Thoughts on Johannesburg’s centenary (while by the Jukskei River at Broederstroom)
by Lionel Abrahams
There is no city as old as a river,
as old as this minor stream
whose millennia have sculpted the veld.
The wiser cities lie down with great rivers
to learn what rivers teach of time,
or with the timelessness of seas;
but my city’s mazed metal of hurried streets
has buried the small white waters.
What if my wandering clan had given me
one of those old wise cities to be born in?
I would have claimed that borrowed ancestry
of mellow stones and streets, embraced
the longings and learning of that home,
spelled my name in its memorial marks.
Instead they gave me to the raw spawn of payable lode,
attracting loose acquisitive pioneers,
the hungry and threatened, chancers and transients
– swelling by gross promises and harsh divisions
over unhistoric farms and hills.
Born but never Native here (of Europe-stranger kin,
that skin), I’ve known no other place to claim.
Heir to the Book, I find and lose my living myths
more in these too changeable streets.
I learned to spread from hollow roots
patches of familiar turf:
time gave my stories to some names and contours;
certain settings of my years, my selves, won my affection,
enrolled me in a Masonry of esoteric love.
I belong with the unbelonging, and this world
of second generation strangers, all its cheap renewal,
gives me my only earthed tradition,
all prospect of a self-built meaning I can claim.
How can you love what changes too swiftly,
too swiftly changes and changes again?
A river is momently different, and daily,
but the slow living banks hold the shape of memory –
the self can stay while the river runs
and we can love the river.
But Jo’burg’s straight streets hardly
survive their shouting rivers of traffic;
this place owes too little to time,
too much to appetite and rage
and guilty self-contempt –
it eats and tears itself…renews…renews…
A man stays naked at the dumb mouth of the cave,
shivering like a dog beneath thunder –
a man and his streets are disposable trash
if the town does not bequeath to his passing eye
old shapes told about in tales,
histories held visible in shapes
that he knows will still be seen beyond his time.
If all who must leave
take their insights and go,
take the innocence they fear to lose
and the rage burns out,
and the gold gives out,
yet the Name of the city endures –
magnet and conduit for memory’s gathering –
this place may draw together, discover
the richer reasons of its century,
may hear the singing of its hundred-year-old course.