not know what that meant, but I knew it must be a lot.

After a year, defeated by the heat,
Scampie half-darted between monkeys and trees
like it was Athletics Day but he was only going for bronze.
Dad’s work shirts would come home drenched as a dishcloth,
lapping at the day like air rushing to the brain,
like Carlton paper embracing a stain.
“It’s just the moisture in this bloody place!” Mom would say,
“Everything is crying here, don’t think it’s just you, feel the walls!”

Alone, I ran my fingers, already soiled
by the plants I urged seeds from,
whispering “Look, it also poos!”
along the side of the laundry room.
I wasn’t meant to go near that squat structure
because the neighbours hissed there was an evil eye
painted at the back. I inched out through a gap
that would later lead Scampie free then under a bakkie,
squinting my own fixed gaze to see
the promised sinful iris glaring properly.
Women in Day-Glo takkies jogged past, whistling
“Hi koeks, but where’s your nanny?”

The corner of the wall bore no cornea.
Instead it was plain and shut as a lid.
But when I placed my scrunched fist,
each time a little bigger, against it,
I could feel something there,
see-through but steady, sure
as it dripped.

POEM: Fishing lessons, Nature’s Valley


At the lagoon,
I watch you teach an eight-year-old boy how to fish.
You are patient and gentle.
You explain things clearly.
You show him what to do,
and then you let him do it for himself.
we stand out of range of a wayward hook
as we watch him cast:
his innocence makes him unpredictable.
we are eager to see him learn,
to take pleasure in this ancient art.
I remember
how you taught me,
just like this…
Perhaps with more devotion;
more hope;
more love.

POEM: Hagiography


Daddy, that you died when you did
I don’t mind any more.
At six, it was too much
at 29, I can take it.
And you timed it so
I never got around to hating you.

I keep you incorruptible.
Incense unfurls my tongue
in offering I speak of you
faultless, generous your arms
holding dolls who talk
when you push their hearts
magnetised chess sets, day-glo dinosaur
bones, the library I lean on.

I wear after you
skinny Bob Marley ties
and feathered fedoras.
I wear the sponge of your ears,
soaking up sob-stories, the fabled
and for-real. People say
we’re too soft but really
we just like to listen.
I no longer grudge
what you’ve passed on to me
your bold nose, this
clefted chin, these dashes
of laughter deep in our eyes.
It’s like you had to go
so I could take your place.


POEM: Summer holiday


I run through the milkwood tunnel
trusting the cool flat stones – I am young –
and emerge
into the fervid dazzle on the stoep.

My grandmother is bent over a basin,
her inviolate hair, her moonsilver hair, is unfurled,
and pours into the water.

Her blue-flowered dress, folded to the waist, exposes one breast,
her only breast.
It swings above the water
like a long sad balloon, while
she works the shampoo into foam about her head.

Later she tells me that she feels exactly the same as I do inside,
even though she is eighty
and I am eight.