Friday, 14 March 2014 12:00

Saul Musker is the winner of the 2013 Hofmeyr Prize for Poetry

Poems of the City


City life for the devout of Capitalism



A street in a concrete city.
The urban warrior is nigh on sixty,

Fast approaching his quota of THREE SCORE AND TEN.

He strides along the concrete pavement, eye-level with ambition,

an outer membrane of pin-stripe polyester.


Machine gun fire from the fourteenth floor,

Spraying the street below with greed and envy.

NO! NO! I am in the womb! Do you hear my cry?


Once more unto the breach, cries the urban warrior making his escape

And launches himself, O Chivalrous Knight,

Into the gaping mouth of a revolving glass door.

Slams it shut behind him.

Tidies, composes himself, shifts his tie, dusts his briefcase.


One-fifteen pm and seven seconds, lunch.

He emerges from his cocoon of an office,

unfurls his wings in a gigantic yawn,

and is crushed by a falling branch.

All experience is an arch, wherethrough gleams that Christmas bonus.


No more solid moments of quiet incertitude, she hopes,

No more quarrels or angst.

The clouds open, a voice booms out from above



She shifts her feet closer to the edge,

Arms spread-eagle on an invisible crucifix,

And looks down at the people ants crawling over the pavement.


Closing her eyes, it is the crash of waves that greets her first;

Deep black water breaking on jagged slate,

White foam coursing through the air in slow-motion

Stark against an indigo sky,


And she dives, dives off her rock, dives off her crucifix,

Dives into the deep black ocean below,

And it is as if the sky's waters have broken, and she


                 out the womb




in a rush of rain.


Ah, the city, the city,

The jungle, the jungle,

Where ignorant warriors clash by night!





Assiduously leafing the pages of the Workers’ Vanguard,
he sits atop his pavement throne,

dust drifting lazily about him,
settling on his heavy jacket.

Behind him an abandoned warehouse
Filled with the hollow echoes of a bygone age

There, pinned to an iron gate,
an old poster, bold black type:
Labour Wanted.

Yellowing, frayed, forgotten.


And he, tired Communist,
Former Comrade,
Sits atop his pavement throne;
Labour Unwanted.




The devout of Capitalism watch from their glass chamber
as the crowd surges back and forth along the street below.
Their desperate chant reaches them up high,
distant, muffled,
like the underwater cries of a drowning child.

“Enough is enough! Enough is enough! Enough is enough!”
One of the congregants emits a small chuckle.
A suited priest glances sideways at him,
smiles softly.


Eventually the mob disperses, dissolves, streaming back into the cracks and crevices of the city.
They will drag themselves back tomorrow,

to sing their chant again.

But in their dusty hearts they know,
the knowledge a coiled snake in the leaves of their spirit,
that no amount of chanting will ever shatter the walls of the chamber.
Because, in a cruel and complex paradox,
Enough is never enough.




darkness settles over the city
a few lights flicker feebly to life
and a thousand miles way,
unknown even to the most devout

The sea boils red.

Stranger in a city

He stares deeply at his reflection
in the seeds jewels red pearls of a pomegranate
One by one, he cradles them between two fingers
Brings them to his face, nearly touching the whiteness of his eyes,
Stops, ponders the light in the almost-transparent almost-opaque rubies
and then places each carefully on his tongue.

The others think to themselves,
What is he doing here, in this bar, in this alley, in this city
staring at himself in a pomegranate?

He thinks to himself,
And what indeed are they doing here?
In this bar, in this alley, in this city
Staring at themselves in one another’s faces
Staring into the swirling amber of a double whiskey
Staring at the bubbles in a pint of Castle?

Indeed, thinks the man behind the once-clean bar,
What are any of us doing anywhere?
But he quickly stops himself,
recognising the Sartrean danger in those words
knowing too well the spirals of dull despair that follow them in smoke-patterns.

in the dark, once-safe alley,
in the sleeping, sighing city
A woman dances in her living room
and children dream of juicy pomegranates.


The city doth protest too much, methinks

A tempest swirls Shakespearean through the city
Lightning crashes drunk into the plains of the Highveld
(Well, once plains, no more)
In the offices of the rich and scared,
claps of thunder make the bullet-plated glass ring and tremble

I hurry down the steps of the library,
the air suffused with history,
as fat, angry drops of rain plummet into the waters of the fountain quad.
A girl wraps one arm around a soaring stone pillar
(Herbert Baker once did that, too)
and then leans out into the cascade, laughing.

Running across the lawns, shielding my books from the downpour,
I sense something around me;
In the collision of the raindrops there echoes another collision
a collision of manicured gardens in Parktown; Savernake, Hohenheim, Brenthurst,
with the dark, dirty courtyards of Braamfontein; Jorissen Place, Massyn Court, Geldenhuys Lofts.

And I, here, in the middle of it
At the border of it
In the eye of the storm

De Korte street is the smell of fish and chips, oily, greasy poverty,
Juta street a group of students drinking designer lattes
While outside, a tramp stretches out against the window.

The rain cleanses, baptises the streets,
Falls outside the coffee parlour, falls outside the fish joint,
Falls in Westcliff, falls in Hillbrow,
Knows not the difference.

And from inside a corner cafe,
“Coca-cola” emblazoned on its front,
A burst of laughter reaches out into the storm.
Laughter perseveres there and here.

the city doth protest too much.
The rain and the laughter don’t discriminate.
The girl grasping the library pillar turns one into the other.