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Popping Corks and Scintillating Poems at Modjaji’s Eighth Birthday Party

Modjaji Books Birthday Celebrations

Pale gold and deep red sparkling wine filled the glasses of those who gathered in the Observatory Methodist church hall last Sunday afternoon. It was not the women’s auxiliary gone to seed that set Charles Wesley spinning in his grave but the presence of the rain queen, expressing her delight at the most exciting poetry event to date this year. Sponsored by Solms Delta, this was a party celebrating the tenacity and resilience of a remarkable institution.

By the end of 2015, Modjaji Books will have published 32 poetry collections by South African women since its inception in 2007. Added to that is a raft of other fiction and non-fiction that has established this small independent publisher on the South African literary landscape – not to mention the several significant literary awards and recognition that has been afforded its titles over the years. The delicious bubbly was the perfect accompaniment to the lush, robust and resilient verse that was read aloud by some of the city’s most talented poets.

The light filtering through the high windows on the late afternoon may have been muted but as each woman took the floor there was nothing mild about the poems read aloud, nor the topics they approached: the raw edges of childbirth and mastectomy, ageing and violence, were juxtaposed in a powerful expression of wit and eros, contemplation and courage.

Flowers decked the tables. Sumptuous chocolate brownies dusted with icing sugar, heart-shaped pecan tartlets, vegetable crudites and a delicious cheesecake decorated with rose petals and birthday candles was fitting fare for the celebration of the eighth year of Modjadji Books’ existence. Another aspect of the celebration was the launch of their most recent venture, the Modjadji Poetry Fund. This new project aims to provide a wider range of services to those who read, write and engage with South African women’s poetry in all its facets. Colleen Higgs, founder of the women’s press, said the intention was to create a new poetry prize (or prizes), mentoring opportunities, workshops, and honoraria for poets.

Malika Ndlovu

Emceed by the multi-talented performance poet and author, Malika Ndlovu, she launched the performance by saying, “This tree, this shower of women’s writing, its fruits and ever expanding web of connections being forged via the work Colleen has made visible, accessible through publication – is literally the rainmaking. This is the daunting yet defiant and resilient vision of a woman for herself and for other women writers, for the Southern African literary landscape and for book lovers at large.”

The poets who treated guests to their work included three Ingrid Jonker Prize recipients – Karin Schimke (2014), Beverly Rycroft (2012) and Megan Hall (2008). They were joined by Margaret Clough, Khadija Heeger, Helen Moffet, Christine Coates, Dawn Garisch, Colleen Higgs, Jenna Mervis and Kerry Hammerton.

These are the Lies I Told YouFourth ChildMissingLava Lamp PoemsHomegrownWoman Unfolding
Invisible EarthquakeBare and BreakingAt Least the Duck SurvivedStrange FruitBeyond the Delivery RoomDifficult Gifts


Each poet touched the audience with her remarkable offering. In particular, the new works, as yet unpublished, struck a deep resonanance: Megan Hall’s reflections on her daughter at three weeks of age; Helen Moffett’s chilling recollection of discovering armed men in her bedroom; Khadija Heeger’s ‘Cape of Ghosts’; and Kerry Hammerton’s reflection on her father.

Margaret Clough’s hilarious account of an elderly woman’s driving skills, performed as a two-part rendition of a hair-raising car trip and Colleen Higgs’ observation of her young daughter’s antipathy to a house guest sharing her bedroom counterbalanced the more anguished verses, bringing a lighter note to the performance.

Ndlovu offered the first poem on the programme because it encompassed the themes of truth telling, seeking, healing and connectedness. She chose a poem that would capture some of the essence of what drives much of what Modjaji Books publishes and represents. She said, “Modjaji publications encourage and represent the way of living your truth, walking your talk, daring to do the things you dream of manifesting in the world – and doing it in your lifetime.”

Truth Is Both Spirit And Flesh

Truth is both spirit and flesh
It is the hotel bill or photograph discovered in a pocket
The open mouth saying nothing in defence
It is the fact splattered across the courtroom
Exposed to cameras, microphones and strangers ears
It is the addict at the brink of suicide
Frozen between picking up a fix or the telephone
It is the vibration in your chest and stomach pit
That hits when you hear or read a real guru’s words
It is the breath absent from the body of a beloved
Who will not wake up or ever laugh into your eyes

Truth is the child speaking without thinking
Unaware of the adults they have suddenly stripped naked
It is the cut, the scar, the wrinkle, the rash, the swelling
The illness revealed in the face, in the shaking
The toxin reflected in the skin
It is the uninhibited hug projected from the heart
The electricity of a long time lover’s touch

Truth is the smoke or the stench
That cannot be dismissed or disguised
The bone that waits decades to be found
The memory in our cells
The irrepressible rising of tears
It is the current in our veins
The universal rhythm of our hearts
It can be understood in any language
It lives within the word and the sound

Truth is liberation and source of great pain
It is both water and fire
The visible and the invisible
It is the written and the unwritten
The space and the line
It is different
It is the same
It is buried
Yet it will not die
It is the silence before
Beneath and beyond
The lie
It waits for you and I
It will not die

Truth is both spirit and flesh

- Malika Ndlovu

Here are some of the other remarkable poems shared on the evening:

everything in our house

Kate thinks the lava lamp I bought her father for Christmas two years ago is
hers. She thinks everything in our house is hers.

Last night her great aunt, Tessa, from London, slept in her room. Kate doesn’t
want Tessa in her room.
“She’s not my friend,” she says.
“Not yet,” I say.
“She must go. When is she going Mama?”
“In a week or so.”
“But it’s my room.”
“Yes it is. But please let her use it.”
“Why can’t she sleep in your room with you and Daddy?”
“That’s a thought.”
And so on, until she concedes, “She can sleep in my room but she mustn’t
look at my toys. She must look at the wall.”
“OK, I will tell her,” I say.

Kate loves the lava lamp. It takes a while for the yellow wax to heat up and
fl oat languidly to the top where it falls again in bubbles and loops.
Sometimes we sit on the couch and watch the lava lamp in the dark.
It’s not like watching TV.
We’re not watching it exactly, we talk in that slowed down, profound,
goofball way.
Our eyes on the lava lamp.

- Colleen Higgs

What Life is Really Like

You need to toughen up
my father would complain
when I was small
I ought to take you to see
chickens having their heads
chopped off.
That’d teach you
what life is really like.

He’d seek me out
when one of his pigeons
-crazed for home or
mad with terror from a
roaming hawk-
would tumble into
the loft
mutilated by
wire or beak.

I was the one made to
clench my palms round
its pumping chest,
to keep it still while
my father’s hairy fingers stitched
its garotted throat
angrily to rights again.

You see life is a fight for survival
he’d shout, forgetting
he was not lecturing his students
or giving his inaugural address
You gotta roll with the punches.

I waited and waited for that bitter
roughness to spy me and circle
in to land
years and years
of flinching anticipation until
the day I came home from hospital

and my father dressed my wound.

Easing with practiced hands
the drip from my bulldozed chest
he renewed the plaster in breathing silence
never speaking never
once saying

Life’s a bastard
Toughen up.

- Beverly Rycroft

Sterkfontein Bones

The cave holds the bones
the cave and also the hospital
Sterkfontein, dust as old as stone.
She wondered if it had changed,
if there was concrete or
wooden walkways, a shop
that sold resin skulls for lamps.

The narrow opening still
concealed by kiepersol and wild olive,
she saw the bright bones –
a toe and a tooth.
It’s called The Cradle now
but it’s really a trapdoor –
animals fell in to die
on a heap of bones.

The other Sterkfontein
they called Groendakkies;
she sat with him on a bench there
under yellow apples of a syringa tree.
What men don’t understand, they
call madness,
she’d read it somewhere.
He wanted her to pick up the apples
that had fallen;
the silver apples of the moon
the golden apples of the sun,
but she would not.
Even if she did
she’d only have bones –
a tooth and a toe.

- Christine Coates

On Realising I am in Love with You

I wanted a man with a tall stride and
berry brown legs.
An adventurer.

A long haired surfer with an earing
and a six-pack.
A self-made man.

A millionaire. A bespectacled genius.
I am sure my ad said:
‘must love dogs’.

And I got you.

- Kerry Hammerton

Winter Interlude

Through wind, rain and hail
two daughters fly in to visit,
bringing laughter, wine and
an alpaca knee rug.
I’m told this is the worst weather
in Cape Town for decades.
But for me,
wrapped up in joy,
drenched in love,
it’s sparkling

- Margaret Clough

Two Gifts

I’ve lived in my body in this city all my life
yet have not known this simple pleasure:
you took me to a lake on a fynbos berg.
I entered like a dream, plunging.

We sat on white sand playing
with shoals of meaning that shift
when you lift the lid off words.
You chose to sit alone while I went in.

The mountain offers up this cup
for gulls and clouds to drink; I, mere fly,
baptised my life within its living liquid,
emerging blessed. I heard you say

women want more than you can give; a man
was drowning in your eye. We walked back,
caressed by sensuous air. Your mouth
was tense. I shook your hand goodbye.

- Dawn Garisch

The Birthday Party

We’re let in through the back gate.
We’re the entertainment, like clowns,
only we’ve got dancing dogs.
The husband ushers us in

through a gated back entrance
a damp channel behind the house
sickly sweetened with flowering jasmine
and rubbish in gaping bins.

We take turns to peer into the garden:
a sea of children, a glimpse of wife
calming, taming an unsettled tide
tight ponytail swinging with effort.

We wait in the wings, cramped, edgy
the husband posted here to watch us,
we could sneak inside, rob them blind.
He’s a rich man’s 4×4, the coarseness

intended, the rolled up shirt sleeves.
I wonder what it’s like to fuck him,
to be taken in his rough arms
bucked against the jasmine trellis.

I shouldn’t think this, but I do.
And then it’s my turn to dance.

- Jenna Mervis

Homo erectus

Erections are the most extraordinary things;
especially to those of us who lack the mechanism.
One minute you pull me into an easy, affectionate hug –
the next, a third party has announced its presence:
taking muscular shape against my belly,
a rude and raucous conjuring trick
(which I am tempted to call “sleight of prick”).
You are impressing me – literally.
By now I have the measure of you
all the way to my navel.
I note you are a most appealing size –
promising, but not threatening.
I have questions: Is this proximity or desire?
How can something so implacable be so warm?
What does it feel like to have your own flesh
do exactly as it pleases? And most of all,
what does one say at such moments?
“Excuse me, but your penis has taken a shine to me?”
What I’d really like to do
is unzip and lucky-dip you,
dabble my fingertips in your dew.
But I am too polite, too shy, too proud.
The kettle boils. I step back,
make tea, keep close custody of my eyes.

- Helen Moffett


I, the earth and hot,
swell my fruiting bodies
for the hog’s horny snuffling.
In root arms that wade
beneath bush and compost
I hide salty treats ,
and resist, but only just,
his snouting.
He noses folds,
balls clods aside with his face -
a trotter ready, but unequal.
He plays the mild hunter,
nudging and ruffling
underbrush and mud,
and I, oh,
loose-limbed and louche and lucky,
until sods are so loosed
I thrum the lumps and pillows
of my ground bed. He finds the
summer truffle, tosses it up
and mouths it from the sky,
where a slow melting
morning toffees over.

- Karin Schimke


Here’s to another eight years of Modjaji magic, to another 80 years. May the Rain Queen shower her blessings for many more southern African women writers, bringing down a wealth of new publications, replete with the creativity and healing, lyrics and literature that all the region’s children need and deserve. Halala, Colleen Higgs! Halala, Modjaji!

* * * * * * * *

Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event:


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On 29 March Modjaji Books celebrated her 8th birthday with a poetry reading and party at the Methodist Church Hall in…

Posted by Books LIVE on Tuesday, 31 March 2015


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