Breyten Breytenbach: September 12, 2001

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Breyten Breytenbach was born in September 1939 in Bonnievale, South Africa. He matriculated at the Hoërskool Hugenoot in Wellington in 1957, and later at the University of Cape Town. Breytenbach moved to Paris when apartheid policies invaded the university. When Breytenbach applied for a visa in 1965 to return to South Africa to receive a literary prize, he was warned that he could be arrested under the Immorality act for his interracial marriage to Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien of Vietnamese origin.

Breytenbach subsequently became more deeply involved in anti-apartheid activities and co-founded Okehela (the Spark in Zulu) whose ultimate goal was to build anti-apartheid infrastructures in white South African communities. Back in South Africa on a false passport to set up contacts for his organization, Breyten Breytenbach was imprisoned in 1975 for seven years, spending two of those in solitary confinement. Breytenbach now teaches part of the year at New York University as a Distinguished Global Professor and is also the executive director of the Gorée Institute in the Bay of Dakar.

Breytenbach has written a prison memoir and multiple volumes of poetry and prose as well as holding art exhibitions in a number of countries, including France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany. His 1994 exhibitions in Cape Town and Pretoria were his first in South Africa however, coming more than three decades after his debut in Edinburgh in 1962. A large number of articles, essays, academic dissertations, doctoral theses and books have been written and published -- in Afrikaans, English, French, Dutch, German, Russian, Chinese and Arabic, among others -- on Breytenbach's literary and visual work. Several documentaries have been made about his life and work, including the 1998 film, Vision from the Edge: Breyten Breytenbach Painting the Lines.

 

The Infants by Breytenback

 

September 12, 2001

will the hand endure moving over the paper

will any poem have enough weight

to leave a flightline over a desolate landscape

ever enough face to lift against death's dark silence

who will tell today?
the huge anthill of people remains quiet

somber and shrill, bright and obscure

as if brown effluvium of sputtering towers

still sweeps the skyline with a filthy flag

who will tell today?
today images wail for voice behind the eyes

planes as bombs stuffed with shrapnel of soft bodies

then the fire inferno flame-flowers from skyscrapers

human flares like falling angels from the highest floor

down, down all along shimmering buildings of glass and

steel

weightless and willowy and flame-winged streamlined

reflections fleeting in the fugitive language of forgetting

the hellhound of destruction has a red tongue of laughter

who will tell?

gouged eyes do not understand that the sky is blue

through the dismal and chilly nuclear winter

people stumble people shuffle

stumble-people shuffle-people worm-white-people

where are the faces

old before their ending or their wedding

greyed in ashes from head to toe

as if clothed in the coast of the snowing knowing of ages beneath rummage and debris

rosy corpses move and

mumble

and in the East River confidential files and folders float

with shreds and feathers lacerated human meat

scorched confetti for the dog's feast

who will tell tomorrow tomorrow

where are the faces

will the tongue still think

still pulse its dark lair

with the flaming memory of bliss

will any poem some day ever carry sufficient weight

to leave the script of scraps recalling fall and forgetting

will death remain quivering in the paper.


Credit: "September 12, 2001" by Breyten Breytenbach was first published in 110 Stories: New York Writes After September 11, New York University Press, Copyright © 2002.