Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cape Daisies

By Uys Krige. (Translated from the Afrikaans)

There's nothing here,
less than nothing
only sand and black lava rocks
with vultures
among the naked thorn trees
and everywhere, everywhere
the desert:
a dirty livid yellow
like an old
suppurating sore.

And here
Close to the grey lava track
a single cross
above the grave
of a soldier
fallen in battle.
A single cross
made from a few loose planks
of an empty petrol box
nailed together.
The crude cross bears
the soldier's name,
his number
and his unit.

The desert wind blows
it's scorching breath
Across the desert
now and again
in slow tired puffs
as if completely spent
without aim, without end,
eternally
across the desert.

It fidgets at the loose flap
of the heavy troop carrier,
flicks a little heap of lava ash
into a thin spinning spiral,
then falls to it's rest.
After a while
it lifts itself up again
and stumbles forth,
dragging itself like a dead weight
through the sand,
rasping at the half peeled bark
like thin strips of ragged wallpaper
on the blue-green bole
of the haak-en-steek,
whistling softly through the chinks
among the lava stones
heaped on the grave.
Jan van Niekerk,
say the crooked black letters
scrawled clumsily on the cross.
Jan van Niekerk,
lance bombardier,
came from the Cape.
Jan van Niekerk,
so commonplace, so ordinary,
extraordinary, unique
only in the choice which the Gods
had made for his grave.

We have come to a standstill
in the middle of the desert.
A soldier throws a packet
of C to C onto the road.
The wind unfolds the packet,
pulls it's silver paper
and one of the cigarette cards
slowly with it
The silver paper shivers – a keener silver -
in this fierce glitter of sun.
And the card turns over and over
and comes to rest face-up
against a lava stone:
Four blue Cape daisies
blowing in the wind,
four blue Cape daisies
dancing in the fields...

A private climbs out of the truck
to stretch his legs
and relieve himself
in the dull flat shadow
of the nearest thorn tree.
He walks back
Now he stands beside the grave
while the cross's shadows
long thin ribbons of crepe
stretch themselves blacker
across the grave.

The wind fumbles at the card,
pushes it in a sudden spurt
in the soldier's way,
then drops it, scrapes it up
and shoves it against his boot.
Slowly the soldier stoops,
picks the card up,
places it on the grave
with the image upturned
held firmly between two stones
at the foot of the cross.

The soldier scrambles back
into the three ton truck.
And slowly
with a dull heavy clatter
along it's entire length
the long Army convoy
jolts into movement.

In this quivering
white flood of light
that beats down upon the desert,
brimming the earth's rims,
blinding the eyes,
numbing the brain,
the cross stands out
clear as a beacon
above the ashen grey grave
on the black lava ridge.

O four blue Cape daisies,
blow in this wind!
O four blue Cape daisies
dance above this field!

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