Yesterday we hosted one of our regular Shakespeare readings at home. The company was jolly and the food delicious, if very simple (crudites with organic hummus to start, then homemade veggie soup with homemade crusty bread at the halfway point, and strawberries and Lindt Lindor Extra Dark choccy balls for the final act!). With the help of some French organic cider and a very good Pinot Noir, the group launched into Measure for Measure with great energy, scrambling bravely over the rocky bits (French velvet and English kersey) and breaking out every so often for a spot of outrage or insight as we are wont to do. We were delighted by the variety of temperaments our readers captured in both large and small parts, with a menacingly sepulchral Angelo, Lucio as a canny, sassy, irreverent ne’er-sit-down whose wordplay gleamed like swordplay, Francisca sporting an Irish accent, a self-righteous Elbow, a truculent Barnardine, the passionate virgin Isabella, and all the other characters whose hilarious and shocking contrasts only fully emerge when embodied.

The play was, as always, very timely. We yielded willingly to the Bard’s genius in creating characters, situations and wordplay that make us laugh uproariously while reflecting on themes of moral hypocrisy, the unequal values placed on the testimonies of women and men, the power-relationships of relative rank, money, reputation, class and gender, over-legislation and interference by the state, and the obsession with sex as a focus for legislation and judgement due to supposed “public interest”, with repression the chosen tool despite the evidence of history that it is neither possible nor desirable to “geld and splay all the youth of the city” (Pompey to Escalus, MforM Act II Sc i).

These topics are so ubiquitous and familiar still from our own everyday politics that it’s hard to blame anyone who takes up an attitude as cynical as Lucio’s, determining simply to follow whichever path (and suck up to whichever power source) is likely to lead to the greatest personal licence right now. However, in Shakespeare’s time one had a lot less choice about one’s position and advancement in society (at least relative to those who live in more or less democratic cultures now — I know that the majority of the world still lacks this privilege). Why don’t those of us who can in the 21st century require our leaders and opinion-formers in church and state and media to concentrate on education, health, gender equality and poverty relief or any of the other things where their intervention could actually be useful, rather than spending our time and our money on the prosecution of people whose service exists because of society’s need and desire to use it?

I say this in connection with “The madam, her girls and a city in fear” in the Mail&Guardian. How much has changed since Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure? Well, I smiled as I thought that it seems clear that the primal needs and the political motivations of the players haven’t altered at all, but at least there is a possibility that Mistress Overdone may get more airtime. That, at least, brings a bit of balance to the exploitation equation.

Overall, the play’s a peachy preach on a theme that’s too little heard these days:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7:1-5

And I love the open question at the end… did Isabella say yes to Vincentio?

{Sat 24 February 2007}   Thanks for the lesson

And some days, one feels like this… as is the case with most of the poems on this site so far, I wrote this a long time ago, but it’s probably one to which many people can relate:

Thanks for the lesson

So you’re a lover, are you?
I can do that too:
I can lurve and leave you;
even I can screw
my head down tight and nasty,
move like a machine,
drive a forklift through the party,
decimate the dream
come true;
come, I can,
come through,
come, come,
can you?

For those who asked… and some who might’ve been curious but didn’t ask… here’s a translation of the Afrikaans poem Die Skoene Jag which I posted on November 16th (I’ve noticed that this particular poem keeps registering hits, presumably because it’s a bit of a curiosity as an Afrikaans poem on an English website. On the other hand, some searchers are simply looking for shoes!)

This poem is also odd because it’s the only one of my childhood poems that currently appears on the site. I wrote it when I was thirteen, for a school exercise. Like all my peers in South Africa at the time, I was forced to study Afrikaans for the entire twelve years of my schooling. My own private rebellion against the Nationalist government consisted in refusing to speak Afrikaans, even though I wrote it well. I eventually managed to matriculate with an “A” for the subject overall, but something close to zero for the final oral exam, as I had not articulated a single sentence. It was a classic case of shooting oneself in the foot, of course, because in a later writers’ group where a few of the members had Afrikaans as a first language, I discovered that it is in fact an earthy tongue that richly and directly evokes emotion and conviction. As with all languages, there are some things that can only be said in that language and translation is inevitably “lossy”.

This translation is not a work of art (not that the original could really make a greater claim!) To convey it relatively accurately I’ve made a stab at using similar rhythms and rhyme-types as those in the original, but I did resort to some half-rhyme cheating, I confess. Most of the words are literally translated, although there are some word order inversions. The final line of the first stanza should really read something like “completed his appearance nicely”. The changes in tense are in the original, and were fairly typical in the telling of this kind of joke, as I remember.

The Shoe Hunt

Van der Merwe sees old Doep
Strolling out next to his stoep.
Old Doep wears a nice new suit
Like an ostrich with his plume.
A pretty shoe upon his foot
Finishes his fine costume.

“Hi, old pal! There on your foot
“Never a nicer shoe I’ve met!
“Tell me true, where did you
“Obtain such a lovely shoe?”
“You can’t buy it in a shop,”
Is the answer of old Doep.
“You must hunt it, if you will,
Simply shoot a crocodile.”

So every night, Van went down
To the river at full moon.
Every morning, back at the house
“Saw nothing, not even a mouse!”
Then he decided one last time
To search the stream for crocodile.

And this time, to his great luck,
Crocodile on the bank turned up.
Van der Merwe shoots the creature,
Goes into the water, pulls him over.
But now Van’s luck is really out:
“The stupid crocodile is barefoot!”

{Sun 11 February 2007}   whirlwind visit

whirlwind visit

pattering, spattering rain races mission-bent to earth,
alert, seeking, challenging for territory,
it sprays grass and laps up dry land
as poppies pound and skip incorrigibly
to tease its watery muzzle.

today, our trees seem not so much
at mercy of the cavorting current
as at play with it;
dancing, dodging, mocking
leaves laugh out loud
at its tail-chasing;

the old bluegum,
bowing gently to humour
the bristling threat,
lets it sniff around awhile,
then shoos it out

and, with a tailwisp wag, it
whisks over the hedge:
we are unscathed,
but thrilled,


{Tue 16 January 2007}   True Colours
True Colours

It startles me that you should be
So disappointed in my poem
That you’d even mail my home
To tell me that you don’t agree!

The kind of poetry I wrote
Is not the kind you’d like to see?
Oh fie! Oh my! Oh, dearie me!
A rising lump still gags my throat:

For failing you will make me blue,
Or green with envy; red with shame!
But soon I’m pale and wan again
—The proper shade for poets true.

Having no countenance but mine,
I can but try my lines to rhyme.

{Thu 16 November 2006}   Die Skoene Jag
It’s doubtless no longer politically correct to make Van der Anyone the butt of any joke, but perhaps readers will forgive this poem on understanding that I wrote it at age 13. I’ve just rediscovered it on going through an ancient poetry notebook. Anyone who remembers my Dad will recognise him as my source for this – he had so much pleasure in the telling of this story and so I’m publishing the poem in memory of him. Thanks for the lighter side, Dr. Peter John Burman!

Die Skoene Jag

Van der Merwe sien ou Doep
Loop-loop langsaan by sy stoep.
Ou Doep dra ‘n mooi pak klere,
Soos ‘n volstruis met sy vere.
Op sy voet ‘n lekker skoen
Maak sy voorkoms mooi voldoen.

“Haai, ou pel! Daarop jou voet
“H’t ek nooit so ‘n lekker skoen ontmoet!
“Sê vir my, waar het jy
“So ‘n lekker skoen gekry?”
“Jy kan dit nie in winkels koop,”
Is die antwoord van ou Doep.
“Jy moet jag, indien jy wil,
Gaan skiet nou maar ‘n krokodil.”

Elke nag het Van gegaan
Na die rivier onder volle maan.
Ongelukkig, soggens tuis,
“Niks gesien, nie nog ‘n muis!”
Toe besluit hy laaste keer
Krokodil te soek by die rivier.

Hierdie keer, tot sy geluk,
Het krokodil op bank gebuk.
Van der Merwe skiet die dier,
Gaan in die water, trek hom neer.
Maar Van het ongeluk ontmoet:
“Die dom krokodil is mos kaalvoet!”

See my literal translation of this poem here: The Shoe Hunt. You can also enjoy the Americanized version by David Ennis in the Comment below.

et cetera