John Mateer has recently published collections in Australia, South Africa and Indonesia. His latest books are Loanwords (Fremantle Arts Centre Press) and Makwerekwere (Zero Press, Johannesburg). In 2002 he was Asialink's writer-in-residence in Kyoto, Japan.









1. The Poet


The poet, a New South African, holds his fist out to me.

I extend mine to meet his, our knuckles snug as in a knuckle-duster.

‘Welcome home,’ he says, swaying his fist back to his chest, his heart.

I do likewise, but feebly, and mutter, ‘This is strange…’


Earlier he’d told of when they’d razed his grandmother’s house with her inside.

In the interrogation he’d been asked, ‘What do you think of your comrades now?’

And he had shouted back: ‘Every revolution has its casualties!’

But when in gaol, alone, he wept for her for the first time.


I look at my hand on the table between us: a pale, grotesque thing.

Why, without reticence, did I press that against his dark fist?



2. The Prostitute


The woman is sitting in the doorway half in the sun.

Her face is hidden. She’s talking to someone out of sight.

Her legs crossed like fat fingers.

Even from here I can see her shins are bruised

and the  white high-heels scuffed and dirty.

Though she beckons passersby they hardly glance at her.


Then she stands up, steps into the humid street.

Her eyes clench against the bright.

Under her black vest her limp, shrunken breasts.

She spots me in the bar across the street and beckons,

insistently beckons me like a long forgotten friend.



3. The Tourist


They have their hands in his pockets and around his neck.

They’ve pinned him against the wall.

In the public toilets there are no surveillance cameras.


The tourist just off the plane has no witness to his struggle,

no one but himself to testify to his calm,

how he is telling himself, I could have been one of them,

disappointed with the revolution…


The wall persists, abrasive, against his cheek

as he’s being bitten on the shoulder in this land of AIDS.



4. The Worshippers


They’re up from the beach, are dancing at the bus stop.


They’re dancing, circling to the throb of the cow-hide drum.

The drummer, head low, holds the leather heart under his arm,

pummels with a quick pulse that is pure praise.

The women sway and clap fast, absorbed as Rastas on an Ethiopian mountain.

On one woman’s back, snugly bound with a blanket, an infant,

eyes wide, cheeks jiggling, is memorizing all this.


Of their words all I hear is the prophet’s name: Shembe Shembe Shembe.


Behind them, on the beach where they have been since the night, other gatherings

of Zionists, some standing, some kneeling, clasp their hands in prayer,

their candles now low in the sand, their bottles of holy water pale with the breaking day.

Waist-deep in the grey swell a man is baptizing a calm, white-robed child

while two surfers, skirting carefully around them, enter the waves, slip away

from that tourist who photographs this scene with the hotels as backdrop.


Up here at the road the worshippers are dancing and singing as if they could forever.









In the Valley of a Thousand Hills


Valley of a thousand hills, green as the afterimage of blood!

did you not hear the poet’s izithakazelo or the professor’s ululating

responsive as the earth under our feet, as the rocky hills under an echo?


Valley of a thousand hills, green as the afterimage of blood!

did you not speak when I answered the call defiant as a black cockatoo

and my mouth opened to what hijacks sound: the absent, the uprooted?


Valley of a thousand hills, green as the afterimage of blood!

I will invoke you as the home- and heartland that isn’t mine, the chiasm

of my African being that, like the Ancestors in Kunene’s poem, walks tall on the horizon.