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Sunday Read: Antjie Krog’s Poem, “Lament at the Death of Mandela”

On the day that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is laid to rest, Books LIVE brings you this lament by Antjie Krog. This is the first time the poem has been published in English.

Lament at the Death of Mandela

underground a reef has shifted
the earth stumbles
unsettled the sky gasps
it plunges backwards
leaving us colder     poorer     lonelier

when his breath left him in the night
the stars reeled as if asphyxiating
because everything was entangled now
wrestling with death
death and his death alone

time has turned to grief
we’re standing in a big shadow
glass breaks through us; stones splinter
our thoughts flee in desperate churning groups
pegging the ground like assegais       quivering

in Qunu the cattle refuse to leave the kraal
at Lusikisiki the fish lie close to the surface
in Mveso the bustards make no sound

the thought of Mandela wrenches our insides
(we never wanted to see his dying body)
we cannot even open our mouths
(we never wanted to see his dying body)
to begin talking about his death is to talk about his deeds
(we never wanted to see his dying body)
about his blood arrowing like a jaguar
(we never wanted to see his dying body)

about his work, his pliant power
(we never wanted to see his dying body)
the forgiving cartilage of his flowering skull
(we never wanted to see his dying body)
the battering ram of his tongue
moulding interlocking futures to a core

we can not do justice to Our Big One
we do not want to see his vulnerable body
we do not want to see it
we do not want him to be dead

in the footpaths, on the pavements, in buses along the roads
we bundle together, we the ordinary ones
we sprinkle our tears over him
words and songs stream from our eyes
we sprinkle it over the dead body
    of the Fearless Warrior who once ruled us
we sprinkle tears over the opened blood of Mandela
we ordinary ones do not wash him with water, but with songs

with grief we take his body in our thoughts
we wash it, we bathe it
with hands that tremble, we touch his legacy
we pass him on, from hand to hand
high above our heads
the man who saved us from ourselves
who gave us back to one another

oh singing blood of the son of uNosekeni
oh handpalms of Mveso full of stars and rain
oh arms of Qunu embracing a country’s deepest wound

on the day we bury Mandela, the brooks stop flowing
on the day we bury Mandela, the trees stop swaying in the wind
on the day we bury Mandela, the sun looses its power
on the day we bury the One-Who-Can-Never-Die
the earth becomes full of dust
the sky thunders in a different way
the sun groans green

yes, when we bury Mandela
we bury our Big-Binder-Together
he whose hands ladled peace in the world

are you talking now about the Big-Strong-Fiery-One?
are you saying that Mandela is dead?
are you saying that our Big One has left us?
this nation that he instructed since that day
when black and white assegais shimmered against each other

awu no, I refuse!
he will not die and we keep on living
why do we live if he has died?
no, we only bury the bones; our Big One lives
the Binder-Together is not dead, he sleeps
the one who broke the revengeful assegais
and bound them together, is just sleeping
  - the Big One has moved in among the ancestors

nobody’s larynx can sing Mandela’s song until its ending
nobody will ever de-gloss our Great-Binder-Together for us
nobody exceeds him in courage

no leader has ever been so loved by his people

At the grave of Mandela

here he rests now
the one who bound us together
may he find himself always in the fullness of peace
he from the soil of our land
the singing blood of us all

he sleeps now
he who gave to everybody
with a hand that was used to give
he who never failed to share his lion heart

“If he was remarkable, so are we!”
       we ordinary ones say
“Let us now care for one another!”
       we whisper at the grave of the Sharer, the Open-handed-One
“let us celebrate our connectedness!”
       we plead to those in the special seats

the rivers stop rushing, when we lower the coffin
the bushes against the mountains stop trembling,
when we lower the coffin
the dry grass stop rustling, when we lower the coffin
the vegetation stop growing, when we lower the coffin
the birds stop singing, when we lower the coffin

the land opens and takes him to her in utter silence

everything is entangled now
accepting death
death and his death alone

beloved Mandela, bless us, your children
let your life leave its fingerprint on all of us
you are the embodiment of the world’s yearning for goodness
you were our bestest face

it will be a long time before we ordinary ones
will again hold in our mortal arms a person so noble
someone so healing and stubbornly beautiful
so tough of disposition
so sternly inclusive of principle
so elegant and sweeping of heart

Tsamaya Hantle Barque of our Dreams
Ntate Moholo
Khotso! Pula! Nala!

     – Antjie Krog

(Based on the Sesotho Lament about the death of King Moshoeshoe 1 LITHOKHOKISO tsa Moshoeshoe le tse ling by David Cranmer Theko Bereng)

SkinnedLong Walk to Freedom

Book details

Images courtesy University of Adelaide and Design at Bay


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