Poetry from Steve Bloom



Tribute to Dennis Brutus



Dennis Brutus, world-renowned South African poet and human-rights activist, died on December 26, 2009 at the age of 85. 


The poem below, composed on the occasion of Brutus's 80th birthday by Martín Espada, was read at the NYC memorial on January 17, 2010. It is followed by Steve Bloom's personal remembrance.



 Martín Espada



 For poet Dennis Brutus, at eighty


  The office workers did not know, plodding through 1963

  and Marshall Square station in Johannesburg,

  that you would dart down the street between them,

  thinking the police would never fire into thecrowd.

  Sargeant Kleingeld did not know, as you escaped

  his fumbling hands and the pistol on his hip,

  that he would one day be a footnote in the book of your life.


  The secret policeman on the corner did not know,

  drilling a bullet in your back, that today the slug

  would belong in a glass case at the museum of apartheid.

  The bystanders did not know, as they watched

  the coloured man writhing red on the ground,

  that their shoes would skid in blood for years.


  The ambulance men did not know,

  when they folded the stretcher and refused you aride

  to the white hospital, that they would sit eternally

  in Hell's emergency room, boiling with a disease

  that darkens their skin and leaves them screaming for soap.

  The guards at Robben Island did not know,

  when you hammered stone to gravel with Mandela,

  that the South Africa of their fathers

  would be stone hammered to gravel by theinmates,

  who daydreamed a republic of the ballot

  but could not urinate without a guard'spermission.


  Did you know?

  When the bullet exploded the stars

  in the cosmos of your body, did you know

  that others would read manifestos by your light?

  Did you know, after the white ambulance left,

  before the coloured ambulance arrived, if you would live at all,

  that you would banish the apartheid of the ambulance

  with Mandela and a million demonstrators dancing at every funeral?

  Did you know, slamming the hammer into the rock's stoic face,

  that a police state is nothing but a boulder

  waiting for the alchemy of dust?

  Did you know that, forty years later,

  college presidents and professors of English

  would raise their wine to your name

  and wonder what poetry they could write

  with a bullet in the back? 


  What do the people we call prophets know?

  Can they conjure the world forty years from now?

  Can the poets part the clouds for a vision in the sky

  easily as sweeping curtains across the stage?


  A beard is not the mark of prophecy

  but the history of a man's face.

  No angel shoved you into the crowd;

  you ran because the blood racing to your heart

  warned a prison grave would swallow you.

  No oracle spread a banquet of vindication before you

  in visions; you mailed your banned poems

  cloaked as letters to your sister-in-law

  because the silence of the world

  was a storm roaring in your ears.


  South Africa knows. Never tell a poet: Don't say that.

  Even as the guards watched you nodding in your cell,

  even as you fingered the stitches fresh from the bullet,

  the words throbbed inside your skull:

  Sirens knuckles boots. Sirens knuckles boots.

  Sirens knuckles boots.



*   *   *   *   *


by Steve Bloom 




     Early in this decade, when he was a professor in the Black Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh, Dennis Brutus and I were attending the same political conference in that city. We had never met. I approached him, somewhat hesitantly, to share a poem I had written referencing the struggle in South Africa. He read it immediately, and eagerly. Then, to my surprise, he began a conversation as if we were long-time comrades and collaborators. 

    That, in my experience, was Dennis Brutus summed up: a man who had achieved greatness by any ordinary standard. But the esteem in which he was held by others seemed unimportant to him. He felt, and acted, like an ordinary human being simply doing what needs to be done. He treated others, even strangers, as if that were true as well. 

    Over the next few years, every time our paths crossedmostly on his frequent visits to New York CityDennis would ask me what poetry event was being organized that he might participate in. It was, in part, as a result of his urging that I organized the very first "Activist Poets' Roundtable" at the US Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007. He also helped launch the Roundtable in New York City in March 2008, after the annual "Left Forum" where Dennis appeared on several panels. 

    It was at this time that I really got to know him well. He had injured his foot, somehow, on the eve of the Left Forum and was having difficulty walking. I spent that weekend driving him back and forth between his hotel and the conference site, also making sure he had the help he needed getting around at the conference itself (and in his hotel). Then, when his foot did not improve, he accepted an offer of a place to stay for a few days in Brooklyn, where he wouldn't have to manage on his own. 

    He and I spent a lot of time together during those few days, in particular waiting for medical attention at the Kings County Hospital emergency room. And he told me stories about his life in the struggle against Apartheid. I will never forget the chuckle in his voice as he talked about the time he was shot in the back while attempting to escape from the police. He could laugh, too, about the absurdity of breaking rocks at Robben Island prison, the lengths to which the Apartheid regime had gone to suppress dissent. And yet it was all for naught (the source, I assume, of his mirth). The regime could not survive, no matter what brutal measures it resorted to. The people of South Africa were too strong.  

    During this entire time, as his foot at first got worse then gradually began to feel better, the biggest concern he expressed to me was that he shouldn't become too much of a burden. 

    In that same month we drove together to Washington, DC, for the first "Split This Rock" poetry festival. Dennis found it impossible to attend such an event without making it an opportunity for a little political organizing. He decided, on the way down, that we should use the festival as the occasion for a declaration of poets calling for peace and social justice in the world. And so an "Appeal to Poets, Writers, and All Creative Artists" from the festival, for actions in March 2009 which would "Speak Art to Power," was born. In the end it was signed by a majority of those in attendance at the festival. 

    The overwhelming majority of young activists in the struggle for a better world believe that they are committed for life. Very few, however, actually fulfill this promise which they make to themselves. How many who were Dennis Brutus's comrades in the anti-Apartheid struggle, for example, ended up compromising their commitment to human liberation once the overthrow of Apartheid was achieved and power transferred into their hands? Dennis, however, remained committed to the poor and oppressed of South Africa and of the world until his final days. He was constitutionally incapable of doing otherwise. 

    It has always struck me as one of the sad ironies of our existence that we can never, truly, count anyone in the ranks of the very special few who fulfill their youthful pledge-to themselves and to their own humanity until they are no longer with us. Dennis fulfilled his pledge. He is no longer with us. The world will miss him. 

    I will miss him, too. 


December 2009