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An Afrikaans poem of identity and the pain of exile

Cover of "Kouevuur". Colour added by Tony McGregor

Cover of "Kouevuur". Colour added by Tony McGregor

“What did your face look like before you were born? What did you look like before you or your father or your mother were born? Where were you then?” - from The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (Taurus, 1984) by Breyten Breytenbach

At the top of a 100 foot pole an iron cow gives birth. - Zen koan.

In 1960 a young Afrikaans poet, unable to continue to live in apartheid South Africa, left the country for a life of exile, like so many of his compatriots, for many of whom exile was not the voluntary choice it was for him.

Breyten Breytenbach, scion of a well-connected Afrikaans family, sadly chose exile and solidarity with those oppressed by the authoritarian apartheid state over his family.

Drawing by Breyton Breytenbach used on the cover of "'n Seisoen in die Paradys".

Drawing by Breyton Breytenbach used on the cover of "'n Seisoen in die Paradys".

Feathers and an iron cow

“...we find our world poised uneasily, like a huge iron cow on the top of a hundred foot pole.” - from The Iron Cow of Zen by Albert Low (2009).

Breytenbach has been for many years a Zen practitioner. Many of his poems and paintings show the influence of Zen.

This gives his poetry a depth belied by the seeming simplicity of the words. The words flow conversationally and easily, and in the flow they reveal, by unforced juxtapositions, tensions which bring out emotions which, while I can feel them, I somehow cannot explain – they come from some deep place, some place that I can only think must be like the places reached by Zen. The words are indeed like koans and are meant to be felt, experienced, rather than understood intellectually.

I experience this whole poem as a koan, it moves me so that I cannot read it without my eyes tearing up, and yet I cannot explain the tears – they are just part of the experience of the poem, the beauty of the words.

This is my humble attempt to translate this wonderful poem from Afrikaans to English.

A Handful of Feathers


I always thought

that when one day I came home

it would be unexpectedly at dusk

with the accumulated riches of years

on the backs of iron cows

It's still blueish

Softly, quietly I open the gate to the back yard

old Wagter* growls and barks

but then he tail-wags recognition

Frits Kreisler will play sweetly on his violin

Ma you know

like Viennese waltzes

and the surprised windows begin to listen

people I don't know

or almost know from very far

leaning out with nighties full of smiles and elbows

people whose laps I peed on as a child

ma stands inside her heart stopped

(and where are the specs?)

dad wakes, confused, with a start

but mummy is already outside

with a dressing gown and red cheeks

And there I stand large as life

on the lawn near the cement pond

where the new outside rooms have been added

slightly worn out by the long journey

a top hat

a smart suit on

with a carnation in the jacket

new Italian shoes for the occasion

my hands full of presents

a song for my ma and a little pride for my dad

But mummy knows it's me

and behind me my caravan

as befits a traveller from overseas

my wife and children bow-tied

each with three Boland words

my musicians

the gun bearers

friends companions

political advisors

and road managers

a creditor or two

Just this side of the vineyard a meek rose grows

good grief the air is bitingly clean

there's dad coming to see what's up

like that on his empty tummy

the mountains have gone grey

and the oaks thick

but still


I had thought I would just be there

like a Coloured choir on Christmas day


I had though how we would cry then

and drink tea

Blind Wagter it seems couldn't wait

and just died

Fritz Kreisler maybe doesn't like such a long journey …

but if he can't come

then I'll hire Paganini …

sleep well with one ear open

not like old Dog

wherever I plant a feather

a clucking hen comes up!

Die Hand vol Vere


ek het gedog

as ek een dag huis toe kom

sal dit onverwags so teen die skemerdag wees

met jare se opgegaarde rykdom

op rûe van ysterkoeie

Dis nog blouerig

ek maak sjuut en saggies die agterplaas-hek oop

ou Wagter* knor-blaf

maar stert-herken my dan

Fritz Kreisler sal soet op sy viool speel

ma weet mos

sulke Weense walse

en verbaas begin die vensters luister

mense wat ek nie ken nie

of net nog van baie ver

leun uit met nagrokke vol glimlagte en elmboë

mense op wie se skote ek gepee het kleintyd

binne staan ma se hart still

(en waar is die bril?)

pa skrik wakker verdwaas so deur die wind

maar mammie is reeds buite

met 'n kamerjas en rooi wange

En daar staan ek lewensgroot

op die lawn naby die sementdammetjie

waar die nuwe buitekamers aangebou is

effens verweeer deur die verre reis

'n keil op

'n deftige pak

angelier in die baadjie

nuwe Italiaanse skoene vir die okkasie

my hande vol presente

'n liedjie vir my ma 'n bietjie trots vir mý pa

Maar mammie weet mos dis ek

en agter my my karavaan

soos dit 'n reisiger van oorsee betaam

my vrou en kinders strikgedas

elkeen met drie Bolandwoorde in die mond

my musikante

die geweerdraers

vriende kamarade

politieke raadgewers

en road-managers

'n skuldeiser of twee

Net duskant die wingerd groei 'n mak roos

mensig maar die lug is knypskoon

daar kom kyk pa ook wat skort

so op sy nugter maag

die berge het grys geword

en die akkerbome dik

maar wat


ek het gedog ek sal sommerso daar wees

soos 'n Kleurlingkoor met Kersoggend


ek het gedog hoe ons dan sal huil

en tee drink

Blinde Wagter kon glo nie wag nie

en is glo-glo dood …

Fritz Kreisler hou dalk nie van so 'n verre reis …

maar as hy nie kan kom nie

dan huur ek vir Paganini …

slaap gerus met die een oor oop:

anders as ou Dog

waar ek 'n veertjie plant

kom 'n kêk-kôk hoender op!

*Wagter- literally "guard" - is a common name for watch-dogs in South Africa.

A very young Breyten Breytenbach with his father (I think?). Photo from "'n Seisoen in die Paradys." No caption in the book.

A very young Breyten Breytenbach with his father (I think?). Photo from "'n Seisoen in die Paradys." No caption in the book.

Breyten and Yolande in South Africa. Photo from "'n Seisoen in die Paradys."

Breyten and Yolande in South Africa. Photo from "'n Seisoen in die Paradys."

"Klopse" troupe member. Photo by Cloete Breytenbach

"Klopse" troupe member. Photo by Cloete Breytenbach

The importance of memory

“En wat is mens tog behalwe 'n hoop herinneringe? (And so what is a person except a heap of memories?)” - from 'n Seisoen in die Paradys.

Poet, artist and author Breyten Breytenbach was born in the small Western Cape town of Bonnievale in 1936 near the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas. One brother, Cloete, is a photographer and war correspondent while another, Jan, was a leading officer in the former South African security forces.

Breyton studied fine arts at the University of Cape Town.

After leaving South Africa in 1960 Breytenbach met and married a woman of Vietnamese descent called Yolande. This made his return to his homeland a difficult issue because of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the so-called “Immorality Act”. He applied several times to the South African Government for visas for himself and Yolande, each time the applications were turned down.

Finally, in late 1972, Breytenbach and his wife were granted visas to visit the land of his birth: “Wat die oewerhede in gedagte had toe hulle ons visumaansoek toegestaan het, sal ek nie weet nie. (What exactly the authorities had in mind when they granted us our visas, I do not know).” - from 'n Seisoen in die Paradys (A Season in Paradise ), Perskor, 1976, written by Breytenbach using the pen name B.B. Lasarus.

Breytenbach describes their arrival in Cape Town most movingly, as one who has longed to see the land of his birth, and seeing it unroll under the wings of the aircraft excites memories which turn his Adam's apple into petrified tears (“Die adamsappel is versteende trane”): “Daar is nou land onder ons vlerke, wat my voete reeds betree het. Daar het ek agter 'n bos gesit. Daar het ek stukkies van my self aan 'n boom opgehang, en ander stukkies in 'n vinnige waterstroom afgespoel totdat die snyplekke wit geword het. (There is now land beneath our wings, land which my feet have already trodden. There I sat behind a bush. There I hung pieces of myself on a tree, and other pieces I rinsed off in a fast-running stream until the cut ends were white.)”

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Then the plane landed and all the chaos and emotion of the arrivals hall ensued, with people cousins, parents, children, his mother with her specs full of tears, his father, and Breytenbach wrote another version of this poem to express his feelings about coming home. This time the poem is called Die Hand vol piep (a handful of pain/softness/pampering).

The handful of softness


I had thought

I would never come home again,

not on the iron cow in the evening twilight through lotus ponds and fires,

nor via embassies past gate guards with blacklists

peering over braziers of glowing coals

in the night of stop and who goes there -

and then

I am here

out of the blue

with a rooster in the bosom and sweet wine in the veins

and there comes ma

white with age but with cheeks still peachy red

and dad stands on the other side of the tears

four-square in his pleasure

and even an extra brother with beer and beard -


Because look

at least I'm here

as large as life

in the catchment area of the airport,

ma knows – where the breath is -

somewhat rumpled from the long journey


flower and lungs just together in the jacket,

new Italian shoes for the occasion,

my head full of tongue and my heart all crust -

But mummy knows of course it's me

and behind me my bird of paradise,

almost the feather in my cap,

as becomes a refugee from overseas,

my wife and my love -

my musicians the gun-bearers and so on

will surely come with a later poem -

And ai

the mountain wears a dress shirt,

the clouds bleach and flap juice in the air

every palm tree has a fluttering jowl -


all spit-and-polished I'm here

like a klopse** troupe at New Year's and tonight we'll make a fire on the table:

I hang my heart in the wind in the front door's

childhood cradle

and lift up my song and my being and my wife:

all those worthless rotten years

were a sad waltz that lasted too long!

* Howzit? - a contraction of “how is it?” actually meaning “How are you?” Usually used in a slightly mocking way.

**Klopse – the name used for the “clubs” that perform during the annual New Year carnival in Cape Town. Traditionally these troupes of performers in their gaily-coloured uniforms go around from house-to-house during the period from Christmas to New Year, collecting money to fund their activities during the carnival. The reference to the “Coloured Choir” in “Die Hand Vol Vere” is also to this cultural phenomenon.

Die Hand Vol Piep


ek het gedog

ek kom nooit weer huis toe nie,

nie op die ysterkoei teen die skemeruur

deur lotosvleie en vure nie,

nog via ambassades verby hekwagte met swartlyste

wat oor konkas vol kole tuur

in die nag waar halt en werda skuur -

en toe

is ek hier:

uit die bloute:

met 'n haan in die bors en soetwyn in die are,

en daar kom ma

met wit ouderdom maar die wange nog persketjies rooi

en anderkant die trane staan pa

so vierkant in sy skik

en selfs 'n oorskietbroer met bier en met baard -


Want kyk

ek is tog hier

so groot soos my lewe

in die vanglokaal van die lughawe,

ma weet mos – waar die asemhaling is -

effens verrinneweer deaur die verre reis,

'n huil op,

blom en longe sommer saam in die baadjie,

nuwe Italiaanse skoene vir die okkasie,

my kop vol tong en my hart die ene roof -

Maar mammie weet mos dis ek

en agter my my wondervoël,

my amperpluim,

soos dit 'n vlugteling van oorsee betaam,

my vrou en my liefde -

my musikante die geweerdraers en ensovoortse

kom sekerlik met 'n later gedig -

En ai

die berg het 'n borshemp aan,

die wolke verbleik en klap sap in die lug

elke palmboom het 'n fladderende krop -


ek is spoegspoggerig hier

soos 'n klopsetroep met Nuwejaar

en vanaand sal ons vuurmaak bo-op die tafel:

ek hang my hart in die voordeur se wind

se kleintydse wieg

en lig my lied en my hier en my vrou:

al daardie vrotvreetjare

was 'n the langasem hartseerwals!

The other return

“After all, we are all bloody brothers and sisters.” - from “A Note for Azania” written by Breytenbach in 1975.

Breytenbach's “season in paradise” in 1973 was a time of great happiness for him and Yolande as they travelled around South Africa revisiting many places that were of great meaning to Breytenbach. (Interestingly, my copy of Kouevuur, Buren-Uitgewers, 1969, from which the poem “Die Hand Vol Vere” comes, was signed by Breytenbach in Johannesburg on 2 March 1973, i.e. during this visit).

His next visit to South Africa was a disaster.

During 1974/5 he and a group of fellow white South African anti-apartheid exiles in Europe started an organisation called “Okhela” with the aim of providing “'invisible support' – materially and politically – to the Liberation Movement” (from the “Okhela Manifesto” reprinted in The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Taurus, 1984).

Breytenbach came under a false name to South Africa to reconnoitre and prepare for the anti-government activities the organisation was planning. He was betrayed, possibly by the ANC, and captured by the apartheid security forces, tried and sent to prison. He was released in early December 1982, returned to France and became a French citizen.

Separation and exile

Separation and exile are themes that run through South African history, especially in the second half of the 20th Century. That Breytenbach felt the insecurity and pain of separation from his family, the ambivalence of being free in a country other than his own, comes through particularly in the lines: “met jare se opgegaarde rykdom / op rûe van ysterkoeie (with the accumulated riches of years / on the backs of iron cows)”.

These lines are contrasted starkly with the concluding lines of the second version of the poem: “al daardie vrotvreetjare / was 'n the langasem hartseerwals! (all those worthless rotten years / were a sad waltz that lasted too long!)” This feels like a very harsh judgement on a period in which the poet was very creative and did find Yolande, his “Lady One” - “I aimed for the innermost moon / and rent, moved by the syntax and the slow / of sadness and of joy, so / I love you, love you so.” (from “Today I went down” in the collection Lady One, Human and Rousseau, 2002).

Did the iron cow give birth? Or did it, disastrously, fall from the 100-foot pole?

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


nana on October 14, 2013:

nice pomes

Majadez on May 09, 2011:

I'm a little ashamed that after 6 years of not actively reading any Afrikaans, it feels almost strenuous and foreign to me, but I'm slowly getting back into the habit. Thanks for sharing. This is the first time I've heard of Breytenbach and his story is inspiring, like many others of our country.

emul on January 25, 2011:

i rock so if u have mxit here:2775959567

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 27, 2010:

Prasetio - thanks for the visit and kind words.

Love and peace


prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on September 21, 2010:

Another great hub from you, my friend. Although I don't understand about this poem (the language). But I am glad you want to share this for us. I wish I could learn African language. Good work, Tony. Vote this Up.


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 21, 2010:

Dim - thanks for stopping by and leaving such a great comment. I do appreciate it very much.

Love and peace, my sister!


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 21, 2010:

Ruby - thanks for stopping by and commenting. This Hub took longer to write than any other I have written, so I'm glad you enjoyed it. Makes the effort really feel worthwhile.

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 21, 2010:

Kim - thanks for your kind words and you are most welcome indeed! I enjoyed writing this one very much.

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 21, 2010:

Rhonda - you are most welcome and I'm really glad you enjoyed my humble offering! Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 21, 2010:

Brother Dimitris - thank you for your visitand comment. Bravery is a wonderful human quality. I too find it very moving.

Thanks again.

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 21, 2010:

Micky - your words are so kind, and I'm glad you like those lines - they're among my favourites also.

Love and peace


Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on September 13, 2010:

Quite incredible. Your gift showed through more than usual here. Fantastic,. Thank you. x Love and peace

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on September 11, 2010:

Thank you Tony for writing a hub that,s very educational and the poems were touching, esp. the line, 'surprised windows begin to listen' It takes a true poet to think about a window listening. You put a great amount of work into this hub,sharing is really appreciated.

Love and Peace

Kim Harris on September 11, 2010:

Nice Tonymac. I think the iron cow is the airplane. I'm not sure I got all the literary fine points in this hub, but I enjoy learning about the people and history of South Africa. Thanks again for sharing your brilliant self.

poetvix from Gone from Texas but still in the south. Surrounded by God's country. on September 11, 2010:

Thank you for translating, explaining and providing historical context for such moving poems. I have never seen any like that. They truly are works that make one feel. The hardships he endured are beyond real comprehension for me but the poems allow a glimpse into his state of being. I really appreciate that you have made that so for I never would have been exposed to such w/out this Hub.

De Greek from UK on September 11, 2010:

I do not know why the bravery of our species touches me so deeply. Thank you for this Brother Tony.

Micky Dee on September 11, 2010:

Pretty incredible writing Tony. Courageous people yearning to be simple and accepted in their home.

"waar ek 'n veertjie plant

kom 'n kêk-kôk hoender op!" - this gets me every time!

Thanks Tony

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 11, 2010:

We used to say of South Africa that "If one was not confused one was not properly informed!" I think that is still true. And as a great man once said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom." No country is perfect or ever will be!

Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 11, 2010:

Martie - thanks for the hug! I'm checking out of the window right now to see if I can spot the dove homing in!

Your kind words buoy me up, thank you. I was very concerned that my translation did ot convey the feeling too well - I felt it a bit prosaic, so thanks for the feedback.

Van die ysterkoei praat ons maar weer 'n bietjie later!

Dankie, liefde en vrede, my goeie vriend!


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 11, 2010:

Gerry - I really appreciate your very kind words. Thank you sincerely.

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 11, 2010:

Rob - we South Africans tend to be a bit intense! Seems to come with the territory, so to speak. Breyten has the ability to concentrate so much meaning into such conversational word that the intensity is almost reinforced by the contrast.

Thanks for the comment.

Love and peace


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 11, 2010:

Acer - the meaning of the iron cow is what you make of it! It is a typical Zen koan meant to deepen our awareness of our own thought processes, I guess. Breyten does have a calm voice, I think that is partly the Zen in him.

Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace


Bucks here from South Africa on September 11, 2010:

From one "Regime" into another its a perpetuation, is it not, yet both offer the sadness of who is the better. A choice we make of Oppression v Oppression. Blacks are disillusioned with Whites and Whites disillusioned with Blacks and the in between totally confused. So the "New South Africa" has become the "Old South Africa" and now we truly need a new South Africa.

I dare to say "will it ever happen", no country is "Heaven" nor ever will be. So I stick to the real "Heaven"

Martie Coetser from South Africa on September 10, 2010:

What a poem(s)! And perfectly translated. We cry because it is (tjok-en-blok) filled with longing and home-sickness. That of Breyten provokes our own and surely intensifies it. Tony, I experienced this whole hub as a koan – I’m stunned with sadness – for all those who suffered so unjustly – and what saddens me more is the fact that those who caused the suffering died without realizing the terrible consequences of their believes they’ve rammed down our throats. Your heartfelt empathy for those who suffered, and your powerlessness forcing you to accept all the tragedies – too many - as part of our history – you so clearly exposed in this hub - saddens me as well. Therefore I’m sending you a big hug on the back of one of my snow-white pigeons. And take a bow, sir. You introduced Breyten in an awesome way. The iron cow? Did it give birth or did it fall? Why not do a whole hub about it, exploring it from all sides.... I guess from different perspectives it will do both.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on September 10, 2010:

Quill - thanks so much for visiting and commenting. Indeed let us be grateful!

Love and peace


sligobay from east of the equator on September 10, 2010:

Tonymac- You are truly gifted in your ability to see, understand and empathize with your countryman and fellow artist. Thank you for taking the time to translate and share the work of this great poet. Cheers.

Rob from Oviedo, FL on September 10, 2010:

Intense material. I'd never heard of Breyten before. Thanks for the information.

Mentalist acer from A Voice in your Mind! on September 10, 2010:

Dear,tonymac does the term"iron cow" have a signifigant meaning? Breyten has a calm voice for a man who is in turmoil;)

"Quill" on September 10, 2010:

Powerful, allow us to be thankful for all we have this day.

Blessings and Hugs

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