Beside the dirt road that leads to the hamlet where I live, a pear tree stands alone at the edge of a field. Every year, it blooms at the beginning of August, a month before the arrival of the South African spring, delighting the passer-by modestly yet spectacularly. In August 2018, I wrote a few rough stanzas in response to that very tree under the working title “A Pear Tree”. Now, nearly two years later, I am ready to develop them into a finished poem.
Of course, the pear tree has inspired a poem. Another new draft—I shall never finish this project! Incidentally, the field where it grows was once an orchard, one of many. In days gone by, my village was known for its pear orchards, earning it the nickname "'Little Pears' Town". pic.twitter.com/YSDy67a7gu
I am stunned by how easily and quickly “O, How Free is the Wind!” has developed into a finished work—as if it composed itself! Regardless of length, it usually takes four to five weeks for my compositions to come together, but this poem has taken one!
Following an AAB C DDB C rhyming scheme in staggered lines, there are two stanzas, each describing a mood of the wind: in the first, it is placid; in the second, full of life. Each stanza concludes with a separated exclamation—the title, that of the second.
A sight I have not observed before: a Malachite Sunbird male (left) and female (right) in the birdbath. Once before have I seen a male bathing in dewy foliage, assuming at the time that it did so for its long tail feathers—a birdbath being too shallow to accommodate them—but it seems to have been purely a matter of convenience.
Sometimes, a poetic sketch contains within it the rudimentary structure upon which the final composition can be hung; sometimes, it is the beginning of an idea that evolves into a work bearing no resemblance to the first form. The latter is the case with “O, How Free is the Wind!”.
Reviewing my original lines from two years ago, I found they were nothing more than an enthusiastic translation of the Deutscher-Madison lyrics; therefore, I am engineering the poem anew by using as my starting point the three elements of the sketch that I consider salvageable:
the working title (“O, How Free is the Wind!”, which I shall use as a refrain),
the subject (the wind, which will be the focus of the poem) and
the theme (the characteristics of the wind, its effects about and above us).
Around these then I am constructing a new draft which already shows great promise!
Two years ago, I revisited the Babilonstoringberge1 valley, where I spent two idyllic years of my childhood with my family. During that visit2, the sight of the much-altered labourer’s cottage, in which we lived at the time, was too much to bear and I did not photograph it. Yesterday, I returned there again and did.
To my surprise, I discovered that the original structure was left mostly intact, its face concealed by an addition of equal size to the front. At both sides of the building, a seam where the two sections join is visible. Doubtlessly, the new section was added to the front for lack of space at the back where a ditch runs3.
This development was comforting: not all of the past was lost—unlike the two-classroom building where I was under my schoolteacher mother’s tuition for two standards, destroyed by a fire, years later. Indeed, from the field behind the cottage, the scene was almost unchanged. I was pleased I returned to the valley.
Pronounced [bubbylons-tweRings-beRguh] with the [o] in “or”, the first [e] that in “were”, [i] the “a” in “about”, the second [e] that in “wet”, trilled [R]s and the [g] in “go”). Afrikaans for “Babel’s-tower-mountains”.
Which I briefly describe in the “I visited the past” section of “This November”.
I have fond memories of that quiet little stream, recalling the dragonflies I used to watch there in the poem “Of a Summertime” (unpublished).
It appears I am not yet done with Afrikaans after completing “Skaapwagtertjie”—the counterpart in that language of “Shepherd Girl”—as the next poem to be developed is “O, How Free is the Wind!” (working title), a sketch prompted by an Afrikaans song: “Ruiter van die Windjiie”1 (Rider of the Breeze).
It was composed by Drafi Deutscher in the mid-nineteen-seventies for Heintje Simons and covered in the mid-nineteen-eighties by Bles Bridges.2 For the lyrics, Deutscher—under the alias Renate Vaplus—collaborated with singer Ben E. Madison, describing in simple verses, life on the wings of the wind.
The wind is a prominent theme of my work. When I heard the Deutscher-Madison lyrics anew, almost exactly two years ago, I was moved to compose several rough English stanzas in response. These I shall now review to determine whether they will work as a lyric poem, joyful and bracing as the song.
Pronounced [RoyteR fun dee veyngkee] with the [R]s trilled, the [ee]s short like that in “it” and [oy] like that in “toy”, but uttering an “uh” rather than “aw”: [uhee].
Like Simons in The Netherlands, Bridges in South Africa was famous for schlager songs: vocal-centred compositions with memorable tunes, dutiful accompaniment and light, sentimental lyrics. Simons recorded many songs in Afrikaans, a language similar to his native Dutch, from which it derives.
“Shepherd Girl” and its Afrikaans counterpart, “Skaapwagtertjie”, are complete. Having set myself the task, two weeks ago, of creating greater alignment between the final English and Afrikaans compositions (especially where they were overly dissimilar), I have achieved success.
Now, when the poems are placed side by side, they reflect one another as closely in phrasing and feature as grammar and style allow. Though it took more than sixty additional versions and variations to bring about this symmetry, I consider it time, turmoil and trial well spent.
“I do not know; we did not have watches or clocks.”1
“How fortuitous that you should tell me this! The second stanza in the Afrikaans version of ‘Shepherd Girl’ has the line ‘Van ure onbewus’2—‘Of hours unaware’!”3
For days, I have been vacillating between several versions of the incongruent second stanza in the English and Afrikaans compositions of the poem in question. My most recent gripe was with its line “Of hours unaware”.
It is meant to show that she passed the time in a world of her own, but “Of hours unaware” seemed to me overly hyperbolic: how could she not know what hours were?4
Yesterday’s anecdote revealed that this was in fact the case, vindicating my poetic choice and helping me select the English and Afrikaans stanza versions containing that line as the ones to appear in the final drafts!
My mother watched her stepmother Dot and step-uncle Mike’s sheep which were kept in the latter’s pen atop the mountain. Uncle Mike would crack his whip from far below on the foothills as the signal for her to fold the sheep and return home.
Pronounced [fun eeRuh onbeviss]: [ee] is formed by rounding the mouth as if to say “ooh”, but positioning the tongue to form “eeh” (like the [u] in the French mur); the [R] is trilled (“RRR”) and the [i] like the [uh] in “about”.
I am yet to recite to her the complete Afrikaans poem, but I am happy to report that she was delighted with the English one!
How bizarre the scruples of the poet when working out the implications of his lines!